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THE PHILOSOPHY OF MILITARISM
By GEORGE SYLVESTER VIERECK
(Written before the distinction was drawn between militarism and universal military service in defense of Democracy.)
SOMEWHERE in Germany there is a warrant sworn out for my apprehension. Somewhere the Public Prosecutor peers across the sea with a spy-glass. The German Empire, strangely enough, regards me still as her subject. She clings to me with the tenacity of a woman. I think she accuses me of desertion. A uniform, spick and span, and with brass buttons, is waiting for me. But I don’t want it. I’d rather wear my blue serge suit. And, of course, it’s all a mistake. I have politely informed Madame that I am an American citizen, and that she can not, can really not, count upon me.
It isn’t surprising that she carries my name on her list. It seems I was born between 1884 and 1885 in the city of Munich. The event is said to have occurred on New Year’s Eve. So, in a way, I have fallen between two stools. Future historians will have small difficulty in proving that I wasn’t born at all. I don’t want to be too definite about it. The lives of poets should be delightfully vague. The greatest poets are shrouded in mystery. The author of Shakespeare’s plays, it seems, never existed. And seven cities vie for the honor of having given birth to a person named Homer, who is alleged to have written the Iliad.
Let two continents wrestle for me.
Henceforth shall I shun the detective camera. Like d’Annunzio, I shall sleep in the daytime. I shall endeavor to become a mythical figure like Bernard Shaw. All the elect know Bernard Shaw doesn’t exist. It is horribly indiscreet of me to say so, but he is really a hoax. He invented himself. That is one of the reasons why he persistently refuses to startle the United States with his enigmatical presence. All the world loves a bluffer — at least in America. We have raised humbug to a fine art. But we are quick to discern it. Shaw is afraid we’d find out that he is merely a resuscitated epigram of the late Oscar Wilde, dropped by mistake in a volume of Marx.
Already an aura of myths surrounds my head with a nebulous halo. I shall be a legendary figure before I die. That is the reason why I have deliberately courted a bad reputation. It is a valuable asset for a poet of passion. When Swinburne lost it by moving to Putney Hill with Mr. Watts Dunton, the savor went out of his song. I am convinced I shall never lose my evil glamor. I have builded too well for that. And an hundred hands are stretched out to help me. Even if I weary, my friends, I feel sure, will persist in supporting the tottering structure.
I need not dwell here upon the now historical fact that my mother is a native of California. Years before my nativity my father made a lecture tour through the country. The date of my first appearance here I have never been able to verify with precision. Who’s Who places it at the age of eleven. And through all the elapsing years some German magistrate’s scribe has conscientiously traced my footprints. Surely the mills of the Government grind exceedingly small!
One night I was dined at the house of one of the Big Wigs of the German War Ministry. My host, cultured and genial, like all German officers, talked interestingly of the army. I asked him whether he knew of any general philosophic exposition of militarism. He gave me some books on the subject, which I subsequently pondered with care. I know now how to marshal an army, and how to build bridges across a river, besides various strategic devices. But my knowledge is theoretical, like a young poet’s knowledge of sin. And I nowhere discovered the theory of militarism, the philosophic defense of the thing. After all, nothing that exists needs a defense. Pope was right about that.
Of course, it seems preposterous that people should be drilled to riddle each other with bullets. I, for one, don’t believe in it. Life to me is a sacred thing. Besides, I’d be afraid to handle a gun. I’d rather have a broken heart than a toothache. Still, Good, like Evil, inheres in all things. I agree with the Persians who divided the cosmos equally between God and the Devil. We must accept both, and then establish our personal equilibrium. That, it seems to me, is the art of living. Militarism is not wholly the work of the Devil. I cannot picture the Goddess of Peace without a sword. The olive branch of the dove should really be a torpedo. To the German mind no such justification is needed. It is as natural to the German to serve in the army as it is to be born; and those who do not serve might as well never have been born.
One year’s compulsory military service is a salutary experience. Most of us are neglectful of exercise. We develop certain sets of muscles, but there is little general training even among college athletes. Systematic and rigorous physical training at a critical age is worth more than millions. The Emperor ’s service, moreover, keeps the young male, if not out of mischief, at least out of marriage, until the white fires of adolescence sober into the steady warmth of connubial affection. “But,” you say, “time is money.” Twelve vital months canceled from your accounts! Yet I should hardly consider them a loss, but a profitable investment, bearing an interest of one thousand per cent. Medical authorities have carefully calculated that compulsory military service lengthens the German average of life by ten years.
