Few subjects would seem to be as removed from current debates about the war on terrorism than Civil War historiography.  The new president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, has changed all that.  A recent article in The Nation summarizes an article that Faust published in the journal, Civial War History, in 2004. [1]  Through my university affiliation, I have been able to get a copy of Faust’s article through Project Muse.  It is essentially a very standard, straight-forward historiographic essay, but with embedded political commentary.

First, what the heck is “historiography?”  In a crude way, historiography can be defined as “the history of history,” meaning the history of the discipline of history, of what historians have written, what has and has not interested them, the major methodological and theoretical debates that historians have had.  Historiography is usually the first step that an historian will take when crafting a new study.  It just makes senses, right?  Before you do a study of a particular topic, it pays to see what others have already written.  Sometimes, a scholar will write an historiographic essay which will seek to sum up what has been written by historians looking at a particular period in history or a particular topic as a way of providing a “lay of the land,” so to speak, an account of where historians have been, what they have neglected, and where they might turn their attention in the future.  This is the category in which Faust’s essay falls.

Her main concern is to examine why historians have become more interested in the Civil War over the last 25 to 30 years.  To this end, she begins by demonstrating that, in fact, the number of books published about the Civil War has increased.  She notes that what has come to be called the “new Civil War history” has involved studies by social and cultural historians, taking the study of that period both beyond the battlefield (e.g. to the “homefront” with examinations of civilian life during the war, etc.), as well as deeper into the battlefield (e.g. the experiences of average soldiers, the battlefield beyond generals, weapons, and maneuvering armies).  In this sense, her argument is really not unique.  She merely demonstrates that the pattern of Civil War history fits within the larger pattern of military history over the same period–i.e. the emergence of a “new military history” that is marked by the participation of historians from outside the traditional ranks of military history and an increasing focus on issues beyond the immediate battlefield, including soldier life, recruitment, training, strategy, technology, and many other issues beyond great battles and great generals.  For example, I envision my own dissertation research, which examines the impact of nonlinear science upon U.S. military thought over the last 30 years, as partially fitting within this category of “new military history.”  True to the the requirements of scholarly work, my dissertation proposal includes a discussion of the historiographic literature on the “new military history.”

But demonstrating that there has been increased interest in Civil War history, and that such interest fits the pattern of changes within military history more generally, does not answer the “why” question.  She gives two main reasons for increased interest.  First is the personal, political motivations of historians who had grown up during the Vietnam era who came to believe that the 1980s saw an unfortunate return of respectability for war as an instrument of policy.  She writes,

Was there a reason in the late 1980s and early 1990s that what we might call a chronic interest in the Civil War became acute? The Gulf War of 1991 was, of course, a significant factor, for Burns’s series aired during a fall of anticipations and anxieties about the outbreak of war. The contemporary relevance of Civil War questions was forcefully underscored by the coincidence of the release of Burns’s documentary with a real-life military drama. President George H. W. Bush, Colin Powell, and even General Norman Schwarzkopf at his post in Saudi Arabia watched the series as they contemplated their own decisions about the conflict they inaugurated in January 1991. [Ken] Burns’s depiction of the Civil War’s terrible casualties [in his PBS documentary, The Civil War] reportedly reinforced their commitment to minimize American deaths as they developed their strategic plans.¹⁴

Operation Desert Storm, with its quick, seemingly easy, and, in U.S. 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. Growing interest in the Civil War in the late 1980s reflected gradually changing American attitudes about military action, attitudes further and decisively affected by the conjunction in the fall of 1990 and the winter of 1991 of Ken Burns’s compelling visual rendition of the conflict and with George H. W. Bush’s splendid little war.

Historians who recognized war as back in fashion in Reagan-Bush America did not necessarily celebrate its return, just as many scholars vehemently criticized the overwhelming military focus of the Burns’s documentary. A considerable proportion of the scholars who began to direct their attention to the Civil War were children of the Vietnam era, individuals struck by the changed political atmosphere in the 1980s, individuals who had lived through a period when war was at the heart of American public life and discourse in the late 1960s and 1970s, individuals who wanted to understand the historic roots of America’s relationship with war as they now witnessed its late-century return to respectability. And although their critical perspective sharply differentiated them from a wider public that gloried in the success of Desert Storm and relished the elegiac seriousness of Ken Burns’s soldier-patriots, these scholars saw in Civil War history the possibility of reaching across this divide not only to sell books but also to add important considerations to wider American public discourse. Loving the Civil War, we must not forget, has created some strange bedfellows. (375-376)

