A Book of Words – XXXVII

“An Undefended Island”

by Rudyard Kipling

I AM UNFORTUNATELY a producer of fiction; but outside office-hours, I plead guilty to an interest in facts.

Will you allow me just to run through a few facts which may be of interest to our England of to-day?

First, let it be granted that when men are dead, they cease to live, and, as Solomon says, ‘neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.’ Great Britain’s quota of dead in the War was over eight hundred thousand when the books were closed in ’21 or ’22. It would be within the mark to say that three-quarters of a million of these were English. Furthermore, a large but unknown number died in the next few years from wounds or disease directly due to the War. There is a third category of men—incapacitated from effort by the effects of shock, gassing, tubercle, and the like. These carry a high death-rate because many of them burned out half a life’s vitality in three or four years. They, too, have ceased to count.

All these were men of average physique, and, but that they died without issue, would have continued our race. The selective elimination of so many men of one type, and their replacement by so many persons of another type and their children, led to an extensive revision of all standards of English thought and action.

Now, there were a number of persons who, for various motives, had dissociated themselves from the War at the outset. These, however, were all able to answer to their names at the close of hostilities and to rejoin the national life with a clear field before them.

Still they were not happy. There is a necessity laid upon man to justify himself to himself in order that he may continue to live comfortably with himself. Our initial errors, as we all know, are trivial. It is what we say and do to prove to ourselves that our errors were really laborious virtues which builds up the whole-time hells of this life.

So it was in exact accord with human nature that, very shortly after the War, a theory should have sprung up that the War had been due to a sort of cosmic hallucination which had infected the nations concerned with a sort of cosmic hysteria. This theory absolved those who had not interested themselves in the War and, by inference, condemned those who had; thus supplying comfort and moral support where needed. Naturally, the notion bore fruit. For this reason.

Most children and all nations, when they have hurt themselves, instinctively run indoors and ask to be told a pretty tale. So it was with us, and so to us, too, a tale was told. (You may remember we were all a little fatigued at the time.) The special virtue of our tale was that its moral bases were as inexpugnable as the most upright preceptress could desire. Here they are:—

All pain—whether it come from hitting one’s head against a table or from improvising a four years’ war at four days’ notice—is evil. All evil is wicked. And since, of all evils, war gives the most pain to the most people, wickedest of all things is war. Wherefore, unless people wish to be thought wicked, they must so order the national life that never again shall war in any form be possible.

Granted the first premiss, the rest of the reasoning is unanswerable—on paper. But why the entire commination-service should have been addressed by ourselves to ourselves is a little obscure. For if ever there was a converted nation since the days of Saint Augustine, it was us.

A little later—in ’22 or ’23—on the heels, you might say, of Rachel mourning for her children—our electorate was enlarged by the enfranchisement of all Englishwomen over twenty-one.

This gave renewed impetus to our national ideal of an ever-rising standard of living and the removal of want, discomfort, and the accidents of life from the lives of all our people. To this end we built up, and are now building, gigantic organisations to control and handle every detail of those lives. But for reasons which I shall try to show we chose—we chose—not to provide that reasonable margin of external safety without which even the lowest standard of life cannot be maintained in this dangerously congested island.

The world outside England had other preoccupations. Like ourselves, it had dealt—had been compelled to deal—with an opponent whose national life and ideals were based on a cult—a religion, as it now appears—of war, which exacted that all his nationals should be trained at any cost to endure as well as to inflict punishment.

In this our opponent was excusable. He had won his place in civilisation by means of three well-planned wars waged within two generations. He had been checked somewhat in his fourth war, but soon after the close of it—in ’24 or ’25—seemed to be preparing for a fifth campaign.

In this, also, our opponent was excusable. His path was made easy for him. Stride for stride with his progress towards his avowed goal, we toiled,–as men toil after virtue, to cast away a half, and more than a half, of our defences in all three elements and to limit the sources of their supply and renewal. This we did explicitly that we might set the rest of the world a good example.

That the rest of the world—down to little uneasy neutrals who had seen what can happen to a neutral at a pinch—was openly or furtively trying to arm itself against whispered eventualities had nothing to do with our case. It was laid upon us to set the world an example, no matter at what risks. And we did.

For several years—more than ten, I believe—our responsible administrators dwelt, almost with complacency, on the magnitude of the risks we were running, and on our righteousness in running them, and through all those years our people were made to appear as if they loved to have it so.

But through all those irrecoverable years a large part of the world outside England had not been idle.

Today, State-controlled murder and torture, open and secret, within and outside the borders of a State; State-engineered famine, starvation and slavery as requisite; State-imposed godlessness, or State-prescribed paganism; are commonplaces of domestic administration throughout States whose aggregate area is between one-fifth and one-fourth of the total land-surface of the Eastern hemisphere. These modern developments have been accepted in England without noticeable protest even from quarters usually quick to protest.

Nevertheless, the past year or so has given birth to the idea that our example of State-defended defencelessness has not borne much fruit, and that we have walked far enough along the road which is paved with good intentions. It is now arranged that, in due time, we will take steps to remedy our more obvious deficiencies. So far, good; but if that time be not given to us—if the attack of the future is to be on the same swift ‘all-in’ lines as our opponents’ domestic administrations—it is possible that, before we are aware, our country may have joined those submerged races of history who passed their children through fire to Moloch in order to win credit with their Gods.

And yet, the genius of our race fights for us in the teeth of doctrine ! The abiding springs of the English spirit are not of yesterday or the day before. They draw from the immemorial continuity of the nation’s life under its own Sovereigns. They are fed by a human relationship more intimate and more far-reaching than any the world has ever known. They make part of a mystery as unpurchasable as it is incommunicable.

One has but to look back over the last century of our past to realise how that Royal relationship set itself—through Mother, Son, and Grandson—to consolidate and prepare for our future and to meet the hazards of our present. Three generations of our Ruling House have accepted whatever burden of responsibility, whatever merciless demand for effort, whatever of personal risk, the honour or the needs of their people laid upon them. Each generation in turn has bowed the neck to unbroken sacrifice, devotion, and patience.

These things are assuredly not exhibited for the sake of example only. But they have come, by cumulative weight of virtue and toil, to create, to stiffen, and to inspire, the whole taken-for-granted fabric of sane and silent discharge of duty—both in the island and throughout our Empire—on which our destiny depends.

That—behind and beyond all—is our strength and hope. It is in that hope that I ask you to drink to England and the English.