As I Please

in Tribune

31 December 1943

George Orwell

READING the discussions of ‘war guilt’ which reverberate in the correspondence columns of the newspapers, I note the surprise with which many people seem to discover that war is not crime. Hitler, it appears, has not done anything actionable. He has not raped anybody, nor carried off any pieces of loot with his own hands, nor personally flogged any prisoners, buried any wounded men alive, thrown any babies into the air and spitted them on his bayonet, dipped any nuns in petrol and touched them off with church tapers—in fact he has not done any of the things which enemy nationals are usually credited with doing in war-time. He has merely precipitated a world war which will perhaps have cost twenty million lives before it ends. And there is nothing illegal in that. How could there be, when legality implies authority and there is no authority with the power to transcend national frontiers?

At the recent trials in Kharkov some attempt was made to fix on Hitler, Himmler and the rest the responsibility for their subordinates’ crimes, but the mere fact that this had to be done shows that Hitler’s guilt is not self-evident. His crime, it is implied, was not to build up an army for the purpose of aggressive war, but to instruct that army to torture its prisoners. So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which has no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does. Nevertheless, a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony-bin made use of by some other planet.

.     .     .     .     .

AS the 53 bus carries me to and fro I never, at any rate when it is light enough to see, pass the little church of St John, just across the road from Lord’s, without a pang. It is a Regency church, one of the very few of the period, and when you pass that way it is well worth going inside to have a look at its friendly interior and read the resounding epitaphs of the East India Nabobs who lie buried there. But its façade, one of the most charming in London, has been utterly ruined by a hideous war memorial which stands in front of it. That seems to be a fixed rule in London: whenever you do by some chance have a decent vista, block it up with the ugliest statue you can find. And, unfortunately, we have never been sufficiently short of bronze for these things to be melted down.

If you climb to the top of the hill in Greenwich Park, you can have the mild thrill of standing exactly on longitude 0°, and you can also examine the ugliest building in the world, Greenwich Observatory. Then look down the hill towards the Thames. Spread out below you are Wren’s masterpiece, Greenwich Hospital (now the Naval College) and another exquisite classical building known as the Queen’s House. The architects responsible for that shapeless sprawling muddle at the top of the hill had those other two buildings under their eyes while every brick was laid.

As Mr. Osbert Sitwell remarked at the time of the ‘Baedeker raids’—how simple-minded of the Germans to imagine that we British could be cowed by the destruction of our ancient monuments! As though any havoc of the German bombs could possibly equal the things we have done ourselves!

.     .     .     .     .

I SEE that Mr Bernard Shaw, among others, wants to rewrite the second verse of the National Anthem. Mr Shaw’s version retains references to God and the King, but is vaguely internationalist in sentiment. This seems to me ridiculous. Not to have a national anthem would be logical. But if you do have one, its function must necessarily be to point out that we are Good and our enemies are Bad. Besides, Mr Shaw wants to cut out the only worth-while lines the anthem contains. All the brass instruments and big drums in the world cannot turn ‘God Save the King’ into a good tune, but on the very rare occasions when it is sung in full it does spring to life in the two lines:

Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks!

And, in fact, I had always imagined that the second verse is habitually left out because of a vague suspicion on the part of the Tories that these lines refer to themselves.

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ANOTHER ninepenny acquisition: Chronological Tablets, exhibiting every Remarkable Occurrence from the Creation of the World down to the Present Time. Printed by J. D. Dewick, Aldersgate Street, in the year 1801.

With some interest I looked up the date of the creation of the world, and found it was in 4004 B.C. and ‘is supposed to have taken place in the autumn’. Later in the book it is given more exactly as September 4004.

At the end there are a number of blank sheets in which the reader can carry on the chronicles for himself. Whoever possessed this book did not carry it very far, but one of the last entries is: ‘Tuesday 4 May. Peace proclaimed here. General Illumination.’ That was the Peace of Amiens. This might warn us not to be too previous with our own illuminations when the armistice comes

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