Survivors in Blue and Gray

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I come late to this party, but I lived in a bunker made of spreadsheets at the time. Via Kevin Levin of CW Memory, I’ve learned that some historians share my discomfort with the usual understanding of soldiers in war. I think that understanding goes something like this:

As the apotheosis of patriotism, a soldier on the battlefield comes quite near to divinity himself. To such a person, we owe not just the gratitude we would have toward any civil servant performing an important task but a kind of reverence. A soldier is Superman come among us, somehow more than human, and we should act accordingly and with great deference to his (and rarely, her) every sentiment. We have a powerful moral imperative to honor his sacrifices and those of the soldiers that did not come home.

Reverence makes us feel better about ourselves, but it also has a way of encouraging us not to ask questions of people who, whatever course their lives took, have not actually left behind our species for a better one. Skepticism becomes disrespect and so we must close our eyes to the nuances of the real world. That cannot be healthy for us and cannot help us understand events in the past or present. Understanding comes through asking questions, not from refusing to do so.

But that leaves one without any framework within which to understand the soldiers. In that absence, the usual frame can easily slide back in. My personal interests do not lay very close to the level of individual soldiers, so I don’t think I noticed the lack until I read Kevin’s post. He quotes Michael J. Bennett’s essay in This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North, which looks like it needs to go on my pile of books to read:

How can these accounts be folded into the current narrative of the war?  The answer is that they cannot.  The best way to reach an understanding of what really happened at Bull Run and the events that followed is to rethink what soldiers when through in combat.  Watching GIs commit “un-American acts” against German soldiers in Italy during World War II pushed the combat artist George Biddle to seek a reassessment of the soldiers’ combat ordeal.  He wrote that it was unfair for civilians to think of soldiers as heroes or stars.  Instead, he thought it more appropriate that soldiers be viewed as survivors of a great disaster like a mine collapse or a burning building.  Only then could civilians truly understand the desperate circumstances and decisions under which soldiers fought. (p. 150)

My bold.

That makes a lot of sense to me. As the subject doesn’t naturally draw me, I have not asked many soldiers about their experiences. I recall only two: my grandfather and a man I went to college with. Though I had access to him for a good twenty years and a good decade of interest in history before I worked up the nerve to have the conversation, I asked my grandfather only once. I did not hear the usual stories one would expect, and which the media has primed us for, when it comes to veterans of the Second World War.

I felt bad afterwards. He volunteered quite a bit, but I clearly stirred some very unpleasant memories. I only ever saw him cry that day and at my grandmother’s funeral. A cousin took him to Saving Private Ryan and apparently got a similar response. He obviously did not feel like a hero, but rather a survivor.  He spent some effort, I don’t think entirely successfully, convincing himself that the war had to happen and his job had to be done. He clearly preferred an alternative he suggested then: each country sends its biggest couple of guys to fight it out somewhere and abide by the results.

Which brings us back to imagining people complexly again, I suppose. The heroic narrative denies soldiers their humanity, turning them into cardboard cutouts of patriotic virtue just as much as a narrative of historic Southerners always chomping at the bit for secession, or present day Southerners locked in embittered Confederate stasis for a hundred and fifty years denies them their humanity. They could have more than one thing in their head at a time, just like everyone else.

A soldier might fight for flag, for family, for a culture he wants to preserve, for Union, slavery, adventure, independence, to prove his manhood, to escape things at home, the list goes on and on. But that soldier remains a person. His warfare does not remove his humanity any more than it enhances it. That same soldier also feels fear, sees things few of us would like to see, and lives with the memories of terror and horrors that may far exceed peacetime imagining. The soldier creates victims of war with his weapon, but in doing so he also himself becomes a victim.

I don’t mean to equate shooter with target here, but the vast number of soldiers required for anything resembling a modern war precludes recruiting just from the minority of humans who don’t have any problem killing others. Rather war puts them in positions where they receive encouragement to do so and where circumstances and concern for their own futures demand it. The two are not quite the same, but it almost makes more sense to view a soldier like we would a person who accidentally ran over someone with their car. We naturally care more about the victim, or at least we want to, but the person behind the wheel or behind the gun pays a personal price for the act as well.

That said, I have one reservation. I imagine Bennett probably talks about this in the full essay, which I’ve yet to read, but I think it’s worth saying anyway: Mine collapses and burning buildings just happen. Rarely are they the result of deliberate sabotage. Wars, by their very nature, require people deciding that they shall make war upon one another and so, consequently, that other people shall pay the costs in their blood, broken bodies, and scars less visible but no less real. Those disasters don’t just happen; we make them happen.

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