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Cynthia Wachtell Headshot

An American Tradition of War and War Protest

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Next April, America will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. A few months later, in July, President Obama has promised to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, signaling that war's long awaited end. And, of course, just weeks ago, on August 31, the President declared an end to the long and costly war in Iraq.

These three dates invite a bit of reflection. What have Americans learned about war in the past century and a half, and what have we forgotten?

"The whole matter of war... smites common sense and Christianity in the face," wrote Herman Melville long before the Civil War ever began. Melville was not alone in pointing out the immorality inherent to combat.

Visiting the freshly blood-soaked Fredericksburg, Virginia battlefield in December of 1862, Walt Whitman felt sickened by the bloated and discolored bodies that lay unburied days after the fray and appalled by the stacks of amputated limbs he encountered outside an improvised field hospital.

"O the hideous damned hell of war," he recorded in his private journal. "O there is no hell more damned than this hell of war." And later Whitman would describe the men who were wounded in the battle of Chancellorsville in the late spring of 1863. "O heavens, what scene is this? - is this indeed humanity - these butchers' shambles?... There they lie... in an open space in the woods, from 200 to 300 poor fellows - the groans and screams - the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees - that slaughterhouse!"

Those are some pretty strong words against war. What would happen, I wonder, if Melville and Whitman were mystically transported from the great beyond and asked to give their opinion of our modern wars? And how would they be received for their viewpoints?

Undoubtedly, they would meet an icy welcome in certain circles. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Jim DeMint, and others who dominate the conservative airways and halls of politics have made it amply clear where they stand on the issue of patriotism and peaceniks. In the build up to the war in Iraq in 2003, Limbaugh famously lambasted war protesters as "anti-American, anti-capitalist, pro-Marxists and communists."

So it is likely the author of Moby-Dick would be labeled "un-American" and even "un-Christian." And the poet of Leaves of Grass would be criticized for being "un-patriotic."

But it is not only the conservative right that views war opponents with suspicion. On
September 24, FBI agents raided homes of prominent war protesters in Minneapolis and Chicago, ostensibly looking for connections between the anti-war activists and terrorists groups abroad. Children's artwork and posters of Martin Luther King, Jr. are said to be among the family possessions carried away by the authorities.

Among those whose homes were raided were Jessica Sundin and Mick Kelly, organizers of the huge anti-war rally that took place on the opening day of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Kelly reported that the FBI kicked open his door, after he had left for work.

Those raids, which invited protest rallies early last week outside local FBI headquarters in both cities, also invited gloating in certain parts. One conservative blogger commented, "It's about time the FBI got a clue about the insidious nature of 'peace' groups."

What, then, would the darlings of the conservative airways, much less the door-kickers of the FBI, do with Mark Twain were he still alive?

As the bloodshed of the 19th century gave way to the bloodshed of the 20th century, Twain dared to observe that there has never been "a war started by the aggressor for any clean purpose... There is no such war in the history of [the human] race." Those sound like the "insidious" words of a man not sufficiently filled with love for his country and hate for his enemy.

Little matter that Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and left every young American male born since dreaming of plying a raft down the Mississippi. He would nevertheless be as likely to be labeled a lily-livered pacifist, or terrorist enabler, as the rest of them.

Since Twain's death a century ago, there has been no shortage of wars: World War I, World War II, Korea, the War in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each of these can be debated on its merits, but have we taken heed of the warnings of those writers who witnessed the devastation of the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 died?

One thing is for certain. Twain, Melville, and Whitman would welcome an open debate about the morality of predator drones, extraordinary rendition, and the overall suffering that war brings.

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Cynthia Wachtell is a research associate professor of American Studies at Yeshiva University and the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 (Louisiana State University Press, 2010 www.warnomorethebook.com.)