Drew Gilpin Faust
“I felt very much that I lived in history,” said Drew Gilpin Faust as she recently described her childhood in an interview for Humanities magazine. A well-known scholar of the antebellum South and the Civil War era and, since 2007, president of Harvard University, Faust had two histories in mind. First was the history of the Civil War.
In and around Boyce, where she grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, roads were marked by Confederate-gray signs for the many Civil War historic sites nearby, such as Cedar Creek, a few miles to the south and Winchester a few miles north. The cemetery, where Faust’s grandfather was laid to rest, bore numerous headstones that said only, “Unidentified Confederate.”
The other history was Faust’s own era, the second half of the twentieth century, as it was beginning to unfold around her. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation of the schools. In reaction, Faust’s neighbor, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd issued a call to “massive resistance,” including the passage of state laws to prevent desegregation. In 1957, nine-year-old Faust, of her own initiative, wrote to President Eisenhower to let him know her feelings on the matter: “Please Mr. Eisenhower, please try and have schools and other things accept colored people.”
From prep school onward, Faust was educated in the North, but she found her academic interest gravitate to the South. A dissertation on a circle of antebellum Southern intellectuals led to her doctorate and a book, A Sacred Circle. It also yielded an idea for another book, a biography of James Henry Hammond, who was a governor of South Carolina in the 1840s, and later a U.S. Senator who resigned his seat shortly before South Carolina seceded.
Diaries, letters, and business records furnished a superb record of Hammond’s rise from near poverty to social success as a politician and the master of a large plantation. While most academic historians avoid biography, Faust found in Hammond a combination of monstrous appetite and singular expressiveness, a first-rate character and a lesser human being. This abundantly documented life also yielded an exceptional view into Southern society: its codes of honor, the rigors of political advancement, and glimpses of the private lives of slaves.
Faust’s research into how the South viewed and justified slavery led her to other stories of the era, including those of Confederate women, generally thought of as being among the staunchest supporters of the Confederate cause. “Existing studies of Confederate politics and public life,” she wrote in the introduction to Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, “have paid almost no attention to the place of women.”
This lack of interest in the role of women led scholars to the growing disenchantment with the war on the home front as a factor in causing the South’s surrender, when the war might have been waged even longer. During the punishing years of the Civil War, Faust chronicled how women of the South went from self-denying to self-preserving, with their allegiances shifting from the aims of Confederate army to the safety of their families. As one Southern woman wrote in 1864 (she was one of the 500 Confederate women whose lives Faust examined), “Am I willing to give my husband to gain Atlanta for the Confederacy? No, No, No, a thousand times No!”
The life and work of Faust can seem paradoxical in certain lights. Brought up in an age of fast-changing values and an interventionist war in Southeast Asia, she wrapped herself in painstaking interpretations of the nineteenth-century American South, from its feudal society and slave economy to the almost forgotten inner workings of Southern womanhood. A civil rights activist—she marched in Selma in 1965 in support of Martin Luther King Jr.—and a progressive historian who labored to discern voices history has rendered silent, she has also been a close student of people and times many scholars would prefer to avoid. As she told former NEH chairman Sheldon Hackney in an interview with Humanities magazine in 1997, “I guess I’ve been studying unpleasant people or politically incorrect people for my whole academic career.”
In her 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering, Faust yet again provoked the history profession with a close examination of a major and yet strangely overlooked aspect of the much-studied and written-about Civil War: a death toll so large it altered human perception and foreshadowed the vast carnage of twentieth-century warfare.
Military deaths alone were staggering: “The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.” To bury and to memorialize, and to go on living, even after the passing of more than two percent of American society, all this required, Faust shows, a new set of norms, a sobered worldview, a familiarity with death that seems unthinkable today.
A productive and original scholar, Faust has also proven to be an able administrator. Appointed in the wake of widely aired disagreements between the president’s office and the faculty, she has brought calm and competence to the job of heading America’s most emblematic university, while also becoming a forthright spokesperson for the goals of educational access and inclusion. A surprising expression of this point of view came in March, when, after a forty-year absence, ROTC was welcomed back onto campus.
In This Republic of Suffering, Faust locates an authentic American voice in the poetry of Walt Whitman, who said on another occasion that he contained multitudes—a robust aim for the poet and a neat summation of the historian’s task.
BY DAVID W. BLIGHT
“War is terrible and yet we love it,” wrote Drew Gilpin Faust in 2004. “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 love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war stories we may be helping to construct war itself.” With such probing insights, Faust has made a permanent impact on the writing of American history.
Faust is widely known today as an important American first—the first woman president of Harvard University. For this distinction, her remarkable career should be recognized and studied as a story of ambitious and graceful achievement. Since her appointment as Harvard’s twenty-eighth leader in its 375-year history, she has established a reputation as a skilled manager of people. Universities, and especially the humanities, are vital to the very survival of our civilization. President Faust represents that essential truth as a model, but the trajectory by which she became Professor Faust tells us even more about her as a person and a scholar.
Catherine Drew Gilpin was born into a prosperous Virginia family on September 18, 1947, and raised in Clarke County in the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley. Her father bred thoroughbred horses on their sprawling land and her mother brought her up to be a “lady.” But along with her three brothers, Drew preferred to get a great education, and to challenge the gender destiny and racial segregation with which she came of age. She came north for high school to Concord Academy, a girls’ prep school in Massachusetts, and then to Bryn Mawr, a women’s college outside Philadelphia, where she graduated in 1968. A year later, she entered graduate school in history and American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, and achieved her PhD in 1975 at the tender age of 27.
Faust soon established herself as a historian’s historian—a scholar who logs endless hours in archives, and asks new and provocative questions that yield fresh and surprising insights, all captured in clear, sometimes even lyrical prose. Scholars and readers alike rightly tend to value most those historians who, like Faust, can make us think anew, and embed their research-based judgments in good narrative, as they also suggest the past’s inherent place in our present.
