James Connolly


Can Warfare Be Civilized?


From The Worker, 30 January 1915.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

The progress of the great war and the many extraordinary developments accompanying it are rapidly tending to bring home to the minds of the general public the truth of the Socialist contention that all war is an atrocity, and that the attempt to single out any particular phase of it as more atrocious than another is simply an attempt to confuse the public mind.

We in this journal and our predecessor, the Irish Worker, have consistently stood upon that principle. We have held, and do hold, that war is a relic of barbarism only possible because we are governed by a ruling class with barbaric ideas; we have held, and do hold, that the working class of all countries cannot hope to escape the horrors of war until in all countries that barbaric ruling class is thrown from power; and we have held, and do hold, that the lust for power on the part of that ruling class is so deeply rooted in the nature and instinct of its members, that it is more than probable that nothing less than superior force will ever induce them to abandon their throttling grasp upon the lives and liberties of mankind.

Holding such views we have at all times combated the idea of war; held that we have no foreign enemies outside of our own ruling class; held that if we are compelled to go to war we had much rather fight that ruling class than any other, and taught in season and out of season that it is the duty of the working class in self-protection to organize its own force to resist the force of the master class. The force available to the working class is two-fold, industrial and political, which latter includes military organization to protect political and industrial rights. “Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword” say the Scriptures, and it may well be that in the progress of events the working class of Ireland may be called upon to face the stern necessity of taking the sword (or rifle) against the class whose rule has brought upon them and upon the world the hellish horror of the present European war. Should that necessity arise it would be well to realize that the talk of ‘humane methods of warfare’, of the ‘rules of civilized warfare’, and all such homage to the finer sentiments of the race are hypocritical and unreal, and only intended for the consumption of stay-at-homes. There are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilized warfare; all warfare is inhuman, all warfare is barbaric; the first blast of the bugles of war ever sounds for the time being the funeral knell of human progress.

A few illustrations will suffice to drive home these points. One concerns the outcry over the alleged use of what are known as dum-dum bullets. It is alleged by both sides that the others are using those bullets and that they inflict a most grievous wound, and as they inflict such a serious wound they are opposed to the rules of ‘civilized and humane warfare’. The same persons who raise this cry will calmly read of the firing of shrapnel into a body of troops and will exult in the result. Yet a shrapnel shell contains 340 bullets which scatter in all directions, tearing off legs and arms, rending and bursting the human bodies, and in general creating wounds which no surgical science can hope to cure. How hypocritical, then, is the presence of horror over the grievous wound inflicted by a dum-dum bullet!

Of like character is the outcry over the bombardment of undefended towns. One would think to read such diatribes that it was not a recognized practice of all naval warfare. For generations the public of these islands have been reading of Great Britain sending punitive expeditions against native tribes in Africa, the islands of the ocean, or parts of Asia. It may be that some benighted native has stolen a cask of rum from the compound of a missionary, and thrown a stone at the holy man of God when the latter demanded the return of the cask in question. Immediately a British man-of-war is ordered to that coast, opens fire upon and destroys the whole town, indiscriminately massacring the majority of its inhabitants, women and old men, and babes yet unborn, all to punish one or two persons for a slight upon a British subject. That thousands of British subjects are subjected to worse slights at home every day of their lives is a matter of not enough consequence to move a policeman, let alone a battleship. Yet up and down the world the British fleet has gone carrying out such orders, and bombarding such undefended places without ever moving the inkslingers of the jingo press to protest.

It all depends, it appears, upon whose houses are being bombarded, whose people are being massacred, whose limbs are torn from the body, whose bodies are blown to a ghastly mass of mangled flesh and blood and bones. The crime of the Germans seems to consist in believing that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

But what is the theory of the matter? We have before us the work of M. Bloch on Modern Weapons and Modern War, the famous work in which the methods and results of modern warfare were analysed and foretold long before they had been brought to the test of practical trial on modern battlefields. This author, a Pole but a Russian subject, foretold most of the phenomena accompanying modern campaigns, and has lived to see the results he predicted in a large measure embodied in the practice of armies actually in conflict.

To arrive at such a wonderful accuracy in prediction he was compelled to undertake a systematic investigation of all the conditions of modern warfare on land and sea with modern weapons. On the question of undefended towns he has this to say, and all who have read his works bear witness to his scrupulous impartiality and freedom from national bias.

It must be remembered that, as is shown by the practice of manoeuvres, the principle that undefended towns are not subject to bombardment is not acknowledged, and in a future war no towns will be spared. As evidence of this the following case may be cited. On 24 August 1889, the following letter was addressed by the commander of the Collingwood to the Mayor of Peterhead:

“By order of the Vice-Admiral commanding the 11th Division of the Fleet, I have to demand from your town a contribution of £150,000 sterling. I must add that in case the officers who deliver this letter do not return within the course of two hours the town will be burnt, the shipping destroyed, and factories ruined.”

This letter was printed in all the newspapers and called forth no protest. It is evident then that England will not refrain from such action when convenient, and as her voice is the most important in naval matters, the other Powers will certainly follow her example.

M. Bloch here cites as an example the course taken by a British fleet in the course of naval manoeuvres, and as such manoeuvres are always carried out strictly according to official handbooks it is safe to assume that in the bombardment of undefended towns we have a practice authorized by the British Admiralty. Yet whether authorized by British or German practice or theory, how brutal, how repulsive, how murderous it is.

Up to the present no such bombardment has yet taken place, for, of course, the East Coast towns bombarded were all defended by entrenchments and garrison artillery, but what lover of humanity can view with anything but horror the prospect of this ruthless destruction of human life.

Yet this is war: war for which all the jingoes are howling, war to which all the hopes of the world are being sacrificed, war to which a mad ruling class would plunge a mad world.

No, there is no such thing as humane or civilized war! War may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, of class, or sex. When so waged it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusions as to its elevating nature, or civilizing methods.


Last updated on 14.8.2003