Yaacov Lozowick must have ADHD, which is why he jumps around all the time. He was in education for more than a decade, ran the archives at Yad Vashem for more than a decade, and now finds himself owning and running a technology start-up. He blogs, which is just right for someone who can't sit still. He'd love to write books (seven putative titles at the last count), but this would require lots of sitting, as he can testify from the two he has actually written. Yaacov reads voraciously, but rarely in one sitting. He has been profiled at normblog here. Below he reviews David Bell's The First Total War and Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering.
Yaacov Lozowick on The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, and This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
Does the study of past wars help us understand present ones? If so, might the understanding mitigate or even prevent future ones? David A. Bell in a fine book thinks so; Drew Gilpin Faust in a better one looks beyond. They never intended to pair their books, Bell's being about the European wars unleashed by the French Revolution and Faust's about the American Civil War. Yet as they both look for insights to the 19th century, they show how history goes its own, unintended way.
Bell's clear and dramatic storytelling in The First Total War concentrates on the way of war before, during and after the French Revolution. The religious wars of the 16th century, and the 30-year war of the 17th, were totally hellish. The warriors of the 18th backed away from their ferocity. It's not that there were fewer wars. In fact, wars were common in 18th century Europe. Yet they were limited in scope, restrained in form, and in so far as wars can be sensible and cool-headed, the ones of the later 18th century vaguely were. Two armies would meet on a recognizable field of battle, their soldiers would kill each other for a while, and they'd retire, each side respecting the verdict. Bell's descriptions are closer to gigantic duels than to the brutal attempt to break, destroy or annihilate the enemy which are so familiar to us and were probably familiar to earlier centuries.
Some of this was a growing acceptance of Enlightenment ideas, but it had more to do with the identity of the leaders. They were a narrow layer of society, mostly aristocrats, who flitted endlessly and effortlessly between their sumptuous quarters in the field and their sumptuous quarters at court, reciting poetry and playing music all the while. They flitted from army to army, too. The continent-wide caste of aristocratic officers was limited, so they moved from job to job as convenient, taking care not to fight their home army but otherwise being loyal to the profession, not a particular team.
These aristocrats were too engaged in life's pleasantries to concentrate on mass destruction. Bell doesn't spell out who the ordinary soldiers were and what they thought they were doing, but apparently they were career soldiers who could reasonably expect to survive an entire career and its campaigns with limited exposure to danger. None appeared to be interested enough in the populace to include them in the wars.
The aristocrat-soldiers picked up a smattering of Enlightenment ideas. As enlightened thought progressed, however, it contained ever more explicit condemnations of any war, as in the writings of Fenelon, d'Holbach and Kant, who called for warfare in any form to disappear. And yet contradictory ideas were growing from the same source. Rousseau and Mably in France, and Herder and Humboldt in Germany, could all conceive of war as a national project, and it might not be limited. For war to forge a nation it would need the commitment of the nation to fight other nations.
Revolutions change things dramatically; that's what they're for. The French Revolution redefined the purpose of war. France's neighbors wished to roll back the new revolutionary tide. France's populace sought to thwart the rolling, until they began rolling into the rest of Europe with their new-fangled ideas. This meant new groups had an interest in the new sort of war. It was the kind of thing generals and gunnery sergeants could care deeply about together, identifying with a purpose larger than themselves (there's a story about two such fellows on page 135). The nation could recruit masses of men, including many who would never have been in the old army. Literate men who wrote home to literate families, forging the commitment of yet more people.
For a while it must have been exhilarating. It could be confusing, too. Valmy, one of the first revolutionary battles (20 September 1792), was won by the French even as the opposing commander, the Duke of Brunswick, didn't understand he'd lost:
Rather than risk the lives of thousands of expensively trained soldiers, he had chosen the path of cautious withdrawal, the war of maneuver, and kept his force intact. As a result, the 'battle' remained more of a simple artillery duel with a few hundred casualties on each side and almost no real action by the infantry... But what Brunswick could treat practically as a non-event, the French rapidly elevated to the level of myth (p. 136).
Myth, Bell explains, was not part of earlier wars; myth appeals to masses, to nations, to communities with deep involvement and commitment - to the world we recognize in spite of our affinity with its Enlightened forerunners.
Myth, commitment to an idea and the willingness to think in totalities, we now know, can lead to the most horrendous crimes of all. The French Revolution demonstrated this in the Vendée, an area of Western France that briefly resisted the new regime and was systematically and ruthlessly pillaged. A quarter of its population was murdered, perhaps 250,000 people. The ideals had spawned their contradiction.
