Tag Archives: military history

Legitimizing carnage

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Recent years have seen a number of solid historical books on the scope of war’s destructiveness and the forces that either escalate it or rein it in.  Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War was one of the seminal works in this scholarly conversation; other contributors have included Mark Neely and Wayne Lee.  John Fabian Witt is the latest historian to examine Americans’ attempts to regulate and legitimize warfare in Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.  His portrayal of the history of rules to govern nations and individuals at war leaves the reader with the distinct impression that such rules have exacerbated warfare’s violence as often as they have reined it in.

The regulation of war has been an important force in American history from its very beginnings.  The American Revolutionaries prided themselves on adherence to the mores of restrained, civilized war that were fashionable during the Enlightenment, and with independence won, the country’s leaders expended considerable effort upholding the right of neutral shipping as a component of the law of nations.

War raised legal questions involving the behavior of individual soldiers and civilians as well as countries.  When American troops campaigning in Mexico found themselves subject to attack by guerrillas, and as U.S. reprisals against Mexicans threatened to escalate this conflict to frightening levels, the novel situation of dealing with military transgressions overseas led American commanders to develop important innovations, particularly the use of military commissions to try enemy personnel.

But it was the Civil War which proved to be especially fertile ground for the growth of military law.  In Witt’s portrayal, Lincoln and his advisers emerge as consummate pragmatists, shifting from one set of standards for conducting war to the other depending on the Union’s particular needs at any given time.  This flexibility led to some thorny contradictions; subjecting the Confederacy to a blockade was a convenient means of employing commonly recognized principles of the law of nations, but also made it difficult to prosecute blockade runners as illegitimate pirates. 

A thorough and systematic presentation of the rules governing Union armies emerged out of the messy nature of this war that was both a contest between parties claiming the status of sovereign nations and a rebellion by one section against the rest of the country.  The man responsible for crafting it was Francis Leiber, a Prussian immigrant to the U.S. and military philosopher whose notions of the boundaries of proper behavior in war differed markedly from those of most eighteenth-century thinkers.  Whereas Enlightenment thinkers believed that an army gained its legitimacy from its conduct rather than the cause for which it fought, Leieber argued that proper ends could legitimate extreme means.  Lieber was also a proponent of the idea that sharp wars were ultimately more humane because their severity convinced a foe to yield quickly and thus saved lives, a stance shared by some of the Union’s most prominent leaders (including hard war practitioner William T. Sherman).  When the Confederacy began incorporating partisan guerrillas into its regular forces, the Union government tapped Lieber to create guidelines for determining the status of prisoners.  In Dec. 1862, Union authorities turned to him again, this time to craft a more comprehensive code of regulations to govern the behavior of armies in the field.  The result became General Order No. 100, which turned Lieber’s notions of aggressive, pragmatic warfare into official Union policy.

This aggressive turn to the Union war effort developed alongside Lincoln’s policy of emancipation.  War had been a corrosive agent against slavery since the time of the Revolution and the War of 1812, but to Americans of the time, the loss of their slaves ran counter to contemporary notions of the sanctity of civilian property in war.  But the exigencies of the Civil War allowed Lincoln to take the extraordinary measure of freeing slaves in rebellious territory.  This extreme act, which prompted howls of outrage from earlier Americans who saw their slaves abscond with British armies, became justifiable within the framework of an aggressive war effort because it served a laudable end.  Emancipation thus conformed to Lieber’s concept of aggressive war measures legitimized by the goal in sight.

The same notion of aggressive war was practiced by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who upheld Lincoln’s use of war powers and the use of military commissions to try those accused of transgressing the laws of war.  Most of these commissions tried guerrillas and non-combatants instead of Union soldiers, and for a wide variety of offenses.  The pragmatic philosophy of aggressive war out of military necessity also lay behind Sherman’s destructive march to the Georgia coast and then into South Carolina.

Lieber’s Code outlasted the war it was created to regulate.  The expansion of the scope of military authority shaped post-war policies regarding the treatment of Lincoln’s assassins, prominent ex-Confederates, and the former Confederate states as a whole.  The U.S. also found an aggressive military code useful in dealing with Indians.  Whereas earlier American armies used the notion of Indians as outside the customs of civilized war to justify harsh measures against them, after the Civil War the use of military commissions legitimized the use of the death penalty against these enemies whose exact status was open to question.  Thus the code gave official backing to the killing of captured foes, an act that earlier armies had handled in an extralegal manner.  Similarly, American troops in the Philippines invoked the standards contained in Lieber’s code to justify an aggressive imperial war in that island nation, even as some of them transgressed that code with the use of torture, which Lieber himself had refused to include in his range of permissible behaviors.  And it was not only Americans who found in the laws of war a pretext for harshness, as European statesmen used the Lieber Code as the basis for a new body of international military laws.  Leaders of the strong, modern nations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries balked at the notion of circumscribing their armies with strict standards of behavior, but were open to Lieber’s more aggressive approach.

