Above the Battle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Thomas C. Leonard sets several tasks in his volume devoted to what he terms the “culture of war.” He presents the views of common line soldiers and of military professionals, of munitions manufacturers, and of the civilians who were not touched by the four military encounters faced by the American nation between 1861 and 1918—the Civil War, the Indian battles, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. The soldiers show us how they viewed themselves and their enemies and what they chose to remember and what to forget. The “preparedness” proponents such as the manufacturers of weapons discuss the values of always-newer machines of destruction, while the civilian media creates propaganda campaigns to portray the enemy as worthy of destruction.

It is this concept of “worthiness” which most surprises the casual or naïve reader, who might suppose that an enemy is an enemy, a person or a country whose purpose is to destroy him. Such is not always—or even frequently—the case in the wars the author chooses to discuss.

During the Civil War when brother often was pitted against brother, one perhaps strove to look “above the battle” to seek and find principles of freedom and politics which were worth defending and which made the enemy a worthy opponent even though he held opposite views. But as Leonard points out, the Civil War was “at times, orderly and chaotic, chivalrous and cruel.” Above all else, it was not a glorious, flag-waving simplicity; it was a “scorched earth campaign.”

Why then by the 1880’s had most Americans, including the soldiers who had learned “more about diarrhea than saber charges” in the four years of civil war come to view the conflict as “comprehensible and humane,” as a period of strife which had “unlocked America’s energies and produced a glorious period of national growth”? Leonard gives no satisfactory answer to his own questions here.

He tells us that five hundred thousand soldiers deserted during this war which cost one military death for every six slaves freed. But he does not tell us whether those desertions were temporary such as Henry Fleming’s in Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, caused by panic and fear, or whether they were permanent. Obviously, most deserters are not inclined to give detailed explanations or justifications of their actions, but the millions of men who did not leave the battles also must have had noncomplimentary comments about the destruction.

Unfortunately, those viewpoints either did not make it into print very often or were treated as typical complaints of the soldier in camp. What did reach print emphasized “the grand strategy of victory and defeat . . . not the human costs. Suffering was ignored or treated laconically—to illustrate some military virtue.” At the same time war seemed to bring progress and prosperity; it brought “smoking factory chimneys, rails across the continent, free settlers in the West. . . .”

It is here that Leonard passes up the first chance to draw parallels to other times and to other wars. We must grant that this is a volume devoted to a specific time period and a particular theme; it is not a political tract, but it does seem it would not be totally inappropriate for the author to mention that many persons saw World War I as a great chance for pushing worldwide American economic hegemony, just as others secretly welcomed World War II twenty years later as a way to break the Depression of the 1930’s. These and other parallels are obvious and important omissions in the book.

A second important point which is overlooked comes in regard to the battles with the Indians. With the end of the Civil War, the professional military staff turned its attention to bringing to the West a peace based upon unenforceable treaties which were broken more often by the government and the white settlers than by the Indians. Leonard presents an...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

American Historical Review. LXXXIII, December, 1978, p. 1326.

Booklist. LXXIV, January 15, 1978, p. 792.

Choice. XV, April, 1978, p. 292.

Library Journal. CIII, February 15, 1978, p. 458.

Modern Age. XXII, Summer, 1978, p. 321.

Reviews in American History. VI, December, 1978, p. 445.