By the time French armies spilled over the rest of Europe, the more radical aspects of the Revolution had passed. True, there was a new, conscripted army of more or less enthusiastic citizens fighting by lethal new rules, but the causation isn't clear. So Bell turns to Napoleon, explaining how he personified the new world of war by drawing power from his carefully nurtured mass appeal. Ideas called forth in the Revolution, such as nation, national commitment and participation, the popular national leader, and an eagerness to destroy enemies, combined in a series of destructive wars that engulfed the continent. His descriptions of partisan warfare in Spain could easily fit Belarus in 1943 or Yugoslavia in 1944, and so what he calls the first total war segues into the worst of them, more than a century later.
Bell doesn't say why he chose Revolutionary France, though he repeatedly mentions the follies of America's wars under George Bush, in comparisons that grate more than inform. Drew Gilpin Faust never touches contemporary politics, but she does have a moving dedication to her father:
In Memory of McGhee Tyson Gilpin – 1919-2000 – Captain, US Army – Commanding Officer, Military Intelligence Interpreter Team #436 – 6th Armored Division – Wounded, August 6th 1944 – Plouviens, France – Silver Star, Purple Heart, Croix de Guerre.
She's the daughter, she tells us, of the tradition of which she wishes to speak. It's her world, for all the distance in time and strangeness of details. We came from here.
This Republic of Suffering is a subtle book. Where Bell focuses on decisions to wage war and some of its methods, Faust doesn't. She assumes we know why the Civil War happened and how, and focuses instead on the death it wrought. Hers is a dry, almost detached tabulation of things that used to be different, until suddenly, deep into the book, we realize she's actually telling how we became what we are. Bell might have us reject national wars for their lack of meaning; Faust tells of their cost and the meaning they forge.
For centuries people died at home, surrounded by family and consciously preparing for the end. There was a right way to do this, the ars moriendi, the Good Death. Essentially, it was to accept death with equanimity.
How one died thus epitomized a life already led and predicted the quality of life everlasting. The hors mori, the hour of death, had therefore to be witnessed, scrutinized, interpreted, narrated – not to mention carefully prepared for by any sinner who sought to be worthy of salvation. (p. 9).
Final words were tremendously important, since they summed it all up.
Soldiers died differently. Whether killed in battle, wounded and expiring in hospital, or most common of all, dying from illness, they didn't have Good Deaths. So everyone tried to compensate. Soldiers wrote home before battles telling that they were prepared to die. Surviving commanders and comrades wrote to families to reassure them their sons had accepted death; when possible, medical staff also wrote reassuring final words. The casualties vastly exceeded expectations; it was impossible properly to bury each individual. Enemy corpses were often unceremoniously tipped into pits, but there were no adequate procedures for own-side deaths, either. So individuals – comrades, strangers, nurses or family members – sought ways to preserve the pre-war mores of dignity. Embalming and sending home if possible, though mostly for officers, marking grave-sites and informing kin. Initially there was no procedure for listing the names of the fallen. Perhaps 40 per cent of the casualties of the North, and more in the South, died unnamed. Yet in a national war this was unacceptable, and there were growing efforts by individual officers, new voluntary organizations and local newspapers to name the men who were giving their lives. Back at home there were rituals for mourning, including elaborate dress codes for women; an industry sprang up to serve this need, so pervasive was the mourning.
In the South one in five men of military age died. The proportion in the North, though smaller, was still horrendous, and so it slowly forced a rethinking of the most fundamental assumptions:
More than three years into the conflict [Reverend John] Sweet turned to what had become a central question, even preoccupation, for many Americans of both North and South. Where had all these young men gone? (p. 171)
The popular response was that they had moved on to a better place in heaven. Yet dissatisfaction with that answer was rising. There was simply too much death for pat answers. Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Emily Dickenson and Mark Twain were all influenced by the dimensions of the destruction to question the meaning of death and life; in a process that spanned decades American society cast aside the comforting answers that hadn't really comforted, and was left with the unanswerable questions.
It's against this backdrop that we read about the post-war efforts to count and name as many of the fallen as possible, to find and re-inter the scattered bodies in the newly invented national cemeteries; and about the understanding, ultimately, that soldiers who go to battle for the nation are the responsibility of the nation.
It's a tale of tempering. The nation in its modern form justifies war and enables it; yet war forges national responsibilities which, if honoured, strengthen the nation. Lincoln in his 1865 Second Inaugural speech, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holms in his 1895 Memorial Speech, and Harvard President Gilpin Faust in her dedication, all allude to an idea that a nation can demand sacrifice while being worthy of it, and that the willingness to maintain this balance is itself worth defending.