Is This Republic Suffering?

No doubt there are a few of you out there who are making your way through Drew G. Faust’s new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008).  I picked up a copy yesterday and am about half-way through the first chapter, which doesn’t say much more than what was included in her Journal of Southern History article of a few years ago.  I tend to stay away from reviews if I am reading the book in question, but in this case I was curious as to whether the timing of the book’s publication would be connected to the ongoing war in Iraq.  Fortunately, I was not disappointed and located a number of references, including this one by Jon Wiener which appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

All history is contemporary history. Faust began writing this book more
than 10 years ago, but its publication now, in the midst of another
war, gives it a special meaning. Without being explicit about it, the
book reminds us what we’re doing when we tell war stories centered on
heroism and noble sacrifice, when we overlook the fact that wars are,
above all, about death
. Despite the excessive carnage, the Civil War
did have a worthy goal, and a similar purpose is touted by our current
leaders: bringing freedom and democracy to an oppressed people. But it
seems that all we have brought the Iraqis is a new republic of
suffering.

It’s no surprise to me that Faust – as a good historian – was not explicit about a possible connection to current events, but I am skeptical as to whether the book offers any lessons/insights regarding how we should go about coming to terms with our own war dead.  I say this because as a nation we have been so disconnected from the realities of the Iraq War.  In contrast to the Civil War most of us can safely ignore the death and suffering that has been visited on so many families, both here and in Iraq.  The Bush Administration worked tirelessly from the beginning to shield the population from the realities of war which it accomplished by “embedding” newspaper reporters into various units and preventing photographs of the coffins of dead servicemen and women.  It’s hard to believe that there was ever a debate about coffins.  Rather than reflect on the sacrifice made by our military George Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping.  And finally there is the entertainment factory that is our mainstream media, which has had so little to say about the war in recent months.  For whatever reason the major media outlets kept the realities of war from entering our living rooms at night.

The significance of Faust’s book should not be understood in terms of its relevancy to our current situation, but should serve to remind us of just how disconnected we have become to the sights and emotional pain of war.  The number of men mobilized on both sides, the rate of death and injury, the destruction wrought by battles and campaigns, and innovations in photography forced the nation and its leaders to deal directly with death on the grandest of scales.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is infused with imagery and references to the dead and it proved to be effective because his audience understood on the deepest of levels.  George Bush has struggled to convince many of his sincerity when referencing the dead and wounded, not because he is necessarily insincere or his speech writers have failed to string together the right combination of words, but because the message falls flat on ears that can’t quite place the references.  Perhaps we were too busy shopping.

Faust’s book details the ways in which the scale of death both challenged earlier assumptions about the “Good Death” as well as how it fueled the various debates that defined the Civil War period.  Americans contemplated political questions the meaning of the war through the lens of suffering.  The impact of war continued to shape the way Americans thought about its meaning long after the guns fell silent.  John Neff has recently argued that the path to reunion was not an easy one as the dead on both sides defined the terms and the pace at which parties on both sides were able to reconcile.  It is absolutely essential for societies to come to terms with its dead and wounded as it brings the human cost of war and the reasons for it into the sharpest focus.

There is plenty of time to go shopping.

12 comments… add one

  • Ari Jan 10, 2008

    A good historian can’t acknowledge an explicit connection between her or his study of the past and current events? Really? Why is that, would you say?

  • Kevin Jan 10, 2008

    Hi Ari, — Thanks for pointing out what I like to call a shitty sentence. What I meant to suggest that historians run into trouble when they impose current assumptions on the past (presentism). This is not to suggest that philosophical objectivity is the goal or even desirable, but that the focus ought to be on uncovering aspects of the past to the best of our ability. Civil War history is particularly prone to presentism. It includes critiques of Lincoln by Lerone Bennett and Thomas Di Lorenzo as well as studies of why the Confederacy lost that are driven by a post-Vietnam mindset that ignore forms of nationalism that existed throughout and beyond the Confederacy. Hope that help – regardless of whether you agree with it. Thanks again.

  • Bill Bergen Jan 10, 2008

    Kevin,

    Did you check out the second review on Amazon? A different sort of Civil War memory there, and for a trip down fantasy lane, read some of his other reviews . . .

    Bill

  • Kevin Jan 10, 2008

    Bill, — Thanks for the kind words re: the blog and for the Amazon reference. I’m sure that one review was written after a careful reading of the book.

  • Jim Schmidt Jan 10, 2008

    Bill,

    Looks like you and I have the same habit of following the trail of other reviews written by amazon customers…and as you pointed out, that reader’s thread was a “rich” one, indeed…all I needed to know is that he adored Jeff Shaara and diLorenzo.

    In regard to Kevin’s opinion about using caution when reading historians who make connections between past and present events using “presentism,” I agree. For my part, all you have to do is read correspondence from the Civil War – by soldiers and civilians – to see that we have “been there before.”

    Kevin – keep up the good work.