Witt thus puts the evolution of war-making during the Civil War within a broad historical context, both backward into the Enlightenment and forward into the modern era.  Lincoln’s Code demonstrates how the use of emancipation, military courts, the Anaconda Plan, and Sherman’s “hard war” developed out of questions that arose early in American history, and how consequential the Civil War proved to be on several different political, legal, and moral fronts.

Some of the most prominent recent scholarship on the destructive nature of the Civil War has emphasized that destruction’s limits rather than its scale; the “hard war” was an escalation, but it was neither wanton nor unrestrained.  Witt’s emphasis is more on what the aggressive code of war allowed than on what it prohibited.  Time and again, he explains how politicians and commanders found that laws of war actually magnified their power and the power of the armies under their authority.  Laws and regulations were ambiguous in their effects; they drew lines which armies are not allowed to cross, but the very act of drawing lines legitimized behaviors on the other side of them.

The law of war, as Witt presents it, has therefore served to give official sanction to the escalation of violence as well as condemn it.  In this age when American leaders are once again grappling with issues relating to soldiers, enemy combatants, and civilian populations, scholarly attention to the problem of regulating a government’s power to wage war is especially timely.  Lincoln’s Code is a comprehensive, readable, and incisive examination of this problem’s historical dimensions.



Filed under Civil War, Historiography

A new collection on Rev War cavalry

…is coming out this fall.  Cool!

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

The military legacies of our conflicts with Canada

Eliot Cohen argues that the battles America fought along the corridor connecting New York with Canada shaped the way the U.S. has approached warfare down through the years.  Check out his editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, a sample of the arguments in his forthcoming book.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, History and Memory

Victor Davis Hanson: “Not all history is equal.”

I just ran across this interview with Victor Davis Hanson, who’s one of my favorite public intellectuals.  I had the honor of meeting him when he spoke at UT a few years ago.  Most of the interview deals with modern-day foreign policy, but check out Hanson’s remarks about the importance of military history.  Here are the highlights:

“Not all history is equal. If people are willing to wage their entire existence in a few brief seconds, those moments are more worthy of commemoration and study than others.…[W]hether we like it or not, strange things happen during wars that don’t transpire as often in peace time.”

When asked about Peace Studies departments’ attitudes about military history, Hanson takes the words right out of my mouth with an analogy that I’ve used myself:

“They think we feel that war brings out the best in people, that war is a ritual that’s necessary for society, or that war is a macabre interest like video games are for some people. It’s like assuming an oncologist must like cancer, because why else would he study cancer?”

Precisely.  In fact, the military historian should be less prone to glory in war than anyone but the soldier, since he knows what war is and what it can do.  Those who accuse military historians of glorying in war are badly in error.  You don’t study war because you like it; you study it because it’s important, instructive, and (by all indications) here to stay.


Filed under Uncategorized

Does military history belong with diplomatic history?

Scrolling through historical job postings is always an instructive experience.  I’ve noticed a lot of openings for “military/diplomatic” historians, and this combination of disciplines puzzles me.  Why would military and diplomatic history go together?

War had a personal effect on these two American veterans of WWI, pictured here at Walter Reed in 1918. From the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Perhaps it’s a holdover from the days when strategies, campaigns, and defense policy made up the basic building blocks of military history.  War, in that sense, is basically a nation’s attempt to secure political ends—diplomacy through organized violence.

The fact is, though, that much of the academic military history being written these days has little to do with war as an instrument of national policy.  The “new (now decades-old) military history” often takes its cues from social and cultural history, not political science.  A freshly-minted Ph.D. in military history today is as likely to be conversant with scholarship on race and gender as international relations. 

Indeed, many of today’s military historians could be considered military/social or military/cultural historians.  Take, for instance, Joseph Glatthaar’s examination of the relationship between white officers and black soldiers in the Civil War, a military approach to studying the history of race relations.  Or take Leisa Meyer’s book on the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, which looks at military history through the lens of gender. 

When, though, was the last time you saw a job posting for a military/race historian, or a military/women’s studies historian?  The job descriptions haven’t caught up to what many scholars are actually out there doing.  I suspect the reason may be that academia is still not entirely comfortable with military history, because many academics don’t realize how vibrant, diverse, and inter-disciplinary the field has become.


Filed under Teaching History

Things new and old

There’s an interesting new post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin distinguishes between two different types of Civil War unit histories.  The first deals mainly with the engagements in which the unit participated, while the second deals with the social/political/economic backgrounds of the men who fought, and how these factors influenced their service.

Levin’s discussion of the role of context in unit histories has a context of its own—the “new military history.”  It’s one of the most inappropriately-named disciplines out there, since this “new military history” has been around for several decades.  It’s also a field that’s difficult to define.  It’s easier to say what it’s not; it doesn’t deal with leaders, campaigns or battles.  Its focus is on the wider social context within which battles take place.  Levin’s second group of unit history is thus a fine example of the new military history.

Being the Rev War nut that I am, when I read Levin’s post I started thinking about how these issues relate to America’s armed struggle for independence. 