Drew Faust has been a pioneer in at least three distinct subfields of nineteenth-century American history: first, the intellectual history of the Old South, especially proslavery ideology; second, the history of women and gender; and third, the social and cultural history of the Civil War, particularly that conflict’s overwhelming scale of death and suffering. Faust has not merely contributed to historical knowledge or told old stories well. She has changed the questions and pushed the story in new directions.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Faust published her first three books—A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South: 1830–1860, and a biography, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery—she worked against a prevailing assumption that the slaveholding elite of the Old South produced no “intellectual history.” While the “mind of the South” had been a twentieth-century preoccupation of many writers and scholars, few had probed the disturbing and, to modern sensibilities, retrograde proslavery mind. But in the five Southerners who fashioned themselves a “sacred circle” of alienated intellectuals, the politician Hammond, the novelist William Gilmore Simms, the agricultural reformer Edmund Ruffin, and the college professors Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and George Frederick Holmes, Faust uncovered and humanized a cadre of book-toting critics of the society they were helping build. Their failed struggle to manage any permanent “institutionalization of intellect” turns out to be similar to those pursuing the life of the mind in many other eras and worlds.
Even more lastingly, Faust helped forge a new interpretation of proslavery ideology. Rather than ungraspable “odd” defenders of the twin evils of slavery and white supremacy alone, the myriad writers who fashioned an elaborate justification of slavery in the antebellum era were believers in an organically conservative, hierarchical worldview, manipulating the Bible, but also a theory of history and human nature to defend racial slavery as a vision of social order. Their views were rendered no less racist or abhorrent, but in Faust’s handling their defense of such a system of exploitation became comprehensible as rational thought. Moreover, in Hammond, Faust found a figure through which all the contradictions of the Old South flowed; he was a brilliant and handsome sexual predator who abused his slave women at the same time he argued for a blending of modernization and tradition in a society heading toward destruction.
For a young woman historian of her native region, these subjects were hardly the comfort zones of Southern history. By the 1990s, Faust rode the wave of women’s and social history into the South and the Civil War with yet more provocative results. In Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Faust deeply researched elite white women undergoing the brutal travail of war, revolution, and loss. She revealed in stunning detail how these women struggled against their fate, not as proto-feminists, but as women undergoing transformations for which they were psychologically unprepared. She also suggested a bold interpretation of why the Confederacy lost the war. Perhaps it was these very women, writing thousands of letters to their men at the front, who persuaded the soldiers, themselves fearful of the physical and social destruction on the home front, to give up the fight. Such an incendiary interpretation, directly contradicting both Lost Cause myths about women’s devotion to the Confederacy as well as military historians’ strategic interpretations, elicited much criticism at the time and since. Faust has somewhat modified her own stance. But the idea did provoke an important debate on an old question: Just why did the Confederacy, which had forged a genuine brand of “nationalism” (as Faust herself had argued in yet another book, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism) and a devoted army, collapse in defeat?
Mothers of Invention undoubtedly led Faust to her next major subject. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Faust wrote a withering and brilliant study of the scale and significance of the death of over 600,000 soldiers and uncounted thousands of white civilians and former slaves in 1861–65. In a mode both analytical and elegiac, Faust removed the veil from a subject that has never fit into the sentimentalized Civil War demanded by many enthusiasts. Americans, North and South, black and white, Faust demonstrated, could not achieve the “good death” of their fallen loved ones, since huge numbers of slain soldiers were never identified by name or even the location of their graves. Above all, in this book, Faust achieved a rare kind of historical writing: unforgettable descriptions of what we have not wanted to see in this story, intertwined with an interpretation of death on such a scale that in its incomprehensibility the Civil War generation experienced a loss of historical innocence from which each generation might learn anew, if only they face it.
In his famous speech, “The Soldier’s Faith,” the Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., confidently announced in 1895: “It is our business to fight, the book of the army is a war-song, not a hospital-sketch.” Not so, argued Faust: Before singing a war song, we might first listen to a Union surgeon’s description of the fields at Antietam a week after the battle: “The dead were almost wholly unburied . . . [they] stretched along, in one straight line, ready for interment, at least a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” Faust showed with careful realism how mass death in the Civil War forced Americans not only to cope, as she puts it in chapter headings, with “dying . . . killing . . . burying . . . naming . . . realizing . . . believing . . . doubting . . . accounting . . . numbering . . . and surviving,” but with ultimately finding meaning in it all. Drew Faust has fulfilled the historian’s highest calling in telling us difficult stories through masterful and innovative uses of evidence. In prose both clear and beautiful, she has brought some of our darker side into the light.
President Drew Faust of Harvard University is this year’s Jefferson Lecturer, the fortieth recipient of this honor, the highest award in the humanities bestowed by the United States government. An important leader in American higher education and a well-known scholar, Faust is the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Before serving as president, she was the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and for many years was a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her studies have resulted in several books notable for their original thought and thoroughgoing research. Her most recent is This Republic of Suffering, which takes its title from the words of Frederick Law Olmsted and its subject from the vast death toll of the Civil War. She has also written books about the effects of the war on Southern womanhood and about the lives and culture of slavery’s apologists in the antebellum South.
JIM LEACH: You were brought up in the Shenandoah Valley. As a child you must have been aware of the Civil War legacy and probably had a sense for the nineteenth-century past.
DREW GILPIN FAUST: Very much so.
LEACH: How did it influence you as you grew up?
FAUST: I felt very much that I lived in history—in a couple of different ways. One was the presence of the Civil War and living on a highway called the Lee-Jackson Highway. And living surrounded by those gray, black-bordered road signs that the state of Virginia put up to mark historic sites. We had many of those: the old mill in Millwood from the eighteenth century; Carter Hall, up on the hill that we had known had been an important outpost of the Carter family from the Tidewater. And Civil War monuments everywhere: Cedar Creek, the many battles of Winchester.
And then in the cemetery where now my parents are buried, but at that time it was my grandfather and others, next to the marked gravestones and my family plot at this beautiful little setting called the Old Chapel, there were many moss-covered stone grave-markers that said, “Unidentified Confederate.” They were the dead of skirmishes that had taken place in that much fought-over area.
My older brother became a Civil War aficionado and collected stuff. Which included, ultimately, a John Brown pike and a bunch of rifles and all kinds of things. But from the time he was much smaller he had us playing Civil War.
And he was always Lee, so I had to be Grant. But somehow I always lost. And it took a while before I figured out that history had turned out otherwise. So, I had a very special version of the Civil War story told to me when I was little.
LEACH: But the Civil War wasn’t quite over for you. When you were nine, you wrote a letter to the president of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower.
