Charles Colton

War and warriors

Warburton affirms that there never was a great conqueror, legislator, or founder of a religion, who had not a mixture of enthusiasm, and policy in his composition; enthusiasm to influence the public mind, and policy to direct it. As I mean to confine myself, in this article, to war, and warriors, I think it right to premise that policy is a much more common ingredient in such characters than enthusiasm. I admit that in some particular idiosyncrasies, as for instance, in that of Cromwell, or of Mahomet, this heterogeneous mixture may have been combined, but even then these contradictory elements, like oil and vinegar, required a constant state of motion, and of action, to preserve their coalescence; in a state of inaction and of repose, it was no longer an union, but the policy invariably got the ascendency of the enthusiasm. William the Third, on the contrary, and Washington, united three great essentials, much more homogeneous than those insisted on by Warburton; courage, coolness, and conduct; but enthusiasm is the last thing I should impute to either of these men. If we look into White’s institutes of Tamerlane, or more properly speaking, of Timour the Lame, we shall find that there never was a character who had less to do with enthusiasm, than this Tartar hero, nor that despised it more. His whole progress was but one patient and persevering application of means to ends, causes to consequences, and effects to results. Without the slightest particle of anything visionary or enthusiastic in himself, and with a certain quantum of contempt for these qualities in others, he commenced his career by being a lame driver of camels, and terminated it by reigning over twenty-six independent principalities. Therefore we must not take every thing for gospel that comes from the pen of such a writer as Warburton, who on one occasion, shuddered at the sceptical doctrines of antiquity, as subversive of the established gods of Athens!! But to return to war and warriors. There are some ideas afloat on this subject, which I cannot help conceiving to be both ruinous and wrong. I shall not despair of producing my own convictions on this subject, with that portion of my readers who think, with me, that every war of mere ambition, aggression, or aggrandizement, is an evil both hateful and degrading, who think it a nuisance that ought to be abated, and who abominate every thing appertaining thereto, or connected therewith. Considered in the abstract, and unconnected with all views of the causes for which it may be undertaken, surely war is an evil that none but a misanthrope could conscientiously rejoice in, or consistently promote. But all men think not thus; there are minds, and powerful ones too, endowed with a right feeling on every other subject, who seem to labour under some mental hallucination on this. In the first place, I am so unfortunate as not to be able to discover those marvellous efforts of talent, gigantic combinations of power, and exundant fertility of resource, which some would persuade us are essential to great commanders, and confined to them alone.* But, setting aside the truism, that fortune, though blind, has often led the most sharp-sighted hero to that victory which he would have lost without her, what qualities are there in a conqueror, which have not been held in common by the captain of a smuggler’s crew, or a chief of banditti; the powers of these latter have been exhibited on a narrower stage, rewarded by a less illustrious exaltation, and recorded in a more inglorious calendar. With some few exceptions he is the ablest general that can practise the greatest deceit, and support it by the greatest violence; who can best develop the designs of others, and best conceal his own; who can best enact both parts of hypocrisy, by simulating to be what he is not, and dissembling that which he is; persuading his adversary that he is most strong when he is most weak, and most weak when he is in fact most strong. He is not to be over scrupulous as to the justice of his cause; for might is his right, and artillery his argument; with the make-weight of courage thrown into the scale, there are few requisites for a Jonathan Wild, or a Turpin, that are not equally necessary for a Tippoo, or a Tamerlane. The difference is less in the things than in the names. Thus, the callous effrontery of the one, becomes the coolest presence of mind in the other; fraud is dignified by the title of skill, and robbery with that of requisition. To plot the death of an individual is a conspiracy, but to confederate to destroy a people, is a coalition; and pillage and murder seem to lose their horrors in precise proportion to the magnitude of their scale, and the multitude of their victims. But a consummate captain must have courage, or at least be thought to have it, for courage, like charity, covers a multitude of sins, and he is by common consent allowed to sport with the lives of others, who is supposed to have no value for his own. But the time is fast approaching with the many, and now is with the few, when mere military talent, abstractedly considered, and without any reference to the ends for which it be displayed, will hardly secure its possessor, a glory more long-lived than a gazette, or a memorial more splendid than a sign-post. The fact is that posterity has and will appreciate the merit of great commanders, not by the skill with which they have handled their tools, but by the uses to which they have applied them. But suppose we were to grant that the art of cutting throats were a very difficult art, yet even then the merits of this art must be measured, not by its difficulty, but by its utility; and the value of the remedy must be adjusted by the propriety of the application; but in resorting to such a remedy as war, I suspect it will be found that all the difficulties of such phlebotomy belong to the patient, but the facilities to the surgeon. Mere martial glory, independent of all considerations as to the necessity and the justice of our arms, is now fast descending, with many other worn-out fooleries, to the tomb of all the Capulets, where, attended by bankrupt agents, disgorged contractors, and starving commissaries, let us pray that with all due military honours, it may be speedily buried and embalmed; let hireling poets indite its dirge, and meddling monks say masses for its soul. All wars of interference arising from an officious intrusion into the concerns of other states, all wars of ambition carried on for the purposes of aggrandizement, and all wars of aggression undertaken for the purpose of forcing an assent to this or that set of religious opinions,—all such wars are criminal in their very outset, and have hypocrisy for their common base. First, there is the hypocrisy of encumbering our neighbour with an officiousness of help, that pretends his good, but means our own. Then, there is the hypocrisy of ambition, where some restless and grasping potentate, knowing that he is about to injure and insult, puts forth a jesuitical preamble, purporting that he himself has been first insulted and injured; but nations have the justest cause to feel a fear that is real, when such begin to express a fear that is feigned. Then comes the hypocrisy of those who would persuade us that to kill, burn, and destroy, for conscience sake, is an acceptable service, and that religion is to be supported by trampling under foot those primary principles of love, charity, and forbearance, without