War and Peace in American Literature

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War and Peace in American Literature

American Literature Introduction

War and peace have been fundamental characteristics of the American nation since the first explorers and settlers arrived on its shores. From the initial battles with native populations to the Revolutionary War that gave this country its identity, from the Civil War to the Vietnam War and beyond, warfare and the quest for peace have shaped American history. They have also shaped American literature, which has frequently been a venue for debate and presentation of the nation's victories, concerns, struggles, and questions.

War is easier to define than peace. War is associated with action, risk-taking, adventure; it is also seen as a manifestation of hell, as in General George S. Patton's famous assessment of World War II. If peace is connected with order, law, and justice, as Albert Einstein believed, then the establishment of peace requires thought and discipline. War creates more drama than peace and often makes for what one might call a more interesting story. For these reasons, war frequently proves to be a more suitable and engaging literary topic than peace. The story, after all, is important here, because human beings relate to one another through the stories they tell each other.

Stories are not simply entertainment—they are how a society is held together. That is why literature, the art of telling a story, serves as one of the most sensitive barometers of the human cultural situation in any given time and place. Literature measures a society's general social climate and its values. It also interprets society for people's benefit, all while creating a gripping or amusing narrative. War, as a prominent and recurrent part of the human condition, thus quite naturally appears throughout the pages of American literature. The American literature of war reveals much about the way conflict has been perceived and how it has affected humankind. Peace is a topic more diffuse and more subtle than war; it will necessarily appear (at least implicitly) wherever war is discussed, as a counterpoint and a goal.

Age of Exploration: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

In the sixteenth century, Europe—specifically England, Spain, and Portugal—developed powerful navies and began to explore and conquer North American lands previously unknown to Europeans. There were many motives for these explorations, such as growing commercial interests, the need for new land, and the desire for adventure. Christopher Columbus opened the Caribbean and North America to the Europeans over the course of four expeditions from 1492 to 1504. Hernán Cortés did the same for present-day Mexico when he led the Spanish conquest of that area between 1519 and 1521. Henceforth, the opening up of the Americas would advance quickly and steadily, despite constant resistance of Native Americans who had once been the sole inhabitants of North America from the Arctic to Central America. Conflicts created by native resistance generated the first war themes in post-conquest American literature.

The Spanish conquerors of Mexico were fascinated by tales of Seven Wealthy Cities to the north, supposedly located in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Francisco Coronado (ca. 1510–1554), went in search of this fabled area with a small contingent of several hundred men. Instead of finding riches, they met with disappointment and hostility. They found small mud villages instead of cities of gold, and hostile tribes who attacked them with bows and arrows. Later Spanish accounts of this action report that Coronado himself was nearly killed during the fighting at Cibola, the name of this mythical land of gold.

The British were eager to advance into the same New World that attracted the Spaniards. In Britain, the sixteenth century saw intense commercial and naval expansion. The promise of precious stones and raw materials, which Columbus and his men had brought back, led England to undertake a preliminary study of the best strategies for exploitation of the new territories. Sir Walter Raleigh turned to Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552–1616), a lecturer in geography at Oxford University, and asked him to visit the New World and formulate plans for the exploration of the east coast of the Americas, with the intention of getting a step ahead of the Spaniards. Hakluyt's Notable History, Containing Four Voyages Made by Certain French Captains into Florida (1587) was among his many books devoted to the Americas' potential for exploitation, as well as one of many that recorded the early struggle for control of the Americas. The foundation for future warfare was laid as European explorers determined to conquer America and forcibly take the land from the Native Americans.

Warfare did not directly enter American literature until almost a century after Hakluyt's writings. Don Antonio de Otermin, governor of New Mexico, met with a far more intense rebellion than Coronado's conflict at Cibola. De Otermin wrote an anguished letter to his superior in 1680, "Letter on the Pueblo Revolt," about the overwhelming battle with Native Americans determined to prevent Spanish rule:

On the next day, Saturday, they began at dawn to press us harder and more closely with gunshots, arrows, and stones, saying to us that now we should not escape them, and that, besides their own numbers, they were expecting help from the Apaches…. Instantly all the said Indian rebels began a chant of victory and raised war whoops, burning all the houses of the villa, and they kept us in this position the entire night … the whole villa was a torch and everywhere were war chants and shouts.

The battle described here was the culmination of a series of Pueblo revolts against the Spanish administration and its missionaries in New Mexico. The Zunis in 1632, the Hopi in 1633, and the Taos Pueblo in 1639 all staged armed rebellions against the Spanish. In the battle de Otermin described, a local hero named Popé led the Pueblo people to a savage victory. Twenty-one missionaries were killed, and Santa Fe was sacked.

Similar battles raged across America as the Native American population attempted to keep colonists and settlers from encroaching on their land and forcing Christianity on them. From the times Europeans discovered America until the present day, an "us versus them" mentality—often directed at Native Americans—has led time and again to conflict and war. The Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 is a not too distant reminder of the permanence of this conflict.

The conflict between Native Americans and whites is readily apparent in accounts of colonial life in the seventeenth century. The British incursion into America was similar to the Spanish experience, filled with conflict. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, co-existence between the Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians and the British settlers grew consistently more difficult with each passing year. Massasoit, the principal leader among the Wampanoag, died in 1660, and he was succeeded by his son Wamsutta, called Alexander by the colonists. The colony summoned Wamsutta before them, and subjected him to public verbal abuse. Wamsutta's brother, King Philip, led his affronted community in a brutal attack on the residents of Massachusetts Bay in what has come to be known as King Philip's War (1675–76). Mary Rowlandson (1635–1711), an English-born wife of a Puritan minister, was taken captive in 1676 by the Wampanoag chief and held prisoner for three months. In 1682, Mary Rowlandson published an account of her captivity in A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted. In her account, she records her infinite patience in God's plan, her conviction that the Indians were sent as devils to test her, and, at the same time, her pleasure in her own tough survival skills. She also pays due tribute to the Indians' refusal to molest her physically. Her book, known today as a captivity narrative, became a bestseller in both England and in America.

