On War

“All wars make murderers of ordinary people — all wars, all people.”

Ben Ferenz Chief Prosecutor at Nuremburg


“War is worse than this…    Acres and acres covered with rotting cadavers, no trees, fly-covered heads sticking out of water-holes.  It stinks! Swarming with rats.”

“Shut up!”

“We do nothing but shut up!  Who’d listen to us anyway?  Who’d print it? The newspapers only want lies and official idiocy.  ‘The war’s devastating allure only appears to be destructive.’  I read that! Signed General Cherfils. 1,500,000 deaths only appear to be dead.  Bastards! Bastards!”


“In comparison to the duration of the Allied Victory march down the Champs-Elysses, about three hours, I think, I calculate that given the same speed, step and military formation the march of those who died in this inexpressible madness would have lasted 11 days and 11 nights.”

La vie et rien d’autre /Life and Nothing But
Bertrand Tavernier, 1989
Major Delaplane (Philippe Noiret) to Irène de Courtil (Sabine Azéma)



“The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for a variety of sensations–and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilised gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us.

In any case civilisation has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In the old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Notes from the Underground, 1864

“On the score of courage, patriotism, sacrifice, and death, we have been deceived and with the first bullets we recognized at once the falsity of anecdote, history, literature, art, the gossip of veterans, and public speeches. What we saw, what we felt had nothing in common with what we expected in view of all we’d read and all we had been told. No, war is not a business for man: such was the outstanding evidence which overwhelmed us.”


Jean Norton Cru, WWI Veteran War Books: A Study in Historical Criticism, 1931


“I remember my mother’s teaching me out of her wisdom that the possession of Things implies a responsibility for Their use, that They shouldn’t be wasted, that Having Things should never dominate my living.  When this happens, Things become more important than People. Comfort becomes the be-all-and-end-all of human life.  And when other people threaten your material comfort, you have no recourse but to fight them.  It makes no difference who attacks who first.  The result is the same, a killing and a chaos that the world of 1944 wasn’t big enough to stand.”


John Horne Burns The Gallery, 1947


America should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy…She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

John Quincy Adams, An Address…Celebrating the Anniversary of Independence, at the City of Washington on the Fourth of July 1821


“I have known many adventures in my time: the creation of postal routes, Sahara rebellions, South America…but war is not really an adventure at all, it is only a substitute for adventure…War is a disease.  Like typhus.”

Antoine Saint-Exupéry
Pilot in the war
Author: The Little Prince


“Those who brood on death in wartime find that every pattern of life shrivels up. Decency becomes simply a window-shade game to fool the neighbors, honor a tremolo stop on a Hammond organ, and courage simply your last hypocrisy with yourself—a keeping up with the Jonses, even in the foxhole.”

John Horne Burns
The Gallery (1947)


“The war would take what it could get.  It was patient.  It didn’t care about objectives or boundaries or that you were loved by many or not at all …. While I slept that summer the war came to me in my dreams and showed me it’s sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have it’s way.”

Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds (2013)


“[Stalingrad] was the scene of the lost battle, of the lost war, of the zenith of German power and the most crushing defeat in German military history.  Here the German people had fallen to the lowest point, politically and morally, in their history.  Where the need of the hour had been courageous defiance of the rulers, four and twenty generals had clicked their heels as one man; where revolt should have flared up among the masses of soldiers, there had been nothing but physical and spiritual dissolution, apathy, a dumb dying without even a curse on their lips.”

Theordore Plievier
Stalingrad, 1948
translated by Richard and Clara Winston, 1966



May 14, 1939

[Mussolini’s ] speech was extremely clever.  While leaving Italians with a clear impression that their leader doesn’t want war, it prepares them–if war does come–to the belief that it is the democracies, in their “fury” against Germany and Italy who have provoked it; meanwhile they are to regard their own rearmament, which is to continue as hard as ever, as “a measure of self-protection, to safeguard the peace of Europe.”

Iris Origo
A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939-1940


“Kenji, like many others, died very bravely.”

“There seems to be no end of courageous deaths … half my high school graduation year have died courageous deaths.  They were all for stupid causes, though they were never to know that … but what really makes me angry is … Those who sent the likes of Kenji out there to die these brave deaths, where are they today?  They’re carrying on their lives, much the same as ever.  Many are more successful than before, behaving so well in front of the Americans, the very ones who led us to this disaster…. that’s what makes me angry.  Brave young men die for stupid causes, and the real culprits are still with us.  Afraid to show themselves for what they are, to admit their responsibility.”

