return to The Illustrated Enemy

THIS UNPOPULAR WAR by John Reed
originally published in the journal Seven Arts, August 1917

     It was one of those moist, stifling summer nights they have in Washington. After a perfect dinner we adjourned to the library and peeled off our coats, for comfort's sake. The butler brought ice, siphons, and tall glasses, and things to smoke.
     There were four or five of us; myself the stranger, and the others, clever youngsters a year or so out of college, now doing volunteer work on the Munitions Board, Hoover's Food Administration, or one of the innumerable subcommittees of the Council of National Defense.
     They were well enough off to be able to do war work in Washington. None of them had had any real experience of competition for existence. Their minds inclined more to psychology and literary criticism than to political expediency. They had accepted the war and conscription as steps in the working out of a political theory whereby brains would ultimately rule mankind. Let me add that each was prepared to "do his bit," even to the extent of dying for his country. One was going to enlist in the aviation corps; the others thought they would be more serviceable in advisory or organizing positions than in the trenches.
     "No one of any intelligence," one boy was saying, "thinks the war is popular.
     "The other night a bunch of us dined together -- Joe and George and Newton, some of the War Department men, and a few of the big business men in the subcommittees of the Council of National Defense.
"We wanted to think up a 'talking point,' as drummers call it, to 'sell the war.' For three solid hours we sat there cudgeling our brains, but we couldn't think of a single reason not patently a lie which was important enough to excite the patriotism of the man on the street. Of course, our own reasons were sufficient, but for an advertising campaign they are much too -- well, 'highbrow.'"
     The aviation enthusiast spoke up, lying on his back and blowing expensive cigar smoke at the ceiling.
     "Do you know what is needed? Only one thing -- the same that did the trick for England. Casualties. At first it was impossible to interest the English masses in the war; they could not be made to see that it was their affair. But when the lists of dead, wounded, mutilated, began to come back -- and, by the way, England ought to be grateful for the German atrocities -- then hatred of the Germans began to soak into the whole people from the families of the wounded and the dead. This social anger is patriotism -- for war purposes.
     "If I had the job of popularizing this war, I would begin by sending three or four thousand American soldiers to certain death. That would wake the country up."
     Now if this young man could wake up America by the simple process of immolating himself, I think he would not hesitate to play Curtius -- although he has no romantic illusions, and would only be playing upon public sentimentalism to accomplish a highly rational end. However, he knows well that nothing he could do -- even if action were not foreign to his temperament -- would stir the American people in the slightest degree. The only thing which would stir them is pain, grief, a sense of unutterable loss. So, for our own good, let's slaughter several thousand boys.
     Life is cheap now, and if by destroying some thousands of young men -- less than a day's toll on the world's battle-lines -- one clear step could be taken toward the freedom of mankind, I know where to find men for the job -- and not conscripts, either. But to be compelled or to be lured by cheap extravagances into furthering political theories too complicated or too subtle to fire the mass of the people, seems to me the same old undemocratic string-pulling which set Europe aflame.
     I spent a year and a half in the various countries and on the various battle-fronts, visiting all the belligerent capitals and seeing action on five fronts. One of my best friends has accused me of not grasping the significance of the war, of not being impressed with the tremendous human contrasts of this universal cataclysm. He says I went over there with the fixed socialist idea that the capitalistic ruling classes had cynically and with malice tricked their people into war; and that I refused to see anything else.
     I admit I went abroad with an idea, and that my idea was substantially that. Everybody had at least one theory at the beginning of the war. But I was soon disillusioned; I found that the various peoples were not reasonable enough to make trickery necessary -- even the socialists and anti-militarists shedding their beliefs like old skins when the colors and the drums swept down the street.
     I'm afraid I never did properly understand the drama and the glory of this war. It seemed to me, those first few weeks coming up through France, as if I would never get out of my mind again those beflowered troop trains full of laughing, singing boys -- the class of 1914 -- bound so gaily, unthinkingly to the front. And then Paris -- not stern, stoical, heroic, as the reporters all described it; but sick with fear, full of civilian panic, its citizens trampling down women and children in their wild rush to get on the trains for the South.
