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Sunday Guessing Game: The Savages We Are

Who wrote the following? (The usual rules apply: you've never heard of a search engine, and there are no books on your shelves.)

Miss Vera Brittain's pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, is an eloquent attack on indiscriminate or ‘obliteration’ bombing. ‘Owing to the R.A.F. raids,’ she says, ‘thousands of helpless and innocent people in German, Italian and German-occupied cities are being subjected to agonizing forms of death and injury comparable to the worst tortures of the Middle Ages.’ Various well-known opponents of bombing, such as General Franco and Major-General Fuller, are brought out in support of this. Miss Brittain is not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is willing and anxious to win the war, apparently. She merely wishes us to stick to ‘legitimate’ methods of war and abandon civilian bombing, which she fears will blacken our reputation in the eyes of posterity. Her pamphlet is issued by the Bombing Restriction Committee, which has issued others with similar titles.
Now, no one in his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust. On the other hand, no decent person cares tuppence for the opinion of posterity. And there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of ‘limiting’ or ‘humanizing’ war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bothers to examine catchwords.

The catchwords used in this connexion are ‘killing civilians’, ‘massacre of women and children’ and ‘destruction of our cultural heritage’. It is tacitly assumed that air bombing does more of this kind of thing than ground warfare.

When you look a bit closer, the first question that strikes you is: Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in any way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage. A bomb kills a cross-section of the population; but not quite a representative selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some of the young men will be away in the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle-aged. (Up to date, German bombs have killed between six and seven thousand children in this country. This is, I believe, less than the number killed in road accidents in the same period.) On the other hand, ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’ warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom about fifty young men of fine physique and good nerves are suffocated. Yet people who would hold up their hands at the very words ‘civilian bombing’ will repeat with satisfaction such phrases as ‘We are winning the Battle of the Atlantic’. Heaven knows how many people our blitz on Germany and the occupied countries has killed and will kill, but you can be quite certain it will never come anywhere near the slaughter that has happened on the Russian front.

War is not avoidable at this stage of history, and since it has to happen it does not seem to me a bad thing that others should be killed besides young men. I wrote in 1937: ‘Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet hole in him.’ We haven't yet seen that (it is perhaps a contradiction in terms), but at any rate the Suffering of this war has been shared out more evenly than the last one was. The immunity of the civilian, one of the things that have made war possible, has been shattered. Unlike Miss Brittain, I don't regret that. I can't feel that war is ‘humanized’ by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes ‘barbarous’ when the old get killed as well.

As to international agreements to ‘limit’ war, they are never kept when it pays to break them. Long before the last war the nations had agreed not to use gas, but they used it all the same. This time they have refrained, merely because gas is comparatively ineffective in a war of movement, while its use against civilian populations would be sure to provoke reprisals in kind. Against an enemy who can't hit back, e.g. the Abyssinians, it is used readily enough. War is of its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.

Comments (26)

George Orwell, I believe. (Real name: Eric Blair.) Am I right?

I have no actual idea, but it does sound stylistically rather like Orwell. I am not sure whether the content is Orwell's thought or not; I haven't read enough of his nonfiction work to know.

Orwell occurred to me too, before seeing the previous comment.

The style is completely outside my ability to guess. The root source is obviously a British writer of the 1930's. Could be Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, T.H. White. I am going to go way out on a limb and say, I don't think it is T.S. Eliot. Other than Orwell, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if it were T.H. White.

No idea really. Eliot came to mind first, but upon a second reading, I don't think so. Two wild guesses come to mind: Lewis and Churchill.

I have no idea who it actually is, but I'd wager a lot that it isn't C.S. Lewis. I'm quite sure that he never wrote anything this extensive on this subject, nor anything earlier to which he might be referring when he mentions something written in 1937. (This is obviously being written somewhat later, perhaps in the early 1940's.) Lewis, also, would have brought in some sort of Christian perspective on it. For example, when he has Screwtape talk about the blitz, he focuses on the fact that the Devil doesn't like it when people think about dying and prepare themselves for it.

I wonder: Could it be Graham Greene? Greene wrote British propaganda during WWII and tried to recruit others to do so as well.

Tony and Rob G., in that list of names, is there an attempted answer? :~)

Answer tonight.

Anscombe? The style doesn't match, quite, but the rhetorical occasion is not Oxford.

My guess was T.H. White.

Obviously _not_ Anscombe, unless she was writing satire, which I'm sure she never did.

I'd like to throw in G.B. Shaw as another guess. I was tempted to look up his dates but restrained myself.

G.B Shaw was also my first thought, until I remembered that, by 1937, he was hardly capable of writing anything this cogent.

Obviously a lefty, though.

*Not* T.H. White. No way, no how.

I haven't read that much of Churchill's prose, so that would be a real shot in the dark. I was going more by the argumentation in guessing him. I'm going to go with Lewis.

Steve has the sense of it, I think: This is somebody writing who dislikes war and wants it to become as nasty as possible so people will hate it even more. Hence, _not_ Lewis, not by a long shot. It's more like whoever wrote the old episode of Star Trek in which war has to become really unpleasant and then (voila!) people will make peace. So I think Steve is right on the money when he says "lefty."

I doubt very much that Churchill would agree with the sentiment.

I want to add that my earlier guess of Greene must be wrong, because I've realized that no one who wrote pro-Allied propaganda would have written this.

I'd guess Orwell, too, based on the date, use of an obscure pamphlet as the foundation of the essay, and the insistent rhetorical rhythm leading to a bitter conclusion.

Aldous Huxley

Steve Burton may think it all "cogent," but I find the central assertion - that the writer does not regret that the "immunity of the civilian has been shattered" - thoroughly revolting.

Vincent Torley got it right away: George Orwell. Even though I purposely leave clues in the excerpt, this one was too easy. Next week I'll come up with something no one can get.

Re Steve's "obviously a leftie," both right and left have tried to claim him in recent decades. I honestly don't know where he'd fit in today's spectrum. Maybe he'd be just what he looks like, a mixed bag.

Beth Impson: Some of his best work is to be found in his personal essays, like "Shooting an Elephant," right up your alley.

I've read some of his essays, but must get a collection. I love what little I've read, and use "Politics and the English Language" in my classes all the time.

"I doubt very much that Churchill would agree with the sentiment"

True, unless he was purposely trying to make himself sound like less of a jingoist than he really was (although that too would be a stretch, given the writer's 1937 comment about jingos.)

When guessing Lewis I was going more on style than sentiment, but I've read very little of Lewis's non-fiction in the last 20 years so my memory is somewhat foggy. The style just sounded vaguely Lewisian.

I've read an awful lot of Lewis and Churchill, and it certainly can't be either of them, both on stylistic and content grounds. Lewis' style especially is very distinctive.


One of Orwell's best short stories.

WL: I've never taken "cogent" to mean "convincing," or even "persuasive," let alone "correct." But now, looking up some online definitions, maybe that's an error, on my part.

The link took me to "Shooting an Elephant." It's not a short story, but an autobiographical narrative.

Short story or autobiographical narrative, it's a brilliant bit of writing.

Sounds like Orwell.

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