Book 5, Chapter 18
Of the Conduct of War
Author : William Godwin
BOOK VOf Legislative and Executive Power
OF THE CONDUCT OF WAR
Offensive operations. - Fortifications. - General
action. - Stratagem. - Military contributions. -
Capture of mercantile vessels. - Naval war. -
Humanity. - Military obedience. - Foreign
ANOTHER topic respecting war, which it is of importance to consider in this place, relates to the mode of conducting it. Upon this article, our judgment will be greatly facilitated by a recollection of the principles already established, first, that no war is justifiable but a war purely defensive; and secondly, that a war already begun is liable to change its character in this respect, the moment the object pursued in it becomes in any degree varied. From these principles it follows as a direct corollary that it is never allowable to make an expedition into the provinces of the enemy, unless for the purpose of assisting its oppressed inhabitants. It is scarcely necessary to add that all false casuistry respecting the application of this exception would be particularly odious; and that it is better undisguisedly to avow the corrupt principles of policy by which we conduct ourselves than hypocritically to claim the praise of better principles, which we fail not to wrest to the justification of whatever we desire. The case of relieving the inhabitants of our enemy's territory, and their desire of obtaining relief, ought to be unequivocal; we shall be in great danger of misapprehension on the subject when the question comes under the form of immediate benefit to ourselves; and, above all, we must recollect that human blood is not to be shed upon a precarious experiment.
The occasional advantages of war that might be gained by offensive operations might be abundantly compensated by the character of magnanimous forbearance that a rigid adherence to defense would exhibit, and the effects that character would produce, both upon foreign nations, and upon our own people. Great unanimity at home can scarcely fail to be the effect of a direct and clear conformity to political justice. The enemy who penetrates into our country, wherever he meets a man will meet a foe. Every obstacle will oppose itself to his progress, while everything will be friendly and assisting to our own forces. He will scarcely be able to procure the slightest intelligence, or understand in any case his relative situation. The principles of defensive war are so simple as to procure an almost infallible success. Fortifications are a very equivocal species of protection, and will perhaps oftener be of advantage to the enemy, by being first taken, and then converted into magazines for his armies. A moving force on the contrary, if it only hovered about his march, and avoided general action, would always preserve the real supriority. The great engine of military success or miscarriage is the article of provisions; and the further the enemy advanced into our country, the more easy would it be to cut off his supply; at the same time that, so long as we avoided general action, any decisive success on his part would be impossible. These principles, if rigidly practiced, would soon be so well understood that the entering in a hostile manner the country of a neighboring nation would come to be regarded as the infallible destruction of the invading army. Perhaps no people were ever conquered at their own doors, unless they were first betrayed, either by divisions among themselves, or by the abject degeneracy of their character. The more we come to understand of the nature of justice, the more it will show itself to be stronger than a host of foes. Men whose bosoms are truly pervaded with this principle cannot perhaps be other than invincible. Among the various examples of excellence, in almost every department, that ancient Greece has bequeathed us, the most conspicuous is her resistance with a handful of men against three millions of invaders.1
One branch of the art of war, as well as of every other human art, has hitherto consisted in deceit. If the principles of this work be built upon a sufficiently solid basis, the practice of deceit ought, in almost all instances, to be condemned, whether it proceed from false tenderness to our friends, or from a desire to hasten the downfall of injustice. Vise is neither the most allowable nor effectual weapon with which to contend against vise. Deceit is certainly not less deceit, whether the falsehood be formed into words, or be conveyed through the medium of fictitious appearances. A virtuous and upright nation would be scarcely more willing to mislead the enemy, by false intelligence, or treacherous ambuscade, than by the breach of their engagements, or by feigned demonstrations of friendship. There seems to be no essential difference between throwing open our arms to embrace them and advancing towards them with neutral colors, or covering ourselves with a defile or a wood. By the practice of surprise and deceit, we shall oftenest cut off their straggling parties, and shed most blood. By an open display of our force, we shall prevent detachments from being made, and intercept the possibility of supply, without unnecessary bloodshed; and there seems no reason to be lieve that our ultimate success will be less secure. Why should war be made the science of disingenuousness and mystery, when the plain dictates of good sense would answer all its legitimate purposes? The first principle of defense is firmness and vigilance. The second perhaps, which is not less immediately connected with the end to be attained, is frankness, and the open disclosure of our purpose, even to our enemies. What astonishment, admiration and terror might this conduct excite in those with whom we had to contend? What confidence and magnanimity would accompany it in our own bosoms? Why should not war, as a step towards its complete abolition, be brought to such perfection as that the purposes of the enemy might be baffled without firing a musket, or drawing a sword?
