Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/The Spirit of Conquest



THE spirit of conquest produces a gigantic aggregation of calamities and sufferings. A large number of persons still regard conquests with a favoring eye. Now, what does a conquest signify? It is the arming of a band of soldiers and going and taking possession of a territory. Although such expeditions may appear useful, lucrative, legitimate, and even glorious, little regard is paid, in conducting them, to the good of societies; for, in spite of all euphemisms, such military enterprises are robbery, and nothing else, all the time. Generous spirits who talk about suppressing war do great injury to mankind. Setting themselves in pursuit of a chimera, they abandon the road that leads to concrete and positive results. Realists treat the partisans of perpetual peace as Utopian dreamers, and refuse to follow them. The noblest and most generous efforts are thus wholly lost. The direction of public opinion is left to empirics and retrogrades, to narrow-minded people, who are satisfied with living from day to day and have not the courage to look the social problems of the time in the face. War will never be abolished any more than murder. The propaganda should not be directed on that side. The spirit of conquest is the thing to combat. And this colossal error must be fought not in the name of a vague and intangible fraternity, but by appealing to the egoistic interest of every one. There will always be wars, because man will never be absolutely sound-minded. At times passion and folly will prevail over reason. But the idea that conquest is the quickest means of increasing prosperity will not be everlasting, because it is utterly false.

Man acts conformably to what seems to be his interest. The idea he has of this depends on his judgment, which varies every day, as do also his desires. There is only one efficacious method of effecting social changes: it is, to modify the desires of men, to bring them to seek new objects, different from the old ones.

A great many Germans are saying now, "We would give up the last drop of our blood rather than surrender Alsace-Lorraine." Why do they say that? Because the possession of the provinces annexed in 1871 procures them some sort of real or imaginary satisfaction. But if, on the other hand, this annexation caused them extreme sufferings, the Germans would say, "We would give up the last drop of our blood to get rid of Alsace-Lorraine." Now, if the Germans (or any other people) could comprehend how largely the spirit of conquest diminishes the sum of their enjoyment, they would certainly express themselves in language of the latter sort. The apostles of perpetual peace have therefore taken the wrong road. Their efforts should bear upon the single object of showing that the appropriation of a neighbor's territories in no way increases the welfare of men. The pessimists answer us that it will take many years for the uselessness of conquests to be accepted. Well, then, man shall have to continue many years in suffering; that is all there is of it.

When will the day come that we shall find out that it is no longer advantageous to seize a neighbor's territory? We do not know. The only thing we can affirm with absolute certainty is, that when it arrives our prosperity will be increased five or ten fold.[1]

This ctesohedonic error (lust for possession) has produced consequences of which we proceed to speak. Just as individuals fancy that they will be better off with larger possessions, so peoples imagine that their prosperity and happiness will be in direct proportion to the territorial extent of their country. Hence one of the silliest aberrations of the human mind—the fatuous idolatry of square mile. A great many Germans still figure it out that they will have a larger sum of happiness if their country contains 208,670 square miles instead of 203,070.[2] Few errors are more evident. There are thousands of examples to prove that the welfare of citizens is in no way a function of the extent of the state. If it were so, Russia would be the richest country in Europe, while everybody knows it is exactly the contrary. Taxation in that country is pushed to limits that might almost be called absurd, and for that reason the extent of the nation is one of the greatest obstacles to its prosperity.

As an example to illustrate the absurdity of the idolatry of square miles, take California, which now has 158,360 square miles,[3] and 1,200,000 inhabitants. If in another century the population should rise to forty millions, it might be expedient for the good government of these men to divide the State into several. If the conservatives of that period should declare that they would give the last drop of their blood to preserve the unity of their Commonwealth, they would be afflicted with the square-mile craze, and as foolish as the Europeans. Territorial divisions are made for men, not men for territorial divisions. The object enlightened patriots should pursue is not that a certain geographical extent should be included under one name or many, but that the divisions should conform to the aspirations and desires of the citizens. They should impose as little restraint as possible upon the economical and intellectual progress of societies.

