Jan. 27th, 2013

aslant: (elle s'amuse)
6. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust


After reading her excellent Mothers of Invention, I dove right into This Republic of Suffering, published in 2008 and slightly more famous, coming as it did on the heels of the beginning of her Harvard presidency. Gratifyingly, there are names of a bunch of Radcliffe people in the acknowledgments who I used to work with, including Amy Paradis, who I credit with inspiring me to go to graduate school. Anyway, this book is completely fascinating, both for the story it tells (I am still getting up to snuff on the Civil War, sorry AP US History class that I largely ignored for the sake of a crush and other distractions, [livejournal.com profile] baatasticyou know what I'm talking about!) and for its thought-provoking exploration of killing and death.

As a quick summary, Faust is here to tell you about the massive scale of death, its effects on society, how we attempted to grapple with it on a national scale. She is very, very good at making this story feel real with stories and words from individual soldiers as well as information about larger societal trends and government orders and such. She's good. This book is good. It helped me understand a little better my captivation with wars, too.

If you've followed my book reviews, you might know that this is my second delving into books about wars -- last year I read a lot of books about World War II and the Holocaust; now I'm on a Civil War kick (and also a WWI kick). Sure wars are dramatic and all, but until I read Faust's illuminating chapter 2, titled simply "Killing," I had not really had much insight into why they were fascinating to me. In this chapter, Faust lucidly walks the reader through the processes by which these Victorian-era mostly christian soldiers resisted killing, reconciled it with their religious beliefs, confronted its realities, and gradually lost all fear and moral inhibition about it -- this was especially true for soldiers who witnessed the death of their comrades. Once loosed, some took on an "almost maniac wildness" and it became more about the joy of battle, killing as sport, almost as pleasure, and not necessarily in a depraved sense. Not depraved because of course the entire point of an organized military is that is creates a structure and a form in which natural fears are suppressed (close ranks and the mechanisms of drills that lessen doubt, turn it into muscle memory). Although the Civil War was by no means a precision battlefield, some of the same human tricks were used that have always been used in order to turn reluctant soldiers into soldiers willing and able to kill -- distance, conditioning, propaganda, drills. I realized in reading books about wars I have been learning a lot about how we have killed, but I've only been getting sideways answers to the greater mystery to me, which is why we kill. Or how any person goes from citizen to soldier. I'm not saying that the instinct to attack or defend isn't human; but there is something extra happening in that transformation. This chapter gave me insights into how it worked in 1800s America, which I found invaluable. This only flaw in this chapter is that while Faust capably addresses racist violence during the war, she does not make a substantial connection between racist violence and non-racist violence. For some of these "conflicted Christian" soldiers, wouldn't they have simply been transferring the norms of white-on-black violence to the battlefield against other white soldiers? Perhaps that's too simplistic. But I wish she had addressed that connection. The chapter still stands on its own quite well, though.

A dominant theme of the book is how disruptive it was to lose the expected norms of a Good Death, which was widely understood and described in many ars moriendi books. A Good Death happened at home, surrounded by kin, and you reconciled with god (not necessarily as a confession, just in a "I accept god's will and am willing to die" way). There was an elaborate art of interpreting a person's fate from their last words, motions and facial expressions. And then of course the rituals of burial, memorial, and formal mourning. Men died far from home, some were blown to bits and unrecoverable, men were buried if they were lucky, graves named and location recorded if they were luckier, letters sent to their families only sometimes. Until after the Civil War, there was no conception of the state as an entity responsible to soldiers after their death; there was no ambulance service to remove bodies from the battlefield until the last year of the war, there was no central way to record all the names of the enlisted, never mind if or how they had died. Faust's accounting of this accounting is fascinating.

Faust talks about how some argue that in the modern age we have become disconnected from death -- it happens in hospitals, not at home, fewer religious rituals proscribe its progress. But she points out that in the Civil War era, when death was everywhere and touched nearly every family, "great effort was [still] required to control and repudiate its horrors" (p. 177), largely through the ars moriendi of a Good Death. Many people expressed the sentiment that the prospect of a loved one going into battle was less terrifying than if a loved one was to go to hell -- in this era a reality that could be indicated by a missing body, missing last words (many were made up or embellished by comrades who had promised to write to the families), or an attitude of rejection or anger at death.

I recall being a kid or 11 or 12 and first expressing my lack of belief in god, and people would ask, so what do you believe happens when you die? I still believe what I believed then -- that the obliteration of ego, of thought, of consciousness, can be its own kind of heaven. A kind of dissolution, a boundarylessness, that's what I picture happening: in a kind of zen way, a complete dissolving of the boundaries between what makes up "me" and what makes up "everything else" at an atomic level. In a way, this idea of losing the boundary between myself and the world is why I have articulated loudly to my spouse and my family that I never want to be embalmed -- it seems like a sort of denial of the permeability of death, to me, a barrier to decomposition. Thinking about all this, I still found it kind of bizarre how important Civil War era people found all the rituals and whatnot of death; it strikes me as almost more important to believe in hell than to believe in god, to make it so pressing to achieve the Good Death. Heaven, in their conception, was only newly conceived as a domestic picture of bliss -- the family together forever. The centrality of family was huge, for survival and as a mechanism to understand society and reality; perhaps it is the fear of the loss of the family that was more real to them than anything else.

As a last note, if you are ever putting together a course reader that needs to answer the question, how do writers respond to war, you could do a lot worse than Faust's excellent chapter 6, "Believing and Doubting" which discusses the roots of modernism during Civil War era writing, most notably through Ambrose Bierce and Emily Dickinson, but also others. I found this part particularly affecting: not just society and individual family bonds were threatened, but language itself, form, knowledge and knowing. (But then, I always was a closet deconstructuralist.)

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