FAUST: That was the other part of history that I lived in: The stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement were emerging all around me when I was a young child.
And there was Harry Byrd, who was not just our senator, but really our neighbor. He lived in Clarke County, as we did, and he was very much a presence. Byrd was the person who championed the notion of “massive resistance.” Rather than integrate in response to Brown v. Board of Ed., he proclaimed that Virginia should close its public schools. The discussion and debate that surrounded that were very much in the air of my childhood. But these were not issues that anybody spoke about out loud when I was growing up. There were just ways of doing things that separated black and white. There wasn’t a vivid discourse of race. It was just taken for granted.
And so with the articulation of these principles of separation and inequality as a defensive response to the emerging civil rights revolution, I was struck, even as a young child, by their inconsistency with the values I had learned at church, as I made reference to in my piece about my letter to Eisenhower, and in school as we learned about democracy and America, those political values that had been transmitted to me by the time I was nine years old.
LEACH: In your article you also noted the word “nullification” was in use then. And, interestingly, in the last year it’s crept back into the American political vocabulary. Do you draw a connection to the Civil War, or are we talking about a different conception of states’ rights today?
FAUST: Well, the notion of nullification emerged in South Carolina in the 1820s and thirties and became a kind of emblem of opposition to federal power. In South Carolina, this was tied up with the defense of slavery.
It was officially about the federal government’s power to impose tariffs. But, as much historical research has shown, the specter behind that argument was really that of slavery and of the South Carolinian demographic reality of a black majority. The white minority felt the need to exert control over the enslaved population. The federal government’s intervention was seen as very threatening to that sense of local control.
So, nullification emerged in that context and was really a precursor of the language of states’ rights and secession that followed it a few decades later. Picking up that language from the past is done self-consciously as an invocation of resistance to centralized federal power, but it has other histories as well.
LEACH: You went to prep school in Massachusetts, college at Bryn Mawr, and then graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. But one has the sense you continued thinking about your Southern heritage through your chosen field of study.
FAUST: When I began studying history at Bryn Mawr, it was a very traditional history curriculum in which wide preparation in European history was required. So, as an undergraduate, I studied European history and did essentially no work in Southern history.
I wrote a senior thesis on American foreign policy, which I was very interested in, it being the Vietnam era. And then, after college, I was uncertain what I wanted to do and worked for a couple of years for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
I decided to go back to graduate school. At Penn there wasn’t the same strong tradition of Southern history that had come into being at, for example, Yale and Johns Hopkins. C. Vann Woodward was at Hopkins before he ended up at Yale. And David Donald taught at Hopkins before he came to Harvard. There were a lot of very powerful, influential historians who were studying the South, and that was intriguing. But what began to become even more interesting as I moved into my graduate historical studies was one aspect of Southern history, which was the revolution in the study of slavery.
That was part of a whole overturning of traditional historical practice as well as of the substance of historical conclusions. The study of slavery required a different approach to sources and a different approach to the work of doing history than what had preceded it.
This work was often characterized in the 1960s and seventies as the history of “the inarticulate”: the notion being that history had heretofore focused on the elites who were educated to record their experiences. The public record similarly documented that history in politics, business, the military, and other influential spheres built around record-keeping institutions.
During the historiographical moment of the late sixties and early seventies scholars began to inquire about the rest of the population that hadn’t perhaps been so literate and hadn’t had the opportunity to have their almost every word preserved in an archive. After all, such people were individuals with lives and with agency and with influence on the outcome of historical events.
In my generation of historians, there was tremendous energy invested in studying workers and then women and also slaves and others who were part of the so-called “inarticulate.” To study those who don’t leave traditional written records you have to look much more broadly at sources of information. And those might, for example, be demographic.
In my book about James Henry Hammond, I used his records of slaves and their births and deaths, records that he kept essentially for economic reasons, to map out family ties and to see how long-lived families were and how children’s names were chosen. And I could see things that Hammond himself probably never saw. For example, I was able to trace a child’s name back two or three generations to someone in that slave line of descent who had that same name. I could see that slaves were naming their children after their grandparents.
At this time there was a belief that slaves had no sense of family because it had been destroyed by the oppressions of slavery. But here were slaves clearly affirming long and deeply held family ties. So, that’s one way demography can lead to insights.
Material culture, objects, archaeology, what can they tell us about the slave experience? What are the variety of other materials that we, as historians, hadn’t bothered with before that give us insights into a population that didn’t necessarily keep diaries, whose history wasn’t preserved in a formal process of record-keeping?
This was fascinating to me as a way of expanding how one does history. The arguments over the interpretations of this history were captivating as well.
LEACH: And yet records, especially those people create for themselves, are especially important to your work, even though, as you have noted, a historian must keep in mind that when people write of their times and themselves they can be misled or misleading.
How do you put all of this together? Is your emphasis on the original word, or is the emphasis on the context in which the word is made?
FAUST: What has always interested me most about history is trying to understand how people see their own world. And how they create the structures of meaning and understanding that serve as the lens through which they view what is around them and the events that confront them.
And that led me, after I finished my PhD, with a yearlong grant from the Social Science Research Council, to study anthropology and to explore what anthropologists call “worldview.”
That reinforced my interest in the notion that if you can understand how someone sees the world differently from you, then you learn something about your own world too. In doing so, you see that you have created a set of lenses for yourself or you have appropriated a set of lenses for yourself.
There is always a sense, which comes from this kind of inquiry, of the contingency of things and how they could be otherwise.
LEACH: With our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan today, we seem to be learning again that sometimes it’s harder to end a war than to start one. The reason I mention this is that in 1989 you made quite a mark with the argument you presented to historians that an underestimated explanation of why the Civil War ended in the manner it did may have related to the role women played in convincing the menfolk to cease and desist.
How did you make this argument and how do you go about pointing out the historical data to justify it?
FAUST: I made an argument that women’s exasperation and exhaustion in the Confederate South led them to focus increasingly on their own interests in preserving what remained of their property and their loved ones. They began to question the sacrifices they had made. And I used that perception of women’s changing views of the war to suggest that this may have been a real factor in the erosion of the Confederate army.
That army was not simply destroyed through death and disease, but also through all those men who seemed to disappear back into the hillsides. Cold Mountain is a recent literary rendering of such a story.
