Thursday, January 20, 2005

War, Society, and Old Abe

Several times a month I get asked to give a lecture, read a manuscript, or even write a book. When I was just starting as a new historian these invitations were flattering. They still are, but I've also learned to fight shy of them. You can spend your whole career accepting such invitations and at the end discover you've never gotten around to your own agenda.

Here's the best single piece of advice I've received in this business: "Learn to say 'no,' and say it often." I've actually gotten pretty good at saying it, but I still find that as much as I do say it, I need to say it more often. A case in point has been my involvement in a project to develop a reference work called the Encyclopedia of War and American Society.

The idea itself is a good one, but I agreed to join the project as an associate editor principally because I thought it would allow me to expand my network of contacts among military historians. I also thought the money would come in handy. As usual in these instances, I miscalculated. For one thing, the tendency in assigning entries is to turn not to strangers but to people you already know, because you can safely predict their quality and reliability. For another, the money in such projects almost never offsets the opportunity costs. The time investment is invariably much greater than you think it will be.

Even so, these projects are seldom devoid of pay-off. You learn new things, you do make a few new contacts, and in this case, you can get some interesting insights about the field of military history.

Let's take it as a given that most historians who agree to write an encyclopedia entry do it for a quick buck. It's basically hack work. Even if it isn't, it's seldom work that brings any professional recognition or advancement. This argues that, human nature being what it is, most historians will put as little thought into the entry as possible. "Sure, I know about X," they think. "I can write 1,500 words on X easy!"

Sometimes they are dead wrong about this. I have seen one or two entries that suck eggs. They had to be kicked back to the author with extreme prejudice. But mostly they're correct. They're smart people, fluent writers, conversant with the subject matter, and they write 1,500 words on X just fine.

What's interesting to me, however, is how much trouble they have in relating X to the theme of war and society in the United States. This is the single most common problem with the entries I've seen--and even the entries I write. For instance, an otherwise excellent entry on air force general Curtis LeMay completely overlooked the fact that LeMay supposedly inspired the character of wild-eyed, warmongering General "Buck" Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or that the phrase "bomb them into the Stone Age" is credited to him.

What this suggests to me is that military historians do not yet naturally think of their subject matter within the framework of war and society. I get entries that do a great job of situating X within strategic or operational history but a wretched or non-existent job of situating X within American history.

The funny thing is, doing this is the one part of the entry that isn't hack work, that provides some scope for reflection and creativity. It gets ignored or regarded as the part that's a pain in the ass, but it's really the most original part of the entry--and of course the part that justifies the reference work in the first place.

Take for example an entry I'm writing on Abraham Lincoln. No problem coming up with 1,500 words on his life and presidency. The real job is to ask what significance does his life and presidency have within the context of American war and society. Some of the entry has to deal explicitly with that, and the selection and weighting of facts has to be done with that in mind.

Plainly the bulk of Lincoln's significance is as the quintessential war president. You can bet George W. Bush consciously reflects on Lincoln--though I think he more closely resembles James K. Polk, who, like Bush, more or less manufactured a war. We know from his memoirs that Truman viewed his problems with MacArthur as a replay of Lincoln's stormy relationship with George McClellan.

It's also true that Lincoln more or less invented the modern idea of the president as commander-in-chief. Polk did some of it--he was an activist war president in a way that James Madison during the War of 1812 really wasn't. But Polk was crassly partisan and I doubt that many presidents, including Lincoln, looked to him as a model.

In another sense, Lincoln's handling of the war had far-reaching effects on American society. The most obvious instance is his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, but there's also his decision to enlist African American soldiers, to suspend habeas corpus, to initiate the first draft in U.S. history, and so on.

Basically an entry on Lincoln would have to leave plenty of room to develop these issues and economize on other aspects of his biography. You probably couldn't do much play-by-play in terms of his conduct of the war or his relationships with specific generals beyond Grant and McClellan, though I imagine you'd have to make room for his use of political generals. You'd have to touch on Edwin M. Stanton, his main secretary of war--"the rock on whom the waves of this rebellion break," as Lincoln once remarked. But you may not have room to mention Simon Cameron, his first secretary of war, who served only a few months in office.

You also have to economize on Lincoln's pre-war career. One of the biggest pre-war items, given the thrust of the reference work, would be Lincoln's opposition to the Polk administration's hatching of the Mexican War. Another would be his only military experience: a few months' militia service in the Black Hawk War. Someone commented on the Bad Axe entry to ask if Lincoln was present at the battle/massacre. He wasn't, nor were most of the other 7,000 Illinois militia mustered into service. He was mustered out in the White River Valley of Wisconsin, many miles from the scene of the fighting. His only real experience of the war itself was an instance in which his unit came upon five white men who had been killed and scalped by Indians (probably Pottawatami, I should think, not members of Black Hawk's band).

The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay heads toward us on the ground. And every man had a round, red spot on top of his head, about as big as a dollar where the redskins had taken his scalp.

What influence did the war have on Lincoln? In later life he poked fun at his term of service. "I had a good many bloody struggles with mosquitoes," he recalled in a speech he made while in Congress, "and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often hungry." But he also recalled his election to captain by the men in his company as one of the proudest of his life, and although he served only a few months, militiamen were generally mustered in for only thirty days' service, and Lincoln actually reenlisted three times, which fewer than six percent of the men in his county did.

Why did Lincoln serve? The biggest part was surely an expression of his desire to be a significant public figure within his community--he ran that year (unsuccessfully) for the state legislature; the election took place just four days after the battle of Bad Axe. Probably he also embraced the idea of Indian removal as a necessary requisite for Illinois' development as a state, and the incursion by Black Hawk's band threatened that process.

What did Lincoln get from his service? My guess is that his main lessons were in the realm of politics, of handling men. I doubt seriously that as president he was naive enough to suppose that the Black Hawk War had much to teach anyone about the Civil War--though it's interesting to note that during the campaign he met Lt. Robert Anderson, who twenty-nine years later would be the garrison commander at Fort Sumter. It's possible that Lincoln formed an impression of Anderson that gave him a significant snippet of information as he dealt with the Fort Sumter crisis during the winter of 1861.

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