Our host, a lawyer by profession and dogmatic by nature, opened the discussion. Employing the usual arguments, he put forward the usual airy nonsense: the present generation, he said, knew all about war and would not let itself be tricked so innocently into the next war as it had been into the last. At the very moment of mobilization the guns would be pointed in the wrong direction, for ex-soldiers like himself in particular had not forgotten what was in store for them. I was annoyed by the smug assurance with which, at a moment when in thousands and hundreds of thousands of factories explosives and poison gas were, being manufactured, he dismissed the possibility of a war as lightly as he might flip the ash off his cigarette with a tap of his forefinger. One should not always let the wish be father to the thought, I protested with some firmness. The ministries and the military authorities who ran the whole war machine had likewise not been sleeping, and while we had been befuddling ourselves with Utopias, they had taken full advantage of the interval of peace in order to organize the masses in advance and have them ready to hand, at half-cock, so to speak. Even now, while Europe was at peace, the general attitude of servility had, thanks to modern methods of propaganda, increased to unbelievable proportions, and one ought boldly to face the fact that from the very moment when the news of mobilization came hurtling through the loud-speakers no opposition could be looked for from any quarter. The grain of dust that was man no longer counted to-day as a creature of volition.
Of course they were all against me, for, as is borne out by experience, the instinct of self-deception in human beings makes them try to banish from their minds dangers of which at bottom they are perfectly aware by declaring them non-existent, and a warning such as mine against cheap optimism was bound to prove particularly unwelcome at a moment when a sumptuously laid supper was awaiting us in the next room.
And now, to my surprise, the gallant hero of the day before entered the lists in my support — the very man in whom my false intuition had led me to suspect an opponent. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, he declared vehemently, to try nowadays to take into account the willingness or unwillingness of human material, for in the next war all the actual fighting would be done by machines, and men would be reduced to no more than a kind of component part of the machine. Even in the last war he had not met many men at the front who had either unequivocally acquiesced in or opposed the war. Most of them had been whirled into it like a cloud of dust and had simply found themselves caught up in the vast vortex, each one of them tossed about willy-nilly like a pea in a great sack. On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.
I listened in astonishment, my interest particularly aroused by the vehemence with which he now went on: “Don’t let us deceive ourselves. If in any country whatever a recruiting campaign were to be launched today for some utterly preposterous war, a war in Polynesia or in some corner of Africa, thousands and hundreds of thousands would rush to the colours without really knowing why, perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances. But as for any effective opposition to a war – I wouldn’t care to put it above zero. It always demands a far greater degree of courage for an individual to oppose an organised movement than to let himself be carried along with the stream – individual courage, that is, a variety of courage that is dying out in these times of progressive organisation and mechanisation. During the war practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness and even boredom, but, above all, a great deal of fear – yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action, and fear, above all, of taking a stand against the mass enthusiasm of one’s fellows.”