The "us versus them" conflict between the Native Americans of the American east coast and the white settlers was a recipe for hostility and warfare. One of the most prolific and insistent of the Puritans—the dominant religious sect of the English settlers—was preacher and theologian Cotton Mather (1663–1728). In his Decennium Luctuosum (Gloomy Decade) (1699), he writes of the same conflict between the Indians and the settlers in which Mary Rowlandson was involved almost twenty-five years earlier. Mather is less charitable than Rowlandson. According to Mather, the Indians represented evil, and were God's instrument for elevating, through struggle, the souls of the Christian colonists. Given Mather's views—and those of others like him—it is not hard to understand why conflict between the two groups was all but inevitable.

Ongoing war thrives on the survival of hostile stereotypes like Mather's depiction of the Native Americans. This strategy of demonizing the enemy is alive and well in the present day, visible in common conceptions of cold war Russia (or America), the "evil" Saddam Hussein (or President Bush), and the Axis of Evil (or the corrupt, exploitative West). This demonization makes the enemy seem less than human and often serves as a weapon in the effort to generate support for a nation's military or nationalist position.

Revolution: 1776 and After

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Atlantic coast of North America was occupied by thirteen colonies. What had begun as a sporadic set of British incursions in the early seventeenth century had grown into a full-fledged colonial administration. With major possessions in Canada as well as growing footholds in India and South Africa, Britain was already a far-reaching empire well on its way to becoming a world colonial power. However, the course of the Empire was not to run smoothly.

The French and Indian War (1756–1763) developed from the growing opposition between French and British trading interests in the Ohio River Valley. This war, eventually settled in Britain's favor, proved expensive, and to recoup its financial losses, Britain taxed its American colonies. The burden of this taxation without representation was one important motivation behind the American Revolution. American war literature during this era was overwhelmingly patriotic and pro-American, encouraging the overthrow of British rule in favor of an independent nation.

The song "Yankee Doodle" was popularized by a British army surgeon Dr. Richard Shuckburgh in the 1770s. The song was intended to ridicule the colonial recruits in the French and Indian War, the Yankees (a mispronunciation of the Dutch word for the English). To "put a feather in his cap, and call it macaroni" was to think oneself quite the fine fellow (macaroni) when one is, in fact, nothing but a bumpkin. The American colonists cleverly adapted this song, singing it defiantly and proudly as a popular anthem during the Revolution from Britain. The song became a rallying cry, stirring patriotic feelings and encouraging soldiers to continue the fight for independence.

In 1776, the year of the American Revolution, John Leacock (1729–1802) completed his satiric drama, The Fall of British Tyranny, a never-produced work that exhorted the American colonists to overthrow their oppressors. Leacock's play was the first to portray George Washington in a literary work. The play also criticized the Puritan view that man's fate was entirely in God's hands. Anti-British writing and literature were a popular genre during the Revolution, and helped once more to solidify the "us versus them" mentality that so often fuels conflict: this time between the oppressed Americans and the tyrannical and imperialistic British.

Patriotism soared in the colonies, lifting America's first president, George Washington, to a revered status. One of the most touching tributes to him was by Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), a freed African slave brought to Boston in 1761 and raised by the Wheatley family. A young student of theology and the ancient classics, she praised George Washington for his efforts to emancipate the American colonies: "A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine/With gold unfading, WASHINGTON be thine."

Defiant support for the Revolutionary cause was at its most articulate in Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776). Paine (1737–1809) makes several important points in this treatise, which further inflamed anti-British sentiment in the colonies. He argues that government is the enemy of mankind, while society can be the natural ally of human achievement. However, complex society, like that of the old monarchy in Britain, is overburdened with meaningless functions that impede social growth. Therefore, it was just "common sense" that the colonies should revolt and establish a new society. The American colonies were fully equipped and mentally ready. It was time to break the relationship with Britain and create a free and egalitarian society.

Like Paine, Joel Barlow (1754–1812) expresses his belief that the Revolution will serve as a gateway to peace. He expresses this view in his Yale commencement address, "Prospect of Peace" (1778), stating it in heroic couplets (a preferred meter of much British poetry of the time, consisting of pairs of rhyming lines). This was the predominant colonial sentiment at the time of the struggle for liberation: war was necessary to achieve peace.

However, not all Americans were in favor of the Revolution. Charles Inglis, an Anglican Bishop in New York, remained loyal to the British crown. He strongly disagreed with Paine's Common Sense, and denounced the Revolutionary War in The True Interest of America Impartially Stated in Certain Strictures on a Pamphlet Entitled Common Sense (1776): "Suppose we were to revolt from Great-Britain, declare ourselves Independent … what would be the consequence? I stand aghast at the prospect—my blood runs chill when I think of the calamities." Inglis's book is a reminder that all wars are viewed in different ways; each side of war is likely to view it differently, but there can also be disagreement within a single culture about how to understand the war properly.

