“Fighting Words: On War and Language”
A Review of
War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
By Cynthia Wachtell
Reviewed by Greg Schreur.
War No More:
The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
By Cynthia Wachtell.
Hardback: LSU Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Robert E. Lee is credited with saying, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Lee recognized that in battle there is just enough heroism, valor, drama, and occasional righteous purpose that can lead some to whitewash over the horrible truth about war. Nearly everyone has their own beliefs on the morality of war even if we have never experienced battle ourselves, yet for most of us, our views rely not on firsthand experience but on the versions that are presented to us through news reports, books, and movies. It is important, then, that these reports not mislead us or ensconce us in blissful ignorance; on the other hand, what damage can be done when people’s opinions are swayed negatively by some of war’s more disturbing truths?
By now anti-war movements and portrayals have become nearly ubiquitous and have existed long enough to develop their own stereotypes and clichés: the alcoholic Vietnam vet and the disillusioned soldier returning home, to name a pair. The history of the Vietnam War era is equal parts military and civil demonstration, soldier and protester. As Cynthia Wachtell demonstrates in War No More, that period was the diametric opposite of the years leading up to the Civil War, when war was still being grossly romanticized, blinding citizens and politicians and erstwhile recruits to the true horror of war, especially war in the post-industrial age.
World War I is more commonly credited with shattering the war-is-glory myth, and the writers of what is now referred to as the “lost generation” are a more recognized part of the anti-war pantheon. Wachtell argues that certain writers of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras began to question that war in both published and unpublished writings, and in so doing they both challenged the traditional styles and forms and helped prepare a general public wary of confronting such troubling realities.
As such, the basic premise of the book is not of groundbreaking significance, particularly to average readers. Additionally, some of the connections Wachtell makes can feel a bit forced, and a few of the sections are weaker or more extraneous than others, such as the chapters on Mark Twain and the role of technology in modern warfare. However, it is quite readable for a scholarly work and offers lessons and insights for anyone interested in the power of language and its role in confronting truth and presenting the true natures of war.
Of the more interesting aspects to the book are the insights into certain writers as they worked out their own feelings as to war in general and even the Civil War. The section on Walt Whitman is particularly revealing as Watchell demonstrates how the poet struggled to reconcile his revulsion of warfare with the moral justification of the war. In both published and unpublished writings, Whitman both expressed and demonstrated his uncertainty about the war and the writer’s responsibility in presenting its realities. In a very telling example, Watchell uses versions of one of Whitman’s poems to exhibit the poet’s uncertainty and the power of language to affect meaning. As a result of such ambivalence Whitman is a much more interesting figure than others such as Ambrose Bierce who were vehemently opposed to war.
The book also does justice for relatively little known authors such as John William De Forest and Joseph Kirkland, whose books are little known but who helped challenge the status quo of literature. Another interesting point the book makes is the role that the writings of Sir Walter Scott played in whetting the nation’s appetite for war. Harriet Beecher Stowe may have ignited the public as to the cause of the war, but Watchell argues it was Scott’s romantic war novels and their influence in the literature of the day that helped create an atmosphere ripe for war.
Perhaps most important to a contemporary audience still wrestling with issues such as whether to publicize images of soldiers’ coffins or the accuracy of words such as terrorist and insurgent, the book raises—even if it does not directly address—the debate of what truth should and should not be revealed about war. In a democratic society, no matter where you are in the continuum of that debate, it is a discussion well worth maintaining, if not vital to the survival of our society.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com