Remembrance Day is commemorated on Nov. 11th because that was the day the First World War ended. That was supposed to be the war to end all wars because of its horrific brutality. Surely no nation would ever go to war again. As we remember our fallen soldiers, those brave men and women who gave their lives to fight the aggression of the Hun and the evil of Nazism, let us also reflect on the horrors of war itself.

Last year I read The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley. It is a suspense novel set in Brooklyn just after the First World War and published in 1919. One of the protagonists, Roger Mifflin, is the owner of the bookshop (which is haunted by “the ghosts of all great literature”, not by literal ghosts). And he is clearly appalled by the war that just ended. The novel has a few philosophical asides on war, that now, almost a hundred years later, still ring true.

One is an exchange between Mifflin and his young protegé, Titania Chapman. The 19 year old daughter of a wealthy businessman, she is sent to live with the Mifflins to gain some life experience by learning the book trade. While showing her around the shop, he talks about the war. Remember this is just after WWI. The Second World War, Vietnam and the Middle Eastern conflicts are decades away.

“Humanity is yearning now as it never did before for truth, for beauty, for the things that comfort and console and make life seem worth while. I feel this all round me, every day. We’ve been through a frightful ordeal, and every decent spirit is asking itself what we can do to pick up the fragments and remould the world nearer to our heart’s desire.

“Look here, here’s something I found the other day in John Masefield’s preface to one of his plays: ‘The truth and rapture of man are holy things, not lightly to be scorned. A carelessness of life and beauty marks the glutton, the idler, and the fool in their deadly path across history.‘ I tell you, I’ve done some pretty sober thinking as I’ve sat here in my bookshop during the past horrible years.
“I used to wonder what I could do to justify my comfortable existence here during such a time of horror. What right had I to shirk in a quiet bookshop when so many men were suffering and dying through no fault of their own? I tried to get into an ambulance unit, but I’ve had no medical training and they said they didn’t want men of my age unless they were experienced doctors.”

“I know how you felt,” said Titania, with a surprising look of comprehension. “Don’t you suppose that a great many girls, who couldn’t do anything real to help, got tired of wearing neat little uniforms with Sam Browne belts?”

“Well,” said Roger, “it was a bad time. The war contradicted and denied everything I had ever lived for. Oh, I can’t tell you how I felt about it. I can’t even express it to myself. Sometimes I used to feel as I think that truly noble simpleton Henry Ford may have felt when he organized his peace voyage – that I would do anything, however stupid, to stop it all. In a world where everyone was so wise and cynical and cruel, it was admirable to find a man so utterly simple and hopeful as Henry. A boob, they called him. Well, I say bravo for boobs! I daresay most of the apostles were boobs – or maybe they called them bolsheviks.”

Titania had only the vaguest notion about bolsheviks, but she had seen a good many newspaper cartoons.

“The trouble is, truth and falsehood don’t come laid out in black and white – Truth and Huntruth, as the wartime joke had it. Sometimes I thought Truth had vanished from the earth,” he cried bitterly.

“Like everything else, it was rationed by the governments. I taught myself to disbelieve half of what I read in the papers. I saw the world clawing itself to shreds in blind rage. I saw hardly any one brave enough to face the brutalizing absurdity as it really was, and describe it. I saw the glutton, the idler, and the fool applauding, while brave and simple men walked in the horrors of hell. The stay-at-home poets turned it to pretty lyrics of glory and sacrifice. Perhaps half a dozen of them have told the truth. Have you read Sassoon? Or Latzko’s Men in War, which was so damned true that the government suppressed it? Humph! Putting Truth on rations!”

He knocked out his pipe against his heel, and his blue eyes shone with a kind of desperate earnestness.

“But I tell you, the world is going to have the truth about War. We’re going to put an end to this madness. It’s not going to be easy. Just now, in the intoxication of the German collapse, we’re all rejoicing in our new happiness. I tell you, the real Peace will be a long time coming. When you tear up all the fibres of civilization it’s a slow job to knit things together again.

“You see those children going down the street to school? Peace lies in their hands. When they are taught in school that war is the most loathsome scourge humanity is subject to, that it smirches and fouls every lovely occupation of the mortal spirit, then there may be some hope for the future. But I’d like to bet they are having it drilled into them that war is a glorious and noble sacrifice.

“The people who write poems about the divine frenzy of going over the top are usually those who dipped their pens a long, long way from the slimy duckboards of the trenches. It’s funny how we hate to face realities.”

There was a pause, while Roger watched some belated urchins hurrying toward school.

“I think any man would be a traitor to humanity who didn’t pledge every effort of his waking life to an attempt to make war impossible in future.”

