What is James Boswell's essay "On War"  about?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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James Boswell's essay "On War" is, as the author himself makes clear, a meditation on "the horrid irrationality of war." Boswell takes aim at people who seriously argue for the benefits of war, particularly those who claim that war is a chance for individuals to attain glory or demonstrate their bravery. He claims that if people had not become so accustomed to war as a fact of life, that they would recognize how ridiculous it is:

I have often thought that if war should cease over all the face of the earth, for a thousand years, its reality would not be believed at such a distance of time, notwithstanding the faith of authentic records in every nation.

Boswell rejects the notion that any good at all comes from war that could "compensate its direful effects." But war, he claims, is followed by no benefits, particularly not to the people who actually have to fight in them:

The power, the glory, or the wealth of a few may be enlarged. But the people in general, on both sides, after all the sufferings are passed, pursue their ordinary occupations, with no difference at all from their former state.

"On War" is, then, a pacifist essay, one which outlines the irrationality and the horrors of war. Boswell has little explanation for why people persist in fighting wars, and does not hold out much hope that war will be eradicated from human life in the future. In fact, the advance of modernity has made war worse. What once was a face-to-face contest is now a clash of two opposing "machines," which, to him, is far more irrational than it used to be.