When we behold the terrible loss of so many young lives, when we see so many incarnations of physical and moral vigour, of intellect and of glorious promise pitilessly cut off in their first flower, we are on the verge of despair. Never before have the fairest energies and aspirations of men been flung recklessly and incessantly into an abyss whence comes no sound or answer. Never since it came into existence has humanity squandered its treasure, its substance and its prospects so lavishly. For more than twelve months, on every battlefield, where the bravest, the truest, the most ardent and self-sacrificing are necessarily the first to die and where the less courageous, the less generous, the weak, the ailing, in a word the less desirable, alone possess some chance of escaping the carnage, for over twelve months a sort of monstrous inverse selection has been in operation, one which seems to be deliberately seeking the downfall of the human race. And we wonder uneasily what the state of the world will be after the great trial and what will be left of it and what will be the future of this stunted race, shorn of all the best and noblest part of it.
The problem is certainly one of the darkest that have ever vexed the minds of men. It contains a material truth before which we remain defenceless; and, if we accept it as it stands, we can discover no remedy for the evil that threatens us. But material and tangible truths are never anything but a more or less salient angle of greater and deeper-lying truths. And, on the other hand, mankind appears to be such a necessary and indestructible force of nature that it has always, hitherto, not only survived the most desperate ordeals, but succeeded in benefiting by them and emerging greater and stronger than before.
We know that peace is better than war; it were madness to compare the two. We know that, if this cataclysm let loose by an act of unutterable folly had not come upon the world, mankind would doubtless have reached ere long a zenith of wonderful achievement whose manifestations it is impossible to foreshadow. We know that, if a third or a fourth part of the fabulous sums expended on extermination and destruction had been devoted to works of peace, all the iniquities that poison the air we breathe would have been triumphantly redressed and that the social question, the one great question, that matter of life and death which justice demands that posterity should face, would have found its definite solution, once and for all, in a happiness which now perhaps even our sons and grandsons will not realize. We know that the disappearance of two or three million young existences, cut down when they were on the point of bearing fruit, will leave in history a void that will not be easily filled, even as we know that among those dead were mighty intellects, treasures of genius which will not come back again and which contained inventions and discoveries that will now perhaps be lost to us for centuries. We know that we shall never grasp the consequences of this thrusting back of progress and of this unprecedented devastation. But, granting all this, it is a good thing to recover our balance and stand upon our feet. There is no irreparable loss. Everything is transformed, nothing perishes and that which seems to be hurled into destruction is not destroyed at all. Our moral world, even as our physical world, is a vast but hermetically sealed sphere, whence naught can issue, whence naught can fall, to be dissolved in space. All that exists, all that comes into being upon this earth remains there and bears fruit; and the most appalling wastage is but material or spiritual riches flung away for an instant, to fall to the ground again in a new form. There is no escape or leakage, no filtering through cracks, no missing the mark, not even waste or neglect. All this heroism poured out on every side does not leave our planet; and the reason why the courage of our fighters seems so general and yet so extraordinary is that all the might of the dead has passed into the survivors. All those forces of wisdom, patience, honour and self-sacrifice which increase day by day and which we ourselves, who are far from the field of danger, feel rising within us without knowing whence they come are nothing but the souls of the heroes gathered and absorbed by our own souls.