Social Science in the Trenches
By Bryan Caplan
I have to think that this passage from All Quiet on the Western Front exaggerates the intellectuality of the average soldier, but it’s such a great read that I’m going to break my personal rule against blockquoting:
“But what I would like to know,” says Albert, “is whether there would not have been a war if the Kaiser had said No.”
“I’m sure there would,” I interject, “he was against it from the first.”
“Well, if not him alone, then perhaps if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No.”
“That’s probable,” I agree, “but they damned well said Yes.”
“It’s queer, when one thinks about it,” goes on Kropp, “we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?”
“Perhaps both,” say I without believing it.
“Yes, well now,” pursues Albert, and I see that he means to drive me into a corner, “but our professors and parsons and newspapers say that we are the only ones that are right, and let’s hope so;–but the French professors and parsons and newspapers say that the right is on their side, now what about that?”
“That I don’t know,” I say, “but whichever way it is there’s war all the same and every month more countries coming in.”
Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.
“Mostly by one country badly offending another,” answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.
Then Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.”
“Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?” growls Kropp, “I don’t mean that at all. One people offends the other–“
“Then I haven’t any business here at all,” replies Tjaden, “I don’t feel myself offended.”
“Well, let me tell you,” says Albert sourly, “it doesn’t apply to tramps like you.”
“Then I can be going home right away,” retorts Tjaden, and we all laugh, “Ach, man! he means the people as a whole, the State–” exclaims Müller.
“State, State”–Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, “Gendarmes, police, taxes, that’s your State;–if that’s what you are talking about, no, thank you.”
“That’s right,” says Kat, “you’ve said something for once, Tjaden. State and home-country, there’s a big difference.”
“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”
“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”
“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”
“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.
“Not you, nor anybody else here.”
“Who are they then?” persists Tjaden. “It isn’t any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” contradicts Kat, “he has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books.”
“And generals too,” adds Detering, “they become famous through war.”
“Even more famous than emperors,” adds Kat.
“There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that’s certain,” growls Detering.
“I think it is more of a kind of fever,” says Albert. “No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing–and yet half the world is in it all the same.”
“But there are more lies told by the other side than by us,” say I; “just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits.”
Müller gets up. “Anyway, it is better that the war is here instead of in Germany. Just you look at the shell-holes.”
“True,” assents Tjaden, “but no war at all would be better still.”
He is quite proud of himself because he has scored for once over us volunteers. And his opinion is quite typical, here one meets it time and again, and there is nothing with which one can properly counter it, because that is the limit of their comprehension of the factors involved. The national feeling of the tommy resolves itself into this–here he is. But that is the end of it; everything else he criticises from his own practical point of view.
Albert lies down on the grass and growls angrily: “The best thing is not to talk about the rotten business.”
“It won’t make any difference, that’s sure,” agrees Kat.
I feel like an energetic Ph.D. student could get a whole dissertation out of this dialog. Your thoughts?