Veritas. One all-inclusive word inscribed on the shield of Harvard. And here at my second school, the Naval War College, other students, equally earnest, seek not an abstract truth, but the knowledge that gives power to rule the seas in war, that Naval Academy’s ideal, ex scientia tridens. Can philosophies so divergent be reconciled, the humanities teaching truth through the beauty of thought and expression, and, in contrast, the science and art of war, war whose very essence is violence and the unsheathed sword? The one seems to deny the other. One teachers the way of life, the other the means of death. What can the gentle scholar like Keats seeking
. . . upon the night’s starred face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
have in common with the cynical soldier like the great Frederick, “bearing up in arms against the world, with an ounce of poison in one pocket and a quire of bad French verses in the other,” or with Nelson, pacing the Victory’s quarter-deck at Trafalgar, his full-dress coat ablaze with decorations, and, to his flag-captain’s remonstrances, petulantly shouting, “In honor I won them, and in honor I will wear them!” The philosophy of war is the philosophy of limitless destruction, the destruction of life and of the means of life. The thrust of the sword must be met by a fiercer counterthrust. It cannot be harmlessly turned aside by the inoffensive shield. When the nations are willing to sacrifice the lives of their young men for a cause, only what snuffs out those lives will defeat the cause, be it communism, nationalism, or imperialism. The military trade is the trade of killing. So it has always been and so it will always be until wars and the rumors of war shall be forever stilled. Such is the truth, veritas naked and unadorned.
Few military men, however, consciously embrace the truth in all its vast and terrible implications. One who serves year after year in fighting ships, wonders at the absence of either a distinct type of naval officer or a well-define school of naval thought. The officers who man our battle fleet differ but little from the men who carry on the peaceful professions ashore, men, kindly, genial, and moderate, immersed in the same human joys and cares that mold the lives of their civilian brothers. Naval officers are not, and will never be, a caste unto themselves, a class wishing war for war’s sake, for honor or promotion or the love of the game. That they should delight in gallant ships and in what Suffren called the gloire de manaeuvre is but natural. That they should desire actually to use the instrument entrusted to their care is unthinkable. More clearly than the most ardent apostles of disarmament they can mark in the maneuvers of peace the grim shadow of war’s reality.
No subject fills more of the solid pages of the past than the study of conflicts between the nations. History has been called a “bath of blood,” and peace a “truce upon the battlefield of time.” No profession boasts a larger and more learned literature, ranging all the way from the Homeric poems, through the volumes of the famous historians, to the latest news flash from Manchuria. Whether we will or no, war exists as a permanent phase of man’s work on earth, war the destroyer and creator. There are times when its study appeals to the layman, for it is his blood and his treasure that war so ruthlessly consumes. But when the doors of the Temple of Janus swing closed, the musty volumes on military philosophy are forgotten. Past conflicts seem like bad dreams, and future wars an apparition too terrible to contemplate. Man turns again to the arts of peace, and those who would speak of the military art must perforce preface their remarks with some excuse like that with which Komini in 1837 introduced his Precis de l’Art de la Guerre:
There is perhaps some temerity in publishing a work upon war at the moment when the apostles of perpetual peace alone are heard.
Less than two decades after those words were written came the European wars of the mid-nineteenth century, and half a century later an assassin’s pistol at Sarajevo fired a shot that again plunged the whole world into a welter of blood.
Is it then worth our while to labor in years of peace over plans of future campaigns which we ardently hope need never be fought? Yes, if we believe in our country and reluctantly grant that, despite the pacts and promises of these troubled times, armed conflict is still a possibility. That the nations secretly hold this to be the truth is surely indicated by their hesitance to disarm. Each solemnly and repeatedly declares that its military and naval forces are solely for defense. Yet every soldier knows that there is no defense short of victory and that victory is achieved only by offensive operations. The purposes that underlie the swollen armies and navies of today spring each from a peculiar and different national position. The security of France and Poland, facing potential enemies on two frontiers, is a different question from the safety of Britain, heart and center of a far-flung empire whose immediate defense depends on the wartime control of the historic Narrow Seas and the long arteries of her imperial communications. Unchallenged, the white ensign flies over her naval dockyards at Gibraltar, Malta, and Singapore. On the other hand, Trinidad and Hongkong, captured in forgotten wars, are today but reminders of her ancient might in seas whose mastery has long since passed to other fleets. For Japan, whose manifest destiny seems to point to the consolidation of her island empire and its economic tributaries on the mainland, security presents an essentially different problem. Our own great heritage won by the men of the Revolution, restored by the armies of Sherman and Grant, and thrust boldly into the arena of world power by the soldiers who died in Cuba and the engineers who labored at Culebra Cut, can be defended only by such strength for war that war itself is unlikely to be forced upon us. Today the canal and the Caribbean are secure. The hidden danger lies in the Orient. Like the British ensign at Kingston and Trinidad, the Stars and Stripes at Corregidor fly over island possessions beyond the immediate reach of naval defense. It is in the Philippines that we have given hostages to fortune.
