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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Émile Zola (1840–1902)

Benefits of War

From “Sidoine and Médéric”

FOREIGN war is an excellent political safeguard. It frees the country of quarreling folks, and gives them a chance to go and be knocked down beyond the frontier. I mean such as are born with clenched fists, and who from time to time feel a temperamental need of a little revolution, unless they have some neighbors to thrash. In every nation there are a certain number of blows that must be dealt out, and prudence demands that this process take place five or six miles from its chief cities. Let me explain my idea more fully. The formation of an army is simply a measure dictated by foresight, with the purpose of separating riotous fellows from quiet people; and the purpose of a campaign is to get rid of the rioters as best one may, and to permit the sovereign to live in peace, with no subjects but respectable people. There is much talk, I know, of glory, conquest, and similar nonsense. These big words are the reward of fools.

If kings throw their troops at each other’s head on the least provocation, it is because they understand each other, and feel better after some blood has been let. Now I propose to imitate them by impoverishing the blood of my people, who may one day suffer from a hot fever. One point alone makes me pause. The farther we get on, the more difficult it becomes to invent good reasons for war. We shall soon be reduced to living together like brothers for the want of a good reason why we should give each other an honest thrashing. I must exert my whole power of imagination. We cannot think of fighting to repair some wrong; there is no wrong to be repaired. Our neighbors are polite and well-bred people. To take possession of adjacent territories under the pretext of extending our boundaries is an old idea which has never succeeded in practise, and has always left the conquerors very sick at their stomachs. To be roused to war on the subject of certain bales of cotton, or hundredweights of sugar, would end in our being considered vulgar traders, thieves who do not like being robbed; while we wish to be considered, above all, a cultivated people, abhorring the toils of commerce, living on ideas and epigrams. None of the ordinary ways of stirring up strife will therefore suit us. And so, after long meditation, a sublime idea came to me. We will always fight for others; never for ourselves. Thus we shall evade any explanation of our fisticuffs.

Consider how convenient this method will be, and what honor we shall draw from it. We will assume the title of benefactors of the nations, proclaim aloud our disinterestedness, modestly figure as helpers in every good cause and as the devoted servants of great ideas. Nor is this all. As those whom we do not serve may be astonished at this strange policy, we will boldly answer that our eagerness to lend our armies to whoever asks them springs from a generous desire to pacify the world, to pacify it thoroughly at the sword’s point. Our soldiers, we will say, perform the office of civilizers, chopping off the heads of those who don’t civilize themselves quickly enough, sowing the most fruitful ideas in the hollow ditches of the battle-field. They will baptize the earth with a baptism of blood in order to hasten the approach of the era of liberty. What we will not add is the fact that their efforts must be eternal, since they will wait for a harvest to grow on their graves in vain.