You do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them “Huns”

I was reading some of Orwell’s As I Please columns from Tribune this morning, and the one for August 4 1944 grabbed my attention in a big way.

Apropos of saturation bombing, a correspondent who disagreed with me very strongly added that he was by no means a pacifist. He recognized, he said, that ‘the Hun had got to be beaten’. He merely objected to the barbarous methods that we are now using.

Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them ‘Huns’. Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as ‘natural death’. The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilization not by the destruction it causes (the net effect of a war may even be to increase the productive capacity of the world as a whole), nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.

I find that a really fascinating thing to say, and in particular for Orwell to say. Orwell is, for good and ill, a poster boy for speaking out in defiance of any kind of political pressure or persuasion. He saw the Stalinist distortions of the truth in person in Barcelona when the Communists crushed the Anarchists and the POUM (the Trotskists) and lied about them then and afterwards for good measure. He saw the craven obedience to Stalinist norms back in London, particularly in the reaction to his book Homage to Catalonia. He knew Stalinist and fans-of-Stalinists (aka fellow travelers) up close and personal, and he despised them.

And yet – in this piece he also says that words matter, indeed that words can matter more than killing. It’s almost as if he’s one of those Social Justice Warrior types, who think sexist and racist language are bad.

It is a matter of observation that the people least infected by war hysteria are the fighting soldiers. Of all people they are the least inclined to hate the enemy, to swallow lying propaganda or to demand a vindictive peace. Nearly all soldiers — and this applies even to professional soldiers in peace time — have a sane attitude towards war. They realize that it is disgusting, and that it may often be necessary. This is harder for a civilian, because the soldier’s detached attitude is partly due to sheer exhaustion, to the sobering effects of danger, and to continuous friction with his own military machine. The safe and well-fed civilian has more surplus emotion, and he is apt to use it up in hating somebody or other — the enemy if he is a patriot, his own side if he is a pacifist. But the war mentality is something that can be struggled against and overcome, just as the fear of bullets can be overcome. The trouble is that neither the Peace Pledge Union nor the Never Again Society know the war mentality when they see it. Meanwhile, the fact that in this war offensive nicknames like ‘Hun’ have not caught on with the big public seems to me a good omen.

Wow, will you look at that – he even used the word “offensive” without sneering at it. Fans of Stephen Fry please note – just because “offensive” is not always a conversation-stopper doesn’t mean it never is. It’s not the case that the more offensive a word is the more need there is to use it. It depends on the particulars.

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