I’m a record collector; or in today’s parlance, a “vinyl” collector. (Those of you who know me already know this.) Yesterday, I purchased Donovan’s 1968 release, Like It Is, Was, And Evermore Shall Be at the local used record store. The album is actually a compilation of selections from three studio albums Donovan recorded in 1965. A couple of songs on the album have me thinking again about my post on the “new revisionism” in Civil War studies; my thoughts on an article by Yael Sternhell I titled “Was It Worth It”? Right after I published that post, the topic was raised again when The Atlantic published an article similar to Sternhell’s by Tony Horwitz, which prompted a response by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which prompted discussions at Civil War Memory and Crossroads.
One aspect of Sternhell’s article that I did not note in my post is her effort to show how contemporary events influence interpretations of history. “Writing in the midst of Europe’s horrific thirty-year-long civil war,” Sternhell wrote, “revisionists [of the 1930s] saw war as cruel and senseless, the result of ideological extremism, failed leadership, and heightened emotions.” And, because African-Americans were “abandoned” when Reconstruction ended, ending slavery somehow seemed less noble. However, “events in the 1940s breathed new life into notions of American greatness and exceptionalism. Saving the world from Nazism and Fascism, resurrecting the European economy after the war, and taking charge of the fight against Communism, the United States once again seemed like the last best hope on earth.” The 1930s revisionists “fell silent.” And then came Vietnam. Despite a few contrarians however, according to Sternhell, “the civil rights movement overshadowed the trauma of a miserable and pointless war in Southeast Asia.”
Still, Sternhell argues that “these days some scholars are taking an emphatic antiwar stance” and goes on to quote the late historian Michael Fellman:
For most of history, America has celebrated its military establishment, built it up, and used it around the world as an instrument of international power. One can enter a geopolitical debate about the pros and cons of all this, but it is important to remember the historian’s potential for complicity in that celebration. If the Civil War (and World War II) are portrayed as grand narratives of good wars, then war is glorified rather than questioned. Instead historians must force us to stare real war in its real face.
I noted my reservations regarding the first assertion in this quote from Fellman in my earlier post, but the rest of the quote is certainly worth pondering. Do we glorify war by arguing that some wars are “worth it”? Can (or should) historians separate one war from another?
One historian who is forcing us to “stare real war in its real face” is Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam. Note that Sternhell makes the assertion that the war in Vietnam was “a miserable and pointless war.” Few would argue with Sternhell that all wars are miserable, but, how do we determine which wars are “pointless”? It seems not everyone agrees that the Vietnam War was “pointless.” Turse’s work has come under serious fire. Just read the comments on Amazon. I’ve read the book. It’s not for those who wish to have their faith in America remain untarnished. See here also.
These questions regarding the justification for war are not new, of course. For centuries historians, politicians, and philosophers have grappled with them. See this website, where I found this particularly thought-provoking:
Just war theory is not a settled doctrine. It is a field of critical ethical reflection. That’s why there are nearly as many just war theories as there are just war theorists. The differences between competing just war theories are sometimes subtle, and sometimes dramatic. So, instead of allowing some traditional, popular or conventionally accepted notions tell you what is required to justify the use of lethal armed forces, let your first lesson in just war theory be one that you teach yourself in a simple reflective exercise: Start by thinking of a paradigm case or prime example from history which strikes you intuitively as being an instance of an ethically acceptable, or perhaps even laudable use of armed forces. And ask yourself what makes it so. If you can neither think of a single example in history, nor imagine any possible future instances of the justifiable use of lethal arms, then you may be an absolute pacifist. If you cannot think of a single ethically condemnable act of warfare, and you “love the smell of napalm in the morning,” then you may belong to the realpolitik camp. If you can think of some limited class of ethically condemnable instances or forms of warfare, and your head is swimming with great examples of ethically acceptable and even laudable warfare, then you may be a relatively hawkish just war theorist. If your head is swimming with historical examples of condemnable warfare, and you can think only of a relatively limited class of ethically acceptable instances, and few or no laudable ones, then you may be a relatively dovish just war theorist (like me). The theoretical task of the just war theorist is to figure out what sets the ethically acceptable and laudable examples apart from the rest.
Finally, if contemporary events influence our interpretations of history, it is perhaps even more important to ask, how do our interpretations of history influence contemporary events? Is it really always Like It Is, Was, And Evermore Shall Be?