The inhabitants of the province of Rio Grande recently wanted to secede from Brazil. The Government at Rio Janeiro, afflicted like other governments by the square-mile craze, would not consent to it, and hostilities broke out. Suppose the Rio Grandians had been victorious in this war; what would have been the result? There would have been eleven states in South America instead of ten. No modern political theorist would see the presage of an extraordinary calamity in such an event as that. The new state would have been recognized by the other powers, and things would have gone on as before. But if the central Government, respecting the wishes of the Rio Grandians, had consented to the secession, the empirical politicians of our time would have affirmed that the world had been unbalanced. Yet the situation would have been exactly the same in point of territorial divisions—eleven independent states instead of ten. We have then to think that, in the eyes of modern politicians, the avoidance of a war, the fact of sparing hundreds of millions of money and thousands of human lives, diminishes wealth, while the waste of capital and massacres should increase it! It would be hard to be less logical or more absurd. The great North American federation is composed of forty-four States, of from 1,250 square miles (the size of Rhode Island) to 265,780 square miles (the size of Texas). If one hundred States should be established to-morrow of about 30,000 square miles each, there would not necessarily follow either an increase or a diminution of the welfare of the population. The Americans can make equally rapid progress whether divided into forty republics or one hundred, and as slow under one division as under the other. Wealth is not a function of political divisions. So Europe is now divided into twenty-four independent states, having from 8 to 2,100,000 square miles of territory. If it were divided to-morrow into one hundred independent states of 35,000 square miles each, it would as easily be poorer as richer. All would depend upon the interior organization of each of these states, and on the relations which they might establish with one another.

Very few persons understand this truth. When we see the most civilized nations of Europe imagining that their welfare depends on 5,000 or 6,000 square miles more or less, we stand really stupefied before the persistence of the ancient routines. The simple disarmament of three military corps would procure ten times as many benefits for the German people as the possession of Alsace-Lorraine. In short, as long as the false association between the territorial extent of a state and its wealth persists its progress in real wealth will be very slow.

To return to the spirit of conquest. A great many things, as we have shown in another place, are not appropriable. Foreign, territories are not so for entire nations. A military chief with his staif may be better off through the conquest of a country, but a nation never.

When William of Normandy seized England he committed an act that was not according to his interest as properly understood. He destroyed by war a considerable quantity of wealth, and he and his barons in turn suffered by the general diminution of welfare. These sufferings were, however, infinitesimal and very hard to appreciate. True views of the nature of wealth were, moreover, not accessible to the brains of men of the eleventh century. Certainly, when William and his army had possessed themselves of England they experienced an increase of wealth that was very evident to them. The king had more revenue; every Norman soldier got land or a reward in money, and he became richer after Hastings than he had ever been before.

But what did the Roman people, for example, gain by the conquest of the basin of the Mediterranean? Four or five hundred grand personages divided the provincial lands alienated by the state among themselves, but what benefit did the masses derive from the bloody campaigns of the republic? The distribution of the annone, 280 grammes of bread each a day, given to 200,000 persons out of the 1,500,000 inhabitants of the Eternal City! Surely the Romans would have gained a great deal more by working themselves than by pillaging other nations!

Things are exactly the same now. In 1871 twenty-eight persons received from the Emperor William donations forming a total of $3,000,000. But what benefit did the German people derive from the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine? None. Dividing the 3,600,000 acres of that province among the 6,400,000 families that were living in Germany at the time of the Treaty of Frankfort would make two and a half acres each. This is not opulence. Of the 5,000,000,000 of francs extorted from France as damage for the expenses of the war there remained 3,896,250,000 francs, which, divided among 6,400,000 families, represent a gain of 609 francs, or about $121.80 per family—hardly enough to live scantily upon for four months; and this was the most lucrative war of which history makes mention! Consider, further, at what amount of sacrifice these $121.80 have been gained. In 1870 the military expenses of the North German Confederation and the four southern states amounted to 349,000,000 francs a year. They now exceed 795,000,000, and in another year (from 1894) will exceed 870,000,000. Here, then, is an increase of 521,000,000 francs, or a charge of 60 francs per family. As 609 francs, even at five per cent, will only return 30 francs, we have here a clear loss of 30 francs (or $6) a family per year. It thus appears that the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine would have been a bad speculation, even if the French indemnity had been distributed in equal parts among all the German families. But, in fact, it has not been so; so that the 60 francs of supplementary expenditure are paid without any compensation.

