The Spirit of War
Providence Evening Press, April 11, 1861
Do not men die soon enough without having their exit hastened by killing each other? Is human longevity so great that it must needs be shortened on a large scale by means of inventions which give to the war spirit that animates the savage, a deadly power, compared with which his tomahawk and arrow are peaceful implements? Is there anything in a resort to arms, that should in itself inspire a people with joy, instead of heartfelt grief that bloodshed should under any circumstances become a necessity? Ought not the general feeling on such an occasion to be one of deep sadness, which no anticipation of "glory," no gratification of equivocal motives, can overcome without convicting those who entertain them of a great crime against our race?
These questions promise to be, or rather they already are, inquiries but too pertinent to the situation in which the country finds itself. That accursed infirmity of human nature which has slain its millions under false pretences; which goes to the battle in the name of a cause whose greatest enemy it is; which converts a virtue into a vice, and gives to vice the dangerous semblance of virtue;—this deplorable infirmity, we say, is busy with its evil work. On the Southern plains, it is stimulating its subjects to vie with each other in their zeal to shed the first blood of their Northern brethren, and among the hills of the North it is instigating cooler temperaments to thirst for the fratricidal onset.
We are not now speaking of the conviction that induces the Southern seceder to do battle for what he conceives to be the rights of his section; nor of that which leads the Northern citizen to rally to the support of the central government. We have reference to the war spirit common to both, under whose influence they grow impatient for the shock of the conflict, while their unreasoning minds give little heed to the material and still less to the moral result of the contest. Alas! how many higher, worthier impulses are disregarded, how many substantial interests are sacrificed in obedience to this fell spirit, which deludes those whom it possesses, with the phantom of physical courage, while it blunts their moral nature to the instincts of a nobler bravery.
This spirit is but a modified form of that which impels brute against brute in deathly struggle for supremacy. So far as intellect enters into the matter, there is a gross perversion which degrades our species by rendering its intelligence subservient to a passion in which it is fortunate that the lower order of animals surpass us. Shall we pride ourselves on an impulse in which the barn-yard fowl is our equal, and the bulldog our superior?
This passion goes far towards creating the necessity of national governments which shall control and punish the offences to which it leads in private life. We grant that it is no more than justice that they should reap some benefit from it in an appropriate emergency. But it should never supplant that sense of duty which only ought to lead a man to seek the battle field; and when the citizen soldier goes forth to meet either foreign or domestic foes, let him look to it that he does not follow promptings which lower him as an intelligent being, but that he is governed by a stern consciousness of the demand made on his patriotism by the occasion.