It seemed to me important to put into the conversation about Civil War history some dimensions of explanation and understanding that hadn’t been there. And, as we looked increasingly at the home front and its role in the war, I thought we had a lot to learn from thinking about it as a factor in one of the perennial questions of Civil War historiography: Why did the South lose the Civil War? People have been trying to answer that for over a hundred years.
And it seemed to me that one way of responding, a way that added a perspective from the new kind of history that was being done of actors who hadn’t been included before, was to suggest that indeed their agency included having an impact on this most fundamental of Civil War questions.
LEACH: Let me ask you about James Henry Hammond, about whom you wrote a biography. Who was Hammond and what was his role in the South in the years leading up to and during the Civil War?
FAUST: I loved writing that biography of Hammond because he wrote down everything he did. He was a biographer’s dream. And he was always such an excessive character. He embodied principles—not principles in terms of positive values, but characteristics—that so reflected what he saw as the route to success in the Old South. He became almost a barometer for his culture as he tried to take on each of its requirements for advancement.
The biography grew out of my first book, which was a study of a group of intellectuals who wrote defenses of slavery. I was fascinated by how anybody could do such a thing and the bases on which they justified this to themselves and how they came to see the world in this way.
And as I wrote that first book, James Henry Hammond being one of the individuals I studied, he rose to the fore in my mind as an individual who, as a plantation owner, as a senator, as a governor, as a writer and intellectual, offered windows into so many aspects of the South in the pre-Civil War and the Civil War era.
I felt the biography would offer important insights into some of the most important dimensions of that antebellum Southern culture.
LEACH: Your most recent book is This Republic of Suffering, which could perhaps be described as a compendium of how families of the nation deal with loss. How did you become interested in writing a whole book on the war’s death toll and its social consequences?
FAUST: It began with my book on women of the Confederate South and with my engagement with their diaries and letters. And as I read the seemingly endless numbers of them I was increasingly struck by how often women spoke about death and how central was their perception of death and the fear of death and the need to manage death.
And, I thought to myself, of course it was. If 620,000 Americans died—and that was the equivalent of 2 percent of the population or six million Americans today—no wonder they were so preoccupied with death. But why haven’t we Civil War historians been equally preoccupied with death?
As I thought about the six million analogous number, I couldn’t imagine how our society today could deal with that. And that gave me a new perspective on what it must have meant in American society in the 1860s. How did they deal with the bodies? What does mourning mean when it is so all-pervasive? How did they explain this loss, in both religious and political terms? “How,” to quote a prominent Confederate, “does God have the heart to allow it?” And what does it mean for the nation-state that has required so much sacrifice? And that’s what sent me off into this set of inquiries.
LEACH: One final Civil War question. We all share a common history in America, but we don’t necessarily share a common perspective. If you were to pick out one or two thematic perspectives that we should all come together as a people to think about the Civil War, what would you suggest?
FAUST: One would be about citizenship. And the opening of citizenship to individuals who had been excluded from it. That would be an extremely important theme.
Another would be the importance of the United States and Lincoln’s arguments for the United States. One of the most striking aspects of the Civil War in my mind is why the North fought. Why they didn’t just let the South go. Lincoln rendered the United States as the “last best hope of earth” at a time when democracies around the world were struggling and it looked like that form of government might not survive.
And when Lincoln articulated that, he was able to mobilize the North to fight an expensive and devastating war. Those values seem to me ones that are important to underscore as well.
LEACH: Well, you have commented elsewhere on the importance of education in the American dream. And there’s an oft-cited assumption that education may be the civil rights issue of this century. Does this observation strike you as valid?
FAUST: It does, and it’s one that I’ve quoted or repeated often, because education is the avenue into full participation in the society in which we live. We’re in a time in which knowledge has paramount importance in how our world will move forward and how people will claim their place as contributors to that world. Education is an essential prerequisite for full membership in that community.
LEACH: At Harvard, under your leadership, ROTC has been welcomed back to campus after a forty-year hiatus. How did this come about and what was the thinking that went into this policy change?
FAUST: When I became president, the issue of ROTC’s absence from Harvard campus was already one that was very much in the air and much debated. And it was an issue I was confronted with even before I became president.
I feel very strongly about the importance of inclusiveness in the military. I think back to the Emancipation Proclamation and how it welcomed black soldiers into the military.
Citizenship and military service have been very closely tied in our history. In the seventies, the women’s movement made military service a big focus of the struggle for women’s equality. So, I cared a lot about the overturn of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” as another step in the nation’s progression towards inclusiveness.
I also believe that it is important for the military to be a part of American life and not isolated from the mainstream. Just today, I was talking to a couple of people in my office who had helped work on the return of ROTC. And we realized that all of us had parents who served in World War II. This was the norm when we were growing up. The army and the military services were integrated into American life in a way they no longer are. Only 1 percent of Americans now serve in the military.
I felt that Harvard and Harvard students should have connections that would promote this kind of integration of the military with civilian forces and civilian realities. I felt our students would learn a lot, and I felt that it was important for the military as well.
I also am very conscious of what General David Petraeus articulated here in a commissioning ceremony for the ROTC cadets a couple of years ago, which is that a soldier’s most important weapon is ideas. And it seems to me very important that the education that Harvard has to offer be something that individuals in the military are able to experience and are encouraged to experience. That was a significant driver in this decision as well.
LEACH: There is in Lincoln’s background that dimension, and also the obverse dimension. In July of 1862 he signed the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, with the implication that even in wartime we needed to expand educational opportunity for American citizens. Do you find it remarkable that in the middle of our most horrific war he made a stand for expanding access higher education?
FAUST: Well, he was a person for whom education was so important. And he had to struggle so hard to get access to it and to teach himself in large measure. So, he was an individual who had great respect for learning. And that, I believe, was part of his motivation.
Also, if you look at the Civil War, it was a time when the American government was able to establish a number of forward-looking policies that strengthened the nation. The Transcontinental Railroad is another example. The Morrill Act seems to me consistent with those.
LEACH: The two acts—one related to the infrastructure of ideas, the other to the infrastructure for transportation—were signed a day apart. Bringing the subject back to the here and now, I can attest, having taught briefly under your leadership at Harvard, that the student body and faculty have found you to be an extraordinary president, able, like Lincoln, to manage deftly an institution of many parts and diverse egos. I wonder, Do you have any advice on what the attributes of a university president should be in today’s world?
