Waging War on War: Peacefighting in American Literature

Waging War on War: Peacefighting in American Literature

by Giorgio Mariani

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Waging War on War: Peacefighting in American Literature by Giorgio Mariani

The notion that war plays a fundamental role in the United States' idea of itself obscures the rich--and by no means naïve--seam of anti-war thinking that winds through American culture. Non-violent resistance, far from being a philosophy of passive dreamers, instead embodies Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief that peace "can never be defended, never be executed, by cowards." Giorgio Mariani rigorously engages with the essential question of what makes a text explicitly anti-war. Ranging from Emerson and Joel Barlow to Maxine Hong Kingston and Tim O'Brien, Waging War on War explores why sustained attempts at identifying the anti-war text's formal and philosophical features seem to always end at an impasse. Mariani moves a step beyond to construct a theoretical model that invites new inquiries into America's nonviolent, nonconformist tradition even as it challenges the ways we study U.S. warmaking and the cultural reactions to it. In the process, he shows how the ideal of nonviolence and a dislike of war have been significant, if nonhegemonic, features of American culture since the nation's early days. Ambitious and nuanced, Waging War on War at last defines anti-war literature while exploring the genre's role in an assertive peacefighting project that offered--and still offers--alternatives to violence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252097850
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/15/2015
Series: Global Studies of the United States
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 642 KB

About the Author

Giorgio Mariani is a professor of American literature at the Sapienza University of Rome. He is the author of Spectacular Narratives: Representations of Class and War in Stephen Crane and American Popular Literature of the 1890s .

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Waging War on War

Peacefighting in American Literature

By Giorgio Mariani


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09785-0



Notes on a Ghostly Concept


There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?'" (Vonnegut 9)

The cryptic, both innocent and sardonic, chirping of Slaughterhouse-Five's bird may be seen as Kurt Vonnegut's warning to whomever, in whatever capacity, wishes to narrate war. What intelligent things can be said on that endless string of massacres that is war? Wouldn't it be better to remain silent and let an unintelligible sound stand as the only adequate objective correlative of the senselessness of armed conflict? By granting to onomatopoeia the last "word" of his World War II novel, Vonnegut emphasizes both the impossibility of drawing a conclusion from his narration and the need never to lose sight of the absurdity and meaninglessness of war.

If, however, there is no war without its massacres, wars amount to more than "senseless" killing. Massacres are carried out, and often carefully planned, by human beings within historical conditions in part given and in part shaped directly by them. Indeed, from a historical/cultural viewpoint — which is different from the literary/existential perspective embraced by Vonnegut — it is indeed possible to say something "intelligent" about a massacre. I am thinking, for example, of Giovanni De Luna's book on the handling of the bodies of killed enemies, an important historical and anthropological study of twentieth-century massacres, noteworthy on a documentary basis but also on an interpretive level. The insistence on the "meaninglessness" of war's violence is an understandable ethical posture meant to resist any justification of the horrors of war, but as a whole Vonnegut's novel wishes to resist rather than sustain this perspective. Slaughterhouse-Five has a subtitle — "A Duty-Dance with Death" — rather explicit in reminding us about the obligations of those who choose to bear witness to war's atrocities. No matter how much he may poke fun at the regenerative or healing powers of Art, by ridiculing it through his bird's unintelligible chirping, Vonnegut does not give in to the quietness that follows a massacre. Instead, he speaks out, prompted by a sense of duty evidently stronger than any fear of the inadequacy of his language.

Slaughterhouse-Five, however, features also a second (double) title — "The Children's Crusade" — that appears to have been fashioned, as we learn in the first chapter, precisely to meet the concerns of Mary, the wife of the author's war buddy Bernard V. O'Hare. Mary is worried that, after all, also in Vonnegut's novel, "war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs" (11). Like many writers of war stories, Vonnegut would want his book to be not only a document of the horrors he has witnessed, or an account of how he coped with a trauma both individual and collective, but also an instrument that may help prevent future wars. Yet he knows this is largely a naïve hope. When someone suggests that he write an "anti-glacier book" rather than an "anti-war book," the narrator hastens to add: "What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too" (3). Vonnegut is aware of the antinomy at the heart of his novel, and if he hesitates in calling it an anti-war novel, this is probably because he himself does not know what exactly this literary object consists of. Is it a tale that indignantly attacks the madness of war, even though wars need to be fought? A story that promotes a wholesale condemnation of War — any war, no matter how "just"? Or is it a narration that purports to help us understand the causes of war? Should an anti-war novel unambiguously rail against the monstrosity of human slaughter? Or, as many would argue, should a war narrative only present the real or imagined thoughts and actions of men and women at war, leaving explanations to politicians and historians?