It might be said that the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine was not dictated solely by sordid economical considerations. Other interests, purer and more elevated, stir the hearts of modern nations. But we ask, Is it grand, noble, and generous to hold unwilling populations under the yoke? On the contrary, it is most base, vile, and degrading. It is difficult to comprehend how brutal conquest can still arouse enthusiasm. Ancient survivals and routines must for a time have suppressed all our reflective faculties.

Suppose, again, 3,000,000 German soldiers should penetrate into Russia and should gain a complete victory: how would they apportion the territory? The parts here would indeed be larger—Russia contains 5,471,500,000 acres. But a third of this territory, at least, is desert; subtracting this, there remain about 3,600,000,000 acres, which, divided among the German families, would give about 5£ acres to each. It may be asked, How will the conquerors take possession of these lands? If each family delegated only one of its members, that would suppose an exodus of 6,400,000 men, going to scatter themselves from the Vistula to the Amoor. What a disturbance so great an emigration would make in the economical condition of Germany! Moreover, would every German colonist be willing to leave his home, his family, his business, and all his cherished associations, to install himself on the banks of the Volga, in Siberia, the Caucasus, or Central Asia? He would acquire 51/2 acres, more or less, it is true, but is it certain that that would bring him more than it would take from him? On the other hand, if the Germans should have their shares administered by agents chosen from among the natives, what complications, what annoyances would arise! The Germans might perhaps get rid of these difficulties by selling their lands. But what price could they command, with 3,600,000,000 acres all put into the market at once? Who would buy it? It is only necessary to look at the facts at close range (besides a mass of difficulties we have not spoken of) to comprehend that the direct appropriation of the territory of one great modern nation by individuals of another does not enter into the domain of realizable things.

The appropriation of the landed properties is therefore chimerical. The confiscation of personal goods to the profit of the conquerors also offers insurmountable difficulties. There remain the public riches. Few countries could pay indemnities of 5,000,000,000 francs. But even that colossal sum becomes absurdly insufficient when it is equally divided among millions of takers.

All this is most plainly evident, and yet the spirit of conquest and the fatuous idolatry of square miles are more active than ever in the old world of Europe.

Let us see now what this mad aberration costs. We will begin with the direct losses.

A whole continent of our globe, twice as large as the European continent, having 8,000,000 square miles and 80,000,000 inhabitants—North America—is divided into three political dominions: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. As none of these countries covets the territory of the other, there are on this vast continent only 114,453 soldiers and marines, one military man for TOO inhabitants, while in Europe there is one for 108. The American proportion would give 514,286 men for all the European armies. As there are no savage elements in Europe to be restrained by arms, half of the North American contingent ought to be enough to maintain internal order there. Europe needs only 300,000 soldiers at most; all the others are supported in deference to the idolatry for square miles. This additional military force exceeds 3,300,000 men, and costs 4,508,000,000 francs ($901,600,000) a year. And this is the direct loss entailed by the spirit of conquest; and yet it is trifling as compared with the indirect losses.

First, there are 3,300,000 men under the flags. If they were not soldiers, and were following lucrative occupations and earning only 1,000 francs ($200) a head, they might produce $760,000,000. The $900,000,000 absorbed now by military expenditures would bring five per cent if invested in agricultural and industrial enterprises. This would make another $45,000,000. The twenty-eight days of the reserves are worth at least $40,000,000. Here, then, is an absolutely palpable sum of $845,000,000. But what a number of colossal losses escape all valuation! Capital produces capital. If $1,800,000,000 were saved every year from military expenses and poured into industrial enterprises, they would produce benefits beyond our power to estimate.