which it were better to have none. Lastly, comes a minor and subordinate hypocrisy, common to the three kinds I have stated above; I mean that of those who pretend most deeply to deplore the miseries of war, and who even weep over them, with the tears of the crocodile, but who will not put a stop to war, although they have the means, because they find their own private account in continuing it, from the emoluments it bestows, and from the patronage it confers. Like Fabius, they also profit by delay, cunctando restituere reim,” but they do so with a very different motive, not to restore the shattered fortunes of their country, but their own. Neither must we forget, in this view of our subject, the raw and ignorant recruit, whom to delude and to kidnap, a whole system of fraud and hypocrisy is marshalled out and arrayed. The grim idol of war is tricked out and flounced in all the colours of the rainbow, the neighing steed awaits her nod, music attends her footsteps, and jollity caters at her board; but no sooner is the sickle exchanged for the sword, and the fell contract signed, than he finds that this Bellona whom he had wooed as a goddess in courtship, turns out to be a dæmon in possession, that terror is her constant purveyor, and that her alternate caterers are privation and waste; that her sojourn is with the slain, and her abode with the pestilence; that her fascinations are more fatal than those of the basilisk, that her brightest smile is danger, and that her warmest embrace is death. But we are told that civilization marches in the rear of conquest, and that barbarous nations have received this boon at least, from the refined and polished blades of their victors. But this argument in favour of war, may I trust, be neutralized, by the consideration that the strongest hands have not always been united to the brightest heads; for the rudest nations have in their turn retaliated on the most refined, and from a darkness more dense than that of Egypt, the thunderbolt of victory has been elicited, as the brightest lightning from the blackest cloud. Greece has twice surrendered her independence and her liberties to masters in every thing but force far inferior to herself; the first treated her as a mistress, the second as a slave. And imperial Rome* herself, in her high and palmy state when in the proudest possession of all the arts of each Minerva, was doomed in her turn to be the prey of a savage horde that despised both, and studied neither. But if the argument I am combating ever had any force, it could only have been when knowledge was in its infancy, and the world in its childhood. The general spread of civilization, by commerce, the sciences, and the arts, those legitimate daughters not of war but of peace, not of the vulture but of the halcyon, these are the blessings that will make the hardiest advocate shrink from recommending warfare as a present instrument of civilization; particularly in an era that presents us with means far more grateful, elegant, and efficacious, an era when we have the safety-lamp of science to resort to, a lamp that gives us all the light, but none of the conflagration. In fact the demoralizing tendencies of war are so notorious, that to insist upon them would be to insult the understanding of my readers, and to purchase refinement at the expense of virtue, would be to purchase tinsel at the price of gold. The most peace-loving minister that ever governed the affairs of a nation decidedly declared, that even the most successful war often left a people more poor, always more profligate, than it found them. Where a nation rises with one consent to shake off the yoke of oppression either from within or from without, all fair concessions having been proposed in vain, here indeed we have a motive that both dignifies the effort, and consecrates the success; here indeed the most peaceable sect of the most peaceable religion might conscientiously combine. But, alas how few wars have been justified by such a principle, and how few warriors by such a plea; and when they have, how unfortunate have they usually been in the choice of their leaders; in the motley mob of conquerors, and of captains how few Washingtons or Alfreds shall we find. The children of those days, when the world was young, rude as the times they lived in, and rash at once from ignorance and from inexperience, amused themselves with the toys and the trumpets, the gewgaws and the glitter of war. But we who live in the maturity of things, who to the knowledge of the present add a retrospection of the past, we who alone can fairly be termed the antients, or be said to live in the olden time, we, I trust, are no longer to be deluded or befooled by this brilliant but baleful meteor, composed of visionary good, but of substantial evil. We live in the manhood and in the fullness of time, and the triumphs of truth and of reason, triumphs bright as bloodless, these are the proper business and the boast of those, who having put away childish things, are becoming men. There are some that with oracular gravity will inform us, that as wars have ever been, they must on that account continue to be; but they might as well assert that the imbecility and ignorance that marked the conduct of our forefathers, those ancient moderns, who lived in the infancy of the world, and in the childhood of time, must and doth exist at present, because it existed then. With one solitary exception, all warfare is built upon hypocrisy, acting upon ignorance; ignorance it was that lent success to Mahomet’s miracles, and to Cromwell’s cant. For lack of knowledge a people is destroyed, and knowledge alone it is, that is worthy of holding the freest minds in the firmest thraldom. Unlike those of the warrior, the triumphs of knowledge derive all their lustre , not from the evil they have produced, but from the good; her successes and her conquests are the common property of the world, and succeeding ages will be the watchful guardians of the rich legacies she bequeaths. But the trophies and the titles of the conqueror are on the quick march to oblivion, and amid that desolation where they were planted will decay. For what are the triumphs of war,planned by ambition, executed by violence, and consummated by devastation, the means are the sacrifice of the many, the end, the bloated aggrandizement of the few. Knowledge has put a stop to chivalry, as she one day will to war, and Cervantes has laughed out of the field those self-constituted legislators, that carried the sword but not the scales of justice, and who were mounted and mailed. I am no advocate for a return of this state of things; but when that heroic and chivalric spirit was abroad, when men volunteered on dangers for the good of others, without emolument, and laid down the sword when that for which they resorted to it was overcome, then indeed a measure of respect and admiration awaited them, and a feeling, honourable to both parties, was entertained. But is it not both absurd and ridiculous to transfer this respect and esteem to those who make a trade of warfare, and who barter for blood? Who are as indifferent as the sword they draw to the purposes for which it is drawn, who put on the badge of a master, wear his livery, and receive his pay. Where all is mercenary, nothing can be magnanimous; and it is impossible to have the slightest respect for an animated mass of machinery, that moves alike at the voice of a drum, or a despot: a trumpet, or a tyrant: a fife, or a fool.