There are two things to note here.  First is the bald admission to political motivation for the conduct of scholarly research.  Second is the fact then when it finally comes to answering the “why” question which is, after all, the whole point of the essay, the footnotes suddenly disappear.  Footnote 14, which you can see in the quote above, substantiates the claim that Bush, Powell, and Schwarzkopf watched Ken Burns’ documentary.  It also mentions, however, that “the creation of the Lincoln Prize in 1991, with its $50,000 award for a work of Civil War scholarship, may have helped attract historians’ attention to the war” (276).  You think?  Here we have an actual piece of evidence that could explain the increased number of studies in the 1990s, but it gets relegated to a footnote.  Instead, Faust proceeds for another two paragraphs without citing anything in support of her argument that it was the increasingly war-like culture of “Reagan-Bush America” and the political motivations of scholars who were bothered by the trend that led to the increase.  Any surveys or opinion poll data about general American sentiment regarding war during this period and how
it may (or may not) have changed?  Nope.  Any interview data with Civil War historians in which they admit that Reagan-Bush policies inspired them to write about the Civil War?  Nope.  (Of course, it is not hard to believe that leftist political bias in the academy can impact scholarship, Faust’s own essay here is a perfect example.  However, even in this regard, as a scholar, she should provide EVIDENCE to support what she says.)  Instead, this whole section, which remember, constitutes the main point of the essay, is free of supporting evidence, and is instead based on what your typical left-leaning academic already “knows” to be true.

The second reason she gives is that “we love the Civil War” because, as Americans, we love war in general, to such a degree that even purportedly enlightened, anti-war academics get seduced by its allure.  (Here comes the long quote of the section which no doubt captured The Nation’s interest.)

But to describe the movement by social historians into the Civil War as just a calculated strategy to extend domain and audience is to miss a critical component of the phenomenon. The new Civil War historians have been caught up, like their predecessors, in the drama of the conflict, in the powerful human stories that stand apart from the analytic and interpretive goals of the historian as social scientist. Ken Burns has described himself as above all “a historian of emotions.” Emotion, he has said, “is the great glue of history.” Certainly it was the glue and the appeal of his television narrative. The American public loved The Civil War not primarily because it dealt with constitutional or political or racial or social questions that matter today, but because it was about individual human beings whose faces we could see, whose words we could hear, as they confronted war’s challenges. The presence, the threat, even the likelihood of death imposes a narrative structure and thrust on Civil War stories. The exercise of agency is always inflected by this unavoidable question; decisions are quite literally matters of life and death. The presence of such risks places the lives that interest us on a plane of enhanced meaning and value, for life itself has become the issue and cannot be taken for granted. Death offers every chronicler of war a natural narrative shape, an implicit climax for every story, a structured struggle for every tale.²⁰

And the accumulations of these many narratives, these thousands and thousands of deaths into the Civil War’s massive death toll, have given the conflict, as James McPherson has written, a “horrifying but hypnotic fascination,” a fascination I would suggest is almost pornographic in its combination of thrill and terror. We are in some sense not so different from those New Yorkers who in 1862 crowded in to see Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Antietam dead, photographs fresh from the front offering the Northern public—as they still offer us—a vicarious taste of war. We are not, as Lee reminds us, the first Americans to grow fond of the Civil War. We are both moved by the details of war’s suffering and terror and captivated by the unsurpassed insight war offers into the fundamental assumptions and values of historical actors. 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.²¹

As America stood on the brink of our most recent war with Iraq, journalist Chris Hedges published a best-selling book warning of war’s seductive power, its addictiveness. War, he explained, simplifies and focuses life; it offers purpose and thus exhilarates and intoxicates; it is, in the words of Hedges’s title, a “force that gives us meaning.” And humans crave meaning as much as life itself. Caught in war’s allure, we ignore its destructiveness—not just of others but of ourselves.²²

The love affair with war Hedges describes has deep roots in history. He invokes examples from classical Greece, from Shakespeare, as well as from wars of our own time, just as I have been exploring the seductions of America’s Civil War. Hedges offers no real solution to the problem he describes. He simply ends his book with calls for love, for Eros in face of Thanatos. And indeed, as his book climbed the best-seller list, the United States turned its love of war into the invasion of Iraq, endeavoring to transform the uncertainty of fighting  a terrorist enemy without a face or location into a conflict with a purposeful, coherent, and understandable structure—with a comprehensible narrative.

In the United States’s need to respond to terrorism with war, we can see a key element of war’s appeal. War is not random, shapeless violence. It is a human, a cultural construction, an “invention,” as Margaret Mead once described it, that imposes an order, a purpose, and indeed a control on violence. Through its implicit and explicit conventions, through its rules, war limits and structures its violence; it imbues violence with a justification, a trajectory, and a purpose. The United States sought a war through which to respond to terrorism—even a war against an enemy who had no relationship to September 11’s terrorist acts would do—because the nation required the sense of meaning, intention, and goal-directedness, the lure of efficacy that war promises; the control that terrorism obliterates. The nation needed the sense of agency that operates within the structure of narrative provided by war.

War is defined and framed as a story, with a plot that imbues its actors with purpose and moves toward victory for one or another side. This is why it provides the satisfaction of meaning to its participants; this is why, too, it offers such a natural attraction to writers and historians. Yet just as we need war, because in Hemingway’s words, it is “the best subject of all,” so in some sense war needs us. Writers and historians are critical to defining and elaborating the narratives that differentiate war from purposeless violence, the stories that explain, contextualize, construct, order, and rationalize—eliding from one to the other meaning of that word—what we call war. Are we then simply another part of the dangerous phenomenon Hedges has described? In writing about war, even against war, do we nevertheless reinforce its attraction and affirm its meaning? “When we write about warfare,” Hedges warns, “the prurient fascination usually rises up to defeat the message.” What, indeed, is the message that our historiography conveys? “Is there,” as Susan Sontag has asked, “an antidote to the perennial seductiveness of war?” Are we as historians part of the problem or part of the solution?²³ Attracted by the potential narrative coherence of war, we also create and reinforce it. Out of historians’ war stories—from Thucydides onward—we have fashioned war’s seeming rationality and helped to define its meaning. Have we in so doing contributed to its allure?