FAUST: Stamina, curiosity about a wide range of intellectual fields and about a wide range of people. It is important to take joy in the variety of things that go on at a university. Having a completely different subject occupy each consecutive hour of my day on many occasions is a wonder and a thrill. So, that’s one set of attributes. I would say also that what I just described as enormous variety and range also means that you have many, many constituencies. Each of which has important messages to deliver to you and important things they want from you. And so you have to be able to listen to them and, in a sense, going back to what I said about studying history, see the world through their eyes.
Understand what it is that is so significant to them and then try to use that understanding to bring them to you and to what you see as the most important agenda for the university. And so to incorporate their perceptions but also to unite those individuals with others who may not necessarily agree with them.
LEACH: The American university is the hallmark of our land, Harvard being our emblematic institution. And we’re proud of the role it and you have played in helping insure that America leads the world in almost every academic discipline.
FAUST: You’re very kind and very generous.
Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian
On a hot Saturday in September 1962, I crowded with my brothers and cousins into my aunt and uncle’s station wagon and drove off to war. Passing through our county in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we headed towards Charles Town, West Virginia, then crossed over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers at Harpers Ferry into Maryland. We had travelled through the familiar historic landscape of Stonewall Jackson’s skirmishes, Mosby’s raids, Sheridan’s ride, and John Brown’s capture and hanging to witness the centennial reenactment of the Battle of Antietam. Our route was in fact not very different from the one both Jackson and A.P. Hill and their troops had followed to arrive from Harpers Ferry for their critical roles in the battle. But we had a better idea of what to expect.
The preceding summer, in July 1961, some 35,000 spectators had thrilled to what the press had dubbed the Third Battle of Bull Run. Several thousand men clad in blue and gray had assembled on the field where two major encounters of the war had been fought to perform, as a New York Times reporter described it, a “dramatic résumé of the battle’s highlights.” Perched in bleachers and grandstands or milling in an adjacent field of refreshment tents and folding chairs, an enthusiastic crowd had cheered victorious Confederates and booed fleeing Union troops, just as Virginians had hailed their predecessors a century before.
The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, had been of even greater significance in the war than either first or second Bull Run. It remains the bloodiest single day of conflict in American history, a day when more than 3,600 Americans died. The battle transformed and defined the purposes of the war, for Union success propelled Lincoln into issuing his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. But neither our minds nor those of the thousands of observers and reenactors around us were focused on such matters. We were there for a picnic and for an exciting display of seemingly lifelike military action, a spectacle that would remind us of the courage and sacrifice we had been taught to revere since the time we were very small and first began playing Civil War with toy swords and rifles in the fields and woods that surrounded our house. Since it was impossible to portray all the action, the day’s activity focused on Bloody Lane, where a hundred years before the dead had carpeted the ground and blood had run ankle-deep. But this was a carnival without carnage, a battle stripped of content and context. The centennial commemoration of Antietam was designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting. It was a pointed erasure of the war’s causes and consequences, a suppression of their direct relationship to the turbulent racial politics of Maryland and Virginia — and indeed the nation— a full one hundred years after Lincoln had declared his intention to make the slaves of the rebellious South “forever free.”
The Civil War centennial occurred in the midst of challenges and changes nearly as dramatic as the war itself. Those years in the early 1960s were not just a historic anniversary but themselves a time of history making. The nation found itself once again convulsed in a struggle over the meanings of citizenship, justice and equality. As I was attending at Antietam a rendering of the past that divorced it from history, a quite different battle was raging in Washington, just seventy miles away, over the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation scheduled to take place at the Lincoln Memorial the following week. No African American had been invited to speak, and the NAACP, endorsed by Martin Luther King, threatened a boycott. As enthusiastic crowds during these centennial years cheered Confederate troops at Bull Run and Antietam, hailed Jefferson Davis in a restaging of his inauguration in Montgomery, and resurrected the long abandoned Confederate Stars and Bars to fly over statehouses across the South, civil rights activists joined sit-ins, picket lines and freedom rides and called upon the emancipationist traditions of the past to situate themselves and their cause on the right side of history. When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial almost a year later in August 1963, he self-consciously placed himself within the Civil War centennial — not the historyless version of the reenactors, but one that urged Americans to finish the revolution the war had begun. “Fivescore years ago,” he declared, “a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” King here invoked two of Lincoln’s most famous utterances, both issued, as he noted, just a hundred years before. Even as his language recalled the Gettysburg Address, he was drawing explicit attention to the Proclamation. His opening sentence thus united the two documents as foundational to the meaning of the war and to King’s definition of America. The valor and sacrifice of Gettysburg were rendered inseparable — in his words as in his understanding — from the war’s transcendent purposes of freedom. King was seizing the right to the kind of celebration of the Proclamation that Civil War centennial organizers had suppressed not quite a year before.
The legacy of the Civil War was so deeply contested at the time of the centennial because its meaning continued to matter. Robert Penn Warren wrote of the war as “that mystic cloud from which emerged our modernity,” “the great single event of our history.” Historian and novelist Shelby Foote has called it the “crossroads of our being.” John Hope Franklin believed that it provided a “common experience of suffering and sacrifice” without which real nationhood and pursuit of a common destiny would have remained impossible. It is, in fact, not difficult to see ourselves reflected in the war’s mirror. In ending slavery, the Civil War helped to define the meanings of freedom, citizenship and equality. It established a newly powerful and centralized nation-state and launched it on a trajectory of economic expansion and world influence. It was an all-American war — of brother against brother as it is so often put. It was fought on our own soil, in places with familiar names and by people who seem not so unlike us. It featured leading characters — Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman — who combined the estimable and the flawed in ways that continue to engage biographers, readers — and now television and movie audiences. It attained a scale that shocks and horrifies — a scale of drama and a scale of death that prefigured the slaughter of the century that followed. It enacted a morality play demanding that a nation that regarded itself as the last best hope of Earth confront its own deep-seated injustices. Yet even a hundred years after its conclusion, Americans acknowledged but could not agree upon the true nature of its importance. In an 1963 essay for the New York Times entitled “Our Past Isn’t What It Used to Be,” the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward observed that there was “far less agreement over the interpretation of the Civil War today than there was a half century ago.” History, he remarked in a wry variation of Clausewitz’s famous dictum, “becomes the continuation of war by other means.”
