Chapter 31 - The Moral Element in Total War

Posted in The Forgotten People

The obvious aspects of a war effort are material. We must raise and equip armed forces, mine coal and ore, manufacture iron and steel, make munitions, supply and maintain transport, produce and distribute foodstuffs, build ships, in brief, do a thousand and one things which involve man power and material power and money power.

During the last three years we have in Australia done an immense work on all those matters with inevitably increasing momentum. And the doing of them has had many incidental consequences. There is more money in circulation. There is tremendous taxation but, at the same time, a good deal of new material prosperity.

In order partially to counteract these things we have had some necessary rationing of certain essential, though we have permitted ourselves a good deal of extravagance on non-essentials.

(Incidentally, these material factors have aggravated, if they have not actually created, such problems as those of the abuse of liquor, because relatively easy money in many hands is not always wisely or soberly spent.)

But I am referring to these material factors not to disparage or underestimate their importance, but to try to put them in their proper proportion.

A total war effort requires not only that the body shall fight or work, but also that the mind and spirit shall fight and work. Our factory production may have reached enormous heights, but he would be indeed a comfortable man who did not find all about him far too much inequality of sacrifice, indifference, slackness, unawareness of danger or of urgency, and rampant selfishness.

Whatever efforts of any Government or group of industrial leaders, there can be no complete national organisation of men and materials and financial resources unless there is ever present and ever active a vital moral element in the community which produces an utter willingness to share in sacrifice and effort. This fundamental moral problem is not one about which any of us need be unduly pious or self-righteous. A fair and square consideration of it calls us to a ruthless self-examination. It demands that there should be uncommonly frank answers to uncommonly blunt questions.

It is no part of my function or yours to give credit to all the rumours or complaints which come constantly to our ears, but if a fraction of them is true, there is need for some pretty plain interrogations. Let me put a few to you.

Are there any or many cases of employers on cost-plus-profit defence contracts who are willing to build up overtime and costs in order to increase the profit? Are there any or many cases of employees going slowly on ordinary work in order to build up more overtime at loaded rates of pay? Are there any or many who are doing well out of the war and not saving for the future, but leaving it to the Government to attend to their troubles when the war is over? Are there thousands whose motto is, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow somebody else will die". Are there thousands of us who have no conception of discipline as self-discipline, but who respond only to some authority from outside ourselves?

The problem around which such questions as these centre is really desperately important, but there can be no passionate patriotism or willing self-sacrifice in war unless we know in our hearts that we are fighting for good things against evil things, and there can be no better world order except on a moral basis. The brain of man may devise wonders and the hand of man execute them, but they will all fall into evil and harmful uses unless the heart of man - the guide of conduct - is sound and true. This is true whatever systems we may choose for the accomplishment of our ends.

Capitalism cannot rebuild the world aright except on a basis of humane and enlightened responsibility to the community. Socialism, if it merely means provision of bread and circuses for all by a supposedly inexhaustible State, must fail calamitously. The real essence of a true socialist movement must be a quite revolutionary spiritual sense of the overwhelming obligation of man to his neighbour.

True, the Russian communist revolution was avowedly based upon the purely materialist conceptions of Karl Marx; but if there is one thing which stands out in the recent history of Russia, it is that the Russian people have developed on top of the Marxian doctrines a burning spirit of faith and determination as far removed from materialism as the earth is from the sun.

Indeed, as you look around the world in this war you cannot fail to be struck by the fact that the successes have so far gone to the nations which have a faith, even though a false one. We may and do violently disagree with the object of the beliefs of Germans of Japanese, but it would be a foolish observer who did not concede that the resurgence of Germany as a terrific military power is largely to be attributed to Hitler's youth movement, and to the burning belief that it acquired and preached in its leader, its nation and its destiny.

The question we need to put to ourselves most frequently in these days is , "What do we believe in?" If our clever and cynical attitude is to be that we believe in nothing, then that is what we are likely to be left with at the finish. If our answer is to be that we believe in pounds, shillings and pence, bricks and mortar and nothing else, I am at a loss to understand why we should really claim to be entitled, almost as of right, to victory. It is only a faith in something that goes beyond these purely physical matters which can really inspire a nation to honest self-sacrifice and carry its armies to that ultimate victory which we believe truth must always have over falsehood.

In most things in this war we must press on, we must go forward, we must neither look back nor go back. But in one thing I believe that we must go back. We must, before this struggle even begins to end, go back to the simple virtues and to the simple ways of life.

If war to us is an interruption, unavoidable but irritating, something cut out of our normal living and not something dynamic put into it, then our attitude towards its problems will inevitably be to give as little as possible and to get as much. We shall be unmoved by the spectacle of unlimited sacrifice on the field of battle and bigger and better bonuses and rewards on the home front. We shall continue to save for the Government's tremendous financial problem at a rate which is, in plain terms, a national disgrace. That a whole year of unexampled employment and wages in a country itself untouched by war should produce a beggarly £9,000,000 worth of war savings certificates is bitter evidence of a wrong moral approach to the war.

If this war were to us not an irritating interruption but the supreme challenge; the most crowded, moving and stimulating period through which we shall have lived; a period when we are the responsible trustees for the future happiness and just living of all people, things would be changed in a flash. No longer would the question be, "How much can I get?" or "How little can I do?" but, "What can I give?" or, in the immortal words, "'What can I do to be saved?'"

That most Australians understand this, I cannot doubt. But that too many of us are blind to it is a melancholy proof that the moral element in total war has yet to assume its full significance in our national effort.

21 August, 1942