To obtain a correct appreciation of the evils derived from the spirit of conquest, we must take a glance at the past. We need not go back of the middle ages, from which we shall only take a few examples. The destruction of wealth wrought by war has been nowhere so frightful as in Spain. In 1073 the Castilians tried to capture Toledo from the Moors. With the military engines of the time it was impossible to accomplish the purpose by a direct attack on a place so admirably fortified by Nature and man; so the King of Castile, Alfonso VI, ravaged the country for three successive years, destroyed the crops, harassed the people and the cattle, and, in short, made a desert around the old capital of the Visigoths.

From 1110 till 1815—seven hundred and five years—there were two hundred and seventy-two years of war between France and England. Now the two nations have lived in peace for eighty years, and it has not prevented them from prospering. What better proof could we have that all the previous wars were useless?

We need not speak of the massacres of the Thirty Years' War, by which a third of the population of Germany perished, or of the frightful hecatombs of Napoleon I, for these facts are in everybody's memory. We shall confine our attention to the losses caused by the spirit of conquest, at least since the Thirty Years' War. Here, again, we shall proceed by analogies. From 1700 to 1815 England expended 175,000,000 francs ($35,000,000) a year for war. Suppose that the expenditures of the other great powers—Germany (including Prussia), Austria, Spain, France, and Kussia—were similar. This would make, without counting the smaller states, 1,050,000,000 francs ($210,000,000) for all Europe. Still, as war was not so costly to Russia or Prussia as to England, we will reduce this figure one fourth. We shall then have, between 1700 and 1815, an annual expenditure of 787,500,000 francs ($157,500,000).[4] Let us estimate the cost of the wars of the seventeenth century at a slightly lower sum, putting it at only 500,000,000 francs (or $100,000,000) a year for all Europe. That would make 41,000,000,000 francs ($8,200,000,000), or for the entire period from 1618 to 1815, 131,562,500,000 francs ($26,312,500,000).

We have more certain data for the nineteenth century. The Crimean, Italian, Schleswig-Holstein, and American Wars, and the war of 1866, cost 46,830,000,000 francs ($9,366,000,000).[5] The war of France cost 15,000,000,000 francs ($3,000,000,000) at the lowest; that of 1877 at least 4,000,000,000 francs ($800,000,000). Add for the war of Greek independence, the French and Austrian expeditions to Spain and Naples, the Polish war of 1830, the Turco-Russian war of 1828-'29, and the wars of 1848, 3,000,000,000 francs ($600,000,000) more—a very moderate estimate; we reach a total sum of 68,830,000,000 francs ($13,766,000,000). None of the extra European conflicts are comprised in this figure; neither the war between Russia and Persia in 1827, that of Mehemet Ali against the Turks, the struggle against the mountaineers of the Caucasus and against the Arabs in Algeria, or the English campaign in Afghanistan—concerning all of which we have no figures.

Counting only the figures we have been able to obtain, we have for the period from 1618 till our own days 200,392,000,000 francs ($50,078,500,000) as the bare direct losses by war, which have. had to be defrayed by the budgets of the different European states. How shall we calculate the indirect losses? Between 1618 and 1648 Germany lost 6,000,000 inhabitants. The destruction of property was prodigious, the ravages were frightful. How can we represent them in money? It is absolutely impossible. There are, too, some expenses arising from the spirit of conquest that almost wholly escape observation. We shall give only two examples of them.