As Woodward reflected, and as the centennial observances proceeded around him, the Civil War and its meaning aroused intensifying controversy. In the late nineteenth century, sectional reconciliation had been achieved by abandoning the war’s emancipationist legacy and relegating black Americans to the second-class citizenship of segregation and Jim Crow. Memory and history focused on battles, glory and sacrifice, with still divisive issues of race pushed largely aside in deference to white southern custom and sentiment. Confederates became valiant opponents rather than traitors, their cause not slavery but states’ rights, their loss not a failure but an exhaustion of resources that left them the proud, if defeated, underdogs.
The growing force of black voices in the 1960s and the reinsertion of race into national discourse and the national agenda necessarily challenged the prevailing narrative of the war. Putting issues of race and inequality front and center in the American present meant putting them front and center in the American past as well. This shifting yet undiminished interest in the war has yielded five subsequent decades of pathbreaking scholarship and writing. Yet it has hardly reduced the salience of persisting differences in understanding. If C. Vann Woodward were alive to witness the war’s sesquicentennial begin this spring, he would find that the conflict over its interpretation continues, once again mirroring our contemporary debates about national purposes. Representative Ron Paul has recently attracted media attention by declaring Lincoln and the war responsible for arrogations of central power that Tea Party originalists and libertarians are dedicated to overturn. Governor Rick Perry of Texas has hinted at secession as a possible response to growing anger at the federal government; a half-dozen states have threatened to “nullify” the recent federal health care law. The powers of the centralized nation-state achieved by the war are now questioned and challenged, seen as the betrayal rather than the fulfillment of the Founders’ vision. And significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South, continue to reject slavery as a fundamental cause of the war, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that what southerners called the “peculiar institution” played a critical role in secession debates, declarations, and decisions across the South. As Robert Sutton, the National Park Service’s chief historian, has insisted that the nation’s historic sites emphasize that “slavery is the principal cause” of the war, he has encountered widespread resistance and controversy.
Yet even as these debates and disagreements continue, most Americans approach this Civil War anniversary with attitudes and assumptions quite different from those that prevailed fifty years ago. A nation with a black president contrasts significantly with the nation that in 1961 still denied millions of black southerners the franchise. In September 2010, the official Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission foregrounded this shift with a conference entitled “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.” Issues that were suppressed or ignored a half century ago are now necessarily fundamental to Civil War remembrance: It is impossible to avoid the “tough stuff.” The amnesia of the 1962 Antietam observances is unthinkable, as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell learned last year when he scrambled to apologize for not mentioning slavery in a proclamation of Confederate History Month. Race has moved from the margins of Civil War history to its center. Part of this is the result of the extensive work historians have undertaken since the 1960s. We simply know a great deal more about the experience of black Americans in a variety of critical roles in the war — as soldiers — nearly 200,000 strong — fighting for Union victory, as “contrabands” forcing the issue of freedom onto the northern agenda, as slave laborers refusing to continue the status quo on farms and plantations across the South. But it is not just that we have more information; we also look at the past with different eyes and ask different questions, questions based in the belief that rights should not be defined nor voices empowered or silenced because of race.
Nor, American society has come to believe since 1962, can rights be denied because of gender. This too has shaped a new approach to our past. Like African Americans, women play a role in American society that has expanded and changed dramatically over the past half century, and their place in Civil War history has grown in parallel. An increasing interest in the lives of ordinary Americans during the years of conflict has included a great deal of research and writing about what happened beyond the battlefield, on the homefront, in communities and families North and South. We have learned about women left to manage plantations and farms; women in voluntary agencies; women as writers and readers; women working in factories, laundries, hospitals, and schools; slave women fleeing to Union lines or remaining to claim freedom and protect families at home.
Even the battlefield looks different. John Keegan’s transformative 1974 book, The Face of Battle, changed military history forever with its powerful call for a “diversion of historical effort from the rear to the front” of the battlefield — from commanders to common soldiers. Keegan insisted on “allowing the combatants to speak for themselves.” The Civil War has proved a rich context in which to pursue such a strategy, for the broad literacy of the American population generated tens, likely hundreds, of thousands of soldiers’ letters sent home from battlefields from Bull Run to Petersburg and carefully cherished and preserved by their recipients. Many of these have been collected and published; others rest in archives; others no doubt still remain in attics North and South. But they have provided the material for intense examination of the soldier’s experience, his motivations to fight, his daily life, his politics and religion, his hopes and fears, his understandings of life and death.
We remember a very different Civil War from the one we celebrated and contested in the 1960s. The publication of an average of more than a hundred books a year during each of these past five decades has meant an accumulation of information that would inevitably change understanding. But the shifts in perception are about more than just having additional facts. Because we still believe that as a nation we have been defined by the ideals and the sacrifice of that war, we feel compelled even a hundred fifty years later to situate ourselves in relationship to it. As we come over time to see ourselves differently, we will ask different questions of our past, and as we ask those questions, we in turn develop changed perceptions of ourselves. History is iterative and interactive — which, happily, is why there will always remain new — inexhaustible — work for historians.
Uniquely powerful dimensions of the Civil War have rendered it of outsized 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 reenactors but, in fact, 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 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 BCE, was the Iliad, a tale that exerts a wrenching power more than two millennia after its origin. 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 BCE.
How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane? That 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 fighting 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 period of 100 years in the last 5,000, an average of 94 of those years would have witnessed a large-scale conflict in some area of the world. Our stories and 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 example, its four-year duration — less than two percent of our national history — is certainly disproportionate to the volume of both literary and historical writing it has generated. We don’t just write about wars because, like Mount Everest, they are there.
