Drew Gilpin Faust: Telling War Stories

Roundup: Talking About History

Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University and the author, most recently, of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf). A version of this essay was given as the 2011 Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.

Uniquely powerful dimensions of the Civil War have rendered it of outsize importance to historians. For Americans, it was and is a special war with special meanings. But an essential aspect of its interest and appeal—not just to those re-enactors but to all of us—is simply that it was war. As we have sought through the centuries to define ourselves as human beings and as nations through the prisms of history and literature, no small part of that effort has drawn us to the subject of war. We might even say that the humanities began with war and from war, and have remained entwined with it ever since. The first masterwork of Western literature, dating to approximately 750 B.C.E., was Homer’s epic of the war over Troy, a tale that exerts a wrenching power more than two millennia later. Western historiography was born somewhat later, but it too emerged as a chronicle of war in the hands of Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century B.C.E.

How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane, and humanity’s highest creative aspirations of literature and imagination have been all but inseparable from its most terrible invention—the scourge of war? Most other creatures engage in violence, and some insects and animals with elaborate social structures reflect those systems in their modes of association and aggression. But humans are unique in their creation of an institution of war that is designed to organize violence, define its purposes, declare its onset, ratify its conclusion, and establish its rules. War, like literature, is a distinctively human product.

Some might see the connection of war with human creativity as the inevitable outcome of the prevalence of war in human experience. If one considers any century in the last five thousand years, an average of ninety-four of those years would have witnessed a large-scale conflict in some area of the world. Our histories are so full of war, we might conclude, because our history is so full of war. But if we think of our own Civil War, its four-year duration—less than 2 percent of our national history—is certainly disproportionate to the volume of both literary and historical writing that it has generated. We do not write about wars just because, like Mount Everest, they are there.

Human beings are in fact powerfully attracted to war. The journalist Chris Hedges, in a recent book called War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, has described war as a “narcotic,” a “lethal addiction,” a drug that he himself ingested for his many years as a war correspondent. Throughout history, we can find representations of war’s powerful allure in the discourse that precedes and pervades almost every conflict. At the outbreak of the Crimean War, Tennyson enthusiastically anticipated the “sudden making of splendid names” and the “heart of a people” that would beat with “one desire.” Herbert Asquith’s World War I poem “The Volunteer” depicted “a clerk who half his life had spent/Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,” who was now invited “to join the men of Agincourt.” And the American Civil War, fought in the years between Balaclava and the Western Front, generated similar sentiments and declarations. The attorney general of the new Confederacy anticipated that war would “stimulate ... the nobler impulses ... which else had remained torpid in our souls.” The historian Francis Parkman of Boston believed that war would renew and purify the nation, liberating it from its growing preoccupation with “material success.” The Richmond Enquirer saw in war an offer of the joys of patriotism and brotherhood, the spirit of self-sacrifice, the demise of selfishness, and the ecstasy of martyrdom. In New England, Henry Lee Higginson later looked back on his hopes for the conflict, evidently sustained in the experience as well as the anticipation of battle: “I always did long for some such war, and it came in the nick of time for me.”

For all its ubiquity and its universality, war offers the attraction of the extraordinary—the escape from the gray everyday, from the humdrum into higher things. It is indeed striking how often the language of altitude is used by those describing the allure of war: it will lift, elevate, raise us toward the transcendent, and link us to the “sublime,” a word often repeated in nineteenth-century paeans to war. In the Civil War, civilians rushed to the battlefields when the fighting ceased—many to search for wounded kin, but others to experience a direct connection to what they described as a force beyond themselves and their accustomed lives. That, in fact, was what a number of observers were seeking when they were caught up in First Bull Run and fled back to Washington. After that incident, civilians were more likely to wait to arrive until after the guns were silent. But arrive they did. These battlefield tourists earned the scorn and the resentment of the wounded, and of those struggling to provide aid amid the desolation. Yet the incongruity of their presence only underscores war’s fascination. Their notion of war as sublime was clearly rooted in the nineteenth century’s romanticism. But it nevertheless reminds us that the human attraction to war is about the struggle to surpass the boundaries of the human as well as the limits of human understanding.

The seductiveness of war derives in part from its location on this boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman. It requires us to confront the relationship among the noble, the horrible, and the infinite; the animal, the spiritual, and the divine. Its fascination lies in its ability at once to allure and to repel, in the paradox that thrives at its heart. For the Civil War, it was perhaps Robert E. Lee who captured this contradiction most memorably in his often—and variously—quoted remark to James Longstreet as they watched the slaughter at Fredericksburg in 1862. This was a dramatic victory for the Confederates, gained as Union troops charged futilely up Marye’s forbidding Heights in one of the war’s most costly and pointless efforts. “It is well that war is so terrible,” Lee observed, “else we should grow too fond of it.”...

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