    Jim

  • Dan Jan 11, 2008

    Hello,

    I had the total misfortune of hearing president faust talk about her “ground breaking” book on Terry Gross’ show on NPR the other day. To say that Faust and Gross (blameless here as the interviewer) don’t “get it” is being kind. Faust is a perfect example of how academic historians are utterly clueless.

    Here is my review of her interview. Needless to say I would not waste my time on this bologna nor a cent of money either.

    if i were to tell you that my face was all in a scowl for almost 35 minutes before i had to shut off the silliness finally, i would not be exaggerating. faust should stick to her presidential duties- you know, raising money for the endowment and such, rather than “researching” and writing such junk as her new “ground breaking” book of hooey.

    it was truly astounding to me to hear this respected historian and college president all confused about motivations of civil war soldiers, and how they were so obsessed with this academic analysts-invented false concept of the “good death”. my own experience in academic history with silly historians like president faust prompted me to leave the academy entirely. the majority of academic historians simply to do not understand the war. they are totally confused by the mire that the study of American history has become in the university, all confused by social history, economic history, race studies, women’s studies, etc.

    was i surprised that ms. faust had made the subject almost dull in her interview? nope. was i surprised at the flat dispassionate tone? nope.

    why do you suppose that so many students hate history and only re-discover it, if ever, when they are adults? because of the awful way that it is taught in high schools and universities by historians trained in an entirely confused academia. if ever an academic discipline was in trouble, history is the one, and this interview is perfect illustration of it.

    i was astounded when ms. faust described a dying soldier surrounding himself with photographs of his family as he lay close to death on some unnamed battlefield. her explanation of the “meaning” of this behavior by the poor soldier almost made me stop the car, open the window, and heave. for ms. faust this was illustrative of the need by “victorian people” to be surrounded by their loved ones so that they could look into their eyes and validate themselves with a brave/good death so that they could be elevated to the next life. such utter hogwash!

    folks miss their kin, dying folks miss their kin! if a dying soldier was lucky enough to have photos of his family and had the time left – he would look at them all as his life ebbed away thinking thoughts of them, and missing them and wishing that he could be with them and sure as h*** wishing he wasn’t dying!

    this over analysis, illustrated so clearly by Faust, by academic historians makes history seem not about people but about concepts (so many of them false and theoretical). this is what academic historians love- so that they can then write books about such concepts and teach these fantasies to their poor yet unreceptive students and most importantly, justify their teaching positions.

    the simplicity, pathos, tragedy and loneliness of the soldier’s battle death is, for folks like the president of harvard, some kind of fulfillment of religious or sociological need, rather than the human tragedy that is exactly what it is.

    over-analysis, mistaken analysis, silliness such as this, and a bizarre over-emphasis on issues other than core matters have made history a battered and declining discipline in the university. of course, recent plagiarism cases and cases of propagandistic teaching by folks in this field have not helped.

    this terry gross interview with faust should be de rigeur for all civil war students so that they can see how totally out of touch the supposed “experts” in the academy are from this most important of all events in american history. where the simplest most sublime explanations are the truth the academic historian will invent some confabulation and complexity of hundreds of pages to explain it all. hooey.

  • Kevin Jan 11, 2008

    Well Dan, thanks for taking the time to air out your emotions. Other than that I don’t really know what to say.

  • Dan Jan 11, 2008

    Thank you for posting my thoughts. I appreciate your blog.

  • Kevin Jan 11, 2008

    Not at all, but I would encourage you to read the book and consider Faust’s carefully crafted argument. She is an extremely talented historian and has spent a considerable amount of time exploring how the war altered conceptions of death.

  • Dan Jan 11, 2008

    Thank you. And I mean no disparagement to you nor your colleagues who are probably quite good at teaching this subject and understanding it. I have been a student of this subject for almost 40 years and have been amazed at the mistaken approach that so many professional historians take to the subject (and to the majority of others, too). Faust’s interview was so illustrative of the disconnect between academic historians in the university and real-life history with real people. I may take a look at Faust’s book, but reluctantly. I have to admit that her interview with Gross was very disturbing. Again, thank you kindly for posting my admittedly strong opinion on the matter. No need to post this one, though. I’ve got some Civil War material on my own blog, mostly on the Battle of Franklin and a few reviews of Civil War poetry most recently a critical analysis of “Ode to the Confederate Dead” by Allen Tate. Best Regards, Daniel

  • Kevin Jan 11, 2008

    Dan, — You are more than welcome to disagree with anything, including my own posts. I would love to hear a bit more about where you see a “disconnect between academic historians in the university and real-life history with real people.” From what I can tell it sounds like you see a tendency to over-analyze. I tend to see analysis as indespensible to serious historical study, but admit that at times it tells us more about the individual than the subject under study.

  • Janus Daniels Jan 25, 2008

    “George Bush has struggled to convince many of his sincerity when referencing the dead and wounded, not because he is necessarily insincere or his speech writers have failed to string together the right combination of words, but because the message falls flat on ears that can’t quite place the references.”
    No.
    “Rather than reflect on the sacrifice made by our military George Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping.”
    Yes.

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