“Surely no one would deny that,” said Titania. “But I do think the war was very glorious as well as very terrible. I’ve known lots of men who went over, knowing well what they were to face, and yet went gladly and humbly in the thought they were going for a true cause.”

“A cause which is so true shouldn’t need the sacrifice of millions of fine lives,” said Roger gravely. “Don’t imagine I don’t see the dreadful nobility of it. But poor humanity shouldn’t be asked to be noble at such a cost. That’s the most pitiful tragedy of it all. Don’t you suppose the Germans thought they too were marching off for a noble cause when they began it and forced this misery on the world? They had been educated to believe so, for a generation. That’s the terrible hypnotism of war, the brute mass-impulse, the pride and national spirit, the instinctive simplicity of men that makes them worship what is their own above everything else.

“I’ve thrilled and shouted with patriotic pride, like everyone. Music and flags and men marching in step have bewitched me, as they do all of us. And then I’ve gone home and sworn to root this evil instinct out of my soul. God help us – let’s love the world, love humanity – not just our own country! That’s why I’m so keen about the part we’re going to play at the Peace Conference. Our motto over there will be America Last! Hurrah for us, I say, for we shall be the only nation over there with absolutely no axe to grind. Nothing but a pax to grind!”

It argued well for Titania’s breadth of mind that she was not dismayed nor alarmed at the poor bookseller’s anguished harangue. She surmised sagely that he was cleansing his bosom of much perilous stuff. In some mysterious way she had learned the greatest and rarest of the spirit’s gifts—toleration.

“You can’t help loving your country,” she said.

“Let’s go indoors,” he answered. “You’ll catch cold out here. I want to show you my alcove of books on the war.”

“Of course one can’t help loving one’s country,” he added. “I love mine so much that I want to see her take the lead in making a new era possible. She has sacrificed least for war, she should be ready to sacrifice most for peace. As for me,” he said, smiling, “I’d be willing to sacrifice the whole Republican party!”

“I don’t see why you call the war an absurdity,” said Titania. “We HAD to beat Germany, or where would civilization have been?”

“We had to beat Germany, yes, but the absurdity lies in the fact that we had to beat ourselves in doing it. The first thing you’ll find, when the Peace Conference gets to work, will be that we shall have to help Germany onto her feet again so that she can be punished in an orderly way. We shall have to feed her and admit her to commerce so that she can pay her indemnities – we shall have to police her cities to prevent revolution from burning her up – and the upshot of it all will be that men will have fought the most terrible war in history, and endured nameless horrors, for the privilege of nursing their enemy back to health. If that isn’t an absurdity, what is? That’s what happens when a great nation like Germany goes insane.

“Here’s my War-alcove,” he went on. “I’ve stacked up here most of the really good books the War has brought out. If humanity has sense enough to take these books to heart, it will never get itself into this mess again. Printer’s ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries.

“There’s Hardy’s Dynasts for example. When you read that book you can feel it blowing up your mind. It leaves you gasping, ill, nauseated – oh, it’s not pleasant to feel some really pure intellect filtered into one’s brain! It hurts! There’s enough T. N. T. in that book to blast war from the face of the globe. But there’s a slow fuse attached to it. It hasn’t really exploded yet. Maybe it won’t for another fifty years.

“In regard to the War, think what books have accomplished. What was the first thing all the governments started to do – publish books! They knew that guns and troops were helpless unless they could get the books on their side, too. Books did as much as anything else to bring America into the war. Some German books helped to wipe the Kaiser off his throne – I Accuse, and Dr. Muehlon’s magnificent outburst The Vandal of Europe, and Lichnowsky’s private memorandum, that shook Germany to her foundations, simply because he told the truth.

“Here’s that book Men in War, written I believe by a Hungarian officer, with its noble dedication “To Friend and Foe.” Here are some of the French books – books in which the clear, passionate intellect of that race, with its savage irony, burns like a flame. Romain Rolland’s Au-Dessus de la Melee, written in exile in Switzerland; Barbusse’s terrible Le Feu; Duhamel’s bitter Civilization; Bourget’s strangely fascinating novel The Meaning of Death. And the noble books that have come out of England: A Student in ArmsThe Tree of HeavenWhy Men Fight, by Bertrand Russell – I’m hoping he’ll write one on Why Men Are Imprisoned: you know he was locked up for his sentiments!

“And here’s one of the most moving of all – The Letters of Arthur Heath, a gentle, sensitive young Oxford tutor who was killed on the Western front. You ought to read that book. It shows the entire lack of hatred on the part of the English. Heath and his friends, the night before they enlisted, sat up singing the German music they had loved, as a kind of farewell to the old, friendly joyous life. Yes, that’s the kind of thing War does – wipes out spirits like Arthur Heath. Please read it. Then you’ll have to read Philip Gibbs, and Lowes Dickinson and all the young poets. Of course you’ve read Wells already. Everybody has.”

