A War to End All War

This year marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. While the so-called Great War quickly proved to be anything but the war that would prevent all future conflicts, the concept is still intriguing: Can a war put an end to war?

As one of the fathers of science fiction, British writer H.G. Wells (1866–1946) was considered a prophet by his contemporaries. Known mostly for his novels The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, Wells predicted vast technological advances for the 20th century. But he also infused his dramatic and compelling stories with critique and commentary on the human condition and the failure of political systems to solve the problems of an emerging modern world.

Wells was a prolific writer not only of fiction but also of nonfiction and essays. He often wrote about the evils of war, advocating primarily pacifist views—that is, until the First World War descended on Europe. He believed strongly that the German military buildup, which had been occurring since the nation’s 1871 unification, was driven by a corrupt industrial and political system that needed to be eradicated. As a result, he concluded that there could be a just war and that the only way to end the current “great” war was to fight it completely and totally.

So long as the unstable peace endured, . . . it was still possible to argue that to be prepared for war was the way to keep the peace. But now everyone knows better.”

H.G. Wells, The War That Will End War

Prescient as he was, did Wells hit on something? Can a war bring about the eradication of war?

A War for Peace

In 1914, near the start of World War I, Wells began to write a series of essays and then published them as a short book titled The War That Will End War. He advocated a full disarmament of the German Empire as the only solution to completely stave off further war in Europe. That, of course, could only be done through a political and military alignment of other nations with the resources to take on an ever-more-powerful German military machine. Britain and France stood to lose the most if they failed to halt Germany’s advance. The United States was less immediately threatened, but it was easy for them to see that a Europe controlled and dominated by Germany posed a great threat. In his treatise, Wells called on these allies to bring to bear every resource available to end the German Empire.

In light of his pacifist views, it is surprising that Wells himself was Pollyannaish enough to believe that the Great War could end all wars forever. Yet he wrote: “This is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!”

He was even further idealistic in his views that weapons themselves could somehow be eradicated: “In this smash-up of empires and diplomacy, this utter disaster of international politics, certain things which would have seemed ridiculously Utopian a few weeks ago have suddenly become reasonable and practicable. One of these . . . is the absolute abolition throughout the world of the manufacture of weapons for private gain. Whatever may be said of the practicability of national disarmament, there can be no dispute not merely of the possibility but of the supreme necessity of ending for ever the days of private profit in the instruments of death. That is the real enemy. That is the evil thing at the very centre of this trouble.”

The dream of disarmament spans human history. It brings to mind an often-cited prophecy from the Bible about a day when people and nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). But can that day be brought about by war or enforced by a government made up of fallible humans? Are the weapons themselves at the center of the trouble, as Wells asserted? Or are they just a symptom of the real problem?

Empty Slogan

Today the First World War is regarded as the first “total war,” in which each side engaged all its resources—military, industrial and human—on a scale never before thought possible. An estimated 10 million soldiers were killed as modern weapons and technologies overwhelmed outdated battle strategies. The media of the time captured the brutal horrors of the trenches in reports, news stories, photographs and even film in a way people had never before seen or experienced.

It is characteristic of such times as this—that much in the world, and, more particularly, much in the minds of men, much that has seemed as invincible as the mountains and as deeply rooted as the sea, magically loses its solidity, fades, changes, vanishes.”

H.G. Wells, The War That Will End War

As the war progressed, therefore, and Wells’s book gained popularity, its title became a rallying cry for the citizens of Britain and her allies to dedicate all to the defeat of Germany and the Central Powers. The phrase gained traction and became ever more popular, morphing into a utopian slogan. Before long many were calling World War I “the war to end all wars.” But the bullish sentiment would soon wane. Even before the armistice, David Lloyd George, British prime minister during the latter part of World War I, reputedly remarked, “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.”

Even so, Wells has been praised as a kind of clairvoyant because in his writings he had foreseen robotics, air travel, aerial bombings, tanks, chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. He had even predicted that world war would envelop the globe and had anticipated the threat of a world-ruling dictator.

In The War That Will End War he had further argued that a league of nations would bring about a one-world government; the militaries of the powerful nations would collaborate to keep perpetual peace as they patrolled the seas and the globe. We can forgive the fact that this prophecy failed, because many others advocated similar solutions. Among them was US president Woodrow Wilson, who helped put together the League of Nations immediately following the First World War. The world had never faced such a calamity as global war before, so there had never been a need to try something like this. However naïve the notion was, therefore, it was a logical and powerful idea to consider—and the best that humanity had to offer. Before 1914 no one had imagined that the entire globe could be engulfed in war. With such a huge disaster under way, many tried to find optimism that, in the insanity of it all, humanity would come to its senses and see the utter brutality of war and the futility of thinking it could resolve conflicts between nations and peoples.

Cooperation between nations is needed in any attempt to end war, of course, but as the record shows, not only the League of Nations but later the United Nations failed to prevent further conflict in the 20th century.

The so-called peace movement in our world has consumed money enough and service enough to be something better than a weak little grumble at the existence of war.”

H.G. Wells, The War That Will End War

The reality is that even though World War I brought devastation and slaughter like nothing before seen, the lesson was short-lived. The events that followed the Great War all too quickly confirmed that declarations of an end to bloodshed were overoptimistic. After the Paris Peace Conference, which settled the war, British field marshal Archibald Wavell is said to have dismissed the solutions drafted there by saying, “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.’” Tensions in Europe began to rise again, and it became clear that another world war loomed: perceived injustices on the part of the victors led the defeated to regroup and retaliate. Ironically, from then on Wells’s phrase was used mostly in cynical argument against the idea that humanity could ever “end all wars.”

