The cliché that 9/11 “changed everything” is nowhere less true than in the post-9/11 impulse to declare war immediately. War was a choice as well as an echo: a choice Americans made, and an echo of how Americans have made decisions in times of previous conflict. In that sense, 9/11 changed nothing. That’s because, to paraphrase Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges: war is a force that gives Americans meaning through their history, largely because powerful impulses in American religion have historically sacralized war’s religious, redemptive force.
On May 1, when President Obama announced the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, crowds almost instantly formed outside the White House chanting “USA! USA!.” Depending on whom you believe, this reaction was either an unsettling display of vengeance directed against a relic of Cold War alliances who no longer had much cachet in most of the Arab world, or it was an understandable existential catharsis; a healthy celebration of patriotism that was more about celebrating “us” rather than denigrating “them.”
The day after the announcement, Drew Gilpin Faust, by trade a Civil War historian but more recently President of Harvard University, delivered the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian” (the full pdf of the talk is here).
Faust’s talk addressed the irresistible attraction of war, the way that it has historically made participants and observers alike “touched with fire,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said of his service in the Civil War:
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 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.
In the nineteenth century, many Americans gave meaning to war initially through narratives of emancipation. The inconceivable sacrifices of the Civil War—the deaths of over 600,000 soldiers, the maiming of so many others, and the suffering on the homefront—meant liberation for 4 million newly freed people, while many others found it in the resolution to America’s most intractable division. There really was something to fight for—and over—beyond simply the chance for personal valor and national “pride.”
Just a few decades later, however, that war took on a whole different meaning for most (white) Americans; a soothing story of reconciliation, shorn of almost any reference to slavery, supplanted the narrative of emancipation. By the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg in the summer of 1913, surviving soldiers in a segregated camp and ceremony knew what meaning war gave them in the reunited American republic. Narratives of destruction which fascinated Americans during the war itself had turned to parables of triumph. But it was a particular form of triumph that allowed the heroes of Gettysburg, North and South, to cry together, USA! USA!
Americans cried that together during the great national reconciliation of the Spanish-American War, when, as the press widely reported, “blues” and “grays” came together to rid the hemisphere of the last vestiges of the decayed evil empire of the Spanish. National exultation over the rapid victory (akin to the same national feeling after the invasion of Afghanistan, and again after the invasion of Iraq and rapid toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime) stressed war’s redeeming qualities for recapturing a national elan threatened by twins of industrialization and immigration, and the bitter social conflicts that arose from them. Those who decried this round of foreign adventurism, most notably Mark Twain, lambasted the hypocrisy of depending on the violence of war as a force to mend social conflicts at home. Such voices carried minimal weight in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, one of American history’s greatest apostles of redemption through violence.
Once more, war as a force to give meaning fed into the narratives soldiers gave to their experiences during World War I. Far from being a period of “disillusionment” for most, it was instead a period of “reillusionment,” as Jonathan Ebel has pointed out in Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War. These believers in a “Christianity of the sword” found that war and violence, whatever their costs, could become the avenues for personal and national redemption, just as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Theodore Roosevelt had believed.
Like others of his generation, Oliver Wendell Holmes (and, later, Theodore Roosevelt) came to feel that the simple act of fighting a war, regardless of the cause, would touch men’s hearts with fire, and thus regenerate and sanctify a nation in the process of losing precious martial virtues. The literature of the Vietnam War abounds with memoirs of young men imbued with this spirit, and then disillusioned when their hearts were touched more by deceit or bloodlust than martial valor. In more recent years, neoconservatives and others have picked up the themes of war as regeneration, at times to disastrous consequence.
Since the metaphor of “war” has suffused nearly everything in recent American history, from Communism to poverty to drugs, it is no surprise that President Bush’s unscripted remark a few days after 9/11, “war on terrorism,” came to define the struggle of our age. No surprise, but not inevitable; other choices exist, but have little chance of defining the national response because they lack the religious connection of war, violence, and redemption. Nor can they satisfy the national urge towards vengeance. Legal and political responses seem pallid in comparison to the religious force and power contained within war—particularly in a war against originators of an unprovoked attack which murdered civilians indiscriminately.
As we enter the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginning, Faust writes of the reenactors who obsess over every detail of their uniforms and bullets:
They will in these myriad details get history just right. But what will they understand of war?? . . . 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?
Will our cultural memory of the wars of our time undergo a similar process of simplification as happened to cultural memory of the Civil War? Or to the reillusionment of the faithful fighters of World War I? If so, then our stories of war, our “war on terrorism,” will simply return to shopworn themes of spiritual regeneration and a renewal of national innocence.
If history repeats itself twice, then the first time, as Faust reminds us, was tragedy, and the second time might yet be too. If, on the other hand, we find other means beyond real and metaphorical war as a force to give us meaning, then perhaps we can amend or avoid this seemingly inevitable theme of America’s war stories.