Shelby Foote is an author who inspires strong feelings in his readers. For some, he is William Faulkner reborn as a historian. For others, he takes too many liberties to be called a historian, and his epic three-volume Civil War series should strictly be considered literature. I see both sides of this. History is narrative, and some accounts of the Civil War – or any episode of the past for that matter – eschew the narrative for an obsession with individual details so fastidious that they miss the significance of the subject matter. When I think about the Civil War, Shelby Foote is usually the first place I start – and from there I branch out into other works that spend more time on the mundane and less time on Robert E. Lee’s inner dialogue with his horse.
I’ll confess that the Civil War is on my mind, mostly because it’s always on my mind around the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. But it is especially on my mind because I’m taking a well-earned few days off in mid-July, and one of my planned excursions is a daylong tour of the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Regular readers of GPF will not be surprised to know this is my idea of a fun weekend. I am especially looking forward to seeing Chancellorsville because I’ve already spent significant time at the site of Robert E. Lee’s greatest losses – Gettysburg and Antietam. Those battles made me think twice about Lee’s reputation as a brilliant general, and I’m looking forward to seeing the other side.
My preparation starts, however, not with Stephen Sears’ excellent “Chancellorsville,” but with the second volume of Foote’s massive tome on the Civil War. There’s a time and place for Sears’ meticulous precision and for the study of the battlefield itself. But I must start with Foote and his grand, sweeping account of the Civil War – not his account of a single battle, or even a series of battles, but a story about the formation of the United States of America today, in all its glory and all its shame.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
Several years ago, I attended a talk by Tim O’Brien, the war novelist who wrote “The Things They Carried.” He spoke about a routine he went through every night to fall asleep. He would imagine himself alone in a bunker, in front of a control panel giving him increasingly powerful instruments of defense, facing waves of charging enemy soldiers. The rest was so haunting and personal that it feels wrong for me to tell it even now. I haven’t met anyone who can describe what war does to a person like O’Brien can.
I’m reminded of O’Brien as I read Kevin Powers’ 2013 debut novel, “The Yellow Birds.” It’s a book about Pvt. John Bartle’s quest to survive the Iraq War and, later, to forgive himself for what he’d done and what he’d failed to do – namely, keep a promise to his friend’s mother to keep her son alive. Powers’ writing is often O’Brienesque, with poetic ramblings and a fragmented timeline. We learn early on that his friend does not survive – no spoiler alert – but we don’t learn the nature of his death or its aftermath until later.
The biggest difference between O’Brien and Powers is that Powers is not nearly as good – hardly surprising considering this is Powers’ first novel. The second biggest difference is that although war is something that happened to them both, Powers carries the added guilt of having chosen it. (O’Brien was drafted to fight in Vietnam.) At one especially poignant moment, we can hear Bartle’s own voice change into Powers’. He talks of his anger at the world for what the war has done to him, and at America for the way it celebrates his violence. His own mother, he says, “is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple.”
But he always turns the anger back on himself. And it consumes him. “[C]owardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man … and that’s never gonna happen now and you’re too much of a coward to be a man.”
War is the most awful thing we do to each other, and it’s also one of the most human things that we do. Powers talks about the war as though it had agency – the first line of the book is, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Later, as the rookie soldiers get better and harder, they become the war’s instruments, capable of killing not just men but also landscapes. “The empty city smoldered. We wore it to the bone with our modern instruments.” Mankind knows how to rebuild cities. No one’s quite figured out how to put our soldiers back together.
Ryan Bridges, editor