Keywords: war; Clausewitz; Drew Faust; loving war; Chris Hedges, Robert E. Lee, Ken Burns
What a contrast! I’ve spent the day reading about war — first General Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, and then this evening Drew Gilpin Faust’s article, “We Should Grow Too Fond of It: Why We Love the Civil War.” The two writers are not at all alike, except that they both love war.
I should have read Clausewitz (see photo) many years ago but never got around to it. I had thought of it as a how-to-do-it manual for wannabe generals. Well, I guess it really was intended as such, but it doesn’t offer much practical advice. In fact, he states explicitly that you can’t give any hard and fast rules about how to proceed because war is full of surprises and chaos. Sometimes you should advance, sometimes retreat, and the only real advice consists of encouraging mental and emotional qualities that may pay off in the heat of battle. He admonishes the leader to “remember that the God of War may surprise him.” Be bold. Be a military genius if you can. Exercise resolve. Talent is mostly mental, so practice manoeuvres so as to become habituated to war — “less to accustom the body than the mind.”
And so on. I found his maxims were mostly platitudes. (Even his famous “War is a continuation of politics by other means” seems self-evident to me. Who ever supposed war was anything else?) What I did not find anywhere was the slightest criticism of warfare. Not only is war an inevitable fact of life, but it provides glorious opportunities for warriors to fulfill their personalities. Clausewitz reveals his values straightforwardly:
“Of all the noble feelings which fill the human heart in the exciting tumult of battle, none are so powerful and constant as the soul’s thirst for honor and renown. NO doubt in War the abuse of these proud aspirations must bring about shocking outrages, but their origin is certainly to be counted amongst the noblest feelings of human nature. Other feelings, such as love of country, fanaticism or revenge may rouse the great masses but they do not give the Leader a desire to will more than others. Is a Commander destitute of the love of honor even conceivable?”
As you may have guessed, I did not find that I’d missed anything valuable because of failing to read the general earlier in my career. He has nothing to offer peacemakers – and would be stupified at the idea that we make it our business to bring peace into the world.
It was a great relief and pleasure to turn, then, to the other writer on war today, Drew Gilpin Faust (see photo). I had come upon her name by chance, discovering with surprise that she is the new president of Harvard University. She’s a social liberal whose appointment was surely made as a statement of rebuke to the heavy-handed previous president, Lawrence Summers, famous for making apparently sexist and racist gaffes. Evidently her biography includes a youth marked by radical anti-war political activism.
Faust writes beautifully, powerfully evoking emotions — at least MY emotions — about her topic. She’s a historian of the American Civil War. Not only does she acknowledge loving that war, but she explains why others feel the same way about the Civil War, which has become far more popular over the years. The number of books published on the subject has doubled over time.
Initially, however, her article dealt not with the popularity of the war today, but rather with its appeal at the time. Her title comes from a comment made by Robert E. Lee as he watched the battle at Fredericksburg, that if war were not so terrible, “we should grow too fond of it.” He was not alone in this opinion; lots of other people, including the soldiers themselves, showed the same enthusiasm. For example, one review before the war began anticipated that it would bring “a sublime and awful beauty — a fearful and terrible loveliness — that atones in deeds of high enterprise and acts of heroic valor for the carnage, the desolation, the slaughter.”
People expected that it would cleanse the greed and corruption into which Americans had fallen. In 1861, the Richmond Enquirer editorialized that
“a season of war... calls out new ideas and kindles new and more elevated emotions and sentiments. It appeals to all that is noble in the soul... It revives the slumbering emotions of patriotism, with all their generous joys. It restores the general brotherhood. It destroys selfishness. It begets the spirit of self-sacrifice. It gives to sufferers a portion of that ecstasy which martyrs feel... [M]any virtues will glow and brighten in [war’s] path, like fragrant flowers in the wilderness.”
Oh my. It was unclear to me which way Professor Faust was heading with her own analysis. Obviously she had assembled a number of pages about the gushing enthusiasm of Americans for the Civil War — ironical pages that discredited those enthusiasts — but she had already acknowledged loving that war herself, so it seemed she would wind up ridiculing herself. But that was not the direction that her argument took.
She points out that the love of war has contemporary relevance. For example, Ken Burns’s famous documentary history of the Civil War came out just when President George H.W. Bush was entering war against Iraq.
“Operation Desert Storm, with its quick, seemingly easy, and, in US terms, almost bloodless victory, brought war back into fashion in America. The bitterness that had followed Vietnam and the rejection of war as an effective instrument of national policy had been challenged throughout the Reagan years. But the slow rehabilitation of war in the course of the 1980s culminated in 1991’s dramatic victory.”
We want to experience war vicariously, she said. She quoted Mark Grimsley that “Battles alter history. They decide things.” She quoted Ken Burns as describing himself as above all “a historian of emotions,” where emotion “is the great glue of history.” And, speaking to and for her professional colleagues, she admits:
“Despite our dispassionate, professional, analytic stance, we have not remained untouched by war’s elemental attractions and its emotional and sentimental fascinations. We count on these allures to build a sizeable audience for our books. In both the reality and irony of our fondness for war, we are not so unlike the Civil War generation we study.”
She is not ridiculing her professional colleagues; she is charging them with something more serious. She is preoccupied (as I have been ) with Chris Hedges’s description of his addiction to war, which he characterizes as “a force that gives us meaning.” She adds, “And humans crave meaning as much as life itself. ”
It is, as she points out, brave to acknowledge loving war. But the essential thing, as Hedges insists, is to challenge the myths about war, the glorification of it as a source of meaning. At first, it seems that she justifies her work as a historian on the argument that by exposing the irony of attraction and repulsion against war, historians undermine myth and question meaning and unexamined purposes. “In acknowledging its attraction we diminish its power. Perhaps we can free ourselves to construct a different sort of narrative about its meaning. But I am not sure.”
Indeed, she is not sure — and in the end she seems to reach the opposite conclusion. She says that telling
“[s]eductive tales of glory, honor, sacrifice provide one means of making war possible... We as writers create that story; we remember that story; we provide the narrative that by its very existence defines war’s purpose and meaning. We love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war’s stories we may be helping to construct war itself.”
Wow. It was brave just to acknowledge loving war. But it is far braver to take responsibility for a gravely immoral act: to participate, by practicing one’s scholarly profession, in creating the mythology that perpetuates war itself.
Brava, President Faust.