The New Nation: Through the Civil War 1780–1865

Faced with the challenge of nation-building, Americans had to learn to define liberty, and to fashion a system of democracy that would promote freedom while assuring stability. Among the concrete issues that faced the new nation was the tension between the powers of the individual states and the power of the federal government. This tension was one among many, a list that included opposition between urbanization and traditional rural life, industrial construction and old agricultural ways, progressive and repressive ways of dealing with the conflict with Native Americans, and westward expansion versus East Coast settlement. This is the first dynamic growth in a country that would be a military superpower two centuries later.

In the context of such turbulent new nation-building, wars often come fast and furiously. As the nation-building process surges ahead, many people are pushed aside or disenfranchised. The Last of the Mohicans (1826), a bestselling novel by James Fennimore Cooper (1789–1851), deals with the French and Indian War, mentioned previously in connection with the song "Yankee Doodle." Cooper's historical novel owes a great deal to the popular Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott; the many twists and turns of The Last of the Mohicans proved highly influential. A groundswell of popular interest was created by Cooper's image of the Indian, who is depicted as a sympathetic part of the American landscape. Cooper's Indian characters are "noble savages" who are natural and generous, though dangerous when out of control, and at all times in need of the white man's discipline.

While not altogether accurate, and by turns both sentimental and patronizing, the image Cooper presents of Native Americans is more forgiving than that of Rowlandson or Mather in colonial times. In Cooper's view, the Indian is no longer the unknown other, automatically an enemy. The French and British in The Last of the Mohicans are depicted with penetrating realism as struggling, land-hungry forces. Thus, this book announced the tradition of the historical novel in America, a type of work that places a fictional story in a more or less accurate historical setting. Wars often form the backdrops for historical novels, as they present ready-made all the elements of a good story: danger, intrigue, and opportunities for glory and heroism. For Cooper, the war becomes a backdrop across which to create a new vision of America's wild nature, its first inhabitants, and the kinds of men and women who were carrying out what they considered the civilizing mission of the new nation.

"John Brown's Body" (1859) is an old folk melody about the fiery abolitionist John Brown. The song's popularity and pertinence have two sources. The first is that John Brown was a figure of national prominence at the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–65). He and twenty-one men in his army staged an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. They planned to take over the arsenal, which they did, and to capture sufficient weaponry to continue their fight against pro-slavery forces. Brown was captured, convicted of treason, and hanged in 1859.

The song is well-known for a second reason, as well. Several versions of the song became popular among Union troops in the Civil War, and in some versions, a new verse was added. It spoke of hanging Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a sour apple tree. Just as one man had become the icon of the Union cause, another came to personify the enemy. The melody of the song itself acquired new fame via Julia Ward Howe, who wrote her own lyrics to the tune of "John Brown's Body" and published the song as the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862).

Like many wars, the American Civil War produced fine and original works of literature. Whereas the literature of the Revolutionary period stirred patriotism and encouraged revolution, it did not produce significant works of imaginative power. The great writing of the Revolutionary period, starting with the Declaration of Independence, was of a founding constitutional or political cast. The literature of the Civil War era, on the other hand, focuses largely on the moral issues raised by the war and is less patriotic in nature. The American Civil War period was also a time in which writers and poets began to question the ultimate results of fighting a war. Consequently, some of that literature invokes the theme of peace as well as war. War, after all, is not continuous, but is interrupted by pockets of peace and ease.

For instance, Mary Rowlandson's narrative and Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans both contain sections on peace (or times of non-war), domestic life, and local color. The same can be said of Mary Boykin Chesnut's published diary, Civil War (1861).

Chesnut (1823–1886) was born in South Carolina into a distinguished family. Her father, a U.S. congressman and senator, was elected governor of South Carolina in 1826. Her life of privilege continued with her marriage in 1840 to James Chesnut, Jr., a son of one of South Carolina's richest landowners, and ultimately himself a U.S. senator. Her diaries, based on a lifetime of exposure to the elite of the Southern Confederate cause, give a unique look at the Civil War as discussed and interpreted by the men most prominently involved in organizing it, and by the astute women who watched from the side. Chesnut's account portrays the private lives of the most powerful players on the Southern side of the Civil War. At the same time, her diaries provide a woman's view of the war, and in them she also voices her occasional frustration at not being able to fight alongside the men.

As in Chesnut's diary, intimacy is a key quality of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, given on March 4, 1865. Although it was intended for the public, as an address to the nation and the world, the speech possesses a distinctly private tone, as Lincoln uses references to God's will and biblical stories to highlight the evils of slavery. Lincoln accepts the burden of binding "the nation's wounds" in the wake of the Civil War, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and bitter fratricidal feelings. The "lasting peace," though only briefly mentioned, reminds readers that peace and liberation is the goal of war, "to bind up the nation's wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) served as a psychological nurse, working in hospital wards during the Civil War. His experiences with wounded soldiers, including his own brother, inspired the poetry of Drum-Taps, whose very title invokes the sound of military might. Drum-Taps includes several elegies—poems or essays written on the occasion of someone's death—for President Lincoln, who was assassinated in April 1865. Lincoln, whom Whitman referred to as his "Redeemer President," was a great inspiration not only to the poet, but to the nation as well. Arguably Whitman's most famous poem, "O Captain! My Captain!" pays tribute to a military captain who dies in the midst of his greatest voyage. The sailor who acts as narrator cannot rejoice at his ship's triumphant return while his beloved captain lies "fallen and dead" on the deck. Likewise, America's relief at the end of the Civil War was tempered with grief over the loss of its leader.

