Joseph Conrad On War

The following excerpt from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea was written in 1906. It is a powerful piece written by one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th century and seems to me to rather timeless in its import, especially since this country spends more on the military than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

“. . .it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would remain open, however. But it would hardly be worth discussing. It is very probable that, had the battle of Salamis never been fought the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now, fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the shortsighted labours of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering, injustice, disgrace, and aggression the nations of the earth are mostly swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence. Innocent, guileless fear has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the conception of its true nature has been lost.. . .We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back; and, as luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly expensive.

“The whole question of improved armament has been approached by the governments of the earth in the spirit of nervous and unreflecting haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them and had only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded with honorable liberality as justice demanded and the bodies of the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. . .For the lack of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the battle of Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra’s galley with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships, or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not likely that the Mediterranean will every behold a battle with a greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight its bottom will be enriched as never before by the quantity of jagged scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight in gold by the deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this planet.”


4 thoughts on “Joseph Conrad On War

  1. A truism about war is the people who suffer the greatest loss are not those making the decisions to go into battle. It is the countless millions who have fought for the ego-enrichment, asset gaining greed of their leaders. So, I think the answer to the first question is battles have not shaped the destiny of mankind very well. Man has always been too eager to fight. I was thinking about the movie a “Beautiful Mind” as I write this. John Nash won a Nobel Prize for Economics about how people should not pursue the best for the individual. If they pursue the best for the collective, a larger economic pie can bewon. Think about that as leaders have gone to battle to win for themselves. Good post. BTG

    • Nash is proposing a point of view that runs country to Adam Smith and the prevailing capitalistic theory that dominates this country — and we can see where that got us!


  2. Today we have many Americans who are “swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence,” courtesy of the NRA, an organization that seems to be waging war on common sense. In Montana our legislature has just passed a law allowing college students to carry guns on campus, and they want people to have the “right” to carry concealed guns in bars & banks (openly carrying is already OK). The NRA stokes fear by claiming that Obama is proposing to take people’s guns away—even though they know this is a false claim.

    An ideological war is being waged on Americans, by well-organized, well-funded, and IMO nutty fringe groups. Meanwhile, the ice caps melt, nuclear plants leak (most recently the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, WA), more Americans slide into poverty and hunger daily, and American students continue their alarming descent to the bottom of academic achievement among industrialized countries.

    It’ll be interesting to hear what the fringes bleat if we’re “sequestered” a week from now.

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