Even Wells himself revived the phrase in this negative way in his later novel The Bulpington of Blup, written against the backdrop of a Europe once again facing conflict, and with the clouds of the Second World War beginning to gather on the horizon. He wrote: “The War to end War—that’s the magic phrase that has befuddled Father. He thinks that when we’ve smashed that fleet of theirs and massacred their infantry and taken those Krupp guns and all that, Lloyd George and King George and the Tzar and the French and the bankers and munition-makers are going to sit down together in a friendly conference, pool their flags and crowns, finish all that the eighteenth century left undone, and inaugurate the Millennium” (an allusion to the thousand-year-long time of peace prophesied in the Bible to begin at the return of Jesus Christ).

Wells then drew an analogy to show the irony of using war to end war. The same character went on to say: “You won’t abolish cannibalism by eating cannibals. You’ll never end war by war because it’s the best war-maker [who] wins.”

The Cause of War

While the main argument in The War That Will End War proved to be futile, Wells did make some very astute observations that hinted at the real cause of war. “This is already the vastest war in history,” he wrote. “It is war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world madness and end an age.”

H.G. Wells on the War of the Mind

All the realities of this war are things of the mind. This is a conflict of cultures, and nothing else in the world. All the world-wide pain and weariness, fear and anxieties, the bloodshed and destruction, the innumerable torn bodies of men and horses, the stench of putrefaction, the misery of hundreds of millions of human beings, the waste of mankind, are but the material consequences of a false philosophy and foolish thinking. We fight not to destroy a nation, but a nest of evil ideas. . . .

How are we to gather together the wills and understanding of men for the tremendous necessities and opportunities of this time? Thought, speech, persuasion, an incessant appeal for clear intentions, clear statements for the dispelling of suspicion and the abandonment of secrecy and trickery; there is work for every man who writes or talks and has the slightest influence upon another creature. This monstrous conflict in Europe, the slaughtering, the famine, the confusion, the panic and hatred and lying pride, it is all of it real only in the darkness of the mind. At the coming of understanding it will vanish as dreams vanish at awakening. But never will it vanish until understanding has come.”

H.G. Wells, “The War of the Mind,” in The War That Will End War

He rightly understood that what ultimately needed to be changed was the way people think—that certain ideas and beliefs had to be destroyed, and that our human character had to be changed before there would be an end to further war: “The character of the new age that must come out of the catastrophes of this epoch will be no mechanical consequence of inanimate forces. Will and ideas will take a larger part in this swirl-ahead than they have even taken in any previous collapse. No doubt the mass of mankind will still pour along the channels of chance, but the desire for a new world of a definite character will be a force, and if it is multitudinously unanimous enough, it may even be a guiding force, in shaping the new time.”

A new character and way of thinking in men and women everywhere must be established if war is really ever to be ended. Is that possible? Wells thought that World War I might just be the thing to do it—that humanity would see the carnage and say, “Enough is enough”—that the madness of certain ideas could be seen and eradicated.

Our business is to kill ideas,” he wrote. “The ultimate purpose of this war is propaganda, the destruction of certain beliefs, and the creation of others. It is to this propaganda that reasonable men must address themselves.”

He also realized that there was a kind of evil that needed to be removed: “Now at last we shake ourselves free and turn upon this boasting wickedness to rid the world of it. The whole world is tired of it. And ‘Gott!’—Gott so perpetually invoked—Gott indeed must be very tired of it.” He rightly saw that Gott (German for “God”) was tired of being invoked in human wars.

War’s End

Human conflict can never end war. The record suggests that no matter how atrocious war becomes, humanity will never say, “Enough is enough.” Even the obscenity of World Wars I and II, with the ultimate horror of nuclear bombs, did not convince humankind to put away war. As Wells came to see, it will require a complete change of human nature and a defeat of all ideas that lead to violence and war.

The first part of that most famous prophecy in Isaiah 2 hints at what will be required. Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, rejected for humanity the only true source of peace. When the first humans decided they wanted to choose right from wrong without instruction from and submission to God, they took civilization down the road to inevitable, continual war. In Isaiah’s prophecy we see that before the swords are turned into plowshares, God will judge the nations and rebuke many people. He will return to end humanity’s rebellion against His authority and rule.

The book of Revelation talks about this judging and rebuking of the nations, and about a time when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). It will be the result of a godly war that truly will end all wars: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. . . . He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, >followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:11–15).

The conqueror on the white horse is a righteous leader and the only one qualified to fight a war to end all wars. This coming warrior and king is Jesus Christ, who came to the earth the first time to prepare for this role by sacrificing himself completely and living in perfect love toward all people.

While He was here on earth, Jesus taught His followers to do good to their enemies rather than returning evil for evil: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45).

This idea is rarely understood and difficult to practice. But it lies at the very core of the teachings of the Bible and is one Jesus lived by during His time on earth as a human being. He went to His death for even His enemies in order to set an example of sacrifice and service. It is a principle that seems impractical and impossible to adhere to in today’s world. But those who live by it foreshadow a new world that will be dominated by new ideas and a new character—the very character and nature of sons of God. It is an idea that will be introduced by the coming war to end all war, as revealed to the apostle John in the book of Revelation.