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Why does War Appeal to So Many People?

Man is a competitive animal and war the most thrilling of all competitive sports, a fact which our pacifists always forget.

Arnold Lunn

It is always stubbornly and stupidly repeated that men fight for material ends, without reflecting for a moment that the material ends are hardly ever material to the men who fight.... Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, ‘My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland! Can anybody suppose that a clerk turned conscript says, ‘If I am gassed I shall probably die in torments; but it is a comfort to reflect that should I ever decide to become a pearl-diver in the South Seas, that career is now open to me and my countrymen!’ Materialist history is the most madly incredible of all histories, or even of all romances. Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is something in the soul; that is something akin to religion.... There is a religious war when two worlds meet; that is, when two visions of the world meet; or in more modern language when two moral atmospheres meet. What is the one man’s breath is the other man’s poison.

G. K. Chesterton

The United States and the Soviet Union have no common border, no claims on each other’s territory, no history of national animosity—they are not even serious rivals for trade or resources—but their postwar confrontation was perfectly predictable (and widely predicted) as soon as the probable outcome of World War II became clear around 1943.

Gwynne Dyer (from War, 1985)

Forty thousand armed men forced their way in to the city... Neither rank nor years saved the victims from an indiscriminate orgy in which rape alternated with murder and murder with rape. Greybeards and frail old women, who had no value as loot, were dragged off to raise a laugh, but any full-grown girl or good-looking lad who crossed their path was pulled this way and that in a violent tug-of-war between would-be captors... A single looter trailing a hoard of money or temple-offerings of massive gold was often cut to pieces by others who were stronger... In their hands they held firebrands, which, once they had got their spoil away, they wantonly flung into empty houses and rifled temples... There was a diversity of wild desires, differing conception of what was lawful, and nothing barred. Cremona lasted them four days.


The problem with history is that there is too much of it, and this is nowhere truer than in military history. Almost fifteen hundred years after Cremona fell, practically the identical scene was being reenacted a few hundred miles to the south, in Rome. Sebastian Schertlin, commander of the Spanish Imperial troops, recalled: “In the year 1527, on 6 May, we took Rome by storm, put over 6,000 men to the sword, seized all that we could find in the churches and elsewhere, burned down a great part of the city, tearing and destroying all copyists’ work, all registers, letters and documents.”

Gwynne Dyer

Restricted warfare was one of the loftiest achievements of the eighteenth century. It belongs to a class of hot-house plants which can only thrive in an aristocratic and qualitative civilisation. We are no longer capable of it. It is one of the fine things we have lost as a result of the French Revolution.

Guglielmo Ferrero

At the height of the Seven Years’ War, Laurence Sterne left London for Paris without getting the necessary passport to travel in an enemy country (“it never entered my mind that we were at war with France”), but nobody stopped him at the French coast, and the French foreign minister courteously sent him one after he had arrived at Versailles.

[Both of the experiences below lend support to the contention that the main job of the infantryman in the First World War was to be shelled. It is interesting how Hitler’s experience of the war was seminal to his life, while to C. S. Lewis it was peripheral.]

While we lay pressed one against the other whispering and looking up into the starry sky, the distant noise grew closer and closer, and the individual thuds of the guns came faster and faster until finally they merged into one continuous roar. Each one of us could feel his blood pound in his veins. We were told the English were making one of their nocturnal attacks. Unsure of what was really going on, we all waited anxiously for the next move. Then everything died down until finally the hellish din stopped completely, except for our own battery, which kept spitting its iron salutes into the night every fifteen minutes.

Adolf Hitler (writing to Ernst Hepp, February 5, 1915)

I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer, a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful. But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of high explosive, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peace-time poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

C. S. Lewis (from his autobiography Surprised by Joy, 1955)

You can say more truly of the First World War than of the Second or of the Third that if the people had known what was going to happen, they wouldn’t have done it. The Second World War—they knew more, and they accepted it. And the Third World War—alas, in a sense they know everything about it, they know what will happen, and they do nothing. I don’t know the answer.

A. J. P. Taylor

A great war is not a matter of human choice. On the contrary, it marks the point at which events pass out of human control. It is a kind of social convulsion—an eruption of the forces which lie dormant like the subterranean fires of a volcano on the slopes of which man builds his cities and cultivates his fields.

Christopher Dawson

Thoughts about War

As soon as by one’s own propaganda even a glimpse of right on the other side is admitted, the cause for doubting one’s own right is laid.

Adolf Hitler

The first casualty when war comes is truth.

But vain the sword and vain the bow,
They never can work War’s overthrow.
The hermit’s prayer and the widow’s tear
Alone can free the world from fear.

William Blake

Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.

Hilaire Belloc

Contrary to what pacifists and other humane persons would like to believe, wars, when they break out, tend to be popular. They offer the illusion of an escape from the boredom which is the lot of, particularly, technological man.

Malcolm Muggeridge

How could the artist, the soldier in the artist, not praise God for the collapse of a peaceful world with which he was fed up, so exceedingly fed up!

Thomas Mann

Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.

Samuel Johnson

We admire the soldier, not so much because he kills the enemy as because he exposes himself to being killed by them.

For a war to be just three things are necessary—public authority, just cause, right motive.


War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.

Karl von Clausewitz

He who uses force unsparingly, without reference against the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in its application... To introduce into a philosophy of war a principle of moderation would be an absurdity. War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.

Karl von Clausewitz

We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.

William Tecumseh Sherman

It is well that war is so terrible—lest we should grow too fond of it.

Robert E. Lee

War does not determine who is right—only who is left.

Bertrand Russell

Men must have a fairly elevated motive for getting themselves killed. To die to protect or enhance the wealth, power or privilege of someone else, the most common reason for conflict over the centuries, lacks beauty. Conscience is better served by myth.

John Kenneth Galbraith

We must suffer much, but we shall suffer for the great name of England and for all her high ideals, as our fathers did before us.

The Times (August 5, 1914)

Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.

Joan of Arc

It simply is not true that war never settles anything.

Felix Frankfurter

On an intellectual and emotional level war is easier than peace. In waging war we will physically often work around the clock in preference to doing the intellectual work of peace, and will gladly risk our physical lives rather than risk ourselves emotionally. In other words, war comes quite naturally to human beings while peace does not.

M. Scott Peck

War is like love. It always finds a way.

Bertholt Brecht

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

George Washington

At bottom, every state regards another as a gang of robbers who will fall upon it as soon as there is an opportunity.


War is indeed a mighty creator. It is an intellectual awakener and a moral tonic . . . It purges away old strifes and sectional aims, and raises us for a while into higher and purer air . . . It reveals to us what constitutes a modern nation, the partnership between the living, the dead and the yet unborn.

A. L. Smith (master of Oxford’s Balliol College)

Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.

Bertrand Russell

War is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you.

G. K. Chesterton

In a world that possesses no force superior to that of arms, a body of armed men that attacks an enemy’s territory can do pretty much what it wants—rob and kill anybody it meets, destroy crops, burn the houses—unless the enemy produces a similar body of armed men.

Gwynne Dyer

War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things on which action in war is based lie hidden in the fog of greater or less uncertainty.

Karl von Clausewitz

Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.


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