Universal Silence of the Leaders of Thought


I met my neighbor in a dog park. We got to talking about the wars, the universal silence that surrounds them, about the Nobel Peace prize recipient - turned bloodiest war criminal, and we wondered about the anti-war movement, about voices that are supposed to speak against the crimes committed in the name of the people. What ever happened to them? My neighbor pointed out to writers and actors who go on joyful tours of military camps, doing stand up comedy, spreading comic books… This brought us to recall certain similarities and differences from the times past. We recalled the likes of Rudyard Kipling, and ardent war supporter, who turned against it after the death of his son, to Jack London who did not see the future of the war for the shear escalation of its costs, and to Romain Rolland who, a lonely voice, so tirelessly crusaded against both world wars. It was Rolland whom we discussed for over an hour while our pooches frolicked in the snow, in oblivion. Rolland did not mince words, and his words remain fresh to this day. He named those complicit in waging wars and who were responsible for war crimes: the ruling elites, the media, the intellectuals, the Church leaders…

"What brings it home to us most nearly is that not one of those who constitute the moral and intellectual elite — not one really suspects the crimes of his Government; I know that many of them would weep with grief and shame; the worst and the vilest is to have concealed its crimes from its people. For by depriving them of the means of protesting against those crimes, it has involved them for ever in the responsibility; it has abused their magnificent devotion. The intellectuals, however, are also guilty. For if one admits that the brave men, who in every country tamely feed upon the news which their papers and their leaders give them for nourishment, allow themselves to be duped, one cannot pardon those whose duty it is to seek truth in the midst of error, and to know the value of interested witnesses and passionate hallucinations. Before bursting into the midst of this furious debate upon which was staked the destruction of nations and of the treasures of the spirit, their first duty (a duty of loyalty as much as of common sense) should have been to consider the problems from both sides. By blind loyalty and culpable trustfulness they have rushed head foremost into the net which their Imperialism had spread. They believed that their first duty was, with their eyes closed, to defend the honor of their State against all accusation. They did not see that the noblest means of defending it was to disavow its faults and to cleanse their country of them. […]

Is our civilization so solid that you do not fear to shake the pillars on which it rests? Can you not see that all falls in upon you if one column be shattered? Could you not have learned if not to love one another, at least to tolerate the great virtues and the great vices of each other? Was it not your duty to attempt—you have never attempted it in sincerity—to settle amicably the questions which divided you, the problem of peoples annexed against their will, the equitable division of productive labor and the riches of the world? Must the stronger forever darken the others with the shadow of his pride, and the others forever unite to dissipate it? Is there no end to this bloody and puerile sport, in which the partners change about from century to century—no end, until the whole of humanity is exhausted thereby?

The rulers who are the criminal authors of these wars dare not accept the responsibility for them. Each one by underhand means seeks to lay the blame at the door of his adversary. The peoples who obey them submissively resign themselves with the thought that a power higher than mankind has ordered it thus. Again the venerable refrain is heard: "The fatality of war is stronger than our wills." The old refrain of the herd that makes a god of its feebleness and bows down before him. Man has invented fate, that he may make it responsible for the disorders of the universe, those disorders which it was his duty to regulate. There is no fatality! The only fatality is what we desire; and more often, too, what we do not desire enough. Let each now repeat his mea culpa. The leaders of thought, the Church, the Labor Parties did not desire war ...  That may be.... What then did they do to prevent it? What are they doing to put an end to it? They are stirring up the bonfire, each one bringing his faggot.

The most striking feature in this monstrous epic, the fact without precedent, is the unanimity for war in each of the nations engaged. An epidemic of homicidal fury, has spread like a wave and overflowed the whole world. None has resisted it; no high thought has succeeded in keeping out of the reach of this scourge. A sort of demoniacal irony broods over this conflict of the nations… it is not racial passion alone which is hurling millions of men blindly one against another, so that not even neutral countries remain free of the dangerous thrill, but all the forces of the spirit, of reason, of faith, of poetry, and of science, all have placed themselves at the disposal of the armies in every state. There is not one amongst the leaders of thought in each country who does not proclaim with conviction that the cause of his people is the cause of God, the cause of liberty and of human progress…"

Read the complete text of Above the Battle, by Romain Rolland.

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