Another corollary, not less inevitable, from the principles which have been delivered is that the operations of war should be limited, as accurately as possible, to the generating no further evils than defense inevitably requires. Ferocity ought carefully to be banished from it. Calamity should, as entirely as possible, be prevented, to every individual who is not actually in arms, and whose fate has no immediate reference to the event of the war. This principle condemns the levying military contributions, and the capture of mercantile vessels. Each of these atrocities would be in another way precluded, by the doctrine of simple defense. We should scarcely think of levying such contributions if we never attempted to pass the limits of our own territory; and every species of naval war would probably be proscribed.
The utmost benevolence ought to be practiced towards our enemies. We should refrain from the unnecessary destruction of a single life, and afford every humane accommodation to the unfortunate. The bulk of those against whom we have to contend are, comparatively speaking, innocent of the projected injustice. Those by whom it has been most assiduously fostered are entitled to our kindness as men, and to our compassion as mistaken. It has already appeared that all the ends of punishment are foreign to the transactions of war. It has appeared that the genuine melioration of war, in consequence of which it may be expected absolutely to cease, is by gradually disarming it of its ferocity. The horrors of war have sometimes been attempted to be vindicated by a supposition that the more intolerable it was made, the more quickly would it cease to infest the world. But the direct contrary of this is the truth. Severities beget severities. It is a most mistaken way of teaching men to feel that they are brothers, by imbuing their minds with unrelenting hatred. The truly just man cannot feel animosity, and is therefore little likely to act as if he did.
Having examined the conduct of war as it respects our enemies, let us next consider it in relation to the various descriptions of persons by whom it is to be supported. We have seen how little a just and upright war stands in need of secrecy. The plans for conducting a campaign, instead of being, as artifice and ambition have hitherto made them, inextricably complicated, will probably be reduced to two or three variations, suited to the different circumstances, that can possibly occur in a war of simple defense. The better these plans are known to the enemy, the more advantageous will it be to the resisting party. Hence it follows that the principles of implicit faith and military obedience, as they are now understood, will be no longer necessary. Soldiers will cease to be machines. The circumstance that constitutes men machines, in this sense of the word, is not the uniformity of their motions, when they see the reasonableness of that uniformity: it is their performing any motion, or engaging in any action, the object and utility of which they do not clearly understand. It is true that, in every state of human society, there will be men of an intellectual capacity much superior to their neighbors. But defensive war, and every other species of operation, in which it will be necessary that many individuals should act in concert, will perhaps be found so simple in their operations as not to exceed the apprehension of the most common capacities. It is ardently to be desired that the time should arrive when no man should lend his assistance to any operation without, in some degree, exercising his judgment, respecting the honesty, and the expected event, of that operation.
The principles here delivered on the conduct of war lead the mind to a very interesting subject, that of foreign and distant territories. Whatever may be the value of these principles considered in themselves, they become altogether nugatory the moment the idea of foreign dependencies is admitted. But, in reality, what argument possessing the smallest degree of plausibility can be alleged in favor of that idea? The mode in which dependencies are acquired must be either conquest, cession or colonization. The first of these no true moralist or politician will attempt to defend. The second is to be considered as the same thing in substance as the first, but with less openness and ingenuity. Colonization, which is by much the most specious presence, is however no more than a presence. Are these provinces held in a state of dependence for our sake or for theirs? If for ours, we must recollect that this is still a usurpation, and that justice requires we should yield to others what we demand for ourselves, the privilege of being governed by the dictates of their own reason. If for theirs, they must be told that it is the business of associations of men to defend themselves, or, if that be impracticable, to look for support to a confederation with their neighbors. They must be told that defense against foreign enemies is a very inferior consideration, and that no people were ever either wise or happy who were not left to the fair development of their inherent powers. Can anything be more absurd than for the West India islands, for example, to be defended by fleets and armies to be transported across the Atlantic? The support of a mother country extended to her colonies is much oftener a means of involving them in danger than of contributing to their security. The connection is maintained by vanity on one side and prejudice on the other. If they must sink into a degrading state of dependence, how will they be the worse in belonging to one state rather than another? Perhaps the first step towards putting a stop to this fruitful source of war would be to annihilate that monopoly of trade which enlightened reasoners at present agree to condemn, and to throw open the ports of our colonies to all the world. The principle which will not fail to lead us right upon this subject of foreign dependencies, as well as upon a thousand others, is the principle delivered in entering upon the topic of war, that that attribute, however splendid, is not really beneficial to a nation that is not beneficial to the great mass of individuals of which the nation consists.
1These chapters were written during the month of September 1792, before the intelligence of Dumouriez's success, and while the heart of every lover of liberty ached for the event of the campaign.
From : Anarchy Archives.
November 30, 1792 : Book 5, Chapter 18 -- Publication.
January 26, 2017 : Book 5, Chapter 18 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.
March 19, 2019 : Book 5, Chapter 18 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.
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