Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (1) - Horace, Odes, Book III, 2:13
Lucy Maud Montgomery is best remembered for her novel Anne of Green Gables which tells the story of a spirited and imaginative orphan girl adopted, by accident or providence, by an elderly brother and sister who raised her on their farm in Prince Edward Island. Anne of Green Gables was the first of a series of eight novels in which Montgomery continued to tell the story of Anne Shirley. The final book in the series (2) Rilla of Ingleside which was published in 1920 is set during the first World War.
The main story in Rilla of Ingleside concerns Rilla Blythe, Anne’s youngest daughter, who is forced by the war to mature into a responsible adult from the vain and frivolous person she seems to be at the beginning of the novel. In the background to this story there is an ongoing commentary on the events of the war by the characters of the novel. While some of the commentary, such as that of Dr. Gilbert Blythe and the Presbyterian minister James Meredith is more educated and informed than that of others, such as that of Blythe housekeeper Susan Baker, there is a general consensus in support of Britain and of Canada’s contributions to the war effort and against the Kaiser. The Blythe boys each feel the call to do their duty to “king, country, and empire” and are ultimately supported in this by their family, friends and neighbors. The only significant dissenting voice is of an unlikable character, Mr. Pryor, derogatorily nicknamed “Whiskers-on-the-moon”, an elder in the church who is an avowed pacifist. His only significant appearance in the story other than in the disapproving conversation of others is in the 20th chapter, where he is invited to pray at a joint prayer meeting of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in support of the war. His “prayer” ends up being a pacifist lecture when is abruptly ended when Norman Douglas, the fiery, opinionated, village infidel who is by far the most likeable character of the book, wrings his neck.
While this is a work of fiction, L. M. Montgomery generally sets her stories in what is recognizably the late 19th –early 20th Century Canada that she knew and experienced. The picture she draws of a community coming together to sacrifice for and support their country in war is a picture of the real Canada of almost one hundred years ago.
There is quite a contrast between that day and our own. Hawks and doves are still among us, and each group is still smugly certain of its own righteousness and of the wickedness of the other. It is the attitude of everybody else, the people who are neither pacifists nor members of war’s cheerleading squad, that is different. Pacifism is no longer held in contempt and barely tolerated. Our attitude towards war has completely changed.
Why is this?
It has to do, I believe, with changes in the way we think about war and the way we think about our relationship to our society. Let us consider these in turn.
For quite some time now it has been customary around the time of Remembrance Day to talk about the soldiers we are remembering and honouring as those who died “for our freedom”. This way of speaking has become so familiar to us that we may not immediately recognize what is wrong with it.
The soldiers we are honouring did not go to war to fight and die for “our freedom”. They went to war to fight and die for “their country”. The difference between these two phrases is of tremendous significance.
If we say that we are fighting a war for “our freedom” what do we mean by “our freedom”?
If the enemy we are fighting against is trying to conquer our territory and enslave our people then “our freedom” could mean “the freedom of our country”. If this is what we mean then fighting for “our freedom” is one way in which we fight for “our country”.
This is not the only possible meaning of this expression, however. When we speak of fighting for “our freedom” we could mean by “our freedom” the liberal concept of the rights and liberties of the individual. If that is what we mean then when we speak of our soldiers as having fought and died for “our freedom” we mean that we are honouring them for fighting and dying for a political ideal, an abstract concept, rather than for a real, concrete community.
If this is what we mean then we are completely out of touch with the nature of the call of duty our soldiers answered when they went to war and with the reason why it is important to honour and remember them.
Unfortunately, it seems to be this second sense that is intended by those who tell us to remember the soldiers who died for “our freedom”. This is because in the 20th Century the idea became widespread among teachers, media commentators and other opinion-formers that it is more noble to fight and die for ideals and higher values than for something as concrete and everyday as “my country”.
Now perhaps you are thinking that such a notion represents an advancement towards enlightenment in our thinking about war. Is it not better to fight for things like justice, freedom, and truth which are eternal, universal, values than to fight for your country?
The answer is no it is not.
Human nature has both a creative and a destructive side. It is man’s creative side, which is the source of art, music, and literature, that responds best to universal values of this kind. These values inspire creative man to reach new heights and this is what makes the difference between a culture and a civilization.
War, however, is a manifestation of man’s destructive side. This does not need inspiration. Rather it needs to be contained and directed so that its harmful energy does the least amount of damage and, if possible, serves the good of the community. For this reason it is better for people to fight for their families, their homes, their friends, their neighbors, their communities and their countries than to fight for things like justice and truth.
It is noble to die for an ideal only when you willingly allow yourself to submit to the injustice of being killed for that ideal. In that case you are a martyr. If you combine the willingness to die for an ideal with the intention of killing others for your ideal you are not a martyr but a fanatic.
Look at what happens when you start to think about war as being fought for universal values. You take what is a conflict between two human societies and you escalate it to the level of a cosmological battle between good and evil. When you think of war as being fought for the benefit of your country you still ask the old questions of just war theory. Do we have just cause to go to war? Are we fighting in a just manner? When you think that you are fighting for good against an enemy who is the embodiment of evil those questions become irrelevant. If you are “good” and your enemy is “evil” all that matters is that you utterly destroy your enemy.