Whoever has read any of the countless Western narratives dealing with war — the Iliad, Shakespeare's history plays, War and Peace, A Farewell to Arms, just to mention a few memorable examples — or watched even a small sampling of the hundreds of war movies shot since the birth of the movie industry knows there are no easy answers to these questions. Even though writers and critics constantly speak of the "pacifist novel," of "poetry against the war," of "anti-war literature" and "the anti-war movie," such labels are generally used in a casual way and, as a rule, they tell us precious little about the structure and the content of a text. Scholars sometimes refer to anti-war literature as a "subset" of war literature, but I have never come across any sustained attempt to identify its contours, either from a morphological or a philosophical point of view. It is perhaps symptomatic that whereas we have dozens of book-length studies whose titles mention "war writing," "war poetry," the "war novel," the "war story," and so on, the qualifier "anti-war" is less frequently employed as an umbrella term. This seems to suggest that, while most critics would acknowledge the presence of anti-war feelings in literary works devoted to war, they harbor also an implicit mistrust of "anti-war" as an all-encompassing category. This attitude is understandable. To set apart certain texts as being "anti-war" would in a sense entail that those works not belonging in the "anti-war" group should be considered as "pro-war," a drastic conclusion few would probably endorse. This is why, I think, the term "anti-war" (or the different though related term "pacifist") is used for the most part locally, to identify specific works, since a more systemic use of the term would entail the tracing of a clear-cut line between a literature that is anti-war and one that is not. To speak more generally of war writing is safer, as it allows one to side step rigorous and hard-to-maintain distinctions between what is anti-war and what is "simply" war literature, assuming that an unambiguous pro-war stance may be confined — at least as far as modern literature is concerned — to works of propaganda.

Even though anti-war literature remains to this day largely untheorized, the label continues to be employed and to complicate most discussions, whether scholarly or not, of both war literature and war cinema. It seems that if on the one hand we cannot describe all war literature as anti-war, on the other we feel uncomfortable with any account of warfare that does not unequivocally condemn the killing and injuring of other human beings. While many would probably agree that the term "anti-war" may easily turn into a straitjacket and fail to register the multilayered aesthetic and intellectual accomplishments of a text by privileging its didactic qualities, one could quote dozens of examples showing that the term continues to matter. Indeed, the archive of war-literature studies is full of pronouncements pushing texts from the "neutral" field of war literature into that of anti-war writing, and vice versa. We need only think of the ur-text of Western war literature. There is ample evidence to argue that the Iliad celebrates a civilization founded on war, the cult of the hero, and the glory of death in battle. All of this did not prevent, at the outset of World War II, a scholar of the classical world like Simone Weil from seeing in the Homeric poem a heart-rending representation of the horrors of war, or, to quote her own words, of the "force before which man's flesh shrinks away" (3). Seen from Weil's influential viewpoint, the Iliad is both the "ur" war and anti-war text of the Western tradition, since it unflinchingly illustrates the bloody mess of the battlefield as well as the devastating impact of war on civilian life. More recently, the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has discovered in Homer's epic a strikingly realistic account of what happens to men in battle, extremely helpful in confronting the traumas of Vietnam War veterans. Shay knows that "Homer's poem does not mean whatever I want it to mean" (Achilles xx). Yet the parallels between the stories of the combat veterans he treats and those in the Iliad have reinforced his conviction that "there is no contradiction between hating war and honoring the soldier" (Achilles xxiii).

Of course, the fact that the Iliad may be read as a poem that glorifies as well as condemns war is in many ways far from extraordinary. It could be seen as simply yet another demonstration of how a text may take on different, even starkly divergent meanings, depending on the perspective from which it is read, and on the historical and cultural contexts surrounding it. To students interested in connecting the epic to the worldview of classical Greece, the Iliad may well show the brutality of war — Homer's polemos kakos (evil struggle) — but it makes little sense to turn its celebration of a warrior society into anti-war poetry. For Weil, on the other hand, its display of an impersonal, terrifying "force" is a warning "not to begin a new Trojan War," to quote the title of another one of her essays. And for Shay, the poem's mapping of combat trauma provides an illustration of "how war damages the mind and spirit," thereby encouraging us to "change those things in military institutions and culture that needlessly create or worsen these injuries" (Achilles xxiii). What makes all these readings — in this, as well as in many other cases — legitimate is to a large extent the rather vague status of the "anti-war" concept, which here stands revealed as being essentially an evaluative rather than a descriptive category. In the same years Weil, in France, was busy rescuing from the Iliad a pacifist message, in Italy the Fascist regime promoted the study of Greco-Roman classics as a way to celebrate the greatness of a former empire, foreshadowing the rejuvenation of the nation under the Duce's leadership. Whether a poem, a novel, or a film may be said to be anti-war or not ultimately depends on the ways they are decoded — and the ways they are decoded, to a considerable extent, hang in turn on the protocols of reading sponsored by a given culture, whether hegemonic or resistant. Within pacifist circles, the Iliad may be read as an anti-war text; within an imperialist culture, it is a poem extolling the manly virtues of the warrior.