The ctesohedonic fallacy (lust for possession) raged in the middle ages between the nearest neighbors. No city could offer any security unless it was surrounded by strong walls. Since these required great expenditures, they could not be rebuilt every few days. For this reason space was greatly economized in the cities, and their streets were very narrow. At a later period, when security had become established, the walls were demolished. In our own time the needs of hygiene and luxury have urged the opening of broad ways in the ancient European cities. It has been necessary to buy houses and demolish them in order to create the grand modern avenues. There would have been no walls in the middle ages except for the spirit of conquest, and the broad streets would have been established then, as has been done in the new cities of Russia and America. To pierce these new avenues, Paris, for example, has had to contract debts, the annual interest on which amounts to at least 50,000,000 or 60,000,000 francs ($10,000,000 to $12,000,000). This expense should be charged to the account of the spirit of conquest. But nobody has ever thought of attributing these 50,000,000 or 60,000,000 of the city budget to military waste. And how many other cities are in the same situation? Another example: during six centuries France and England were trying to take provinces from one another. Hence a permanent hostility existed between the two nations. Later on the circumstances changed, but by virtue of the routine inherent in the human mind the old resentments remained, though the motive for them had gone. To thwart the progress of France was considered a patriotic duty by such English ministers as Lord Palmerston. In 1855 M. de Lesseps formed a company to construct the Suez Canal. As M. de Lesseps was a Frenchman, Lord Palmerston and the British Cabinet thought themselves obligated to oppose his project, and their opposition cost about 200,000,000 francs ($40,000,000). The canal might have been constructed then for that sum, but in consequence of the machinations of the English it cost 400,000,000 francs ($80,000,000). Who has ever thought of charging that loss to the account of the spirit of conquest? Nevertheless, that is where it belongs.[6]

The indirect losses of war defy valuation. But the matter may be looked at from another point of view: that of the profits which they prevent being made. The American war against secession cost the treasury of both combatants $7,000,000,000. Now, if, without speaking of the destruction of property,[7] we only consider the benefits nonrealized, the most moderate estimates make them $12,000,000,000 for the year 1890,[8] and the figure goes on every year increasing in geometrical progression.

Further, the debts must be considered. The largest proportion of them are consequences of the idolatry for square miles. This entails an annual expenditure of $644,800,000 which we should not have to bear were it not for the ctesohedonic fallacy.[9]

Yet another factor has so far not been mentioned: men. The wars of the last three centuries have cost, at the lowest figure, 30,000,000 or 40,000,000 victims. Some authors raise this very moderate estimate to 20,000,000 per century. Without speaking of the frightful sufferings of these unfortunates, they represent an enormous capital.[10] Let us add, further, that these men, if they had not been killed, might have had children that now have no existence. "Without the wars of Napoleon I and Napoleon III Europe would have had 45,000,000 more inhabitants than it has, and they might have been producing $2,700,000 a year.[11]

We hope the reader will admit, after these considerations, that the indirect losses of war certainly exceed the direct ones. Still, adhering to our method of underrating rather than exaggerating, we will regard them as equal. We may therefore affirm that the spirit of conquest has cost, since 1618, in the group of European nations alone, the trifle of $80,156,800,000. Suppose we should go farther back—into antiquity even? Imagination refuses to set down the gigantic sums.

This is not all; the cost of civil wars has to be counted, for the conquest of power within the state is attended by massacres which are often not inferior to those of foreign ones. The chiefs of the Roman legions contending for the empire carired on as bloody and costly campaigns against their rivals as against the Parthians or the Germans. The war between Paris and Versailles in 1871 occasioned considerable expenditures, not to speak of the indirect losses, which were immense. We are, unfortunately, absolutely without data concerning the cost of civil wars, and shall have to satisfy ourselves with what we have been able to obtain concerning foreign wars. $80,156,800,000 used up in two centuries! We need not go outside of this for a solution of the social question. Without this unrestricted waste the earth would now have ten times more wheat, sugar, linen, cotton, meat, wool, etc.; there would be ten times as many houses on the globe, and they would be more spacious, better warmed, and better ventilated; a network of roads, with frequent mails, would cover Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. In short, if conquest had been considered an evil, even during only two centuries, our wealth would have been infinitely superior to what we now possess. But if the ctesohedonic fallacy had been seen through by the civilized societies of the Roman period, the face of the earth would have been very different from what it is. Our planet would have been completely appropriated to the satisfaction of our wants. Waste lands would have been tilled and swamps dried; everywhere that a drop of water could be made to serve for irrigation it would have been applied to that use. Magnificent cities, inhabited by active and industrious populations, would have arisen in numerous places where now are found only briers and stones. In short, we should have been able to see men now, in the year of grace 1894, as we expect to see them in three or four thousand years.

