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Review: The American Civil War by John Keegan

The American Civil War is a fine book by an accomplished British military historian who has the range of knowledge necessary not only to give a detailed account of the Civil War but also to compare it to other wars in other places at other times. For example, he notes that on entering the war both sides had the idea of a decisive Napoleonic battle in mind, a kind of Austerlitz, which would settle things quickly.


But that didn't happen.  Keegan offers one major reason why not: Neither side was equipped to fight the war when it began and once it was under way, Southern geography was hard to pinpoint in terms of what Sun-tzu calls "fatal ground."   Ultimately, the South had to be surrounded and then crushed from the Potomac through the James and the Mississippi to the Atlantic.


So hundreds and thousands of battles were fought--an average of seven a day for four years--and horrendous casualties were registered because life and death, not political decapitation, was the only metric of use in determining who was winning and who was losing.


In a final meditation on the meaning of the Civil War, Keegan observes that beforehand we were a country, afterward we were a state.  Lincoln, of course, did that, greatly aided by Grant and Sherman.  He was the leader who insisted secession could not be allowed, and he was the leader who somehow persisted in creating the military, financial and political structures necessary to prevail and endure such a vicious internecine conflict.


The South did assemble great armies led by great generals, and it did have a political structure that mirrored the North and the Constitution, but it lacked the economic substance to prosecute the war until the North gave in--which Lincoln, for one, would never do.


The wars we see today--in Afghanistan and Syria, for instance--have components of civil war but aren't comparable in the sense that large war machines are fighting on one side and guerrillas and irregulars are fighting on the other.  It is therefore extremely difficult to foresee a decisive outcome.  We cannot expect a Napoleonic result nor can we foresee exactly what political arrangements will emerge.  In the case of the Civil War, Lincoln insisted that the Constitution as it was written (and amended to validate emancipation) would be the law of the land.  So the North had an answer and was able to impose it in detail.  In Syria or Afghanistan, there are precedents and documents and a constitution of sorts, but as the violence subsides, no one can be sure how the future will be regulated...there's no answer, any more than there is in Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia...yet.


Having seen war and its casualties up close, I read this book astonished by the courage of the Civil War's soldiers.  Keegan addresses this question.  He suggests two factors that made both blue and gray stand and fight, sometimes ten feet from one another: first, the rightness of cause (for the North, refusing to let the country be dismembered and slavery to continue; for the South, the imperative sovereignty of states' rights and the fear of millions of emancipated slaves); and second, the bond of comradeship, not walking away from your brothers in arms when the lead is hot and the odds of survival are not good.


He makes an extremely interesting final point: having fought such a bloody conflict between ourselves, we may not have wished to follow European socialist injunctions to take to the barricades to bring in a new socio-economic order; we just may have had a belly full of killing one another; and so we pursued social justice and economic fairness through non-violent means, i.e., politics, elections, unionism, collective bargaining, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  


So this is a book about war by a military historian, but war is not just a battlefield event.  It's broader and more complex.  Ultimately, one is tempted to suggest that war is settled through one of two means: annihilation or accommodation.  Annihilation means things none of us (or few of us) want to see again: a Holocaust as much as an Austerlitz, a Nagasaki as much as a Waterloo.  So the question about ending wars ultimately hinges on advantages that force accommodations on the vanquished.  In other words, as Clausewitz insisted, war and politics are two faces of the same coin.