“Date 1965: Modern Warfare”

Review: “Date 1965: Modern Warfare”, William Hope Hodgson, 1908.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

This is a speculative essay, a form that Brian Stableford says in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 thrived between the world wars in Britain. However, it existed before World War One going back to at least H. G. Wells’ “The Extinction of Man” from 1894. (Hodgson was an acquaintance of Wells.)

This is a strange piece from 1908. I’ve seen it called Swiftian, presumably because it involves cannibalism like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

It’s interesting for its commentary on modern war given Hodgson’s obvious patriotism in volunteering for the British Army in 1914, rejoining it after he was discharged for medical reasons, and his death in the war.

The story is framed as a Member of Parliament, John Russell, delivering a speech on the “new war machine”. The story is prescient about “gigantic butcheries which follow in the wake of certain ‘talkee-talkees’”. War, the fictitious Russell says, is no longer a glorious and patriotic pursuit but a “profession of human butcher”.

This is seen as a good development because it is “the best means of developing all that is highest and most heroic in man”. This seems to be evidence that the notion war was needed to prevent social degeneration was prevalent before the war. Modern man is becoming “soft of fibre and heart”. It will get used to horrible war just as it got used to the speed of modern transportation. War, Russell says, should be a matter of intellectual sanity and not “unreasoning, foolish slaughter”.

Had Hodgson been reading Ivan Bloch’s Is War Now Impossible? from 1899? It was one of the few books before the Great War that predicted it would be a new, more bloody form of war.

Russell says a “World-Nation” is the solution to the problem of war. (More shades of Wells?)

Then we get to the crux of the satire.

As an economizing matter, expensive uniforms should be replaced by cheaper butcher coveralls. Human bodies should be used as food. Then Hodgson proposes a notion a bit like Star Trek’s “A Taste of Armageddon”: that war should be statistically modelled and the outcome decided by international committees, “statistics of various ‘kills’ in former butcheries” used. The committee determines how many on each side would be butchered and individuals are chosen to die by lot. This method is

well calculated to improve their nerve, hardihood, manhood, stoicism, fortitude, and many other good qualities.

Those to be butchered would be penned. The meat from the human bodies would be sold.

The penultimate paragraph says, “If a man must be killed, at least let him be treated no more barbarously than a bullock”. One wonders, in the fields of Flanders, if Lieutenant Hodgson ever ruefully thought back on this essay.

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