Whitman found the destruction of life that accompanied the Civil War painful and useless. In the poem "Reconciliation" he expresses his love for all men, regardless of the side on which they fought. The title of that poem indicates a hope for peace after the destruction caused by war:

    Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
    That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;
    For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
    I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
    Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Lincoln, Whitman, and Chesnut all led lives entangled with the Civil War. Unlike previous conflicts fought on American soil—the Pueblo Revolt, the French and Indian War, even the American Revolution—the Civil War was fought between two sides of the same nation, pitting citizen against citizen. Families were divided from one another, and more than six hundred thousand people were killed in combat. Lincoln served as the leader of the threatened nation, Whitman as a profoundly involved observer, and Chesnut as a social observer of some of the war's major players. War was their theme and their inspiration because it was their life. But all three passionately loved peace.

Unlike the preceding three authors, Herman Melville (1819–1891) was not centrally concerned with the Civil War. Melville is best known as the author of Moby-Dick (1851), a visionary novel dealing, on the surface, with a man's obsessive search for a giant whale. Thematically speaking, however, the novel examines the obsession with the adventurousness and longing that have always characterized America. This book, along with early successes like Typee (1846) and Omoo (1846), which drew on Melville's sailing adventures as a young man in the South Seas, established him as a strong voice in American literature, the voice of a spiritual adventurer. In addition to his major prose works, he also wrote a collection of poetry called Battle-Pieces: And Aspects of War (1866) that includes the poem "The Portent," which once again references John Brown:

   Gaunt the shadow on your green,
   The cut is on the crown
   (Lo, John Brown),
   And the stabs shall heal no more.

John Brown was hanged at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, for his raid on the Federal Arsenal in that town. According to Melville, Brown's hanging as an anti-slavery activist was a portent of the Civil War, which broke out the following year. The mention of Shenandoah in the second line refers to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the site of several bloody Civil War battles. Difficult emotions and attitudes often require original styles, and such is the case with Melville's rough poetry. Traditional poetry utilized a regular rhythm and rhyme scheme, but in "The Portent," Melville expresses himself using lines that are not organized around any regular meter; he also uses an unpatterned rhyme scheme replete with off-rhymes.

John DeForest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) may well be considered one of the first important novels of the Civil War. DeForest (1826–1906), a staunch Unionist, fought on the Northern side in the war and served as a civilian working for the Reconstruction of the South. Some twentieth century writers have compared him to Tolstoy, the Russian author of War and Peace (1869), a classic of world literature.

The term "Secession" in the title of the novel refers to the South breaking away from the North to form an independent state, while "Loyalty" refers to fidelity to the North. A southern lady, Miss Ravenel, is drawn away from her Southern politics by marriages to two Unionists. The high culture of the South, which Chesnut described in great detail in her diary, is hardly visible here, for Deforest stresses the rightness of the Northern cause. He keeps his portrayal of social issues flexible, describing a range of blacks from sympathetic to shiftless, and avoiding any impression that the North has achieved a perfect society. The result is a complex study of social conflict, threaded through with powerful battle scenes that illustrate the horror of the Civil War.

The Civil War generated some of America's finest literature. It was a testing time for the new nation. The Revolution had united the American colonies in resistance to a oppressive colonizing empire. Because the Revolutionary War had massive popular support among the colonists, in a sense it was easily won. The Civil War, by contrast, was a twisted confrontation between the two faces of a single nation. The physical and spiritual suffering generated by the Civil War far outpaced that generated by the Revolutionary War. Literature, which feeds on complex emotions like grief and regret, filled its basket with a wide variety of testimonies to the trauma of the Civil War.

Formation of a Modern America: 1865–1914

Between the Civil War and World War I (1914–1918), the United States began to come together as a unified nation. The Civil War had fragmented the country, the government, and its citizens. The war was in part a response to the inhumanity of the slave trade, but many other factors contributed to the conflict. There was an economic rivalry between the North, which was increasingly an industrial region, and the agricultural, cotton-based South. Furthermore, there was a clash of cultural styles between the two parts of the country. The South was conservative and was traditional in manners, social structure, and religious values, while the North was more liberal, more experimental in religious values, and more open to economic competition.

New literary attitudes against war and conflict began to emerge. These new attitudes faced an uphill battle. It had long been—and perhaps still is in many quarters—a literary custom to glorify war. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, two to three thousand years ago, great nation-building epic poems like Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid lauded war as the testing ground for masculinity and the serious risk every nation should be willing to take in promoting its own superiority.

Hints of a divergent attitude in American literature began with the poetry of Melville and Whitman. In fact, up to this point, American literature had offered little glorification of war. Thomas Paine believed that war was a necessary move for the American colonists, though he did not argue for war as an end in itself. Joel Barlow believed the Revolution was the only path to peace—but that was the only justification he gave for the war. Cooper presented the French and Indian War as a romantic scenario engaging noble savages and white settlers. While arguing that the Civil War was God's punishment for the practice of slavery, Lincoln believed that the war had one noble purpose as the only way to eradicate the practice of slavery. At best, war was viewed as a necessary stage on the way to social and cultural improvement.

Mark Twain (1825–1910), the author of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), composed the short piece "The War Prayer" in 1905. However, it was not published until 1916, during World War I, after initially being rejected by a leading American magazine. It opens with a parade of enthusiastic people, on their way to fight and support a war. The fire of patriotism, a fire that can easily burn out of control and consume everything in its path, is burning strongly in its citizens.

