We Will Not Cease
When this book was first published, at the beginning of the Second World War, I sent a copy to Mark Briggs, who had suffered with me in France, with this inscription: ‘In memory of days that we can't yet afford to forget.’ Now that the book is being republished, the people who want this to be done will have various reasons for thinking it should be given again to the public. Some may consider its documentary value. Some may consider its literary value. In my own view the chief reason is still contained in the message that I sent to Briggs.
Throughout this half century the methods of warfare have steadily become more atrocious. Before the First World War people said to one another: ‘Warfare belongs to the past. Armies will never meet again with frontal attack in battle. We have too much respect now for human life.’ But in fact it has happened otherwise. A greater barbarism than any the human race had known in the past has risen among the nations. In the First World War multitudes of conscript soldiers were buried alive in the mud of France. Villages were also annihilated. But the greatest number of casualties were among the conscript troops. In the Second World War the wholesale slaughter of civilians, by high explosives, by fire bombing, and finally by atomic weapons, became a matter of course. Reports from the present Vietnam War indicate that eighty per cent, of the casualties are occurring among civilians. War has at last become wholly indiscriminate. The military machine is turned against that communal life which is the seed-bed of future generations of mankind. The only apparent justification that war ever had was that by destroying some lives it might clumsily preserve others. But now even that apparent justification page break is being stripped away. We make war chiefly on civilians and respect for human life seems to have become a thing of the past.
To accept this situation would be to accept the devil's philosophy. And in fact men are not accepting it easily. This book contains the record of my own fight to the utmost against the power of the military machine during the First World War. At that time to be pacifist was to be in a distinct minority. But today—as war, which was always atrocious, becomes more obviously atrocious and anti-human—to be pacifist is to be the spokesman even of a confused majority who have begun to see that, whatever the national issues may be, all wars are deeply atrocious and no war can be called just. Though methods of warfare have changed, the military machine remains essentially the same; and the record of my own battle against that machine, on behalf of my fellow-humans, is therefore relevant to this time also.
To oppose the military machine means to accept the possibility that one may be physically destroyed by it. In my own experience, the moment when I recognised this clearly was when the military police showed me Briggs with the enormous wound on his back, and said: ‘That's the way you'll be tomorrow.’ I did not think that Briggs would survive their deliberate violence, or that I would survive it either. And I was able to accept this with a calm mind. I slept and woke again. Once I had accepted the ultimate fact, the military machine had no power at all over me. In fact the blow did not fall as it had on Briggs, but came more slowly in another way, by starvation. But I had already made my decision at the time when I saw Briggs.
I remember always the gentleness and humanity of the ordinary soldiers who were close to me in those times. Once, when I had been maltreated by an officer while I lay on the ground, being too weak to do otherwise, they carried me very gently, and quietly cursed the authorities who were punishing me. Later they were penalized for being too lenient with me. When three of them pulled me out of a shellhole, and said: ‘Stick with us,’ I felt that I could not let them risk their own lives for me under a false impression, so I told them I was an objector. They page break said they knew all about me and understood quite well what I was standing for. The ordinary soldiers were not antagonistic. When I starved at the last, they too were near starving, but would certainly have given me some of their meagre rations if I had told them of my situation. If the soldiers had not looked after me I would undoubtedly have died, My feeling towards them resembles a prayer that something good might always follow them, and that the light should shine upon them. Nor, for that matter, do I have any feeling of hostility towards the officers whose duty it was to do me harm. They, unlike the soldiers, had become part of the military machine, had submerged themselves in it; and it was the military machine I was opposing, not them as persons.
There were two strange dreams, not mentioned in the book, which I had shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. In the first dream I was travelling on the road near my birthplace, when I heard a noise in the sky, and when I looked up I saw a huge human eye moving over the land followed by a trail of black funeral crepe. The feeling associated with the dream was one of grief and horror. In the second dream I was again in the same place, and saw a vast forest of trees, straight and slim and tall, growing towards the sky, ‘They are more beautiful than any I have ever seen,’ I thought.
Then a man who stood by me answered my thought. ‘Yes, they are beautiful,’ he said, ‘but I am full of grief when I look at them. Those are the young men of the world, but the lords of the forest have sold it to death.’
Dreams do not prove anything; but I remember that when the troopship, the Waitemata, sailed out of Wellington harbour, the noise of the propeller and the pounding of the sea was exactly the same noise that I had heard in the first dream. The dreams were perhaps premonitory; as if the grief that was to come through war to the people of this country had already touched my mind. The people have never truly welcomed war. If my own experience of that grief has helped in any way towards the abolition of war, it will not have been for nothing.page break