The Sons of Raghnall: The Limits of War and Peace

There is a limit beyond which flesh and blood will not go.

The nations of Europe have torn and clawed at each other for thirteen years; the sand of the Sahel is stained with the blood of their young men, a charnel wasteland. The wealth of continents has been dedicated to destruction; thousands of tons of metal litter Africa, bones of shattered machines to match the bones of shattered men. Nor can such sacrifices be suffered freely for long. London and Paris, Berlin and Granada, all choke under the crawling terror of informers and secret police. In Russia the ancient freedom of every man to speak his mind has been curtailed; the thought is free, but the tongue had better not give vent to defeatism. The streets of Copenhagen roil with agitation; the rule of the MacRaghnalls has been restored by the October Revolution, but the discontent of the workers has not been quelled by the democratic concessions forced on the Caretaker Government. The issue of how to distribute the wealth created by industrialisation remains, and is all the more sharply on men’s minds when, for over a decade, a large part of the answer has been “Send it to Africa to be destroyed”.

A standing army of soldiers is ever supported by a sitting army of bureaucrats, a kneeling one of priests, and a crawling one of informers; and never more so than when the army swells to one man in twenty, or one in ten. But these measures have their limits. In the end, wars do not continue past all endurance; the capacity of nations – not states – to accept death, poverty, and tyranny is unmeasurably vast, but yet it is not infinite. The destruction of Greece, the twice-fought conquest of the Sahel, the sinking of three hundred steel castles at the battle of Gibraltar, all these things were within human bearing. But these victories were bought too dear, used up too much of the will to fight. When, at last, the Atlas range had fallen – when the final rampart of Islam’s stronghold was gone, and only Iberia remained – then, with victory in sight, the nations of Europe quailed at the cost. Only the Pyrenees stood between them and the fall of Islam – a barrier, it is true, that had held their armies at bay for a decade; but held, in Spain’s hour of crisis, by boys too young to shave and grey-haired ancients. But they proved sufficient to their task; for they were joined by a million ghosts, the spirits of those who had fallen in the first bloody years of the war. In the end, Christian Europe faltered at the final barrier, not for its true strength, but for the memory of the blood already shed in the mountain passes.

There is a limit beyond which flesh and blood will not go; and it may happen that the limit is not high enough. The peace of Versailles settled nothing; to crush Greece, to take Spain’s African provinces, none of this could decide the real issues of the day: Who is master in Europe, and shall Europe rule Asia or vice-versa? The cost of finding out was unbearable. But the questions remain, and must be answered; and now, because the last drop of blood was too precious to be spilled, the entire ocean must be paid all over again. This is the limit of war: Sometimes the price of victory is simply too high, the cost too unbearable, and that which one cannot win, one must lose. But it is precisely when the cost is too high that the prize is most valuable; lesser objects are abandoned long before the true limits of the human will are reached. So it is exactly when nations finally flinch because they must, that they abandon goals which they genuinely need – and which, therefore, they will necessarily find themselves pursuing again, in five years or ten, when the worst wounds have healed and their strength is a little recovered. This, then, is the limit of peace, when it is a peace of exhaustion: It will last only so long as it takes the nations to catch their breath, to remember their grievances and their ambitions, to raise new conscript classes and build new fighting machines.

The universe is not under any obligation to make our problems soluble. When war has failed, and peace will also inevitably fail – what then is left? It is madness to expect different results from the same method; but when you do not have any other methods, then what ought you to do? You can only try again, and hope for the best. Hope, perhaps, is itself a form of madness, but sometimes – for nations and states as much as for men – it is all you have.

And besides, flesh and blood have their limits, but the other side is subject to them too; Asians are not ten feet tall any more than Europeans are, and all men are initiates in the mysteries of death. Perhaps, this time…

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