However purely defensive are these implications of conflicting national policies, for those who go deeply into the questions of war and peace, there seems but one path to follow, the path to probable victory. At times with sincere reluctance, at times with a high sense of professional duty and professional pride, the students of the War College turn to the charts of the world, testing, as the scientist tests in his laboratory, the infinite variety of possible strategic combinations that might arise were our fleet to face in war the fighting ships which are now at practice on the ocean drill grounds of foreign navies. In the staff colleges of other nations, little groups of officers are bending over the same charts and poring over the same books, seeking from the lessons of the past and the actualities of the present some hint that will vouchsafe victory in future battle—if indeed battle must come.
Meanwhile in conference halls at Geneva men equally honest, equally patriotic, and equally sincere are searching through the labyrinth of conflicting policies and divergent military claims, patiently seeking some formula for the reduction of armed forces, some scheme that will finally give security to all. They base their high hope on the belief that armaments are in their last analysis relative, that each exists as a counter-threat to others, and that were all to be correspondingly reduced, the chances of victory would remain unaltered. Sound in its largest sense, unfortunately this simple statement is not wholly true. For there are intangible factors impossible to weigh, industrial strength, trained reserves, strategic frontiers, troops and gendarmes maintained for police purposes and yet available for foreign war. Where, asked the Soviet foreign minister, with cutting sarcasm, should his plea for the immediate destruction of all arms be made except at a disarmament conference? Where, indeed! For Russia stands to gain most by complete disarmament that would leave untouched her formidable O.G.P.U. police army and perchance bring nearer the dawn of world revolution. Britain would lose most, for no sea police could hope to defend, even against an improvised navy, the vital sea lanes over which, day by day, come the defenseless ships that carry food for her crowded industrial millions. Surely some softening of the present armament competition can be achieved, some real lessening of its burden and its hidden menace, though the long months of negotiations, rudely interrupted by the thudding of the guns at Mukden and Shanghai, seem at times to have served merely to heighten and to advertise the vital and fundamental claims so sharply at variance. The soldiers, frankly skeptical, pursue the even tenor of their ways. The statesman, in despair, might well quote the psalmist, “I labor for peace, but when I speak to them thereof they make them ready to battle.” In quiet admiralty buildings, draftsmen bend over the plans of future cruisers, in the staff colleges students turn again to their strategic charts, and, on the ocean drill grounds, the battleships in column steam down the target range, their turrets trained out, and, in the fighting tops, the gunnery officers, alert and tense, wait the opening crash of great guns in salvo.
These men are playing at a game, a game of ominous portent, whose actualities none wish seriously to contemplate. There is much sneering talk in military journals of “pacifists,” and in the literature of peace societies the same scornful talk of “militarists.” No terms are more misused. Those who sincerely hate war and all that pertains thereto are neither knaves, fools, nor cowards. The honest Quaker is quite as sincere as the honest soldier. The men who deeply study war, who alone fully realize the dangers and difficulties of national defense, are neither obtuse nor inhuman. The Instructions for the United States Armies in the Field, written when the hatreds of 1863 were at fever heat, opens with the warning that “those who take up arms in public war have not thereby ceased to be human beings responsible to God and to themselves.” No one, be he the keenest soldier or the gentlest clergyman, desires to revive the passions, the lies, and the stark tragedy of the last great war. No returning graduate wishes to dedicate another memorial hall or to read a longer list on the simple tablets where the names of class mates are inscribed under the eternal epitaph, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Fair, indeed, and of good repute was the sacrifice these gallant fellows made, but was it necessary? Was it inevitable, was it after all, as Alan Seegar thought, a cosmic piece foreordained,
… a stately drama writ,
By the hand that peopled earth and air,
And set the stars in the infinite,
And made night gorgeous and morning fair.
