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Thomas Hardy Shows Us The Horror of War vs. The Beauty of Trade

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Thomas Hardy was a British poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hardy, along with the great liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer, was one of the few members of the British aristocracy to oppose the Boer War. In 1902, he penned The Man He Killed in critique of this aggressive war, and it would become one of the most known anti-war poems of the century. By recalling the thoughts of a young soldier after killing a member of the opposing forces, Hardy’s poem powerfully and lucidly reveals the contradictory natures of government wars and the free market.

These lines reveal the thoughts that fill the mind of the poem’s protagonist after the conflict. “I shot him dead because —/Because he was my foe/ Just so: my foe of course he was,” he says. Hardy makes the soldier’s doubt clear, as if this grisly moment has made him question his objective for the first time. He uses these lines to show how the soldiers themselves have no vested interest in the battles they fight. The protagonist is a soldier. His job was to follow orders, not ask questions. They had to be enemies, because, well, politicians in the Capitol had decreed them to be.

The preceding raises the question, why is the soldier there in the first place? Hardy shows us in the following lines, and in doing so connects the man and his victim. “He thought he'd 'list, perhaps/ Off-hand like — just as I/ —Was out of work — had sold his traps —/ No other reason why.” The catalyst for his enlistment was a need to pay bills and buy groceries. Unknown conditions, perhaps a government mandated minimum wage or difficult personal circumstances, meant that he was out of a job in the private sector. Presumably, the military recruiters told this down-trodden man fanciful tales of patriotism and heroism, but most importantly of a regular check. The protagonist realizes that the man he just had to kill would have likely related a similar story.

The soldiers commonalities at least appear larger than their differences. Normally when such people meet, they do so at the bar of “Some old ancient inn,” as Hardy puts it. There, they share drinks and exchange laughs. They tell their stories, give condolences and advice. Perhaps they even extend to each other a helping hand in the form of a loan, a reference, or otherwise. In short, they become friends.

Unfortunately, they did not meet at that ancient inn. They encountered each other as government soldiers on a battlefield, and that made all the difference. Instead of banter, bullets were exchanged. Screams took the place of laughter in the air. He had never met this man. They had no personal quarrel. In fact, they didn’t even know each other’s names, yet that muddy field and those drab uniforms meant they had to be mortal enemies.

Demonstrated in this story is the true nature of government’s war juxtaposed with the serenity, kinship, and prosperity of a market society based upon private property.

In wartime, unrestrained by the ethical boundaries of private property as described by legal theorists from Locke to Rothbard, politicians are free to use violence in attempts to mold the world as they wish, or, as one of America’s most decorated soldiers, Smedley Butler, described in his classic War is a Racket, to line the pockets of themselves and their friends. Their hatreds, prejudices, and interests are boundless, and, as Hardy shows in his poem, they prey on their country’s downtrodden youth to do their bloody work. 

Aggressive war on a mass scale is almost unfathomable without the state simply because it would make no sense to wage them in its absence. Wars are, firstly, massively expensive to conduct, and to conceive of a private entity which is both wealthy enough to fund one and desirous to do so is fanciful. Revenue from the expropriated region may be possible in a successful war. However, it would undoubtedly pale in comparison to expenditure, and more importantly, it would be absolutely dwarfed by the revenue possible through peaceful free trade with the same region. Only the state’s ability to coerce endless funds from its populace through taxation, credit expansion, and conscription makes aggressive war possible.

In a society free from the state’s meddling, strangers become friends and for good reason. Work under the division of labor is, without exception, more productive than rugged isolation. In a market society, individuals prosper because they have aided and enabled others to do the same. Of course these two soldiers would have been friends under these circumstances. Self interest within the bounds of private property propels social cohesion and friendliness for the betterment of all.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!/ You shoot a fellow down/ You'd treat if met where any bar is,/ Or help to half-a-crown.” These impactful closing lines should stand for more than an exposition on the nature of war, peace, and the state. They should stand as a call to action for all citizens of nation’s who have turned their eyes to aggressive foreign conquest. Wars serve the purposes of politicians and their special interests. These purposes are in direct opposition to the masses of people on both sides of the conflict who are simply trying to lead the best lives they can. A foreign policy of peace is the foreign policy of prosperity. Like Hardy’s soldier, the time has come for the peoples of the world to see those who politicians declare to be enemies as friends instead.


Nathan Keeble

Nathan Keeble is a Mises University Graduate and helped found the Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture in Tennessee.

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