     I saw so many ugly things -- rich people putting their handsome houses under the protection of the Red Cross, and later when the Germans had retreated to the Aisne, withdrawing them. Small tradesmen making money out of things needed by the soldiers. Little political fights between the military medical corps and the Red Cross, whereby thousands of beds in the city were vacant, and the wounded died lying out on the cobbles in the rain at Vitry.
     Against that, what? A nation rising en masse to repel invasion, but without much stomach for a slaughter most people, I think, felt to be utterly stupid and useless. The flags, the emptiness, the spy-crazes, the wild-eyed women, the German airplanes dully dropping bombs from overhead into the streets. The shock, and then the slow inevitable dislocation of ordinary life, the growing tension. Later on, the one-armed, one-legged, the men gone mad from shell-fire; in side streets the lengthening lines of wretched poor at the public kitchens.
     The battle of the Marne was something to go wild with delight about -- but by that time there was no one left in Paris to celebrate. Decked with thousands of flags, the city lay smiling vapidly in the bright sunlight, her streets empty, her nights black. There was no glorious tidings, no heroism, no tolling bells and public rejoicings. Those things cease to be when the whole of a nation's manhood is drained into the trenches. There is no such thing as heroism when millions of men face the most ghastly death in such a spirit as the armies of Europe have faced it these three years. Millions of heroes! It makes military courage the cheapest thing in the world.
     Why is it I saw this kind of thing? I tried to see the picturesque, the dramatic, the human; but to me all was drab, and all those millions of men were become cogs in a senseless and uninteresting machine. It was the same on the field. I saw a good deal of the battle of the Marne, I was with the French north of Amiens during the beginning of trench warfare. Almost always it was the same mechanical business. At first we were curious to know what new ways of fighting had been evolved; but the novelty soon wore off, as it did to the soldiers in the trenches.
     At the battle of the Marne, I spent the evening with some British transport soldiers at the little village of Crécy, in sound of the great guns stabbing the dark away off to the north. These "Tommies" -- why had they gone to war? Well, they didn't rightly know, except that Bill was going, and they wanted to get away from home for a spell, and the pay was good.
     Along about October 1st, 1914, I had to stay the night in Calais, and out of sheer loneliness found my way finally to the town's one and only "joint," where there was liquor, song, and girls. The place was packed with soldiers and sailors, some of them on leave from the front. I fell into conversation with one poilu, who told me with great pride that he was a socialist -- and an internationalist, too. He had been guarding German prisoners, and waxed enthusiastic as he told me what splendid fellows they were -- all socialists, too.
     "Look here," I said. "If you belonged to the International why did you go to war?"
     "Because," he said, turning his clear eyes upon me, "because France was invaded."
     "But the Germans claim that you invaded Germany."
     "Yes," he answered gravely, "I know they do say that. The prisoners tell me. Well, perhaps it is true. We were probably both invaded. . . ."
     London, plastered with enormous signs, "Your King and Country Need You! Enlist for the War Only!" In all open spaces, knots of young men drilling -- bank-clerks, stock-brokers, university and public school men, the middle and upper middle classes; for at this time the workers and the East End were not interested in the war. The first Expeditionary Force had been wiped off the face of the earth coming down from Mons; England was getting mad, at the top, and "Kitchener's Mob" was forming.
     The great masses of the people in England knew little about the war and cared less. Yet it was up to them to fight, volunteer or conscript. Business and manufacturing concerns began to discharge their employees of military age, and a patriotic blacklist saw to it that they got no other work; it was "Enlist or Starve." I remember seeing a line of huge trucks sweep through Trafalgar Square, full of youths and placarded "Harrod's Gift to the Empire." The men inside were clerks in Harrods' Stores, and they were being driven to the recruiting station.
     There were other things in London which nauseated one. The great limousines going down to the City of a morning with recruiting appeals on their windshields, and overfed, overdressed men and women sitting comfortably inside. The articles for sale in the shops, with the "Made in Germany" signs torn off and new cards affixed, "Made in England"; the Rhine and Moselle wines they served in restaurants, their labels painted out, the immensely snobbish Red Cross benefit concerns and dances that made the fall of 1914 "London's gayest autumn."
