20. War Experts
"War is not now a matter of the stout heart and the strong arm.
Not that these attributes do not have their place and value in
modern warfare; but they are no longer the chief or decisive
factors in the case. The exploits that count in this warfare are
technological exploits; exploits of technological science,
industrial appliances, and technological training. As has been
remarked before, it is no longer a gentleman's war, and the
gentleman, as such, is no better than a marplot in the game as
it is played."
---- Thorstein Veblen in The Nature of Peace.
Across a park in Washington I followed the leisurely stride of two British officers. Their movement, punctuated by long walking-sticks, had a military deliberation which became their veteran gray hairs. They were in khaki uniforms and leather leggings, a red strip at the shoulder marking them as staff officers. Amid groups of loitering nurses and tethered infants and old men feeding pop-corn to the birds they were as of a grander race of men. After a pang of civilian inferiority I asked who they were and learned that one of them was simply a Canadian lawyer-and that, being a judge advocate, he was obliged to boot and spur himself in his hotel bedroom every morning and ride up and down the elevator in polished leggings, for the good of the cause. Never in his life had he heard a machine-gun fired. Never had he flourished anything more dangerous than his family carving knife. On inspection his companion looked similarly martial. The only certain veteran in the parklet was a shrunken old pensioner feeding tame robins on the grass.
Part of the politico-military art is window-dressing of this description. It excites the romantic populace, composed of pedestrians like myself, and serves to advertise the colors. It suggests a leonine order of values from which the shambling citizen is debarred. But back of the window-dressing, the rhetoric of costume and medal and prepared ovation and patriotic tears, there is a reality as different from these appearances as roots are different from flowers. If I had ever supposed that the gist of war was to be derived solely from contemplating uniformed warriors, I came to a new conclusion when I overheard the cool experts of war.
These experts, such of them as I happened to overhear, had come with the British mission to America, and they were far other than the common notion of lords of war. The most impressive of them was a slight figure who reminded me externally of the Greek professor in Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. Before the war he had been a don at Cambridge, a teacher of economics, and he retained the lucid laboratory manner of an expert who counts on holding attention. It was not in him, as it is in so many older pooh-bah professors, to expect a deference to personal garrulity; but one gained an impression that no words were likely to be wasted on vacuous listeners by a person with such steel-gray eyes.
From London, since the beginning of the war, this concentrated man had gone out of Paris, to Rome, to Petrograd, to join counsel with various allies on the science of providing munitions. It would never have occurred to any pork packer to employ this fine-faced, sensitive, quiet-voiced professor to work out the economic killing of cattle. Yet almost as soon as he had volunteered in England he began on the task of adapting industry to slaughter, and there was no doubt whatever that his inclusive mind had procured the quick and effective killing of thousands of human beings. It was a joy, strange to say, to listen to him. He was one of those men whom H. G. Wells used to delight in imagining, the sort of man who could keep cool in a cosmic upheaval, his mind as nimble as quicksilver while he devised the soundest plan for launching the forces of his sphere. There was no more trace of priesthood in him than in a mechanic or a chauffeur. He deliberated the organizing of America for destructiveness as an engineer might deliberate lining a leaky tunnel with copper, and there was as little pretension in his manner as there was sentiment or doubt. His accent was cultivated, he was obviously a university man, but he had come to the top by virtue of mental equipment. "Mental equipment" means many things, but plainly he was not of those remote academicians who go in for cerebral scroll-saw work. He managed his mind as a woodman manages an ax. The curt swing and drive and bite of it could escape no one, and for all his almost plaintively modest demeanor he had instant arresting power. It was he and a few men like him who had made it feasible for amateur armies to loop round an empire a burning rain of steel.
This master of munitions was not the only schoolman who had demonstrated brains. There was another professor, this time the purchaser of guns. He had come to his rôle from holding the kind of position that Matthew Arnold once had held. A meager figure enough, superficially the scholastic-dyspeptic, he had shown that the bureaucracy of education was no bad beginning for ordering a new department with small attention to the tricks, of merchandise, but with every thought as to technological detail. The conversation that went about did not seem to engage this man, except as it turned on such engrossing topics as the necessity for circumventing child labor. For the rest he was as a soft silent cloud that gathered the ascending vapors, and discharged itself in lightning decision which made no change in the obscurity from which it came.
Under a lamp at night on Connecticut Avenue I saw one late-working member of the mission stop wearily to fend off American inquisition. A training in the Foreign Office had given this distinguished exile a permanent nostalgia for Olympus-and how Olympian the British Foreign Office is, few Americans dare to behold. The candidature to this interesting service of a great democracy is limited to a "narrow circle of society" by various excellent devices, the first of which is that official conditions of entry fix the amount of the private means required at a minimum of £400 a year. "The primary qualification for the diplomatic service," says one friendly interpreter of it, "is a capacity to deal on terms of equality with considerable persons and their words and works. Sometimes, very rarely, this capacity is given, in its highest form, by something which is hardly examinable-by very great intellectual powers. Ordinarily, however, this capacity is a result of nurture in an atmosphere of independence. Unfortunately, it is scarcely too much to say that the present constitution of society provides this atmosphere of independence only where there is financial independence. In a very few cases freedom of mind and character is achieved elsewhere, but then a great price, not measurable by money, has to be paid for it-how great a price only those who have paid it know.... The 'property qualification' is operative as a means of selecting a certain kind of character; no readjustment of pay could be a substitute for it. Undoubtedly, as thus operative, it imposes a limitation, but the limitation imposed is not that of a class-prejudice or of a mere preference for wealth-it is a limitation imposed by the needs of the diplomatic service, and those needs are national needs." Out of such a remarkable background, so redolent of "the present constitution of society," my exiled diplomat took his weary stand before prying writers for the press. They wanted to know "the critical shrinking point." They wished to discuss the "maximum theoretic availability." He had no answer to make; he merely made diplomatic moan. In the heavy dispatch box that he set at his feet there were undoubtedly treasured figures, priceless information for Germany in her jiu jitsu of the sea. That dispatch box might have been solid metal for any effect it had on the conversation. He was a kind of expert who took interrogation with pallid mournfulness; who punctuated silence with, "Look here, you've got hold of absolutely the wrong man.... Hanged if I know.... My dear sir, I haven't the very faintest idea."
And yet this member of a caste was only coming through because he too was paying a technological price. Wheat and nitrate and ore and rubber-there was nothing his country might need which did not occupy him, staff officer of vital trafficking, throughout numbered nights.
There were a few business men on the mission-mighty few considering their lordship in times of peace. Most of the dominant figures either from Oxford or Cambridge, there was one other intellectual who stood out as rather an exception to the prevailing type. He was an older man whose nature brimmed with ideas, a Titan born to laughter and high discourse and a happy gigantic effervescence. If a reputation brayed too loudly at him, he named its author an ass. If liberalism were intoned to him, he called it detestable and cried to knock the English Nation's head against the Manchester Guardian's. Yet he was distinguished from most of his colleagues as a radical who afforded wild opinions of his own. To the organization of his country he had contributed one invaluable idea, and each problem that came up in turn he conducted out of its narrow immediate importance into the perspective of a natural philosophy. Not fond of a prearranged system, he irked more than the run of his countrymen at the stuffiness of badly bundled facts. With a great sweep of vigor he would start at the proposition of handling war industry, for example, on a basis not inadequate to the requirements; and out of his running oration would come a wealth of such suggestions as spring only from a cross-fertilizing habit of mind.
These are a handful of England's experts in wartime. They do not bear the brunt of the fight, like the soldiers, but the roots of the flower of war are in just such depths as employ these hidden minds.