Friday, September 23, 2011

Review of Upon the Altar of a Nation

Yale professor of history, Harry S. Stout, in the introduction of his recent book, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, proposes to offer the reader two things: to apply broadly accepted jus in bello standards to the conduct of both sides of the internecine conflict and to chart the role the Civil War played in the rise of American civil religion. In fact, it was reading a free sample of the introduction--with its audacious and compelling claims--that prompted me to purchase the book. Would that I had received instead a sample of the conclusion, I might have realized in advance was a self-indulgent, belabored, pell-mell work this would be. It is in his conclusion that Stout makes the ultimate, predictable judgment that the Civil War did not live up to any known standards of just war and then immediately exonerates both the Civil War--on the senseless grounds that "winners and losers alike would concede almost anything, it seemed, except the idea that their internecine war was ultimately meaningless or unjust"--and war in general--with the claim that "Judging the Civil War is not a brief for pacifism. Rather it is an endorsement of the idea of a just war. There are no ideal wars." It is also in the conclusion where Stout, rather than examining critically the rise of civil religion, is most concerned with label himself a devoted adherent (and eventually explaining, at length, what that means to him): "...they believed in Lincoln's characterization of America as the world's last best hope. And, further, I can only conclude that for reasons Americans don't deserve or understand, we are." Here, his critical history becomes subsumed under his civil faith, and this faith keeps him from too hard (or too accurate) a judgment of the justness of the Civil War. It is no wonder then that his book--all 576 pages of it--leaves the reader with the overwhelming sense of meaninglessness that Stout fails to attribute to any aspect of the war itself.

The first and greatest weakness of Stout's work is not the quality of his theses--which one inevitably walks away feeling are correct, if only Stout had bothered to prove them--but the way in which he goes about demonstrating them, or rather fails to do so. After introducing the common criteria of discrimination and proportionality at length in the introduction he neglects them for the rest of the work. In fact, the term proportionality won't appear after the introduction until the thirteenth chapter. After the fourteenth chapter, the subject will not be addressed again until Chapter 28. That sort of sporadic treatment of the supposed purpose of the book is characteristic of Stout's entire approach. Rather than approaching the problem with surgical precision, Stout undertakes to write a history of the Civil War which takes up his moral questions on convenient occasions, his issues of civil religion on convenient occasions, but otherwise is content to wallow in florid prose totally unconcerned with the fact that, rather than making an original contribution, Stout is merely regurgitating McPherson under the guise of contextualization.

Even those rare occasions when the subjects of civil religion or jus in bello do appear, Stout does not make his case so much as assume it. In his depiction of the rise of civil religion in particular, the reader discovers not the gradual unveiling of a more and more obvious religious sentiment toward the nation so much as a gradually freer and freer use of rhetoric by Stout. Arriving at Chapter 34, the reader is suddenly presented with this sentence: "Still the fighting pressed on as the warrior priests prepared for new sacrifices." Without any substantial or systematic examination of any possible language of generals as "warrior priests" or of deaths as "sacrifices," Stout flourishes the terms as if their appropriateness is self-evident. Before the book concludes, there will be some evidence that some thinkers thought some generals functioned as "warrior priests" but never any comprehensive argument that culture as a whole viewed them that way. While the case for an understanding of military deaths as martyrs sacrifices will be more convincingly demonstrated, what is not shown is that the Civil War in some way manifested this peculiarly or that it developed gradually over the course of the war as a result of an evolving American psyche.

In addition to his unsubstantiated assumption from the outset that his theses are incontestable, Stout makes rather unrealistic, fundamentally anachronistic assumptions about the nature of ethical discourse in war times generally and in the Civil War in particular. As early as the fourth chapter, Stout feigns surprise that the Northern intellectuals and press met the fall of Fort Sumter with patriotism rather than "sober moral reflection," as if the unprecedented outbreak of civil strife was the obvious occasion for ethical tomes rather than visceral, emotional response. Stout will continue on to find an appalling lack of moral commentary in the performing arts, painting, and popular music, expecting instead (I can only assume) a contemporary Bob Dylan to rise up and provide moral, cultural commentary for soldiers to hum as they marched into battle. Stout is everywhere disturbed to find that newspapers were more interested in sensationalism than moral reflection, politicians more interested in rhetoric than restraint, and preachers more interested in invoking the "God of Battles" than the "Lord of mercy." It is almost as if Stout had never read a paper, experienced an election, or heard a sermon. Perhaps most curious of all, Stout wonders in his conclusion at the fact that, "Privates may have been executed for rape, but no commanding officer was ever executed for creating the...culture in which rape could easily take place."

What the reader is left with is a history of the Civil War which ironically strives to make everyone look as morally reprehensible as possible--Stout eagerly injects "[white]" into many quotes (e.g. "[white] freedom," "[white] citizens," "[white] civilization") in an effort to read racism into every possible contemporary sentiment even where it is not indicated by context--and then absolves them or their moral fault in the end, explicitly preferring a "personal" response to the question of justice rather than an analytical one. In other words, the moral of Stout's moral story is that we should never fight another war again in the way the Civil War was fought, but that isn't to say that, given the opportunity, we shouldn't fight the Civil War again, even as it was fought. Convoluted? Apparently. Self-contradictory? Perhaps. Worth the price of the paper its printed on? Certainly not.

No comments:

Post a Comment