The Warrior Queens
A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam
The Story of America's Rise to Power
The Wages of War: When America's Soldiers Came Home
From Valley Forge to Vietnam
Technology and War: From 2000 BC to the Present
The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare
War: Ends and Means
The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon
In Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare and John Fletcher apostrophized war as the
… great corrector of enormous times,
Shaker of o’er-rank states, thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that heal’st with blood
The earth when it is sick, and cur’st the world
O’th’ plurisy of people!
The view of the clash of arms as the regulator of human affairs, the legitimate arbiter of conflicting state interest, and the instrument for eliminating the decadent, the feeble, and the corrupt influenced thinking about war from classical times until the First World War. In their widely separated times, both Polybius and Machiavelli drew from their recognition of the power of war to humble great states lessons of vigilance and military readiness that they preached to their readers. Advocates of empire from Cortez to Cecil Rhodes found in the superiority of their weapons a sufficient justification of their conquests; and moralists found in the rigors and sacrifice that war demanded a cure for the lethargy and flabbiness induced by peace. Tennyson welcomed the Crimean War because it ended a period in which “Britain’s one sole God [was] the millionaire” and wrote,
No more shall commerce be all in all, and Peace
Pipe on her pastoral hillock a languid note,
And watch her harvest ripen, her herd increase,
Nor the cannon-bullet rust on a slothful shore.
For the peace, that I deem’d no peace, is over and done,
And now by the side of the Black and the Baltic deep,
And deathful-grinning mouths of the fortress, flames
The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire.1
In 1914, when war burst upon Europe, there were many people who felt that, in Ernst Gläser’s words, “this was the providential lightning flash that would clear the air…. The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.”2
There was always, however, beneath the acceptance of war and the enthusiasm that if often inspired, a sense of disquiet, if not of dread. Clausewitz was not the first writer to recognize the danger of war bursting all human restraints and assuming its absolute form. Centuries before the German theorist had studied the explosive potential of Napoleonic warfare, the poet Virgil, an observer of the savage civil conflict of his time, wrote fearfully of how
here Germany, there Euphrates, awakes war; neighbor cities break the leagues that bound them and draw the sword; throughout the world rages the god of unholy strife; even as when from the barriers the chariots stream forth, round and round they speed, and the driver, tugging vainly at the reins, is borne along, and the car heeds not the curb! 3
During the last years of the First World War, reflective persons began to fear that a continuation of the conflict would destroy European civilization irretrievably, and the former British foreign secretary, the Earl of Lansdowne, and the German historian of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.