     All the talk of "German militarism," and "the rights of small nations," and "Kaiserism must go" -- how sickening to know that the rulers of England really did not believe these pious epithets and platitudes! It was only the great masses of simple folk who were asked to give their lives because "Belgium was invaded," and the "scrap of paper" torn up. Just as in this our own country, where persons of intelligence cannot help smiling -- or weeping -- when President Wilson talks of American "democracy," and the "democracy" American champions in this war.
     Berlin was less patently charged with hypocrisy, as one might expect; for Berlin had been getting ready for this for years. There was less need for advertising than there was in either London or Paris -- the Germans had less differences of opinion about the war. And yet to see those hundreds of thousands of gray automatons caught inevitably and irreparably in that merciless machine, hurled down across Belgium in mile-wide, endless rivers, and poured against the scraps of death-rimmed fortresses in close-marching battalions, was more horrible than what I saw in other countries.
     Will anyone now dare to claim that the German people were told the truth about the war, or even told anything to speak of? No. The whole nation was sent to the trenches, without opportunity to know, to object, a little more ruthlessly than other nations -- except Russia.
     I was at the German front, where men stood up to their hips in water, covered with lice, and fired at anything which moved behind a mud-bank eighty yards away. They were the color of mud, their teeth chattered incessantly, and every night some of them went mad. In the space between the trenches, forty yards away, was a heap of bodies left over from the last French charge; the wounded had died out there, without any effort being made to rescue them; and now they were slowly but surely sinking into the soft mud, burying themselves. At this place the soldiers spent three days in the trenches and six days resting back of the lines at Comines, where the government furnished beer, women, and a circulating library.
     I asked those mud-colored men, leaning against the wet mud-bank in the rain, behind their little steel shields, and firing at whatever moved -- who were their enemies? They stared at me uncomprehendingly. I explained that I wanted to know who lay opposite them, in those pits eighty yards away. They didn't know -- whether English, French, or Belgians, they had not the slightest idea. And they didn't care. It was Something that Moved -- that was enough.
     Along the thousand-mile Russian front I saw thousands of young giants, unarmed, unequipped, and often unfed, ordered to the front to stop the German advance with clubs, with their defenseless bodies. If anyone thinks the Russian masses wanted this war, he has only to put his ear to the ground these days when the Russian masses are breaking their age-long silence, and hear the approaching rumble of peace.
     No one will ever describe the unimaginable brutality of the old-time Russian military system, through whose machinery went Russia's young men. I have seen an officer on the street of Petrograd knock in the teeth of a soldier who didn't salute with just the proper amount of servility. Soldiers were treated like animals, as a matter of course. To the Russian peasant, what harm was in the Japanese, the Persian, the Turk, the Austrian, or the Prussian -- before whose cannon his body crumpled down in alien lands far from his pleasant home? What care he if Sebria were invaded by Austria -- or Belgium by the Germans? Hear him now, in those simple tones so exasperating to the "democracies" of the west:
     "No annexations, no indemnities."
     "Every people has a right to dictate its own form of government."
     In Serbia, I was struck first by the unbelievable damage wrought by war and pestilence among a people of "still unbroken men;" and secondly, by the evidences of the network of intrigue in which the great powers had enmeshed the rulers of Serbia, driving straight to war. One young Serbian told me how the plot to kill the Austrian archduke had been formed, and how the Serbian government tolerated the conspiracy, and all about the money paid by the Russian minister. . . .
     Happily, I was in Bulgaria when she was forced into the war by her king and German diplomacy; and I had an opportunity to study a modern nation in the act of tricking its people. For seven out of the thirteen political parties in Bulgaria, representing a majority of the people, were against going to war, and through their regularly appointed delegates conveyed their position to the king, ministers, and the military authorities responded by suddenly decreeing mobilization -- with a stroke of the pen converting a nation into an army -- and from that moment all communication between citizens, all protest, ceased -- or was choked in blood.
     I could go on telling of Italy, of Rumania, of Belgium under the Germans, how everywhere I saw the one main fact, repeated over and over again, that this was not a war of the peoples, that the masses in the different countries had, and have, no motive in continuing the struggle except defense, and revenge; and that even now the millions of men on all the fronts would stop fighting, lay down their arms and go home, at a word of command. . . .