Few can accept a philosophy so fatalistic. For me it found its complete and final refutation when I returned after the war to my old college rooms. The Yard was alive with young men hurrying to morning lectures. Dormitories were deserted.
“We lived here four years ago,” I confided to the charwoman who let me into the once familiar rooms, rooms that recalled scraps of poetry, old lecture notes, boyhood friends, and the long and truthful talks of youth. “We left to go to the war. The two fellows across the hall didn’t come back.”
She paused a moment, fingering her keys. “Thank God,” she said, “these young gentlemen won’t be going there.” And she left me alone in my old study to ponder the eternal question of peace and war.
Those two men who roomed across the hall—somehow they had to go. They were too gallant to refuse the one supreme adventure, too fine to shirk the one great duty, transcending reason and life itself. Surely the statesmen of the world will best serve the generations yet unborn if somehow they can prevent the recurrence of those lingering wars that sweep the very flower of the country’s youth into the ranks, and leave the historians ponderously to argue years after the necessity and the justice of it all.
Can the soldier aid? Perhaps, though the avoidance of war is not his task. His is a single purpose, the creation of fleets and armies adequate for victory. Against such forces wisely held, he sincerely believes that war is unlikely. But should war come, he knows that ready fleets give promise of mercifully ending it long ere the civilian need be drawn into the great citizen armies that seem to grow from the very length of protracted and doubtful conflicts. Ready armaments will best serve the nation if they can strike swiftly for instant triumph and peace renewed.
Ultimate victory is not merely a problem of tons and guns. The student of military affairs must delve into the vast and intricate implications of war finance. He must consider the marshaling of the armed forces that alone can give substance to the nation’s will. And in years of peace, he must play out the actual moves upon the board of battle, where toy ships advance and retreat on measured squares, lay mimic paper smoke screens, and conquer or sink from gun, bomb, and torpedo hits whose paths of death are drawn in harmless chalked diagrams. The kriegsspiel, as though war were but a game after all, and never again to be a reality!
To the layman it might seem that such a game should be played by officers in glittering uniforms, men with bristling mustachios, pacing the War College corridors as they would pace their quarterdecks, unfeeling and cruel men, taking an inhuman delight in the profession of arms. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a certain drab shabbiness to the naval officer’s civilian dress. It is expense enough to maintain the required uniforms. The naval life is at times a perplexed and harried existence, the men at sea and their women left behind often with sickness and lonely sorrows. The swank of early service soon wears off as responsibility afloat and cares at home gradually age the Annapolis graduate. The preconceptions of a youth drilled and disciplined rather than liberally educated soon merge into the broad understanding of the traveled student, one who sees largely the great world of men and of affairs. Returning for a brief year to study the use of fleets in possible future battles, the older officers approach this final and largest phase of their profession with reflective and moderate minds. Though at heart they cannot but accept the full implications of offensive war, theirs is none of the unreasoning enthusiasm for abstract ideas that inspire very young men at college, where every sincere student of English is a poet and every man who reads deeply in economics must become something of a socialist. Instinctively the naval officer recoils from the final logic of his trade. Despite his intellectual honesty, the strategic war value of strange-named tropical islands will fade before subconscious memories of peaceful lagoons where the waters are turquoise blue, smart ships in port, bright work and spotless decks, starched uniforms and iced tea, and Sunday afternoons sailing in whaleboats inside the surf that breaks white along the coral barriers. Little wonder that the unthreatened British navy of forty years ago developed a “yachting spirit,” a kind of seagoing poise, ruthlessly swept aside by Admiral Sir John Fisher, blind and forceful advocate of material development, ever faster ships with bigger guns, and the dedication of each hour to the practice of arms. The tranquil “white glove and champagne period,” so sneeringly denounced by Admiral Sims and Admiral Sir Percy Scott, and now as dead as the era of sail, was not merely a manifestation of mental inactivity and a love of shipboard ease. Rather it was an indication of the natural human reluctance of military men to push all training to its logical extreme, the complete preparation for instant battle. Those who fear the so-called “military caste” can take comfort in the thought that soldiers, like civilians, tend to be contented with the day’s work and that only the most active and the most enthusiastic among them call continuously for a menacing battle readiness and an uncompromising philosophy of war. Into the usual wardroom talk of target scores and boat races, of sudden orders and interrupted schedules, their message breaks as a subject of distant and almost foreign interest.
