Every so often the word goes out at Fort Leavenworth to gather along Grant Avenue. Leavenworth is not a typical military post. At most bases, young servicemen and -women dominate the population, but the focus at Leavenworth is educating midgrade officers, a more experienced group. These days, the overwhelming majority has been to war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or both. They have seen combat firsthand. They have seen a lifetime’s worth of death and destruction. Even more, they have led troops under fire and have had to order young people into harm’s way. They have seen the people they had to guide and protect shot down, blown up, and shattered beyond all recognition. They have had to write the letters to grieving families, trying to explain why their world will never be the same.
This perspective is what the midgrade officers bring to the assembly at Leavenworth, when the entire post lines up along Grant Avenue, to pay tribute at a funeral procession for another life destroyed at war in a far-off land. The veteran officers salute the body and the long line of cars carrying broken families, and they remember the soldiers they lost and the families they’ve seen torn apart by war. Then they head back to work, haunted by the wars they have known and the wars yet to come. The prevailing mood is not that they do not want to do their job. It is that they must do their job better.
Recently, Benjamin Schwarz, a literary critic at the The Atlantic Monthly, reviewed a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s writings. Bierce fought in the Civil War, and he was disillusioned by that experience. As Schwarz writes,
Emerging from the charnel house, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning. . . . For him the war was nothing more—could be nothing more—than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose.
For Schwarz, this was Bierce’s greatest attribute: to cut through the phony cant of the war’s causes, “including the North’s smug myth of a Battle Cry of Freedom (still cherished by many contemporary historians, as it flatters their sense of their own righteousness).” Bierce’s cynicism was not just the result of a painful individual experience that allowed him to produce affecting works of art; it was an identification of the universal truth of war.
Schwarz has made similar claims about the chroniclers of the Second World War. Artists and nonfiction writers like Steven Spielberg and Stephen Ambrose have earned his ire for their supposed mythmaking of America’s G.I. “plaster saints” nobly fighting the “Good War.” To Schwarz, literary figures like the historian qua memoirist Paul Fussell have captured the true meaninglessness of it all.
The latter view, Schwarz has written, “that combat, even combat that defeats Nazi Germany, is without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose” is “unusually clear-eyed” about “real war.” This belief has been overlooked by a population that wants to be coddled and so refuses to recognize that true artistry goes hand in hand with, as Schwarz would have it, the accurate, nihilistic view of war.
This conceit has long been de rigueur among professional critics of high culture. In his introduction to Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson equated human war to the aggression of gangs of baboons and sea slugs: “at bottom the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism.” Only humans, whether they are Napoleon, or the Nazis, or Americans, justify their instincts in terms of “morality” and “reason” and “virtue” and “civilization.”
“I am not here making a moral criticism of the course of our foreign policy,” Wilson wrote, with no small degree of logical discontinuity:
I am trying to disregard the pretensions of moral superiority with which we have tempted to clothe it. . . . I want to suggest that . . . we ought to stop talking in terms of defending and liberating the victims of “oppressors” and “criminals,” our old patter of “right” and “wrong” and punishing the guilty party.
Wilson’s great literary villain of the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln, precisely because the President used his vast artistry with language to identify greater meaning in the conflict, which in turn provided justification for the harsh measures required to fight and win the struggle. Wilson preferred those who emphasized the brutality of the war, because it was all a tragic farce.
Half a century after Wilson wrote Patriotic Gore in the 1960s, his view of war has gained increasing prevalence among the literati. A recent review in the Boston Globe neatly summarized the critics’ views. Beginning after the Civil War, writers like Stephen Crane and Bierce “started re-imagining the Civil War in terms of realism instead of heroism. More than that, these new writers started changing readers’ expectations of war writing.” Thus, the
war literature that came out of World War I (Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway), World War II (Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller), and Vietnam (Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien)—all of it is best described as antiwar literature.
In the meantime, writings and films that even hint at the greater causes of war are either ignored or dismissed by the critics as mere entertainment, not art or literature.
The cynicism is manifest in education. For generations, American students have read Hemingway, Mailer, and Heller supplemented by Remarque, Vonnegut, and the occasional viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives. Just as importantly, they have been inoculated against patriotism in all its forms, taught to sneer at the Romanticism in Washington Irving’s portrayal of George Washington’s youth, the plain backwoods heroism of Sergeant York, and the supposedly misplaced sunset in the Green Berets. They learn “In Flanders Fields” as an example of early propaganda in World War I poetry. Fussell called the relevant words “vicious and stupid.”
