The Passing Show

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/March 13, 1904

IT is not desirable that our Japanophile sympathies blind us to the fact that “the little brown men” are somewhat addicted to the practice of playing the game of war “pretty low down.” They were under no obligation to “declare war” before beginning it; modern nations do rot run to chivalry in these matters and declarations of war are not for belligerents but for neutrals, apprising them of a state of things already existing. Nor is it altogether clear that their use of Russian signals to entrap Russian ships is illegitimate; the worst one can say of it is that it is customary—and that is bad enough to say of almost anything. But in that Chemulpo affair Russia is altogether right in her protestation that it was a distinct violation of what we are pleased to call “the law of nations,” that is to say, the few decent “rules of the game”—which the greater powers have found it expedient to observe when playing against one another. The Japanese Admiral of a powerful fleet outside a neutral port, where nobody knew that war was on, sent in a demand for surrender of two feeble Russian vessels inside, threatening to attack in the harbor if they refused—a harbor crowded with friendly ships! Like a gentleman commanding gentlemen, the Russian captain, rather than imperil all these neutral ships and lives, steamed gallantly out to a hopeless fight to destruction. That was the finest thing that we know to have been done in this war, so far. The next finest was the cheering by which the crews of the neutrals signified their sympathy and admiration, as he passed them with his doomed vessels, flags flying and bands playing. In occasional incidents like that lies much of whatever value war may have. They fire the imagination; they warm the heart; they illuminate life and character with something of the light that fell upon the paths of the Israelites following their pillar of fire. Without war we should have only “the humble heroism of everyday life”—and who really cares for that? We try to care for it, it touches those who happen to witness it; but it is a wine that needs a bush. The heroisms of war carry their own glory, utter their own mandate, dominate us with an imperious authority and make us better men and women. Thank you, Admiral Uriu, for your cowardly breach of international law.

THIS Japanese sailor man, by the way, was educated in his profession at our Annapolis academy. One wonders if it was there that he learned his battle manners. If not, it is to be regretted that international etiquette does not permit the present head of that institution civilly to remind him that he has disgraced his alma mater. It would be well, too (and that is practicable), for the Secretary of the Navy to have a word with the commander of our one warship in the harbor of Chemulpo at the time. That gentleman refused to join with the other commanders of neutral vessels in protesting against the Japanese Admiral’s infraction of law and custom. Possibly he feared to involve us in a controversy with Japan; but fear, I take it, is not what is required of the commander of an American warship—certainly not the fear to do right. I should think with conspicuous advantage to the service this person might come home and till the soil. Barring his aggressive inaction, the Chemulpo affair lacks but little of artistic and moral perfection. Both the belligerent commanders should have met death; the Russian because he merited it, the Japanese because he deserved it.

“THE educational system of this, the greatest State in the Union,” says Professor William Kent of Syracuse University, “is in a condition of chaos. The school system of thirty years ago was better than that of the present day.” That is true, in greater or less degree, of all the older States. Their school systems are worse than those of the newer. The standard of efficiency for both teachers and students is lower; their courses of study are less sane and wholesome. The reason is not far to seek. The older any human institution is the farther it has drifted away from its original purpose and intent, to serve purposes and intents of other kinds, ambitions of a meaner sort. The school systems of the newer States had the incomparable advantage of a definite design. They did not grow up; they were planned. They could start, and in a general sense, did start, unhampered and unburdened with traditions, social, religious, political and other, imposed by conditions that no longer obtain anywhere. Their founders had the whole world from which to choose the best, and as a rule they chose it. Moreover, that headless horseman, the unspeakable “faddist,” has not had time enough allowed him to stable his hobbies in the Western schools, at least, not many of them. Later he will enter, astride his mount, and caracole as bravely there- as here, but at present he is witching the world with noble footmanship outside. After a while, too, the standard of Western universities and colleges will have been so lowered that a graduate of an Eastern high school will have what he has not now—a chance of admittance to some of the least exacting. So matters are not so bad as they look; our educational systems are shooting Niagara, but hope on joyous pinions flies before, and, looking backward, points out the junior systems following after.

TWO highly interesting bits of news have come sputtering along the cables from the Far East. First, it is rumored that the American squadron is going to make a demonstration (of our President’s pugnacity, probably) at the mouth of the Yalu. Second, that General Slammakoff is moving his troops toward Pin Chee. It is difficult to estimate accurately the relative importance of these tidings from the seat of war; probably one is as important as the other, or even more so; but both are indubitably beaten out of the field of public attention by the statement that Manchuria was invaded last Tuesday by the Japanese army, which a week before was at Seoul, three hundred miles away, beyond a mountainous country with no roads.

A CERTAIN man of uncertain mind

   Sat conning a war-map o’er

“I’m looking, ah, looking, in vain to find,

   On this Orient sea or the shore,

   A spot called ‘the Open Door.’

“They say it is somewhere here or here”—

   And his forefinger voyaged free,

With his ever-vigilant eye to steer,

   Down the coast of that Orient sea

   To the southern point of Coree.

“Why seek you the Open Door, good man?

   What have you so to win?”

“I’m told there’s fighting inside—my plan

   Is, by hook or crook or the skin

   Of my teeth, to butt right in!”

“Why, yes, Mr. President, there’s a war,

   And the fight is free, no doubt;

But that is not what you are hired for,

   And it’s easier thereabout

   To get in than it is to get out.”

But that finger continues to explore,

   Despite our prayer or scoff,

That Orient sea for the Open Door.

