Robert E. Lee once uttered one of history’s most searching observations: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” What is the meaning of this statement, which is richer than a Delphic saying?
If we examine Lee first upon the art at which he surpassed, we find a curiously dispassionate understanding not just of the technique, but of the place of war in the life of civilized man. Napoleon too was a philosopher of battle, but his utterances are marred by cynicism. Those of Lee have always the saving grace of affirmation. Let us mount with the general the height above Fredericksburg and hear from him one of the most searching observations ever made. It is contained in a brief remark, so innocent-seeming, yet so disturbing, expressed as he gazed upon the field of slain on that December day. “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”
What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying. Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambivalence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual , part of him wants peace and part of him wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed on the decks of the Missouri. The clichés of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account everything by this tragic flaw in the natural man–the temptation to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of propagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.
Sandburg has remarked that Lee, despite his Christian piety, loved a good fight. In this I believe he is correct, but whether Lee loved it more than any other man loves an exciting contest at which he knows he can excel may be doubted. To Lee, as to Washington before him, the whistle of bullets made a music, and the natural man responded. But this observation rebukes the natural man and tells him that further considerations are involved. Thus Lee, at the height of his military fortunes, recognizes the attraction of the dread arbitrament, but at the same time sees the moral implications. Coming from one who delivered mighty strokes of war, the observation itself a feat of detachment.
Most important of all, Lee seems to have felt that it is possible for civilization to contain war, or to go on existing in the presence of war if self-control is not entirely lost. To many persons “civilized warfare” is anomalous, but it is not truly so except for the war of unlimited objectives. The deeper foundations of a civilization, the more war seems to be formalized or even ritualized, and the failure to hold it within bounds is a sign of some antecedent weakening on the part of that civilization. This explains why Robert E. Lee always operated with a certain restraint which, some have affirmed, caused him to fall short of maximum success in the field. There is great ethical encouragement in this knowledge. To him as to a number of grave thinkers the touchstone of conduct is how one wields power over others. Whether modern invention has made all restraints of this kind a quaint delusion is something that fearfully remains to be seen.
If it is one kind of blindness to assume that man is made for war, it may be another kind to assume that he can remain indifferent to the drama of conflict. And so, if our world of peace is ever to behold the light of day, it will probably be after we have found something like William James’s moral equivalent of war. Those in quest of the substitute could well begin their reflections with Lee’s text, which seems to have the right proportion of realism and moralism.
This essay first appeared in The Georgia Review, Vol. II, No. 3 (Fall 1948), 297-303.
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