This exponentially multiplies the destructive potential of war. Human beings instinctively recognize this and for this reason universal values and ideals are incapable of stirring the martial spirit the way the call to fight, for kith and kin, heart and hearth, queen and country can.
Lord Thomas Babbington Macauley, the 19th Century British poet, historian and statesman may have been a Whig, but he showed an understanding of what moves men to lay down their lives in battle in his retelling of Livy’s account of the story of Horatius Cocles in his Lays of Ancient Rome:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods
“The temples of his Gods”. It would be unthinkable that anyone today would write these words in the spirit in which Macauley intended them. It is almost universally accepted, in Western society today, that wars should not be fought for religion.
This is because Western countries have become increasingly secular. The state has become more powerful, a wall has been erected between it and the church, and religion, no longer seen as being primarily the corporate worship of a community, has been relegated to the sphere of the private individual. If religion has any value in the contemporary way of thinking it is as a means of making higher values real to the individual, thus providing him with spiritual inspiration.
If we think about religion in those terms then fighting for religion is no different than fighting for ideals. Is this the right way to think about religion however? Secularism has become so widespread that we have perhaps forgotten just how unnatural it is.
Religion, throughout history, and in our own societies until very recently, was not primarily a personal matter between the individual and God. It was a social institution which had a social function. Religion was the heart of the community, the community at worship, the institution which presided over births, coming of age ceremonies, marriages and deaths, which provided a society with its most basic rules and its fundamental identity.
When we think of religion in those terms then a man who fights and dies “for the temples of his Gods” is a man who fights and dies for his community and society, not a man who fights for abstract ideals. This is the difference between fighting for religion and fighting over religion.
As our societies have become secularized religion’s role in war has been greatly misrepresented. How often have we heard from disciples of this new school of militant atheism that religion is “the cause of most wars”? This is, however, utter nonsense. When Xerxes tried to conquer Greece in the early 5th Century BC, when Athens went to war with Sparta for 30 years at the end of the same century, when the Macedonian kings conquered everything between Greece and Persia in the 4th Century BC, and Rome went to war with Carthage for control of the Mediterranean World in the Punic Wars of the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC, when Sulla and Marius, Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, Octavian and Mark Anthony went to war with each other in the civil wars that brought down the Roman Republic, was religion the instigator? Was it religion that drove on conquerors like Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler? Of course not.
Religion has a vital role to play in war but it is seldom the instigator. Religion’s role is to unite a society, to rally the community and the country together in support of the war effort, to remind us of our duties and obligations towards our society. This is not a bad thing, it is a good thing, and ultimately a necessary thing.
The possibility of war will always be present. While we should always pray for and seek out non-violent solutions to disputes between countries, we should not be so naïve as to think that this will always be possible. It is in man’s nature to go to war and the only way to achieve the goal of the elimination of war is by eliminating human beings from the planet.
Various proposals have been made in the name of “world peace” in the last century. Disarmament, the elimination of weapons and armies, has been one of them. The privatization of religion has been another. None of these proposals can bring about world peace because the cause of war lies elsewhere. All these proposals can do is to make the country that adopts them ill-prepared when war arrives.
A country should always be prepared to fight a war, although it should not go out of its way to look for one. If war comes, the country will be in a position of danger. That danger may not be very serious – it all depends upon the strength and goals the enemy. However more or less serious it may be, it will be there, because the state of being at war is by definition the state of being in danger. It is at this point that we are expected, whether we are soldiers going off to fight, or those supporting them at home, to unite behind our country. We have a moral obligation to do so.
We may not like the people who are in government when war comes. Our duty, however, is to our country, which is more than just its government. We may think the war is a mistake, is being fought for stupid reasons, and is against the best interests of our country. That does not negate our duty.
Think of the American aviator and patriot Charles Lindbergh. Before the United States entered the second World War Lindbergh was a leader of and spokesman for the America First Committee which promoted America’s noninvolvement in the war. When the United States was attacked by the Japanese Empire on December 7, 1941, however, his arguments against the war became irrelevant and he sought to rejoin America’s air force. A vindictive FDR ordered that his request to be recommissioned be denied but despite this he voluntarily flew a number of fighter missions as a civilian volunteer.
The men we honour this weekend were men who knew and understood their duty to their country. They knew that life was about more than just earning a living and having fun. They had not fallen into the trap of thinking that they were self-made individuals who owe everything they have and enjoy in life to their own merit and effort. Nor had they fallen into the trap of thinking that the life, the world, and their society and community, owed them a living. They understood that their blessings in life came ultimately from God and immediately from the civilization and culture, the country and the society, the community and neighborhood, the family and the home they were born into, grew up in, and lived in. When the call to do their duty, take up arms, and lay down their lives on behalf of their country came, they heard it in their hearts and answered.
In doing so they bequeathed to us a duty, the duty to honour and remember them, and to follow should that call ever come again.
(1)"It is sweet and right to die for one's country".
(2) In the sense of the internal chronology of the narrative. It was the sixth to be published.