Twain could be talking about any war, and indeed he is, although his immediate reference is to the Philippine-American War (1899–1902). "The War Prayer" is ironic in its depiction of patriotism. Rather than being a positive national force, patriotism is presented here as a dark, self-righteous mob mentality that quiets any voice of disagreement. Twain points out that dissent from the received view of the war was unacceptable in this community. No one would listen to other perspectives; any effort to express disapproval of the war or raise doubts about its righteousness was sharply rebuked, and doubters quickly resolved to keep their mouths shut.

The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane (1871–1900) is a psychological study of war. The protagonist is a young man in his first battles, torn between his dreams of bravery and fear of failure. His moods are erratic, plagued by the problem of courage, as the battle line surges around him. Will he have the resolve to go with the battle? Or will he creep away, unnoticed, as was possible in the rugged fighting conditions he faced? In this study of a deeply conflicted contemporary warrior, Crane carefully catalogs the mental devices by which the young man tries to shore up his willingness to fight:

He did not give a great deal of thought to these battles that lay directly before him. It was not essential that he should plan his ways in regard to them…. He had been out among the dragons, he said, and he assured himself that they were not so hideous as he had imagined them. Also, they were inaccurate; they did not sting with precision…. And, furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of gods and doomed to greatness?

The Red Badge of Courage casts war in a glaringly unromantic light. This critical perspective appears in many of the texts to follow; war, long exalted in ancient literature, is increasingly exposed as terrifying, debilitating, and destructive.

After publishing The Red Badge of Courage, Crane (1871–1900) worked as a journalist on assignment in many parts of the world. His travels took him to the American West and Mexico, as well as to Turkey and Greece. During this time, he had ample opportunity to view the ravages of war, as well as to develop his cynicism. His poem "War is Kind," from the volume of the same name, provides a good example of his view on the sacrifices required during wartime:

    Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
    Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
    Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
    Do not weep.
    War is kind.

The soldier in the "yellow trenches" gulping for air is a victim of mustard gas, a notorious weapon employed during World War I that resulted in horrible deaths for men without gas masks. The image of that death stands in opposition to anything "kind," and shows Crane's suspicion of the patriotic fervor that leads to soldiers' deaths. Twain and Crane elevate the new tone of bitterness and cynicism in the war writings of American literature. Yet another variant tone is introduced with Charles Alexander Eastman Ohiyesa's writings about the Ghost Dance War.

Ohiyesa (1858–1939) was born a Santee Sioux and raised as an Indian warrior. After attending the Indian Normal School in South Dakota, he attended Dartmouth College and Boston College, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1890. Ohiyesa returned to South Dakota at the time of the Ghost Dance War (1899), when the Lakota Sioux rose up against the white administration of their lands and culture. The following year the massacre of Wounded Knee shocked the world, resulting in the deaths of three hundred Native Americans. As one of the first physicians on the scene, Ohiyesa was appalled by the carnage.

In the book From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), Ohiyesa describes the Sioux's Ghost Dance War preparations and the traditional rituals that accompanied their military exploits. The book reflects on the conflict between traditional woodland Indian warfare and the growing firepower of modern war. The Ghost Dance warriors, armed with bows and arrows, were mowed down by their white adversaries' firepower. Ohiyesa's account reminds readers that the conflict between Native Americans and whites at the beginning of the twentieth century had improved little since the time of Rowlandson and Mather.

World War I and After: 1915–1939

With World War I, America discovered the destructive power of world conflict. The war introduced new forms of killing and assault, such as trench warfare, sophisticated mortar systems, and mustard gas. Despite these technological factors, texts published at the time confirm the obvious fact that war is war; personal loss, fear, pain, and territorial struggle are the constants of warfare, wherever, however, and whenever it is fought.

The poet Amy Lowell (1874–1925) was a leading figure in the imagist movement in poetry. Imagism was a movement in poetry that rejected sentimentality in favor of sharp, unemotional images. In her poem "Patterns" (1915), Lowell crafts a personal expression to the pain of war, as the speaker in the poem has just discovered that her lover has been killed in battle:

     And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
     By each button, hook, and lace.
     For the man who should loose me is dead,
     Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
     In a pattern called a war.
     Christ! What are patterns for?

In this poem, Lowell speaks as an aristocratic lady awaiting the return of her lover from a European conflict. The sharp, specific image of the woman's tight brocade dress serves as a metaphor for grief; she is bound tightly into her ornate clothing, and only her lost lover would have been able to loosen her. Lowell's poem addresses the pain of a war in which military death was proving fatal to many people's dreams, including those who were left behind.

Mary Rowlandson took the reader inside the domestic world of the Algonquin Indians who kidnapped her, while Mary Chesnut took the reader inside her drawing room to hear the conversations of Southern government and military leaders. Similarly, Amy Lowell takes the reader inside the feelings of an individual woman awaiting the return of her beloved.

In her poem "Helen" (1921), H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961), another imagist poet, strikes out at the conventional idea that war is a heroic enterprise motivated in part by the desire to protect and adore women. The Trojan War, recorded in ancient Greek epics like Homer's Iliad, was allegedly fought so that the Greeks could recover Helen, the supremely beautiful wife of the Greek hero Menelaus. But H. D. claims that the glorious ideal, the "face that launched a thousand ships," as Christopher Marlowe wrote in his play Dr. Faustus, was no ideal at all. In fact, in H. D.'s poem, the Greeks are not pleased to be going to war for one woman: "All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face / […] All Greece reviles / the wan face when she smiles."