Historian George Mosse once warned, “We must never lose our horror, never try to integrate war and i
ts consequences into our longing for the sacred. . . . [I]f we confront mass death naked, stripped of all myth, we may have slightly more chance to avoid making the devil’s pact” with war. But the effort to retain our horror is immensely aided by our recognition and acknowledgment of war’s attractions. The complexity of irony disrupts myth, undermines unified narrative and unexamined purpose, questions meaning.²⁴

When we recognize, like Robert E. Lee, that war is both terrible and alluring, we may move both ourselves and our history to a different place. We separate ourselves from war’s myths through irony and open ourselves to its contradictions. Yet if we cannot understand why we love it, we cannot comprehend and explain why it has seduced so many others. 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.

It was Vietnam that gave many of us both the motivation and the ability to look critically at war, to be both fascinated and repelled. Michael Herr’s brilliant book Dispatches is unflinching in its portrait of the horror and the purposeless of this war. It is a book, significantly, without a narrative, a book of glimpses, a book as chaotic as war itself. He had left, as the language of the time had it, “the world,” to live in a surreal space beyond the possibility of understanding. Yet he returns at the end—“Back in the World”—with an observation that uncannily echoes Robert E. Lee and even Henry James: Herr finds himself “like everyone else who has been through a war: changed, enlarged and . . . incomplete. . . . coming to miss the life so acutely. . . . A few extreme cases felt that the experience there had been a glorious one, while most of us felt that it had been merely wonderful. I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”²⁵

Michael Herr was, like us, a writer of war. He was not a soldier; his tour in Vietnam was as a journalist. He wrote Dispatches, perhaps the best book to come out of that far-from-unwritten war, and he has hardly been heard of since. War was his only subject. He loved it and he knew it was terrible, and in that lay the power of his prose. Without war he disappeared.²⁶

War made Michael Herr possible; it gave him a voice. But the voices of writers and storytellers have also made war possible from ancient times to the present day. I have written elsewhere about the role of war stories in mobilizing both men and women for war.²⁷ Seductive tales of glory, honor, sacrifice provide one means of making war possible.

But there is another more complex way as well, one that does not depend on an idealization or romanticization of war. War is, by its very definition, a story. War imposes an orderly narrative on what without its definition of
purpose and structure would be simply violence. 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. “War is a force that gives us meaning.” But what do we and our writings give to war? (380-383)

While at some level I appreciate what she is trying to do here–I too am interested in how rhetoric, metaphors, narrative, etc. impact our perceptions of reality and attempts to shape it–her argument here goes too far.  As someone who studies rhetoric and metaphor in the military context (i.e. how nonlinear science has provided a new vocabulary for understanding the world and creating strategies to deal with it), I constantly run up against the “saying/doing” dichotomy.  People say to me, “Oh, but that’s just what they are saying; what are they actually doing?”  To which I respond that, in the case of the many thesis papers written by soldiers, sailors, airman and marines at staff and war colleges, in the case of articles published in military professional journals, in the case of reports commissioned by OSD, sometimes written by contractors or think tanks, in all of these cases military professionals are spending time, effort, and money to explore the potential impacts of new sciences upon military strategy.  Saying is a form of doing in this case.

However, Faust goes to far in that direction.  She seems to suggest that doing is only saying, that if we just change the way we tell out stories we will change reality.  As any PSYOPs or InfoWar practitioner will tell you, this is true to some degree, but not to the degree presented by Faust.  There is a real world out there.  And while that real world is made up, in part, by the things that we say, while that real world is in part shaped by the stories we tell, the things we say and the stories we tell do not constitute all of reality.

Faust falls into a trap that many academics fall into: Seeing themselves as more important than what they are, seeing their narrow area of specialization as more important than what it really is.  Dr. Faust is a military historian; she studies and then tells stories about wars past.  As such, in her essay stories get elevated from one aspect of reality to become conflated with reality itself.  Of course, in turn, this places a great moral and political burden upon the story-teller, in this case the academic military historian, Dr. Faust and her colleagues.  Certainly, military history is important.  Most professional military men and women would agree to that.  But Dr. Faust simply takes it too far in this case.

In the end, it is disappointing to see political commentary masquerading as scholarship, especially as the most innocuous, dry, and supposedly professionalized kind of scholarship: historiography.


[1] Faust, Drew Gilpin. 2004. “We Should Grow Too Fond of It”: Why We Love the Civil War. Civil War History 50 (4): 368-383. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/civil_war_history/v050/50.4faust.html (accessed February 13, 2007).

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