F. Anstey, in one of his yarns, tells of a Time Savings Bank, where futile hours may be deposited, to be drawn upon when necessity or delight prompts us to lengthen the day. I have vainly searched in financial directories for this unique institution. Even J. P. Morgan, master of destinies and of millions, cannot purchase a single minute from Father Time. No Wall Street operator can corner this market. Military service is the only practical Time Savings Bank in existence. After the first substantial deposit, the directors exact small periodic payments when military maneuvers mimic the ire of Mars. Soon expenditures cease altogether, but at the end of your life — or what would have been the end — you can live on the interest.
IT HAS been said that the Prussian schoolmaster won the battles of Frederick the Great. The German army to-day is a national school. Every company is a school class, with recruits as pupils, and officers as instructors. The officers, in turn, receive instruction from their superiors, and the War Academy in Berlin furnishes, so to speak, special post-graduate courses in warfare. Military service is said to increase the efficiency of the young German by twenty-five per cent. Rustic swains return to their homes with new ideas. They learn to apply themselves systematically. They learn manners, respect for their intellectual betters. And, incidentally, also, the use of soap.
The young soldier is a powerful factor in German aesthetics. He is a splash of color on the gray face of the world. His glittering uniform and his bluish cloak, artistically lined with red, are an eloquent plea against insipid civilian Fashion, which has banished gaiety in masculine attire to the comic opera stage. There is nobility in his carriage. His eyes flash fire. He is handsome, being healthy, young, and, in the beginning at least, clean-shaven.
There is something distinctly animal in bearded faces. Perhaps that is the reason why some women succumb to their spell. The beast in the female responds to the simian reminiscence — atavistic, no doubt — in the male. To me, a bearded man suggests the ancient Assyrian. The dust of the ages seems to nestle in the hirsute projection. I would not be at all surprised if a scarabæus, startled at a touch, were to creep from its somber recesses. Young men should shave clean. Later, when sin and sorrow have dug holes in their cheeks, and the years have distorted their lips, it is perhaps well that they should hide their wasted loveliness under a growth of hair.
I have no æsthetic objection to flowing beards in old men, and to a mustache in a father. I couldn’t imagine my own father without one. The well developed mustache may epitomize masculine maturity and completeness. But the fragmentary, tooth-brush-like growth many young Germans affect on their upper lip is perfectly hideous. A young German teacher confided to me that he had grown a beard in order to impress his pupils with a sense of his dignity. He has the face of a cherub, yet he makes himself look like a goat!
Soldiers are garrisoned, as a rule, far from their homes. Regiments are frequently shifted. The soldier thus comes in touch with various parts of the country. Everywhere he acquires new knowledge. He learns to see his own community in its proper perspective. The oneness of the Fatherland dawns upon him. It is an object-lesson in patriotism.
In the past, at least, maneuvers were held alternately in various spots of the country with unavowed ethnic intentions. Some villages, far from the high road, were degenerating. Inter-marriages between relatives were the rule. Hydrocephalous children were not infrequent. The presence of the soldiers injected new blood into the shriveled veins of the hamlet. The stork followed frequently. Marriages sometimes. “Nice” people won’t approve of this. But it is defensible from the viewpoint of racial ethics. Nature isn’t moral, and she has a trick of not waiting for magisterial permits.
The modern railway has largely supplanted the necessity for this system, but it is still a factor in racial development. Remember that all able-bodied young men are pressed into service, and that they are scattered all over the country. The glad blood leaps in their veins. Courtships are spun everywhere. Many return to wed where they wooed. It is fascinating to reflect how the administrative process that carries young manhood from province to province furnishes a striking parallel to the function of the wind, love-courier from garden to garden in the vegetable domain.