   I hope it won’t Slammakoff

   And Pin Chee the darned thing off.

THE members of the Royal United Service Institution of London town are loud in their wail because they have been fooled with a silver statuette of Nelson, purchased at a price of magnitude and cherished with pride. They thought, poor souls, it was made in the lifetime of the “great Admiral,” and had once belonged to a King, whereas it turns out to be the work of an obscure art student, and is only two years old. It is not denied that it looks a good deal as Nelson might have looked if he had been silver and little and not authentic, but that is not enough by much. A work of art which is not so old as it looks, which purports to have been owned by a King, even such a King as George III, and was not owned by a King, is unworthy of the fine Italian eye of the connoisseur. That is why the United Service Institution is now audible. The statuette is doubtless worth something, even if it has to go to the melting pot to augment the volume of the country’s coinage, but a larger proportion of the investment may be saved. Let it be presented to King Edward, with the understanding that he give it back when it shall have become sufficiently sanctified by infection and absorption of the royal aura. Then sell it to an American.

REPRESENTATIVE BURTON of Ohio is a patriot, a Republican and an excellent man. That he is not a logician is obvious; he knows it himself. Mr. Burton, living on land, is opposed to maintenance of a powerful navy. He says we do not need a great navy unless there is, or is to be, a combination of all the European powers against us, which is unlikely. Well, now, here, Mr. Burton: suppose there were a combination of only two of them, having a great navy each. Why would we not then need a great navy ourselves? Upon what could we rely to prevent them from capturing or destroying the navy that we have? Rhetoric is fairly effective where conditions favor, but European battleships are mostly steel-clad and have no ears. They do not surrender to the men behind the tongues.

THE United States Supreme Court, having decided that a railway company is not liable for injuries to a passenger traveling on a free pass if he has accepted it with that understanding, it might not be an unprofitable notion to load up a train now and then with free-passers and smash them. The cost of the train would be considerable, but in the long run it might be certain that any number of deaths would be deterrent; the passion for dead-heading may be stronger than love of life; it certainly is stronger than self-respect. Perhaps the railway companies may be willing to do something of the kind, even at a loss, to promote the general good.

KING EDWARD of England, the seventh of the name, is said to be ambitious of distinction. He thinks it can possibly be won by dispelling that ancient evil, the London smog, a mechanical mixture of smoke and fog. The latest smog is estimated to have cost London two hundred thousand pound sterling, much of which went for gas and electric light, much for extra wages to signalmen on the railways, some to surgeons, and so forth. Possibly the gas companies, the electric light concerns, the signalmen, the surgeons and other purveyors of comfort and safety would estimate the loss at a smaller sum. Still, if King Edward can chase the smog out of his brumous environment he may reasonably hope that these humble subjects will remember to curse him as long as he lives.

A FEW weeks ago, in these columns, I signified my dissent from the generally accepted explanation of the oceanic tide-wave on the side of the earth opposite the moon. Among the considerable number of letters that have come to me concerning the matter is one from Mr. John R. Waters. It seems to me interesting enough to justify quotation of the passage stating the writer’s view of the matter: “The air surrounds the earth continuously and completely. If the moon pulls up the water on the side of the earth next to her, because water is fluid and easily obeys the pull, how much more fully and completely responsive to this pull must the air be. Does not the consequent atmospheric high tide next to the moon draw away much of the air from the farther side of the earth, and does not the water on that far side, being to this extent relieved of weight, therefore rise and exhibit a flood tide?”

That is admirably clear. Whether it is or is not a true explanation of the phenomenon in question, my small knowledge of the matter does not enable me to say. That the moon’s direct stress makes an atmospheric tide there can be no doubt, but I do not know if the thinner layer of air on the opposite side of the earth exerts a sufficiently less pressure to let the earth’s centrifugal “throw” affect the level of the water. That “throw,” I take it, is all that would make the water lift, even if there were no atmospheric pressure at all. But caeteris paribus, would the barometer show a difference in weight between the air on the side of the earth opposite the moon and the deeper air on the side toward her? Her pull on the former is downward toward the water; on the latter, upward away from the water. On the one side she assists the earth’s pull; on the other, resists it. Perhaps some reader of scientific attainments and compassionate heart, observing us poor infant laymen

crying for the light,

and with no language but a cry,

will have the goodness to beacon our darkness and still our inarticulate clamor.

ASSEMBLYMAN WALLACE, who introduced in the New York Legislature-the bill depriving street railway passengers of all redress for exaction of double fare, is said to be “serving his first term in the Legislature.” It would be easy to name the place where he ought to serve his second.

I BELIEVE Senator Warren of Wyoming has made the statement, certainly he has supplied the proof, that General Leonard Wood has no legal right to the medal of honor that his person adorns. Senator Warren is said to have arrived at this conclusion “by close study of the Acts of Congress.” There was a shorter route to the same conclusion: study of the acts of General Leonard Wood.

CONSUL SKINNER, who recently made a kind of royal progress to the capital of Abyssinia to receive an elephant’s tooth and a brace of young lions for President Roosevelt, and, incidentally, make a market for American goods, gives us an altogether fascinating picture of King Menelik’s army, “arrayed in gorgeous silks and satins, with lion and leopard skin mantles, carrying gold and silver-plated bucklers and lances from which floated the national colors, and mounted on spirited horses.” Now does not that blow the cooling coals of military ardor in every old soldier’s breast? Does it not make him glow with a patriot’s desire to fight Abyssinia, extend the area of American conquest and strip the slain? On to Abyssinia! Liberty or death!

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