Human beings are in fact powerfully attracted to war. Journalist Chris Hedges, in a recent best-selling book aptly entitled War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, has described war as a “narcotic,” a “lethal addiction,” a drug which 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, for example, 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.” 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.” 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 prevalence, its ubiquity and universality, war offers the attraction of the extraordinary — the escape from the grey 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 towards 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, of course, to search for wounded kin, but many 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 resentment of the wounded and of those struggling to provide aid amidst the desolation. Yet what we would regard as the extraordinary incongruity of their motivation and 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— as an embodiment of the transcendent — 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 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.” Lee’s ambivalence, his complexity, his capacity for irony are in one sense surprising here, for he has been extolled and is best remembered as the war’s romantic hero, a man of decisiveness and little doubt. Irony would not seem to be available to Robert E. Lee. But that seeming incongruity simply reinforces the centrality of paradox to any understanding of war. It is terrible and yet we love it; we need to witness the worst of its destruction in order not to love it even more. We must acknowledge both its horror and its attraction if we hope to understand the contradictions in its impact and presence in human lives. As a British soldier wrote of Gallipoli, “It was a horrible day and a great day. I would not have missed it for worlds.”
This paradox at the heart of the experience of war also forms the core of war’s attraction to writers and artists. War engages and thrives on contrasts — the unflinching gore and undeniable glory represented in the Iliad; the parallel human and inhuman dimensions of what Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien has called the “awful majesty of combat” and its “powerful implacable beauty”; the interdependence of life and death as millions have perished throughout the centuries in hopes that others — or perhaps, in Lincoln’s words, nations — might live. “War is nasty; war is fun,” O’Brien has written. “War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” War resists but demands understanding. It challenges us— as it has long challenged the humanities — to take it on.
One of the most forceful of war’s attractions to its chroniclers is the very impossibility of their task. War’s participants have often noted the failure of words to convey either its reality or its meaning. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wounded three times in the Civil War, called his experience “incommunicable.” Soldiers on both sides of the conflict would have agreed. James Suiter of the 84th Illinois reported in his diary that a depiction of Chickamauga “would be an absolute impossibility.” John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade struggled for words in a letter to his parents, “I have not power to describe the scene. It beggars all description.” A Wisconsin nurse, aiding the wounded in Tennessee, wrote home of the “mental and physical” suffering around her: “There are times when the meaning of words seem to fade away; so entirely does our language fail to express the reality.” In its assault on language, war once again challenges our very identity and essence, for it is words that help to define us as distinctively human.
Yet even as they described the impossibility of their task and the ineffability of war, each of these witnesses to war set about to write, to use language where none could be found, to employ words to decry those words’ very inadequacy. The more formal literature of war reflects a similar dynamic, as writers from Homer onward have labored both in spite of and because of war’s resistance to representation. “How can I picture it all?” Homer demanded in the Iliad. “It would take a god to tell the tale.” Even to write about war, Homer observes, is to reach beyond the human, towards the sacred. More than twenty-six centuries later, contemplating America’s Civil War, Herman Melville concurred, “None can narrate that strife.” Yet both chose nonetheless to write, to find words to convey war’s meaning, seeing in its impossibility the attraction of its necessity. We write about war because it is so hard to write about war, because its contradictions demand attention, if not resolution, because its chaos demands some imposition of meaning and order. The search for understanding compels language even as it rejects it.
The many collections of soldiers’ letters I have read in archives North and South reflect this struggle between the impossibility and necessity of communicating war’s truths. So often, I have found, men describe themselves as beyond feeling or comprehension, numbed by their experience, yet nevertheless seeking a means to convey its significance and impact. I have come to believe that it is out of this struggle that certain recurrent images or descriptions appear — like verbal snapshots, designed in essence to short-circuit the complexity of language with an almost visual substitute — words as pictures rather than as interpretation or understanding. After a battle, we are so often told by soldiers from the lowliest recruit to General Grant himself, it would be “possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” Or equally unforgettable in the manner it communicates horror without ever actually naming — or grappling with — it: the image most famously offered by Whitman but repeated and remembered by nearly every soldier who witnessed it — the scene of a surgeon toiling with saw and knife at a field hospital, surrounded by amputated limbs, “feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.” piled in a “heap” at his side.
It is not just Civil War soldiers, of course, for whom telling the story, depicting the scene, was a challenging imperative. This compulsion rests at the center of Bao Ninh’s remarkable novel of North Vietnam, published in the United States in 1991 as The Sorrow of War. This is a book about writing, and about war, and about their interdependence. The protagonist Kien has survived the conflict and finds himself all but overwhelmed with the need to write about it — even against his will. “Why choose war? Why must he write of the war?” he asks. He struggles to find another subject but “relentlessly his pen disobeyed him;” he “cannot stop writing war stories.” Ultimately, however, his words and stories fail, for he can find no narrative. The manuscript he produces is one of fragments, of images but not of coherence. Fighting on the other side of the same war, and equally compelled to write, Tim O’Brien confronts a similar sense of the difficulties of language and of narrative. His work, the now all-but-iconic The Things They Carried, is like that of Kien in The Sorrow of War, fragmented and filled with “disruptions.” Often, O’Brien writes, “you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it is just beyond telling.”
Yet still we try. We seek the order that narrative promises to impose on the incoherence of conflict. We have been telling and hearing and reading war stories for millennia. Their endurance may lie in their impossibility; they can never be complete, for the tensions and contradictions within them will never be eliminated or resolved. That challenge is essential to their power and attraction. War stories matter.
“War makes rattling good history,” a Thomas Hardy character observes in The Dynasts. “[B]ut Peace is poor reading.” Wars decide; they change rulers, governments, societies — and the human beings swept up in them. They accelerate and concentrate change in ways that make it vivid and visible. Shelby Foote used the word “crossroads” to describe the Civil War. Wars are indeed turning points both in individual lives and in national histories. Stories of war are infused with the aura of the consequential.
As Ernest Hemingway once explained to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” Hemingway’s description of why war is the best subject is a striking, though almost certainly unwitting, invocation of the dramatic structures Aristotle’s Poetics so long ago defined — the unity of time, action and place that, in intensifying and containing experience, refashions it as literature. Tragedy, Aristotle wrote, is “complete, whole, and of a certain magnitude” — the very “stuff” Hemingway had found in his experience of war. The inherent “magnitude” of a war story is, of course, that it is about life and death, about the quintessential moment of truth when the ultimate is at stake. Even a war story that focuses on the seemingly trivial and mundane uses the weight of war’s meaning to imbue the smallest detail with extraordinary import. When life itself cannot be taken for granted, its every aspect assumes an enhanced significance and value.