* With the exception of Victor, Marmont, and Sachet, all the modern French generals have been men of no very splendid intellectual or adscititious endowments; the rudiments of all they know they seem to have gained in the ranks, and to have gleaned all their talents, in the field wherein they were exerted. In one respect these men were superior to their master, but it was on a point where courage was more prominent than talent. They said to their soldiers, ‘‘come on.”‘ Their master sometimes contented himself with saying, ‘‘go on.’’ Napoleon himself had great talent, and to deny him this would be a gross libel on mankind; it would be no less than an admission that all Europe had for fourteen years been outfought in the field, and outwitted in the cabinet, by a blockhead. But when we have allowed him talent, we have allowed him all that he deserves. I confess there is one thing that excites in me the greatest astonishment, which causes me to wonder with exceeding wonder, “ ”and that is the circumstance that any lover of rational liberty or constitutional freedom throughout the whole civilized world should be found in the list of this man’s admirers. To every thing connected with freedom he was the most systematic and deliberate foe that ever existed upon the face of the earth. No human being was ever entrusted with such ample means and brilliant opportunities of establishing his own true glory and the solid happiness of others; and where can history point out one that so foully perverted them to his own disgrace, and the misery of his fellow men. He has been described, by one who witnessed only the commencement of his career, as the “child and champion of Jacobinism;” but if he were the child of Jacobinism, he was the champion of Despotism, and those who wished to rivet the chains of slavery, chose a paradoxical mode of forwarding the work, by opposing the workman. This, therefore, is the man whom I cannot find it in my heart either to pity or to praise. Are we to praise him for that suicidal selfishness that dictated his treachery to Spain and his march to Moscow? Are we to pity him because having ceased to be a field-officer, he could not begin to be a philosopher, but having books to read, ample matter to reflect upon, men to talk to, women to trifle with, horses to ride, and equipages to command, he died at last of ennui upon a rock, from a cause not the most likely to excite the sympathy of the patriot, or the regret of the philanthropist? It was this,—that Europe would not supply him with any more throats to cut, or provisions to plunder.

* Speaking of the conqueror, the inspired writer observes that ‘‘ before him the land is as the Garden of Eden, and behind bim as the desolate wilderness; ‘‘ and that poet who drank deepest of the sacred stream, has the following lines :—‘‘ They err who count it glorious to subdue By conquest far and wide, to overrun Large countries, and in field great battles win, Great cities by assault. What do these worthies But rob and spoil, burn, slaughter, and enslave Peaceable nations, neighbouring, or remote. Made captive, yet deserving freedom more Than those their conquerorK ? who leave behind Nothing but ruin, wheresoo’er they rove, And all the flourishing works of peace destroy; Then swell with pride, and must be titled gods, Till conqueror Death discovers them scarce men, Boiling in brutish vices and defonn’d, Violent or shameful death their due reward,’’


MLA Citation

Colton, Charles. “War and warriors.” 2008. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 28 Oct 2008. 03 Oct 2022 <>.

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