The U.S. government continues its slow but relentless buildup of military forces in the Middle East, preparing to unleash “Fourth-Generation” warfare against the eighth reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Historians and pseudo-historians extol the liberating glories of past redemptive wars waged by God’s instrument on earth. The Bush administration, neocons, and theocons (and other cons in the pay of big oil or the Israeli lobby) promise that, out of charred flesh, severed limbs, radiation poisoning, and high-altitude massacre, the glorious dawn of Islamic democracy, peace, and tolerance shall arise. We are reminded, once again, that, for those who run the country, “doin’ good ain’t got no end.” Our masters may also be thinking that death means a higher price for Raytheon shares and that Baghdad is well worth a reelection.
Lt. Ambrose Bierce of the Ninth Indiana Regiment and the Army of the Ohio would find none of this unusual or unexpected. In his postwar career as a journalist in San Francisco, Bierce ridiculed “sycophantic historians and biographers” for whom the truth of history was not “good enough,” denounced “the non-combatant contingent in Washington” who clamored for more slaughter and more punishment of Southern civilians, and observed with disgust that “this is a country of religious cant” whose public rhetoric was “destitute alike of discernment and moderation.” He expected future wars and insane crusades, and he did not anticipate the dawning of a New Age of Man.
Bierce enlisted as a private in the Northern Army at the call of President Lincoln for volunteers to suppress the “insurrection” in the South. His intelligence, composure, and bravery under fire earned him a promotion to the officer corps by late 1862; soon thereafter, he was made a first lieutenant and appointed to the head-quarters staff as a topographical engineer. Bierce fought in almost every major battle in the Western theater: Shiloh, Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Franklin, and Nashville. At Kennesaw Mountain, he was shot in the head; his wound was serious, and he never fully recovered. Recurrent spells of fainting and dizziness caused his superiors to release him from active duty in January 1865.
Apart from his justly famous story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce’s Civil War writings have been neglected by historians and professors of literature. There is a reason: Bierce failed to make the expected deposit in the Northern Treasury of Virtue. Russell Duncan’s and David J. Klooster’s collection includes all of Bierce’s writings on the war, both his short stories and his articles. The former combine brutal and grotesque depictions of the horror of battle with supernatural and ghostly elements. He claimed that what his critics dismissed as “improbable” or “impossible” in his stories were often “transcripts from memory—things that actually occurred before my eyes.” His accounts of those battles are among the most realistic and vivid ever written.
Reading Bierce is the best antidote to the pious banalities of Eric Foner, James McPherson, Victor Davis Hanson, and other historians of the school of melodrama, who celebrate the war as a demonstration of Northern righteousness and a landmark on the road to universal freedom and equality. Bierce would have none of the iconography surrounding Grant and Sherman. From personal observation, he knew the former as a drunkard, a “poor tactician,” and a man who “cherished personal resentments.” While he admitted that Grant was a competent strategist, he regarded Don Carlos Buell, the general who saved Grant’s army from annihilation at Pittsburgh Landing during the battle of Shiloh, as the better general and the better man. Bierce noted with bitterness that Lincoln removed Buell from command of the Army of Ohio because he had displeased “the seraphim and cherubim of Abolition.” In other words, he frowned upon the looting and burning of plantations.
Bierce clearly regretted his part in a war that he came to regard as an unnecessary slaughter of Christians and fellow countrymen. He described the Southerners who died in battle as “fallen brothers” and “honest and courageous foemen.” He even admitted that
as a rule the Confederates fought better than our men. On even terms they commonly defeated us; nearly all our victories were won by superior numbers, better arms and advantages of position.
Bierce had nothing but contempt for “the period of vilification” and Reconstruction that followed the war. “The brave respect the brave,” and only a coward or blackguard would attempt to rekindle the fires of sectional hate.
Ambrose Bierce came to doubt whether the war he had thought was waged “for Freedom” was really fought for that at all. As a mature man, he was glad that “other issues” had been “involved,” for, in his mind, only those issues gave any justification for the war. Regrettably, he does not explain what he means. Bierce admits to having judged every word and deed by “the infallible criteria” of a set of absolute “principles.” As an older man and a writer, he realized that the world was more complex and that clear demarcations of virtue and goodness are hard to make. “I have learned that slavery is not always unrighteous, nor liberty always desirable, except for oneself, that tyranny and despotism are sometimes beneficent.” Uttered today, such words would result in crucifixion before the altar of political correctness.
In “The Confederate Flags,” Bierce argues that Southerners should be pardoned for their zeal for liberty. His words offer a stinging rebuke to the complacency and apathy of modern Americans who will submit to any exaction or humiliation.
It may be wrong, it may be right, to rise
In warlike insurrection:
The loyalty that fools so dearly prize
May mean subjection.
Be loyal to your country, yes—but how
If tyrants hold dominion?
The South believed they did; can’t you allow
For that opinion?
He who will never rise though rulers plot,
His liberties despising—
How is he manlier than the sans-culottes
Who’s always rising?
In another poem, Bierce rebuked the pharisaical spirit of the Radical Republicans. It is a vengeful and intolerant spirit, which continues to afflict our history texts and the op-ed pages of our newspapers.
What if the dead whom still you hate
Were wrong? Are you so surely right? . . .
Men live and die, and other men
Arise with knowledge diverse:
What seemed a blessing seems a curse,
And Now is still at odds with Then.
The years go on, the old comes back
To mock the new beneath the sun
Is nothing new; ideas run
Recurrent in an endless track.
What most we censure, men as wise
Have reverently practiced; nor
Will future wisdom fail to war
On principles we dearly prize.
In the 20th century, Americans have suffered from two delusions about the future of war. One is that wars will soon cease. Bierce knew that this is an age-old fantasy: “The dream of a time when the nation shall war no more is a pleasant dream and an ancient.” The second is that the dreadfulness of vast arrays of the most deadly and advanced weaponry will deter men from using them. Nonsense, wrote Bierce. “Men’s sense of their power to make [war] dreadful is precisely the thing that most encourages them to wage it.”
Men do not construct expensive machinery, taxing themselves poor to keep it in working order, without ultimately setting it going. The more of its income a nation has to spend in preparation for war, the more certainly it will go to war. Its means of defense are a means of aggression, and the stronger it feels itself to strike for its altars and its fires, the more spirited becomes its desire to go across the border to upset the altars and extinguish the fires of its neighbors.
The carnage of World War I fully vindicated Bierce’s prescient pessimism, as did Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s petulant rebuke of Gen. Colin Powell’s objection to intervening militarily in the Bosnian civil war—“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Indeed. And what’s the point of studying the Civil War without reading Bierce?
[Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, Edited by Russell Duncan & David J. Klooster (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press) 352 pp., $19.95]