“Yes, yes,” said Father Payne, rather impatiently. “But you can’t personify a nation like that; that personification of societies and classes and sections of the human race does no end of harm. It is all a matter of statistics, not of generalisation. Take your three statements. ’It is good for a nation to have a war.’ You mean, I suppose, that, in spite of the loss of the best stock and the disabling of strong young men, and the disintegration of families, and the hideous waste of time and money—subtracting all that—there is a balance of good to the survivors?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Lestrange.
“But are you sure about this?” said Father Payne. “How do you know? Would you feel the same if you yourself were turned out a helpless invalid for life with your occupation gone? Are you sure that you are not only expressing the feeling of relief in the community at having a danger over? Is it more than the sense of gratitude of a man who has not suffered unbearably, to the people who have died and suffered? The only evidence worth having is that of the real sufferers. Take the case of the people who have died. You can’t get evidence from them. It is an assumption that they are content to have died. Is not the glory which surrounds them—and how short a time that lasts!—a human attempt to make consciences comfortable, and to relieve human doubts? The worst of that theory is that it makes so light of the worth of life; and, after all, a soldier’s business is to kill and not to be killed; while, generally speaking, the worst turn that a strong, healthy, and honest man can do to his country is to die prematurely. Of course war has a great and instinctive prestige about it; are we not misled by that into accepting it as an inevitable business?”
“No, I believe there is a real gain,” said Lestrange, “in the national sense of unity, in the feeling of having been equal to an emergency.”
“But are you speaking of a nation which conquers or a nation which is defeated?” said Father Payne.
“Both,” said Lestrange; “it unites a nation in any case.”
“But if a nation is defeated,” said Father Payne, “are they the better for the common depression of not having been equal to the emergency?”
“It may make them set their teeth,” said Lestrange, “and prepare themselves better.”
“Then it does not matter,” said Father Payne, “whether they are united by the complacency of conquest or by the desire for revenge?”
“I would not quite say that,” said Lestrange. “But at all events a desire for revenge might teach them discipline.”
“I can’t believe that,” said Father Payne; “it seems to me to make all the difference what the purpose has been. I do not believe that a nation gains by being united for a predatory and aggressive purpose. I think the victory of the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war has been wholly bad for them. It has made them believe in aggressiveness. A nation naturally philosophical and moral, and also both energetic and stupid, acquires the sense of a divine mission like that. I don’t believe that a belief in your own methods of virtue is a wholesome belief. That seems to me likely to perpetuate war—and I suppose that we should all believe that war was an evil, if we could produce the good results of it without war.”