Poet and painter E. E. Cummings (1894–1962) is well known for his innovative typography in poems. In 1921, he published The Enormous Room, a memoir of his four-month wartime stay in a French concentration camp. The beginning of the second chapter, in which the author enters his jail cell for the first time, suggests the antic tone of the whole book and differs from the majority of war texts that precede it:

The cell was ridiculously high; perhaps ten feet. The end with the door in it was peculiar … allowing for a huge iron can waist-high which stood in the other corner…. The door was massively made, all of iron or steel I should think: It delighted me. The can excited my curiosity. I looked over the edge of it. At the bottom reposefully lay a new human turd.

Cummings had been falsely charged with being a potential enemy of France. He refused to react tragically to his incarceration or regard himself as victim, joked about it as much as possible, and consequently wrote a lighthearted and comic work about the climate of war. The comedic perspective was a new approach to war literature, and one that highlighted the absurdity of wartime mentality. Only Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) rivals Cummings's poem in its humor and its unusual approach to war.

In the same year, five years after the end of World War I, the American novelist John Dos Passos (1896–1970) published Three Soldiers (1921). Like Cummings, Dos Passos had firsthand war experience as an ambulance driver. Dos Passos scrutinizes military life with a doubtful eye, and details its effects on the thoughts and ambitions of soldiers-particularly its ability to reduce them to robots or masses of anguish, a situation in which a "row of men in khaki [become] a crowd of various individuals" only after they are dismissed by their sergeant. The men lose their individuality in the military, "in a khaki row that was one of hundreds of other khaki rows, identical." Dos Passos follows three individual soldiers through the ins and outs of mess hall, training drill, and barracks, environments where ordinary, dull levels of thought and feeling hold sway.

The novel Soldier's Pay (1926) by William Faulkner (1897–1962) is an after-combat commentary on war. The protagonist has returned home to a small town in Georgia after having been severely wounded in combat. His homecoming is rough. He is sporting a dreadful scar that nearly replaces his forehead. He and his fiancée, who has pursued another man, must deal with the pain of this unexpected homecoming, a pain all the greater since the soldier had been declared killed in action. The bitterness of war is reinforced here, as it was in Twain's "The War Prayer" or Crane's "War is Kind." In the present day, even the truest patriot, the most loyal supporter of any given country's war effort, would be aware of the mental and physical anguish war causes, both to the conqueror and the conquered. Many people may question whether there are any clear-cut winners in war, as even the victors lose something.

A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) probes the atmosphere of war with a cutting exactitude, an air of romance, and a sense of futility. Henry, the protagonist, is an ambulance driver like Hemingway, Cummings, and Dos Passos. He serves as a driver for the Italian Army. He meets, falls in love with, and courts an English nurse serving on the battlefront. The love between the two grows, as does the intensity of the fighting. Henry emerges by luck from an engagement in which he is nearly killed, and builds his philosophy of life ever more firmly. That philosophy of life concerns war, and may be compared to the view of Matthew Arnold, discussed later in this essay. In both cases, war is seen as meaningless chaos, and the individual's best recourse is to find a personal salvation, particularly a search for intimacy and love away from the action. This attitude is all the stronger in Henry, who is deeply non-religious and in some ways an existentialist, creating his own sense of meaning as he goes through life. In the end, Henry and Catherine defect from the military and flee to Switzerland, where they await the birth of their child. They make their way out of the violence into intimacy. However, this recourse gives them no free ticket to peace. Both the mother and the child die in childbirth, leaving Henry to face an undefined future. Even as he and Catherine escaped the ravages and threats of war, she dies a random death in a neutral country. The verdict on war is severe and forceful, but so is the judgment of the attempt to escape, as it is presented in this tragic portrait of a world engulfed in battle.

World War II: 1940 and After

American involvement in World War II began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), and ended with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and August 9, 1945). In the intervening years, over six million Jews were killed in Nazi concentration camps, and millions of soldiers and civilians died in the fighting. A war of this magnitude could not be measured by pre-existing war standards, nor written about using existing literary forms. The treatment of war by post-World War II writers differs from that by post-World War I authors. Four novels take hard realistic looks at the Second World War by examining the military culture and society that flourishes in the war.

Norman Mailer's (1923–) The Naked and the Dead (1948) was based on the author's own experiences in World War II. As a sergeant in the U.S. Army, he had hoped to be sent to Europe and was disappointed when he was sent to the South Pacific, to serve in Leyte, Luzon, and then Japan. From those locations, he corresponded extensively with his first wife, cataloguing the observations that became the basis for The Naked and the Dead, a book that made him famous at the age of twenty-five.

The Naked and the Dead looks at the good and the bad among the members of a platoon with a foothold on a Japanese occupied island, and reminds readers that not everyone on the "right" side of a war is a good person. The officers enjoy a good life, with good lodgings, food, and drink, while the enlisted men are merely pawns to be manipulated for the officers' advantage. The commander of the platoon sends a scouting mission to the top of a mountain within enemy lines so that they can spy on the enemy's troop movements. The sergeant in charge is cynical and tough, to the point of removing the gold from the teeth of dead enemy troops. The kind of conflict Mailer dwells on is initiated when the lieutenant in the party, a person of privilege back in the real world, criticizes the sergeant for the way he mistreats the enlisted men. The sergeant, in turn, assigns the lieutenant the job of leading the squad on its dangerous mission. This conflict within the squad, as well as the attempts of the soldiers to maintain their dignity under hard circumstances, creates the drama of Mailer's novel.