But it is more than the magnitude, the weightiness of war that makes it the best subject for our stories and that has lodged it at the heart of the humanities since the time of Homer. War and narrative in some sense create one another. War is not random, shapeless violence. Fighting is reconceived as war because of how humans write and speak about it; it is framed as a story, with a plot that imbues its actors with both individual and shared purpose and is intended to move toward victory for one or another side. To rename violence as war is to give it a teleology. This is why it can provide the satisfaction of meaning to its participants; this too is why it offers such a natural attraction to writers and historians. War assumes a trajectory towards victory and thus the possibility of its own cessation and conclusion. Like any good story, it offers the promise and gratification that accompany a resolution of the plot.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was influenced in no small part by the desire — even need — to transform the uncertainty of combating a terrorist enemy without a face or location into a conflict that could provide a purposeful, coherent and understandable structure — a comprehensible narrative. Responding to terrorism with war replaced the specter and fear of mass murder with a hope for the controlled, ordered force of war. It offered the United States the sense of intention, the goal-directedness and lure of efficacy that war promises and terrorism obliterates. Implicit in President George W. Bush’s proclamation of a war on terror, moreover, was the reassurance that terrorism could be defeated, eliminated, that it need not be a permanent condition of modern life. We expect wars to come with endings; that is part of their story. The language of war made Americans protagonists in a story they understood rather than the victims or potential victims of forces beyond their comprehension or control.
But the stories we tell in creating narratives of war rarely deliver the order and control they promise. As O’Brien and Bao Ninh and countless others through the ages have recognized, there remains a fundamental un-tellability and unintelligibility about war — in its resistance to language, in its refusal to rest within the bounds and shape of narrative. “For the common soldier,” O’Brien writes, “war has the feel — the spiritual texture — of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity. In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” Part of the interdependence of war and literature rests in this tension of their ultimate incompatibility, the irreducible reality that despite all human striving to impose order and meaning, war remains terrible and incomprehensible. “Every war is ironic,” Paul Fussell wrote in his brilliant study of the First World War, “because every war is worse than expected.”
Our war stories bear a critical responsibility for shaping these expectations from one generation to the next. Our narratives are not just modeled from war; they become models for war. They have the power to send men into battle and to shape the wars they fight. As the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain has put it, “War imitates narratives imitating war.” John Keegan, who for twenty six years served as an instructor at the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has offered an example central to historical writing in his description of the “battle piece.” This highly conventionalized, heroic account of combat has shaped not just the rhetoric and assumptions of military history, but more powerfully and more dangerously, the understanding and seduction of war itself. Tales of glory, honor, manhood and sacrifice enhance war’s attraction and mobilize men and armies. It is war stories like these that lure the toiling clerk in “city grey” to volunteer in anticipation of the grandeur of another Agincourt — “we few, we happy few” — and then to experience instead the reality of the Somme. Fussell has written of the “tutors in this special diction” of heroism, manhood and sacrifice in pre-World War I Britain — the poems of Tennyson, the romances of Rider Haggard, the boys’ books of George Alfred Henty, where the soldier is a “warrior,” the enemy is the “foe,” to die is to “perish,” and the soldiers are “the brave.” For a whole generation of men, these stories were to prove a betrayal.
In perhaps the best-known poem of that war, written towards its very end, Wilfred Owen warned “children ardent for some desperate glory” about what he called “The old Lie”: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori —How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country. Old, indeed: The words are taken from an ode by Horace and were 2,000 years later inscribed on the wall of the chapel at Sandhurst for aspiring young soldiers soon to be headed for the trenches of France. But instead of a sweet story, Owen’s poem chronicled “blood . . . gargling . . . from froth-corrupted lungs,” the dying flung into wagons, the living left lame and blind. Surely the slaughter of the Western Front eliminated any future for the language and narratives of what Owen called “The old Lie”? “Never such innocence again,” Philip Larkin concluded in his poem “MCMXIV.” Modernity enshrined irony, learned, Fussell would have it, from the horror of the First World War. We entered a new world of disillusion that would yield the dark sensibility of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 at the heart of the late twentieth century’s approach to war.
And yet. Still we are lured by war and still we tell the stories that both shape and distort our understanding of it. In the 1950s, Ron Kovic learned of war from John Wayne movies and felt destined for glory by his birth on the Fourth of July. For Kovic, as for so many men through the ages, war and manhood became inextricably intertwined; war stories still serve as instructional manuals for becoming a man. When Marine recruiters marched in perfect step into his high school auditorium, it was for Kovic, “like all the movies and all the books and all the dreams of becoming a hero come true.” He returned from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down by a severed spinal cord, bitter about a war so different from “the myth we had grown up believing,” victim of a shattered body and even more shattered illusions. He wrote his best-selling narrative of his experience to serve as an alternative war story.
And yet. Two months from now, we will again witness a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run. Tens of thousands of participants and spectators are expected, for the enthusiasm to refight the Civil War has only grown in the fifty years since the centennial observances. Most of the costumed soldiers and camp followers will have read extensively about the war; they will wear garments accurate to the last button and stitch; they will use period weapons and canteens and knapsacks, for authenticity is the watchword of the thriving reenactor culture. They will in these myriad details get history just right. But what will they understand of war? Will this reenactment do any more to acknowledge the war’s purposes and politics and their continuing significance than did the reenactments of fifty years ago? Will its celebratory mood and mode acknowledge what Frederick Douglass declared he would never forget: “the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery”? Will the reenactors tell only an old “battle piece” of courage and glory and how sweet and proper it is to die? Will we in this historic sesquicentennial — to be observed at a time when Americans are involved in real conflicts in three sites across the globe— forget what a heavy responsibility rests on those who seek to tell the stories of war?
Walt Whitman warned that “the real war will never get into the books.” It would indeed be impossible ever fully to capture war’s contradictions, its paradoxes, its horror and its exhilaration. But from Homer to Whitman to Owen to Heller to those telling the stories of our wars today, we have grappled to use the humanity of words to understand the inhumanity of war. As we continue to be lured by war, we must be committed to convey its horrors. We must make it our work to tell a true war story. “It is well war is so terrible else we would grow too fond of it.” After all, we owe to war so much of our history and our literature. And our history and literature have done so much to enable war.