To accept the idea that ultimately there are no anti-war texts but only anti-war readings, however, means obviously to kiss goodbye to the concept of anti-war literature as a definite subset of war literature. To many this would be an acceptable solution that avoids confining many different war stories into too narrow a category, and one could cite several critical discussions of war literature that avoid programmatically the war/anti-war debate by focusing on textual features that bypass such inflexible categorizations. Yet the question will not go away, no matter how much we want to ignore it. Whether one is analyzing issues of form (the war novel as Bildungsroman, for example), of trauma and guilt (a standard feature of many war veterans' memoirs and novels), or of gender (how masculinity is constructed and deployed in war literature, for instance), one keeps ultimately going back to modulations of the basic war/anti-war dilemma. What does it mean to "become a man" (or to fail to become one) while fighting a war? To what extent can one forgive oneself, or ask to be forgiven, for having been a participant, or a participant-observer, of the atrocities of war? How do characters relate to the aggressive masculinity sponsored by war propaganda? These are all, to be sure, essentially political questions that simply refuse to be confined within a sanitized "literary" precinct. Most educated contemporary readers may feel uncomfortable about pacifist tirades on the evils of war, but they would nevertheless object to a narrative endorsing a dehumanizing description of the enemy or one that ignores the bloody mess of the battlefield. As I will argue time and again in this book, this is not to say that a narrative that recognizes the humanity of one's enemy or openly depicts the horrors of warfare can be ipso facto considered an anti-war text. Such features may often be found in texts that would be awkward to define as anti-war. However, since war texts represent and debate a practice felt to be the quintessential negation of civilized life, readers and critics must in the end wrestle with the same basic question: what kind of image of war does the text offer? We may conclude that the answer to this fundamental narrative problem exceeds the binary logic of a somewhat Manichaean pro-war/anti-war juxtaposition, but these categories, however camouflaged, will continue to resurface in our debates. To use Vonnegut's terms, as long as war birds will keep on Poo-tee-weeting, war writers and critics will never be able to escape duty-dancing with death.

Ghostly Demarcations

In the title of this chapter, I refer to the ghostly nature of the anti-war concept in literary studies. Its incorporeal features may be registered on at least three levels: (1) whether invoked as the cornerstone of a subgenre or, more modestly, as a narrative point of view, the contours of the anti-war stance are vague: to take a firm hold of the concept seems as hopeless as Marcellus's attempt to strike with his "partisan" the elder Hamlet's ghost; (2) as a veritable specter, the text's anti-war perspective is both present and absent, seen by some, invisible to others; (3) the concept has something disruptive and disturbing about it, as it constantly threatens to turn the complexity of the literary text into straightforward propaganda. Especially in academic discussions, it is marginalized, and yet it keeps reappearing in one guise or another. Like Freud's uncanny, it has a paradoxical quality, as if it were something we both want the text to be and not to be.

In order to put some textual flesh around these incorporeal notions, I would like to show how they manifest themselves in two recent studies of war literature, Kate McLoughlin's Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq and Cynthia Wachtell's War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861–1914. These are in many ways two excellent, original books, well written and packed — especially Authoring War — with insights that will greatly benefit future students of war writing. My intent in what follows is not so much to criticize them as to use them as test cases to reinforce the main argument of this chapter: the concept of anti-war literature remains poorly theorized, and it counts more as a symptom than as a cognitive tool. Some might think we would be better off dispensing with this category altogether. The fact is, we can't. As Peter Jones wrote several years ago, war literature "is almost always an ethical forum, expressing outrage or describing a search for meaning in the dilemma of war" (9). Hence, whenever we talk about war literature, we are always, however implicitly, also talking about the question of how war is either resisted, accepted, or both. Posed in one form or another, the anti-war question will always be there. As I will suggest in the final section of this chapter, perhaps a partial way out of this conundrum may lie with a more rigorous conceptualization of both war and peace. After all, if we take seriously the anti-war preoccupations of war literature, we should ask ourselves if, and how, the latter may manage to evoke what would be the anti-war perspective par excellence — the perspective of peace. Drawing on Nick Mansfield's Theorizing War, I will insist that a better understanding of the relation between "war and its other" may help us move beyond the war/anti-war dichotomy without sacrificing the moral implications of our interpretations.


Excerpted from Waging War on War by Giorgio Mariani. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Acknowledgments, xix,
1 Anti-War? Notes on a Ghostly Concept, 3,
2 Ad Bellum Purificandum: Giving Peace a Fighting Chance, 31,
3 The Rhetorical Equivalent of War: William James, Kenneth Burke, Stephen Crane, 57,
4 An American Counter-Epic? War and Peace in Joel Barlow's Columbiad, 87,
5 "Cain's Ring": Moby-Dick and the Narrative of Sacrifice, 106,
6 "Curious Anesthetics": Ellen La Motte and the Wounds of the Great War, 126,
7 Waging War on the Sacred: William Faulkner's A Fable, 146,
8 War, Fiction, and Truth: Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story", 170,
9 Beyond the Semantic Netherworld: Literature and the Iraq War, 190,
Notes, 225,
Works Cited, 243,
Index, 261,

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