The past can not be changed. We have laid bare the unhappy consequences of our ancient errors simply in order to show how we can assure our welfare in the future. As long as the spirit of conquest rages among men, misery will be the lot of our species. Our savage and barbarous ancestors did not know what we know. Attila, Tamerlane, and even Matabele, a chief of our own times, might be excused for fancying that conquest increases the wealth of the conquerors; but a Moltke and a Prince Bismarck can not. The masses are still too deeply imbued with military vainglory. Happily, they are beginning to open their eyes.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the hook Les Gaspillages des Sociétés Modernes (The Wastes of Modern Societies), Paris, 1894.

Until within a few years the field for the study of glaciers and their action has been the Alps; but now, as Prof. H. L. Fairchild said in his address as chairman of the Geological Section of the American Association, the North American continent is recognized as a field of the greatest activity, both in the past and at the present time; and, moreover, it presents types of glaciers not known in Europe. It must therefore become the Mecca of foreign students of glaciers.
  1. The pessimists are further mistaken. The idea that conquest is disastrous, even to the conqueror, is much more widespread in modern societies than is generally thought. But social reflexes urge the masses to obey their chief blindly. It requires only a Gothic spirit—like Bismarck, for example—to set a whole army in motion, and make it do things which every officer and every soldier would condemn as a personal act.
  2. The difference is the extent of Alsace-Lorraine.
  3. About the extent of the British Isles, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland combined.
  4. See Seeley's Expansion of England, p. 21. This figure is very moderate. Between 1802 and 1813 France alone spent 498,000,000 francs ($99,600,000) a year. See Laroque, La Guerre et les Armées permanentes, Paris, 1870, p. 203.
  5. See P. Leroy-Beaulieu, Recherches économiques sur les Guerres contemporaines, Paris, p. 181.
  6. We may refer here to another loss which has never been thought of till now. It was long fancied that wealth could be acquired more rapidly by war than by work; consequently, conquest seeming to be the most rapid and therefore most efficacious way, was honored, and labor, appearing to be a slower process, was despised. In our days a large number of descendants of the knights of the middle ages retain the ideas of their ancestors and look upon labor as degrading. Hence thousands of aristocrats do nothing, but remain social good-for-nothings, retarding the increase of wealth by their inactivity.
  7. Sherman, in his march from Atlanta to Savannah alone, destroyed more than $400,000,000. The cotton famine occasioned by this war cost Great Britain a loss of $480,000,000. Who has ever thought of charging this against militarism?
  8. See E. Reclus, Nouvelle geographie universelle (French edition), vol. xvi, p. 810.
  9. A justification of this figure may be found in my Luttes entre les sociétés humaines, p. 220.
  10. A half million negroes are massacred every year in Africa in the tribal wars, which also are caused by the ctesohedonic fallacy. Suppose each one of them might have earned $20 a year. Capitalized at four per cent, this sum would have amounted to $400,000,000.
  11. See my Luttes, p. 228. Let us say, in passing, that we owe our existing savagery partly to the ctesohedonic fallacy. When we think that the most rapid way of enriching ourselves is by seizing our neighbor's territories, the fewer defenders that territory has, the better. So all pretended political geniuses glorify themselves on having killed the largest number of their fellow-men. Cæsar boasted of having killed a million and a half of Gauls. At the moment of writing these lines a terrible accident has occurred at Santander. Hundreds of persons were killed by the explosion of a boat loaded with dynamite. Great pity was expressed for the victims. Collections for their benefit were taken in France. Suppose France and Spain were now at war. If somebody had blown up some thousand Spaniards in a fortress, we should have sung Te Deums. Oh, man's logic!