Kipling the pacifist?

Poems often take on new lives and different identities once they get away from the poet, but Rudyard Kipling might have been rather interested, and maybe even amused, by the annexation of his work by pacifists. Here is an article from the Camden New Journal last week:


Where to start? Well, to begin with, this is not the first stanza of anything. It is the entirety of one of Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War.

More importantly, it did not take the outbreak of war in August 1914 to convince Kipling that war was very terrible. Here’s an extract from one of his pre-war speeches:

It is almost as impossible to make a people who have never known invasion realize what invasion is as it is to make a man realize the fact of his own death. The nearest a man can come in imagination to his own death is the idea of lying in a coffin with his eyes shut listening to the pleasant things he thinks his neighbours are saying about him; and the nearest that a people who have never known conquest or invasion can come to the idea of conquest or invasion is a hazy notion of going about their usual work and paying their taxes to tax collectors who will perhaps talk with a slightly foreign accent. Even attempted invasion does not mean that; it means riot and arson and disorder and bloodshed and starvation on a scale that a man can scarcely imagine to himself.

That speech was urging Britain to avoid war by being prepared for it. Kipling was a strong proponent of building up the armed forces as a deterrent.
And who is the ‘dead statesman’ of the Epitaphs (first published 1919)? The likeliest candidate (though he wasn’t yet dead) is Lloyd George, who as chancellor had wanted to spend on old-age pensions rather than Dreadnoughts. Lying ‘to please the mob’ meant arguing that military spending was unnecessary. Kipling was, and remained, the opposite of a pacifist.
Was Kipling right in thinking that a better-armed and better-prepared Britain would have been enough to deter the Kaiser from gambling on war in 1914? Goodness knows. But that’s what he thought. In ‘Common Form’, the most celebrated of the Epitaphs, he wrote:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Once again, the ‘lie’ is the denial, for reasons of political expediency, of the need to face facts about German military ambitions.
A.L Kennedy is conflating Kipling’s use of ‘lie’ with that of Wilfred Owen’s

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

What mildly annoys me about Ms Kennedy’s appropriation of Kipling to her cause is that she seems quite incurious about what Kipling might have meant. She knows what she means. She is utterly certain about that. And when she finds something that seems to fit into her way of thinking, she grabs it, without any curiosity about what else it might mean. Can it be that she can’t actually imagine any rational way of thinking that is different from her own? I’ve found this sometimes with pacifists – that they take any revelation of war’s horror as a buttress for their case. Whereas in my years of looking at war literature I have generally found that the most interesting writing is by those who recognise war’s dreadfulness, and yet realise that sometimes wars have to be fought. facing up tothat paradox is what produces really penetrating war writing.
So Ms Kennedy is wrong. And yet…
Taking on new meanings is something that poems do. And in these duplicitous times any reminder of the importance of truth is welcome. And it’s always good to know that Kipling’s verse is getting an airing. I think he will survive his new friends.


  1. Posted August 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Interesting.. Can be read either way.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 13, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Switching to WWII – in her novel Day about a tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber, AL Kennedy refers to Bomber Harris. Except she doesn’t – she calls him Chopper Harris, which will amuse anyone who remembers the Chelsea team of the 1970s.

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