Over the past half century, scarcely an American student has studied Great War poetry without finding out that Wilfred Owen produced the greatest poem of the war. With its horrifying depictions of the suffering and death of fighting in the trenches, his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” proved “the old lie”—that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. Tellingly, we would be hard-pressed to find a student these days who has read “Dulce et Decorum Est” in its original form by Horace. After all, the Roman poet could not possibly have produced art if it contained such sentimental pap.
None of this is to dismiss the merit of antiwar art. There is plenty of talent on the side of cynicism. Indeed, it seems the majority of the talent has been on that side, because the bias has become self-perpetuating: great artists depicted war as meaningless brutality; serious critics determined that such depictions were great art; and aspiring artists and critics, hoping to be taken seriously, followed suit. As a result, the Boston Globe is right. Nearly all war literature, both good and bad, has been antiwar literature. Jarhead, both the book and movie, stands out in this regard: writers and filmmakers tried so hard that they produced an unintentional parody of the form.
Still, done well, cynical accounts emphasizing the brutality and meaninglessness of war are infused with a pathos that cannot help but be affecting. In that sense, the critics deserve a pass for celebrating the artistry, aesthetic mood, and setting of these works. Such is the power of art.
This charitable reading of the critics, however, can only go so far. There is also a link between criticism and ideology that extends beyond the informed opinions of disinterested observers. In 1998, the academic and critic Louis Menand wrote a disapproving essay on Saving Private Ryan for The New York Review of Books. The film’s opening captured the random brutality of war, but the subsequent story of a small squad’s mission to rescue a soldier behind enemy lines did not prove sufficiently tragic to Menand. Spielberg, in Menand’s estimation, appealed to what the audience wanted to see, and therefore sacrificed art for entertainment. The film’s brutality was not enough. To be art, the depicted war had to be meaningless.
On its own, Menand’s review is par for the course. A few years later, Menand published The Metaphysical Club, a paean to American pragmatist thought at the turn of the last century. A literary achievement in its own right, the book is more about the lives of its main characters—William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey—than it is a critical analysis of their thinking. To the extent that Menand does take sides, it is to support a simplified version of Pragmatism. For him, the great contribution of the pragmatists was that they unmoored ideas from any transcendent truth. Ideas could occasionally be useful, but that utility was dependent on circumstances and therefore fleeting. As he puts it in a summary of a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “In their dedication to the task at hand, human beings make, by their deeds, tracks in the wilderness. The wilderness itself is trackless.”
Where did such a perspective come from? Menand finds his answer in the barbarity of the Civil War. The pre-war idealism of men like Holmes led them to join up and fight, or at least cheer the fight from home. But the war did not go as planned. It dragged on, killing Americans by the hundreds of thousands and taking a terrible toll on battlefield and home front alike. The experience scarred them, and they could not find a meaning to the war that could meet its costs. In Menand’s hands, the pragmatists saw war as meaningless butchery prompted by those who slaved themselves to abstract ideas created by different men for different times. The changing world required new ideas—the Civil War proved that.
It is no coincidence that Pragmatism became an intellectual bedfellow of progressivism. In the view of both, modernity presented new challenges that could not be answered with the old ideas. Pragmatists preached experimentation to develop practical solutions to rapidly changing environments; progressives and their liberal heirs imagined, as Yuval Levin has argued,
liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment—principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society.
From this perspective, the utopian goals, not the refinement of existing ideals and institutions, are what matter most.
Without getting into the merits of either Pragmatism or progressive liberalism, it is key to note that the meaninglessness of war is essential to their worldview. If there is something more to war than just butchery, if soldiers fight and die for a preexisting ideal, then their sacrifice becomes a powerful testament to that ideal. No one said it better than Lincoln:
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
But was Lincoln right? Did the soldiers at Gettysburg give the last full measure of devotion to a cause? Have our soldiers ever fought for something more than just to survive the horrors of combat? The answer is much more complicated than the critics allow, which by default means that their absolutist view is wrong. But that assertion does not let them off the hook—in fact, it should make them rethink exactly what they hope to prove with their cynicism about war.
Among all human endeavors, war is something unique. It is a tool of policy, but not politics as usual. It is policy by violent means, and those means make the nature of war emotional, confusing, unpredictable, and deadly—but not incoherent, no matter how chaotic it appears close up. Therein lies the dilemma for those who want to understand why men fight in war.
