War is hell—and it's a helluva story. Throughout history, from Homer's time on through the Civil War and into the present-day war on terror, we've been powerfully drawn by war narratives.
Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a prominent historian of the Civil War, made that bloody fascination the subject of her 2011 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, delivered here Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Jefferson Lecture is the federal government's most prestigious award for intellectual accomplishment in the humanities.
Ms. Faust has had a distinguished career as a historian of the Civil War and the antebellum South. Her most recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), won the 2009 Bancroft Prize. Her five other books include Mothers of Invention, an examination of the lives of the South's slaveholding women during the war.
The day Ms. Faust delivered her lecture, the news media was full of reports of the death of Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda, in a U.S. military operation in Pakistan. Although she wrote the talk well before the news broke, the sense that a chapter in the war on terror has been closed gave the historian's remarks about war story lines an unexpected resonance.
"When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was influenced in no small part by the desire—even need—to transform the uncertainty of combating a terrorist enemy into a conflict that could provide a purposeful, coherent, and understandable structure, a comprehensible narrative," Ms. Faust said. "We expect wars to come with endings; that is part of their story. The language of war made Americans protagonists in a story they understood rather than the victims or potential victims of forces beyond their comprehension and control."
'The Aura of the Consequential'
Ms. Faust traced what she called "the seductiveness of war" to its location on the "boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman," and the possibility it offers of transcending "the gray everyday" of life. "Stories of war are infused with the aura of the consequential," she said in her talk, "Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian."
She added: "War stories matter."
They're also as difficult to tell as they are compelling. She described how writers and soldiers throughout history have tried to describe the experience of war, only to find it slipping away from them. "There remains a fundamental untellability and unintelligibility about war," she said, which only makes it more powerful as a subject.
That paradox was hinted at even before Ms. Faust began her lecture. A U.S. Marine band, the President's Own, played marches on stage while Civil War images appeared overhead on a screen. The band's rendition of the Marine Corps's official song, the "Marines' Hymn," brought loud applause from the audience; so did Walt Whitman's "Dirge for Two Veterans," read by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who was an iconic figure in the civil-rights movement.
Ms. Faust prefaced her lecture by telling Mr. Lewis that it was "a great privilege for me to be able to stand in your presence and say thank you."
Changing Perspectives on the Civil War
She began the talk with a personal war story: the memory of a 1962 family trip to watch a centennial re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam. In the 1960s, she said, such re-enactments were used to play up the romance of the war and obscure what it was really fought about: slavery. At the Antietam Battlefield, 100 years after the actual battle, observers saw "a carnival without carnage, a battle stripped of content and context," the historian said, calling it "a pointed erasure of the war's causes and consequences."
The Civil War centennial observances of the early 1960s were used by some who opposed civil rights to deflect attention from the fight for equality taking place throughout the nation, which "found itself once again convulsed in a struggle over the meanings of citizenship, justice, and equality," Ms. Faust said.
There's still talk of states' rights and a denial, in some quarters, that "the peculiar institution" was "a fundamental cause of the war," she pointed out. But, thanks in part to five decades' worth of what Ms. Faust called "pathbreaking scholarship and writing," we're able to see the events and meaning of the Civil War more clearly. "Issues that were suppressed or ignored a half-century ago are now necessarily fundamental to Civil War remembrance," she said. "Race has moved from the margins of Civil War history to its center."
What hasn't changed, she said, is how drawn we are to stories about that conflict—and to war stories in general. In the last half-century, historians have produced more than 100 books a year, on average, about the Civil War, she said. Part of its lasting appeal "is simply that it was war," Ms. Faust said.
She laid out how humanity's history has been tangled up with war from the beginning. "We might even say that the humanities began with war, and from war, and have remained entwined with it ever since," she said. Homer's Iliad, "the first masterwork of Western literature," dates from about 750 B.C.E. and "exerts a wrenching power more than two millennia after its origin."
Ms. Faust observed that "war, like literature, is a distinctively human product." She asked, "How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane?" The explanation, she suggested, lies in how "war offers the attraction of the extraordinary," an escape from "the humdrum into higher things." She invoked Robert E. Lee's famous and variously quoted line that "it is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it."
The Power of War Stories
But war stories, with their promises about "order and control," aren't just passive accounts of conflict, she said. "They have the power to send men into battle and to shape the wars they fight."
"Tales of glory, honor, manhood, and sacrifice enhance war's attraction and mobilize men and armies" by offering up romantic ideas of what war means, she said.
She spoke, for example, of the generation slaughtered in the trenches of World War I. What Wilfred Owen called "the old Lie"—Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori—left those young men unprepared for the gruesome and often futile combat they faced, Ms. Faust observed. "And yet. Still we are lured by war, and still we tell the stories that both shape and distort our understanding of it," she said.
At the close of her talk, Ms. Faust returned to her starting point: how we choose to remember the Civil War. She asked a pointed question:
"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?"