In the ranks of the officers, aristocratic titles prevail. In some regiments only blue blood is accepted at par. The growing power of the bourgeoisie, however, is shattering this feudal barrier. I am not democratic, and I cannot say that I hail the change with delight. There is much to be said for blue blood, and old titles, and families with traditions. We estimate a horse by its pedigree, and we value the family tree of a puppy-dog. The same laws of heredity and evolution surely apply to humans. Nobility is the pillar of state and throne. What I have said of the institution of monarchy applies with equal force to the noble. His subsistence to-day in incongruous. But life itself is pregnant with contradictions.
THE aristocrat, no doubt, frequently falls short of his standards. But his standards are fine. Not long ago, a cousin of mine, a young lieutenant, scion of one of the oldest families in the country, committed suicide because his superior officer had censured him for some trivial misunderstanding. His sense of honor was so acutely developed that a word of disapprobation was a death-warrant. Foolish, perhaps. The boy was high-strung, unbalanced.
Recently an American officer was tried before a court-martial for a flagrantly dishonorable act. The sentence passed upon him, being absurdly light, was subsequently overturned by the commander-in-chief. A mistaken sense of esprit de corps seems to have blinded his judges. Whatever their motives, whose code of honor was higher, theirs or the dead lad’s? To whom would we rather entrust the safety of a country?
The incident, presumably, is not symptomatic. Our officers, I am convinced, are as honorable as any. In Germany, however, certain canons of honor are established immutably. The duel is partly responsible for the German rigor, barbarous at times, in matters relating to honor. It is not a purely military institution, but a practice sanctioned by academic tradition. Insult is not passed over lightly among Germans. We freely hurl, at least in print, insulting epithets at each other. We may not blacken a person’s eye, but we blacken his reputation. Yet every time we call a public servant a thief or a liar, the moral standard is lowered. If the president is a liar and the governor a thief, crime seems innocuous. Through constant reiteration, first the word, then the thing itself, impresses us more lightly. Our libel laws are inefficient. The use of the fist is unsatisfactory, especially as moral heroes are apt to be undersized. A sword scratch is wildly romantic; a bloody nose isn’t.
THE army, in spite of the preference given in some regiments to titled officers, is a republican institution. It is more democratic than Bebel. There is nothing more democratic. Military service, being incumbent upon all, temporarily levels distinctions of caste. Once they wear “the Emperor’s coat,” prince and peasant are equals. Even princes of the blood are not spared the tribulations of the poorest lieutenant. Any tendency to uppishness is promptly suppressed.
Where officers and privates belong to the same class, cordial relations are irreconcilable with etiquette. The German officer can afford to make himself democratic, because he is not, so to speak, one of the common people. He cannot lose caste socially by mixing with them as comrades. I remember walking down Unter den Linden with my military friend. Every time a common soldier saluted, and it happened with embarrassing frequency, he courteously returned the salute. He had instructed his subordinate officers to be equally attentive. And every salute was a renewed assertion of the unity of the grandiose machinery in which general and private, each in his own way, are of equal importance.
I am an individualist. Yet there are moments when it is sweet to grow out of the shell of self. There is, perhaps, dangerous intoxication in crowds; to be swayed by the common impulse when the mysterious force psychologists call “mass suggestion” sweeps through the channels of the brain, breaking the flood-gates of mental reserve. Such must be the soldier’s experience in war or some great maneuver. Think of a million young souls swearing fealty to one flag, made one by the ties of comradeship and obedience, and a new sense of brotherhood born of common experience!
All the vitality of the nation is there. Passion and youth, brawn and brain, are enthralled by one dominant purpose. How irresistible is this phalanx! What an immense force! What strange hysteria! Only Walt Whitman could depict such emotions, cosmic and sensuous. Even the most confirmed egotist forgets his subjective existence. His heart for the nonce beats in unison with the world’s. He is one with the race and the earth. Earth-emotions, Titanic and terrifying, throb in his veins. He can perform miracles of endurance and valor.
Henceforth, if his country calls, he will blindly follow her summons. He will love the Fatherland with a love intensely personal, as one loves a woman. He has experienced an emotion deeper than patriotism, fiercer than lust. Future and past have met in one glance. A subtle change is wrought within his being. He is the citizen transfigured. Never again will he be quite what he has been — like a child who, having strayed in the wold, has had converse with fairies. Like the lover to whom passion has revealed its ultimate secret. Like the prophet who has seen God in a bush.
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