     Perhaps the most significant thing I noticed in Europe was the stubborn persistence of internationalism, in spite of the war. Especially in those neutral countries between belligerents was it so. There citizen of enemy countries met in natural friendly communion, bound a little closer, it seemed to me, by the blind grapple of their fatherlands. It was wonderful to perceive by a thousand signs the truth that internationalism is an instinct in mankind. In Holland I have seen even British and German interned soldiers, who could not speak each other's language, fraternizing; while in Switzerland, and in far Rumania, Germans and Frenchmen met to talk the business out, and pledge each other a deeper friendship.
     Soon it will be hard for us in America to realize that we ever had German friends, or ever will have them. The casualty lists of the great conscript army will begin to come in, and what my scientific young friend in Washington described will begin to happen to us; we will begin to hate -- "the social anger that is patriotism." Already we've had a taste of what will come a thousand times intensified, in the beating of "pacifists" by soldiers and sailors -- and in arbitrary arrests and suppressions by the police everywhere. It is getting to be as much as a man's liberty is worth to say that this is not a popular war, and that we are not going democratically about "making the world safe for democracy."
     Yet both those things are true. In all the nations of the world -- even including Germany -- this war was not a popular war; nor is there one place left on the face of the globe where the government has dared to put it up to the fighting men whether they would begin the war, and having begun it, whether they will fight on. In all these embattled nations, whose proud crests just now flaunt in chief the word Democracy, a small class of immensely wealthy people own the country, while an enormous mass of workers are poor. Belgium, the ravished innocent among nations, was in times of peace the cruelest industrial oligarchy in Europe, with the poorest, most exploited people. And it was this laboring proletariat which was thrown against the might of imperial Germany, to defend its masters.
     Now comes our turn. Now millions of young American men are to go to Europe and kill Germans or be killed, in the name of "democracy." Most of these young men are workers, who may or may not know that their employers' patriotism never prevented them from squeezing the ultimate energy from "factory fodder." They may or may not realize that political power without economic power makes "democracy" a hollow sham. It may perhaps have occurred to them that the democratic way to make war is to ask the consent of those who are to do the fighting.
     It will be said that it is easy to complain of the "undemocratic" methods of our government -- but what was to be done? I think President Wilson could have stopped and asked almost any man he met on the street -- he would have told him that.
     Here is the way I diagnose the common man's attitude. At the outbreak of the war he felt pretty neutral as between the two belligerents. Later on his sympathies swung to the Entente cause -- but never strongly enough to persuade him to bleed and die for it. Certainly, whether you like it or not, Wilson was elected because "he kept us out of war."
     The common man's program was this. His conscience hurt him a little at the shipping of arms and ammunition to Europe -- or anyway, he felt that it was unfair. He would have cheerfully embargoed our munitions export trade. He thought Americans had no business traveling in the war zone, any more than playing tag in a pest-house and he was all for warning them to keep out of there, or anyway, to keep off the vessels of belligerent nations. Compulsory military service he regarded as distinctly un-American, to say the least.
     I don't say this frame of mind lasted three years, with the entire press, the churches, the universities, the banks and business agencies all screaming one endless chorus of fear and hatred, overwhelmingly unanimous. No, he couldn't stick it out; pretty soon he simply threw up his horny hands and began to believe that the Allies where right and all the autocracy was in Berlin. But nevertheless, the simple ideas I have outlined above were the common man's reactions to the war; and I think that if he'd been consulted about what to do, the course of American history would have been changed. Anyway, the common man's cerebrations seem to me a perfectly valid, sensible and wise comment on the war. . . .
     In the exclusive club to which I belong, a group of Plattsburghers were sitting at cocktail time, one day just before the president read his war message in Congress. The papers said that the Germans had torpedoed another American ship, and that American citizens had been drowned.
     "It's true," one youth was drawling, "that they have been destroying our ships and killing our citizens -- but I must confess that my ardor was somewhat dampened when I read that one of the victims was a Negro. . . ."

1917

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