A true understanding of naval warfare involves years of study. Its background is hidden in the history of the past, a history that seems at times as inscrutable as the sea itself. It involves shadowy and intangible questions of national policies, the ever changing problems of world production and world trade, the scientific intricacies of modern naval technique, and finally the supreme art of command in battle. Never was the picture of world sea power more confused. Never was it more dangerous lightly to generalize. One large fact stands out, the Washington and London conferences have so reduced and equalized the fleets of the major naval powers that crushing victory seems impossible. As none can now hope for victory, so conversely none need fear defeat. In reaching these relative limits of naval armaments, the officers whose business it is to study war have joined hands with those who study peace and the means of peace.
Unfortunately, this reduction of the major fleets does not of itself make war impossible. It merely makes the outcome less dependent on the vague question as to who will be our allies, who neutral. Even with her full “treaty navy,” America cannot safely tread the dangerous paths of present-day diplomacy alone. And yet instinctively, almost blindly, our politicians hold to the outworn advice of 150 years ago which warns us against “entangling alliances” and even prevents our statesmen hinting at a consultative pact. When we scrapped the 1916 navy, we might well have scrapped with it the grandiose policy of complete and glorious isolation.
Similarly the technical limitations of the treaty fleets have tended to confuse our conception of naval war. No longer can strength be counted in battleship tonnage. At the Washington conference, we have up this old and trusted bulwark of the strong, only to witness with dismay the rapid building abroad of the largest ship unlimited by the conference, the “treaty cruiser,” a kind of middleweight fighter newly entered into the ring. In part the repeated disarmament conferences have allayed and in part they have by constant emphasis aggravated the eternal question of national security. At times one wonders if post-war armaments would have remained at their present levels had not the military and naval problems of the nations been continuously aired in the pitiless publicity of open conferences.
The principles of war are unchanging. There is no royal road to victory, no perfect combination which will assure triumph on the field of battle. It seems certain that equal fleets will part with equal damage. Only the indomitable spirit that carried Nelson through the treacherous shoals at Aboukir, and the brave and intelligent generalship that vouchsafed to von Scheer a partial victory against overwhelming odds at Jutland can hope to wring from battle anything beyond the cruel indecision of mutual destruction.
In war the nation will rightly demand not indecision but smashing triumph. It is to those who have studied here at the Naval War College that the statesmen will look for guidance in the times that try men’s souls, when public opinion clamors for the avenging of initial defeats, for war on the enemy’s coast, for victory, and through victory, for peace. Knowing full well how heavy will be the burdens of high command, the student officer turns again to his books, here where the afternoon sun strikes athwart the stacks in the quiet college library. Glancing up, his eye rests on the portraits of officers who have gone before, those who greatly thought and greatly achieved in the supreme test of battle. One face he can never forget, a boyish, almost effeminate face, the immortal Nelson, forever the ideal and inspiration of all who follow the profession of arms at sea, a commander who, on the threshold of his last and greatest battle, consigned his soul to God and his plan of action to his trusted captains, “a band of brothers.” Writing the last words of the diary that records his heroic and almost tragic life, “in sight of the combined fleets of France and Spain, distant about ten miles,” he ordered his columns to bear to towards the enemy. One last peremptory signal was hoisted at the Victory’s yardarm, the greatest naval signal of all times, “engage the enemy more closely.” More than any sea fighter of whom history holds a record, Nelson instinctively realized and fully accepted the naked truth: war is violence, violence stark and limitless.
It is already late afternoon. The low sun, sinking behind Conanicut Island, touches with fire the tapering spars of the old frigate Constellation and sharply outlines the graceful hulls of the modern cruisers in port. New ships, a new technique of fighting. But here in these many books are enshrined ideas and personalities that never die. Thinking of the past and the hidden problems of the future, I leave the college building. There is no inscription over the door. But surely there might be written here the words that are cut above a gate at my other college, “Enter to grow in wisdom.”
Leaving the Harvard yard, one reads on the inside of that same gate, “Go forth to serve better thy country and thy kind.” Could that too be written here over the portals of the Naval War College? Surely “to serve better thy country,” if ever again the threat of war shall come to endanger all we value as a sacred heritage from her past.
But—better to serve thy kind? Yes, that too might be written here, if we believe, if we have faith that our country in her power and greatness has a mission in these troubled times, if we believe that back of her material strength is an ideal, the ideal of civil liberty and international justice, the high ideal of 1917 that drew to their graves in the Argonne those two very gallant gentlemen who once roomed across the hall.