Combat itself is a disconcerting experience that does not allow the time or space for reflection. The sharp end of war seems random and arbitrary. Success or failure in battle is often unclear, and men live and die in proportions that seem to have little to do with their relative ability, let alone morality. What is more, states, even democratic ones, can get young men into combat with remarkable ease and little explanation required. As a rule, young people bring limited perspective and experience to the confusion they find on the battlefield. For all of those reasons, when asked about their motivations, the men fighting on the front lines tend to focus on supporting their comrades, not on the causes of the war. What that means is that, in the aggregate, young people will fight in the service of just about any cause, whether they fully understand it or not.
Regardless of whether or not a soldier in the midst of combat fully grasps the purpose of the war, however, war as a whole is about much more than the perspectives of the men under fire. War is a tool of policy, so the perspective of policymakers must also count. When they say, as Lincoln did, that the war serves a cause, their perspective is every bit as true as the soldiers’ on the front. Yet the cynics dismiss the words of policymakers as a cover for their true intentions, which are inevitably base and therefore devoid of real meaning.
Even if the cynics are right, and that is highly debatable, war is too complex to belong to the common soldiers and the policymakers alone. What about those men and women who have dedicated their lives to military service? Military professionals, from admirals and generals to lieutenants and sergeants, have a say. They are the officers who line the roads during funeral processions at Fort Leavenworth. They too have seen the horrors of combat, and they have commanded in war, so for them the casualties of war are not just statistics; they are real people who they ordered to fight and have sometimes died. Nothing else could sustain these officers through the ordeal but the belief that the mission, and the ideals that motivate that mission matter so much that it might require sacrificing their own lives and the lives of their troops. That is why the brutality of war does not make them quit—it makes them strive to find ways that can accomplish the mission at the lowest cost possible. The cynics answer that the state has ways of compelling military professionals to do their work, but are we really to believe that these men and women are not sincere in what they say about why they fight?
And what of the civilian population, those who willingly and often enthusiastically send their family and friends into harm’s way? Do they do so because they too have been duped and do not understand the real brutality of war? The question of civilian motivation is a part of the complex picture of war, and it leads back to those front-line troops. If they survive, those young soldiers leave behind the chaos of combat. They head home from war and become part of the civilian population. They grow older and gain the time and space to reflect upon their experiences. Often, that reflection leads them to see the larger importance of what their service meant. More importantly, even after having seen the butchery of combat firsthand, they are willing to send their friends and family, their own children, to fight and maybe die in the next war, if that is what the cause requires.
All of this points to why critics should think again about the implications of their insistence that war is meaningless, especially in the American context. In their effort to direct the culture toward new ideals by dismissing the old ones, they have focused inward and lost sight of an important truth. War requires at least two sides. If war is just meaningless, then the motivations and causes of each side do not matter—they are equally invalid or valid. That conclusion should make even the most dedicated cynic recoil, because in those terms, when the wrong side wins, war, combat, and its aftermath become fraught with meaning. In that sense, at least, the critics should realize that there is coherence, meaning, in the chaos of war.
War, after all, is about competing purposes, competing causes, competing ideals—produced by polities, defined by policymakers, put into action by military professionals, and fought for by average soldiers. War itself does not care about the relative merits of those ideals, but the outcome of war, and therefore the outcome of combat, determines which ideal wins. The outcome of war determines which cause gets to survive, thrive, and guide the lives of people in peace, and just as importantly, which cause does not get to shape the peace. Most vitally, war decides which ideal gets to be fought for again. War is regrettably a part of the human condition, and it is many awful things, but it is never meaningless.
This leaves the critics with a great responsibility. At the onset of World War II, with fascism on the march, American leaders in and out of the military noted that they could not get the younger generation to grasp the greater purpose of the war. The critics noticed this too. Some of them, like poet Archibald MacLeish, realized that the critical cynicism about World War I had taught a generation to be outright dismissive of all political causes. As the professor and literary critic Howard Mumford Jones put it, “We debunked too much.”
What MacLeish and Jones understood was that no matter what the weaknesses they saw in existing American ideals, those ideals were better than the alternative. That is as true today as ever, and that is what scares the critics. If they accept that truth, then they will have to explore what has made the existing ideals consistently better than the alternative ones. In the process, they will discover that the foundational American ideals are not just relatively good, but that they are inherently good. As such, they can be refined and improved, but they must be preserved, not replaced.
Since the critics hold on to their utopian progressivism with a religious fervor, such an assessment would cause a crisis in faith, so it is exceedingly unlikely for them to undertake it. It is much easier, after all, to call war meaningless butchery, and dismiss all other views as sentimental propaganda—mere entertainment for the uninformed masses.
If the country is an ideal, and the ideal is just, then Horace had it right: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. To say that this is never true, to insist that war is always meaningless, is not art. It is the new old lie, and an ugly one at that.