James Jones's (1921–1977) From Here to Eternity (1951) also describes the military world of World War II. Like Mailer, Jones served in the army, as a sergeant from 1939–44. The novel is set in Pearl Harbor before the Japanese attack of 1941. The protagonist, or main character, is Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt from Kentucky, a strong and honorable person fully committed to the army, named for the famous Confederate general. In his youth (like Jones himself), Prewitt had been a boxer but gave it up, deeply upset by the harm he did to another boxer in the ring. The individuality that underlies Prewitt's strong character leads him into conflict with the military system. He refuses to join the army boxing team and Captain Holmes warns him that being a team player is essential in the army, and that it is no place for individualism, a sentiment similar to that expressed in Dos Passos's Three Soldiers.

Throughout Jones's novel move the innumerable "little guys" of military life, many of them victims, as was Jones himself, of Depression-era poverty, young men who signed up with the military to earn money quickly. Many quickly discover that a peacetime army can be a battlefield on which one struggles to maintain personal identity, and that the army demands difficult concessions. Though most of the story takes place before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and concerns what was then called the "pineapple army" assembled in Hawaii, Jones, like Dos Passos, takes readers into the rarely ennobling fundamentals of soldiers' social interactions.

Joseph Heller's (1923–99) experiences as a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force in 1942 inspired his novel Catch-22 (1961). Heller's critique of the war differs from that of many war novelists. Whereas Cummings uses humor in his refusal to be victimized by the war, Heller turns to dark and sinister comedy to make a point about the absurdity of combat. That absurdity is illustrated by the protagonist's comrade, Orr, trying to get out of the army by saying he is insane. However, there is a catch—Catch-22—involved. If Orr asks to be released from the army, it will mean that he is sane, because one would be crazy to voluntarily put oneself in harm's way during battle. But if he is sane, he must continue flying raids over Europe. If one is truly insane, then one would not request to leave the army and would, in fact, enjoy the perilous air raids.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Mailer, Jones, and Heller are all concerned with the degraded social culture of the military and the kind of individual soldiers it creates. By concentrating on that portion of evil, they comment on war itself. In Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut (1922–) introduces new themes from the 1960s, a decade embroiled in yet another war. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a young infantry scout who is taken prisoner in the intense fighting that followed the Allied Forces landing in France in 1941. Billy is lodged in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden, where he and other prisoners are employed making a vitamin supplement for pregnant women. During the firebombing of Dresden by Allied aircraft on February 13, 1945, the employed prisoners take shelter in a meat locker underground. When they return to the surface, they find the city has been leveled and they are put to work digging corpses out of the rubble. The story of Billy Pilgrim is also the story of the author Vonnegut, who was captured and survived the firestorm in which one hundred and thirty-five thousand German civilians perished, more than were killed in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Slaughterhouse-Five sets a framework around its bitter war account, which was an eye-opener to an American public concerned only with the violence done by Germans and Japanese. As his last name may suggest, Billy Pilgrim is not an ordinary military grunt. He is an individual who is unstuck in time, wandering through time and space. His life has included a stint as an optometrist; he has been married to a rich girl who died of carbon monoxide poisoning; he has been the only survivor of a plane crash, and he was abducted and taken to the planet Tralfamadore, where he was kept as a zoo specimen. In the course of these adventures, in which he navigates the far corners of his own life, he returns to the Dresden of the past where he was held with other American prisoners, in slaughterhouse five. Many messages are tucked into this tale; as one of the great texts of the 1960s, it touches on issues such as ecology, the consumer society, and pollution. The dominant messages are that human beings are all guilty, that patriotic versions of history are misleading, and that we should respect and love each other rather than killing each other.

Late Twentieth Century

The first two world wars, which were vast conflicts involving total military commitments, evoked sweeping responses from writers and poets. Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Hemingway wrote about the pain of war, presenting it from various angles. Mailer, Jones, Vonnegut, and Heller increased the scale of commentary, probing the quality of life in a military culture and the degradation of personality that can go with it.

In the last half century, the nature of war has been redefined. Global wars have given way to innumerable smaller wars around the globe, fought within national boundaries or for specific national interests. This change has caused a kind of literary downsizing, in which novels, poems and nonfiction focus more tightly on specific events; at the same time there has been an increase in more sophisticated and subtle protests against the violence of war.

In Vietnam in January 1968, Marine Corps Sergeant Ron Kovic (1946–) was shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down. Kovic went on to write a memoir about his war experiences and subsequent anti-war stance in Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Kovic described a generation of young men raised on stories of World War II heroism and adventure, seduced by the promise of glory in battle, and ultimately betrayed by that promise. For Kovic, war is not a glamorous adventure but a horrific, dehumanizing experience that could destroy a soldier's mind, body, and spirit. Kovic often speaks at anti-war rallies and was a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by American troops. He presents his wounded body as a living protest against the ridiculousness and pointlessness of war.

Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War (1977) is an autobiographical account of life on the frontlines during the Vietnam War. Caputo (1941–) is similar to Kovic in that he uses documentary-style reporting, giving the facts while adding a minimum of emotion or feeling. This approach gives the story immediacy, as if events were happening too quickly and chaotically to register emotion, leaving time only to take in the facts. Like Kovic, Caputo speaks of naive excitement at the possibility of combat, a feeling known only to those who have do not yet have firsthand experience. In an 1996 interview for CNN's "Cold War" series, Caputo says:

We were all kind of hot to go, hot to get into something—do something that was other than train and drill. And there was a kind of feeling … that, being U.S. Marines, our mere presence in Vietnam was going to terrify the enemy into quitting.

Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977) gives a journalist's report from the front lines in Vietnam. Esquire magazine sent Herr (1940–) to cover the war, and he produced a series of close-up images of the men in action, the grunts with whom he interacted on a daily basis. This book, like Caputo's, goes into the thick of the fighting, where misfits, pill-poppers, and psychedelic-using young Americans battle an enemy they cannot understand. Herr's work, even more than Caputo's, explores the boundaries between fiction and journalism, and thus works toward a new form of writing. His allusive and vividly pictorial reporting on the brutality of the Vietnam War recalls the sharp realism of the photographic work that Margaret Bourke-White and others were making famous during World War II.

Like Catch-22, Tim O'Brien's (1946–) Going After Cacciato (1979) is about the desire to escape war in any way possible, whether physically or just mentally. The main character, Cacciato, has decided to escape the war by walking the eighty-six hundred miles from Vietnam to Paris, putting the devastation of war behind him. His fellow squad mates, however, are determined to prevent his escape, and they set out to stop him. From this point, the narrative moves increasingly into the fantastic, as the team follows Cacciato all the way to Les Halles, the huge Parisian market. They accomplish this trip in a stolen car while having many adventures of their own. The horror of the war itself underwrites this fantasy for the narrator, creating a situation in which walking thousands of miles across the globe seems a reasonable alternative to fighting.

Judith Cofer (1952–) draws on her childhood to recreate longing for her father in the poem "Father in the Navy." Growing up during World War II, she knew nothing about the war other than the fact that it meant her father would be gone for long periods of time. There was always the sadness of departure, but also something magical about each time her father returned: "Mother, brother and I kept vigil / on the nights and dawns of his arrival." Cofer presents a view of war that is not often addressed, that of the children and families left behind when their parents go to war.

In "The Colonel," Carolyn Forcheé (1950–) writes about a surreal dinner with a Colonel in El Salvador. She captures the violence of the war mentality, even when a person is away from the battlefield: the colonel's hands are bloody with the repression and brutality that are part of the Salvadoran government's war to exterminate dissident, or rebel, peasants:

The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves…. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go f—themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air.

In "Making Peace," Denise Levertov (1923–1997) helps the reader consider why literary testimonies to peace can be difficult to include in an essay on war and peace. Peace is something to be defined as humanity makes it, step by step, while war is an event in the world that one can know directly without having to imagine it. Her poem argues that artists have a responsibility to write about peace and perhaps to create peace in the world. She takes readers back to the motto of the British Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote that poets are in fact the true legislators of the world. Levertov takes readers through the evidence for this claim, laying out in stately language the case for peace as though each word is a brick in the house of peace.

It is good to be reminded, at the end of this survey of American war literature, that peace can also be actively and creatively established and that it can be quite as dramatic as war. This idea harkens back to Einstein's point that peace requires more time and more work than war. To be worth fighting, a war must be able to validate itself with tangible improvements over the condition it replaces.


Literature records many faces of war, and by implication (from time to time), of peace. In American literature, war has been depicted in many ways: as monstrous, a test from God, potentially inspiring, cynically manipulative, revolutionary, the by-product of extesive social deliberations, and as a force of profound dehumanization. America's historical and cultural identity were founded and forged on the battlefield; several centuries later, this continues to be true.

Still, none of these American authors are insensitive to the benefits that follow from peace. As has been mentioned, peace is more difficult to capture and define than war, and it often lends it self less well to literature. Peace dwells in quiet places, where people are busy at normal activities, rarely making headlines. While peace is rarely a newsworthy development, the sudden absence of peace is always shocking. Even though war is violent and destructive in many ways, peace is often the goal of war. As long as Americans are involved—either directly or indirectly—in war or the quest for peace, American writers will be chronicling these struggles.


"Cold War" Interview with Philip Caputo, CNN Cold War, www.cnn.com/specials/cold.war/episodes/11/interviews/caputo (August 4, 2005).

Cofer, Judith Ortiz, "My Father in the Navy," quoted in Karr, Paul, "The Quilting of Cultures," in Reseach magazine, The University of Georgia, Fall 1998, www.ovpr.uga.edu/researchnews (August 4, 2005).

Crane, Stephen, "Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind," in Vol. 2 of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d ed., edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath, 1994, p. 740.

――――, The Red Badge of Courage, Pocket Books Enriched Classic, 1996, p. 107-08; originally published by D. Appleton, 1895.

De Otermin, Don Antonio, "Letter on the Pueblo Revolt," University of Houston's Digital History, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu (September 9, 2005).

Dos Passos, John, Three Soldiers, Project Gutenburg, www.gutenburg.org (September 9, 2005), originally published by The Modern Library, 1932.

Forché, Carolyn, "The Colonel," in Poem Hunter, www.poemhunter.com (August 4, 2005), originally published in The Country Between Us, J. Cape, 1981.

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, Everyman's Library edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 56.

Inglis, Charles, "The True Interest of America Impartially Stated," Canada History, www.canadahistory.com (September 9, 2005), originally published in 1776.

Lincoln, Abraham, "Second Inaugural Address," in Vol. 1 of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d ed., edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath, 1994, p. 1934; originally presented on March 4, 1865.

Lowell, Amy, "Patterns," in A Treasury of Great Poems, edited by Louis Untermeyer, Galahad Books, 1993, pp. 1078-81.

Melville, Herman, "The Portent," in Vol. 1 of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d ed., edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath, 1994, p. 626.

Wheatley, Phillis, "To His Excellency General Washington," in Vol. 1 of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d ed., edited by Paul Lauter, D.C. Heath, 1994, pp. 1062-64.

Whitman, Walt, "Reconciliation," in A Treasury of Great Poems, edited by Louis Untermeyer, Galahad Books, 1993, p. 915.

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War and Peace in American Literature

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