- Making War on War
This one-hundred-page volume of Bernard Shaw on War was published as part of the Hesperus Press “On” series, which also features literary luminaries speaking on a particular topic: Dickens on London, Ruskin on Genius and the Common Man, Hemingway on Paris, to name a few.
Artfully edited by J. P. Wearing, with an eloquent preface by eminent author and dramatist Philip Pullman, this volume joins several recent works on the same topic. What Shaw Really Wrote about the War (2006), edited by J. L. Wisenthal and Daniel O’Leary, offers a selection of Shaw’s prose war writings that provides insights not only into Shaw’s evolving thinking about this compelling topic but also into then-contemporary events that shaped the times during which Shaw lived and wrote. SHAW 28 (2008), which I edited, features articles that critique war as a pervasive theme in both Shaw’s dramatic art and his prose writings.
Wearing’s volume presents twenty-nine selections of Shaw’s “war writings,” both well known and obscure, that trace the development of Shaw’s views from early plays, such as Arms and the Man (1894), through one of his final letters to The Times, “Atomic Warfare” (1949). As the titles of these two works show, Shaw lived through the development of humanity’s war-mongering from saber charges to the nuclear bomb. Shaw’s writings in various genres demonstrate that while the means may change, the solution remains the same: humanity must make war on war. This motto becomes a familiar refrain in Shaw’s works, both editorial and dramatic.
While many of the passages in this slight book will be familiar to Shavians, the value of the work lies in collecting Shaw’s war writings from many genres [End Page 224] into one volume. Organized chronologically, the selections afford a sense of Shaw’s views on and reaction to his most abiding topic. From the perspective of fifty-five years of keen observation, Shaw’s message remains unflinchingly antiwar but not pacifistic; he reasons that war is wrong, but if it comes, one must lend all possible support to one’s country. The writings in this volume show that Shaw believed that while violence, horror, and aggression are the main attributes of war, the ever-present class struggle, as viewed through his socialist lens, remains one of the most prevalent and harmful elements in the waging of war—on any side of the many conflicts he observed over his long career. Wearing’s collected Shavian gems underscore his belief (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) that if the sons of those managing wars, or, better yet, the politicians and diplomats themselves, were sent to the front lines, conflicts would be of much shorter duration, if the battles were engaged in at all.
In his brief preface, Pullman comments insightfully on both Shaw’s war writings and the singular personality that made each comment so annoyingly apt. After noting that Shaw’s truth-telling always enraged some segment of the population, Pullman opines that “Shaw’s even-tempered good humour in the face of attacks like this was, of course, one of the things that people found most infuriating, not to say inhuman, about him” (x).
Wearing develops these opinions further in his introduction, providing the critiques of Shaw’s contemporaries who knew his views best, such as G. K. Chesterton: “Shaw objects not so much to war as to the attractiveness of war” (xii). This writer also points out that Shaw the Irishman genuinely felt that the Irish should enlist alongside the English, their perennial adversary, in the cause of peace. Wearing also aids his reader by providing brief but cogent introductions to each selection in his volume, but he does not state directly why he chose these works for inclusion and not others—Caesar’s “anti-heroic” speeches in Caesar and Cleopatra would have added another Shavian perspective. Nevertheless, Wearing does not dodge the awkward and troubling aspects of Shaw’s war writings, especially his admiration for dictators, which Shaw eventually...