John Bright on war as all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable (1853)

John Bright

The British MP and peace advocate John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech at the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh in the summer of 1853 to oppose the forthcoming war against Russia (the Crimean War 1854-56). He reminded his listeners that many people who advocate war have never fought in one and that they forget that war inevitably brings with it the “concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable”:

What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable…

Well, if you go into war now you will have more banners to decorate your cathedrals and churches. Englishmen will fight now as well as they ever did, and there is ample power to back them, if the country can be but sufficiently excited and deluded. You may raise up great Generals. You may have another Wellington, and another Nelson too; for this country can grow men capable for every enterprise. Then there may be titles, and pensions, and marble monuments to eternize the men who have thus become great; but what becomes of you and your country, and your children? For there is more than this in store…

Precisely the same things will come again. Rely on it, that injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country….I confess when I think of the tremendous perils into which unthinking men—men who do not intend to fight themselves—are willing to drag or to hurry this country, I am amazed how they can trifle with interests so vast, and consequences so much beyond their calculation.

John Bright, along with his fellow Member of Parliament Richard Cobden, were two of the most outspoken advocates of free trade and peace in mid-19th century Britain. They combined moral, political, and economic arguments into a powerful liberal critique of war and the classes who agitated for war and led the troops into battle. In this quotation, which is taken from a speech Bright gave to a peace conference, he attempts to counter the government propaganda for war which incessantly depicted the Russian Empire as barbarous, unchristian, and threatening to the British people. But the public clamor for war was so strong neither he nor Cobden could stop the march to a disastrous war. Cobden even lost his seat because of his principled opposition to interventionism. Bright argued that war could be summarized in the following sentence: war is “the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable.” As a Quaker he urged the British people not to treat their religion as “a romance” which they could toss aside whenever a popular war approached. Instead he urged that they adopt “sound economic principles”, “a sense of justice,” and the Christian principle that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”