I’ve long maintained that the historiography of the Revolutionary War is quite distinct from that of the Civil War, partly because the latter is so much more extensive.  The scholarly literature on the war—the actual fighting, I mean, as opposed to the Revolution in its broader sense as a political, economic, social, and military event—is not nearly so extensive as many people would probably believe.

If Rev War scholarship isn’t that extensive, though, in the sense of the questions being asked it’s very vibrant.  Scholars of the struggle between Britain and America have actively engaged social and other contextual questions.  Take, for example, Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, which contrasts the myth of the citizen soldier with the backgrounds of the men who filled the ranks.  Or take Wayne E. Lee’s excellent Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War, which explores the factors that both restrained and exacerbated armed violence during the Revolutionary era.  I might also mention a classic of the “new military history” which deals with an earlier conflict, Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, which uses the techniques of the new social history to draw a portrait of eighteenth-century New England militiamen.

American Revolutionary soldiers, as depicted by a French officer. From Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with Rev War unit histories.  There are plenty of regional studies of the war in specific areas, and of course there is a classic book by Hugh Rankin on North Carolina troops in the war.  But monographs on particular regiments or other specific units of organization are harder to come by.  I think the reason is simply that the Rev War hasn’t been investigated as extensively as other wars. 

In fact, as I’ve said before, there is a dearth of “traditional,” meat-and-potatoes military historiography when it comes to the Rev War.  Major battles and campaigns haven’t been investigated thoroughly, and significant figures lack modern biographies.

The good news is that those modern historians who have tackled battles and campaigns have brought the insights of the new military history to bear on them.  Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have incorporated quantitative methodology and a sensitivity to social history into their investigations of Cowpens and Guilford.  David Hackett Fischer’s book on Trenton and Princeton employs the insights of cultural history to distinguish between American, British, and Hessian conduct in the field.

The Rev War historiography that’s out there is of a high order, partly because scholars are using it to answer old questions about what happens in line of battle.  All the books mentioned above are stellar examples of the possibilities the new military history offers.  Today’s best Rev War scholars are like the householder described in the first gospel, “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

On military experience and military history

Someday, if all goes according to plan, I hope to finish another graduate degree and then spend some time studying, interpreting, and explaining how Americans made war during the Revolution.  The thing is, I’ve neither experienced combat nor served in the military.

It’s an issue that a very fine and reputable military historian, Professor Mark Grimsley, has taken up a few times on his blog.  Recently, for instance, he commented on accepting a visiting appointment at the Army War College:

Would the students — better than 75 percent of them combat veterans — really accept the idea of learning about war from a civilian professor of suburban physique, whose only military experience consisted of eight years in the Ohio National Guard?  Most students, I was pleased to discover, had no problem with this.

You can read some of Professor Grimsley’s earlier thoughts on the subject here.  Since I’ve lived my entire life in peaceful enjoyment of the liberty and prosperity that others have secured, I’m humbled by his dismissive remark about  serving “only” eight years in the Guard.  I admire those who’ve served in any capacity.  They have both my respect and my gratitude, and those who withold respect and gratitude from them make me genuinely angry.  For that reason, I fervently hope that  nobody will misunderstand what I’m about to say. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether a lack of military service is a handicap when it comes to doing military history, and whether having served is a significant advantage.  I’ve concluded that it probably makes relatively little difference one way or the other.

I don’t deny that there are certain universal characteristics of warfare that have held true in any time or place.  Some emotions and experiences may very well have been the same for a Greek hoplite as for a present-day American Marine or any other warrior.  Military service might give you some unique insight into these universals that would be difficult to get elsewhere.

But you can’t assume what these universals are, or what their limitations might be.  Maybe the sensation of being charged by a line of bayonets was the same as the sensation of being under machine gun fire.  Maybe the camaraderie around a backcountry campfire was the same as the camaraderie in a WWII foxhole.  But maybe not.  I don’t know, and without looking into it, neither does anybody else.  The soldier who endures service and combat “knows war” in the sense that he’s experienced an aspect of it for himself; he knows what it’s like to serve in whatever capacity in which he’s served, and he knows the conditions of whatever type of combat he’s encountered.  But a personal, experiential knowledge of one type of war is quite distinct from a knowledge of another type of service or combat.

Furthermore, understanding the environemt, the actvity, of “war” is only part of what should go into understanding past military conflicts.  You’re not just dealing with the distinctive atmosphere of battle or camp, but with an entirely different society that existed around the field and the armies.  The Continental soldier, the Rebel, and the Rough Rider came from different worlds, with their own assumptions and cultures.  The soldier of the past didn’t just do something different by engaging in battle.  He was something different, simply because he was born into his particular time and place.

If you’re looking for some profound insight into the past, I believe that solid historical research is still your best bet.  If you want to know what a given historical figure experienced and what he thought about it, then go to the archives and ask him.  You may indeed find that his experiences and reactions were comparable to those of his descendants.  But that’s a question to answer during your research, not a fact to assume at the outset of it.  It’s only by approaching past wars and soldiers on their own terms and without preconceived notions that we can get an accurate picture of this complex human activity that shows no signs of going away.

(Bunker Hill illustration from Wikimedia Commons)


Filed under American Revolution