Kazuro Ishiguro
An Artist of the Floating World, 1986



“They were in the jelly of youth, and this learned Professor poured into their susceptible hearts all the gentle gunpowder maxims of war.”

Herman Melville
White Jacket,
Chapter 83: “A Man-of-War College”
Young midshipmen aboard the U.S.S. Neversink


“Not to recite the precise remarks made by the seamen while pitching the shot up the hatchway from hand to hand, like schoolboys playing ball ashore, it will be enough to say that, from the general drift of their discourse—jocular as it was—it was manifest that, almost to a man, they abhorred the idea of going into action.

And why should they desire a war? Would their wages be raised? Not a cent. The prize-money, though, ought to have been an inducement. But of all the “rewards of virtue,” prize-money is the most uncertain; and this the man-of-war’s-man knows. What, then, has he to expect from war? What but harder work, and harder usage than in peace; a wooden leg or arm; mortal wounds, and death? Enough, however, that by far the majority of the common sailors of the Neversink were plainly concerned at the prospect of war, and were plainly averse to it.

But with the officers of the quarter-deck it was just the reverse. None of them, to be sure, in my hearing at least, verbally expressed their gratification; but it was unavoidably betrayed by the increased cheerfulness of their demeanour toward each other, their frequent fraternal conferences, and their unwonted animation for several days in issuing their orders. The voice of Mad Jack—always a belfry to hear—now resounded like that famous bell of England, Great Tom of Oxford. As for Selvagee, he wore his sword with a jaunty air, and his servant daily polished the blade.

But why this contrast between the forecastle and the quarter-deck, between the man-of-war’s-man and his officer? Because, though war would equally jeopardize the lives of both, yet, while it held out to the sailor no promise of promotion, and what is called glory, these things fired the breast of his officers.

It is no pleasing task, nor a thankful one, to dive into the souls of some men; but there are occasions when, to bring up the mud from the bottom, reveals to us on what soundings we are, on what coast we adjoin.

How were these officers to gain glory? How but by a distinguished slaughtering of their fellow-men. How were they to be promoted? How but over the buried heads of killed comrades and mess-mates.

Narrator in White Jacket, Herman Melville, 1850

Note: “Based on Melville’s experiences as a common seaman aboard the frigate USS United States from 1843 to 1844 and stories that other sailors told him, the novel is severely critical of virtually every aspect of American naval life and thus qualifies as Melville’s most politically strident work. At the time, though, the one thing that journalists and politicians focused on in the novel was its graphic descriptions of flogging and the horrors caused by its arbitrary use; in fact, because Harper & Bros. made sure the book got into the hands of every member of Congress, White-Jacket was instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy forever.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-Jacket




“I urge everyone to go absent without leave. Defection and desertion I would advise in favor of rather than against, for as I said: there are idiots who aim to hit, and everyone ought to realize the risk they are running. Firearms are instruments completely lacking in humor.”

Heinrich Boll
Narrator of Absent Without Leave, 1964,


“Young men are not natural soldiers any more than they’re natural carpenters or accountants, but it’s a trade that almost anybody can learn. Soldiering takes up a much bigger part of your life than most jobs, but it doesn’t take a special kind of person. Anybody’s son will do.”

Gwynne Dyer in War with Gynne Dyer, a Canadian Broadcast Series


“[War] is the nastiest thing human beings can do to each other …  but the most exciting…”

Ernest Hemingway, On War, 161


“But under no circumstances can we inflict violence on people, torture or kill them because we think such acts could be of use to us or to others. We cannot and may not do such things, especially because we can never be sure of the results of our actions.”

Leo Tolstoy, Advice to a Draftee, April 7, 1899


“The wars we haven’t had saved many lives.”

William Stafford,  Every War Has Two Losers,  March, 1985


“…it still appears to me that, while the seat of government is in Washington, the seat of conscience is in me. It cannot be voted out of office by one or a million others.”

Juanita Nelson, life-long civil rights activist, pacifist and tax-resister.