“How about the Americans?” said Titania. “Haven’t they written anything about the war that’s worth while?”

“Here’s one that I found a lot of meat in, streaked with philosophical gristle,” said Roger, relighting his pipe. He pulled out a copy of Professor Latimer’s Progress. “There was one passage that I remember marking – let’s see now, what was it? – Yes, here!

It is true that, if you made a poll of newspaper editors, you might find a great many who think that war is evil. But if you were to take a census among pastors of fashionable metropolitan churches –

“That’s a bullseye hit! The church has done for itself with most thinking men.… Some of Latimer’s talk is so much in common with my ideas that I’ve been rather hoping he’d drop in here some day. I’d like to meet him. As for American poets, get wise to Edwin Robinson – ”

There is no knowing how long the bookseller’s monologue might have continued, but at this moment Helen appeared from the kitchen.

“Good gracious, Roger!” she exclaimed, “I’ve heard your voice piping away for I don’t know how long. What are you doing, giving the poor child a Chautauqua lecture? You must want to frighten her out of the book business.”

Roger looked a little sheepish. “My dear,” he said, “I was only laying down a few of the principles underlying the art of bookselling – ”

That’s the end of the excerpt. It moved me greatly, not only for its impassioned contempt for war, but for the interesting references to books worth following up on. Books that have been all but forgotten today.

I was also struck by the great irony in the passage in light of what has happened in the almost one hundred years since.

“The world is going to have the truth about War. We’re going to put an end to this madness,” declares Mifflin. Yet here we are and little has changed.

As we honor our fallen soldiers, let’s hope that we will some day understand the folly of war.

Postscript: I wrote this for my blog on Remembrance Day last year, one of two essays against war. I particularly like this one because it quotes from a book that was published just after WWI yet the ideas continue to resonate today. I also like the references to long forgotten books that are still worth reading. Two in particular are available in their entirety online and worth a look. Men in War by Andreas Latzko and The Letters of Arthur Heath.

In my blog I used to maintain a quotes page and included two quotes, one from each of those books, that day. Here they are again.

Nov. 11, 2015 – Today I have two quotes, both written by actual soldiers in World War One. The first is fiction, written by Andreas Latzko, an officer who served in the Austrian-Hungarian army on the Isonzo River front against Italy. While sick in hospital with malaria for eight months, he wrote Men in War, dedicated to Friend and Foe, a fictional account of the war which was published anonymously in Switzerland in 1917 and banned in every country involved in the war.

The second quote is from The Letters of Arthur Heath. Heath was a scholar, a tutor at Oxford, and served as a Second Lieutenant in the war before being killed on the Western Front. His letters were collected and published by his family after the war. Heath is remarkably good natured and cheerful in spite of his situation. He died in October 1915, aged 28.

1st Quote: Captain Marschner was ashamed. A real physical nausea at the part he had just played overcame him. What was there left for these simple people to do, these bricklayers and engineers and cultivators of the earth, who, bent over their daily tasks, had lived without vision into the future – what was there left for them to do when the grand folks, the learned people, their own captain with the three golden stars on his collar, assured them it was their duty and a most praiseworthy thing to shoot Italian bricklayers and engineers and farmers into fragments? They went – gasping behind him, and he – he led them on! Led them, against his inner conviction, because of his pitiful cowardice, and asked them to be courageous and contemptuous of death. He had talked them into it, had abused their confidence, had made capital of their love for their wives and children, because if he acted in the service of a lie, there was a chance of his continuing to live and even coming back home safe again, while if he stuck to the truth he believed in there was the certainty of his being stood up against a wall and shot. – Andreas Latzko in Men in War Chapter 2 Baptism of Fire

2nd Quote: So I crawled out and reconnoitred. Do you know the policemen’s chorus in The Pirates of Penzance’ “with cat-like tread upon the foe I steal’? It was absurdly like that. I didn’t know where the new mine had blown up nor where the old one was precisely, nor what was the way in nor anything important. So I had to make my way round and look over the rim very anxiously and carefully, with a revolver in my hand, hoping that there would be no Germans waiting to shove a bayonet at me. Lying down between the lines and hearing the bullets whiz over you is really not at all bad fun, and I quite enjoyed one place where I could be completely covered, as I thought, and survey the German trenches about thirty yards off. But my pleasure was rather damped the next morning when I saw from a periscope that the place was right in the line of fire from the English trenches.   – Arthur Heath in The Letters of Arthur Heath