“When you see a war as I have seen it, you ask yourself: “How can we put up with such a thing?  What frontier traced on a map, what national honor could possibly justify it?  How can what is nothing more than banditry be dressed up as an ideal, and allowed to happen?

“They told the Germans: ‘Forward to a bright and joyous war!  On to Paris!  God is with us, for a greater Germany!’  And the good, peaceful Germans, who take everything seriously, set forth to conquer, transforming themselves into savage beasts.

“They told the French: ‘The nation is under attack.  We will fight for Justice and Retribution.  On to Berlin!  And the pacifist French, the French who take nothing at all seriously, interrupted their little modest rentier reveries to go and fight.

“So it was with the Austrians, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, the Turks, and then the Italians.  In a single week, twenty million men, busy with their lives and loves, with making money and planning a future, received the order to stop everything to go and kill other men.  And those twenty million individuals obeyed the order because they had been convinced that this was their duty. “

Gabriel Chevallier, Fear: A Novel of World War I, translated by Malcolm Imrie, (1930/2011)


“If in any country whatever a recruiting campaign were to be launched today for some utterly preposterous war, a war in Polynesia or in some corner of Africa, thousands and hundreds of thousands would rush to the colours without really knowing why, perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances. But as for any effective opposition to a war — I wouldn’t care to put it above zero. It always demands a far greater degree of courage for an individual to oppose an organized movement than to let himself be carried along with the stream — individual courage, that is, a variety of courage that is dying out in these times of progressive organization and mechanization. During the war [WW I]  practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness and even boredom, but, above all, a great deal of fear — yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action, and fear, above all, of taking a stand against the mass enthusiasm of one’s fellows.”

–Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity New York Review Books Classics


Dulce bellum inexpertis, that is to say, “War is sweet to them that know it not.”Desiderius Erasmus, (1466 – 1536) from “Against War (1515.)”


“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,”

– James Madison, “Political Observations” from Letters and Other Writings.

“For what reason did God endow all men with reason and free will if, as so many also say, the individual is not qualified to judge whether this war started by Germany is just or unjust? What purpose is served by the ability to distinguish between good and evil?”

Franz Jagerstatter, Austrian,  in response to clerical opinion he need not refuse conscription into the German Army.  Executed by guillotine, August 9, 1943


“Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to.”
from The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien


Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination.

Jaroslav Hašek The Good Soldier Švejk, (1923) Book I, Chapter 11, Cecil Parrott translation


Congressman Abraham Lincoln criticizing President Polk who…”trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory–that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood–that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.”

Lincoln’s Speech in House: The War with Mexico January 12, 1848


“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers: the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

James Madison, helvidius Number IV* in the The Pacificus-helvidius Debates of 1793-1794


The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization and he was exhilarated by his discovery.  It was miraculous!  It was almost no trick at all to turn vice into virtue, and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism and sadism into justice.  And anybody could do it!

Joseph Heller, Catch-22, [1961]


“War was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts.  A miserable journey, of endless drifting.  War was a world without real men, without real women. Without feeling.”

“What remained was sorrow, the immense sorrow, the sorrow of having survived.  The sorrow of war.”

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, [1991] translation by Frank Palmos [1994]


“War is the final destination of hatred.”

Ernest Gordon, former POW, Dean of Chapel at Princeton and author of To End All War, a novel of life in Japanese prison labor camps in Burma, WW II.


“They are not soldiers, they are men. They are not adventurers, or warriors, or made for human slaughter, neither butchers nor cattle. They are laborers and artisans whom one recognizes in their uniforms,. They are civilians uprooted, and they are ready. They await the signal for death or murder; but you may see, looking at their faces, between the vertical gleams of their bayonets, that they are simply men.

Each one knows that he is going to take his head, his chest, his belly, his whole body forward, and all naked, up to the rifles pointed forward, to the shells, to the bombs piled and ready, and above all to the methodical and almost infallible machine guns….

Henri Barbusse, Under Fire [Le feu], translation by W. Fitzwater Wray


“..at that time [1914] even one’s parents were ready with the word “coward”; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for. The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy.

Eric Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front,  translation A.W. Wheen


“There’s two kinds of people in this world–there’s those that like wars and those that fight ’em, pal.”

Charles Yale Harrison, “Generals Die in Bed,” 1928


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