A moral critique of America’s first “total war”

Harry S. Stout. Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. Viking Press, 2006. xxii + 552pp.

This is an important and interesting book, well-written and deeply concerned with its subject matter. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale, tries to take head on the challenge of looking at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought—the American Civil War—from a moral perspective. He argues, and gives plenty of evidence to support his argument, that the moral dimension was missing during the war itself and, by and large, in analyses of the war ever since.

Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War, with only a brief introduction and afterword considering the run up to the War and its aftermath. We read of how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory such as a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity to bear on their responses to the war. Instead, Stout reports mostly jingoistic cheerleading, especially from the churches, and pragmatic strategies to win the War at all costs from the political and military leaders.

Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the “West Point Code” (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. He also makes it clear that the Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.

Stout’s academic specialty is the history of Christianity in the United States, and he makes a special contribution in conveying the largely uncritical embrace of total war as a religious imperative by partisans on both sides of this war. He did track down a few examples of sermons and other writings that raised some moral questions, but these are mostly notable for their scarcity and lack of impact.

Particularly eye-opening is Stout’s account of President Lincoln’s embrace of the devastating practices of total war with the intent (to paraphrase a later American general, Curtis LeMay) to kill and kill until the enemy finally gives up. We learn how Lincoln’s absolute commitment to the inviolability of the Union became the end that justified whatever means were deemed effective in achieving it. Stout could have told us more about how Lincoln’s Union-worship combined with his generic religiosity to give powerful impetus for the emergence of American Civil Religion—and how this Civil Religion has exerted such powerful influence on the embrace of subsequent military actions as in some sense “God’s will.”

It is at this point of the religious dynamics that supported total war (and jettisoned any effective use of just war constraints) that Stout’s book makes its greatest contribution (while also leaving this reader the most frustrated). The book’s title, “Upon the altar of the nation” points to how Christian imagery of blood sacrifice and redemptive violence underwrote a religious affirmation of what became a most unjust war (based on its violation of the jus in bello [just conduct] principles of the just war theory). That is, the Civil War serves as a founding event in America’s long-term (and devastating) embrace of the “myth of redemptive violence”—the belief that violence successfully responds to problems of injustice and wrong-doing and accomplishes good ends.

However, Stout doesn’t do nearly enough in reflecting on the legacy of the Civil War. He has us set up for reflections on the consequences of that war, as the book is full of hints about the problematic consequences of the amoral execution of the war’s terrible destruction. But then he leaves us hanging. He does, with frustrating brevity, mention the later history of Generals Grant, Sherman, and (especially) Sheridan applying the lessons they learned in total war to the annihilation of Native Americans. But virtually nothing else.

The book would have been much stronger with about 100 pages of analysis on the legacy of the Civil War in the subsequent acceptance and practice of total war free from moral restraint in American history. Stout clearly has thought about this, and it’s simply too bad he didn’t extend himself to spell the trajectory out. I do notice that Stout dedicates this book to his father, “a warrior sailor in a just war”—i.e., World War II.  Well, maybe.  But in light of Stout’s own analysis of the Civil War, one has to wonder whether a similar analysis of World War II might raise serious questions about that justness of that war, too (see Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, for the beginning of such a critical analysis of World War II as unjust, though see also Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire, for a careful moral analysis of that war that by and large agrees with Stout’s sentiment).

Stout’s final paragraph caught me up short: “Judging the Civil War is not a brief for pacifism. Rather, it is an endorsement of the idea of a just war. There are no ideal wars. Peace is the only ideal, and every war is at some level a perversion of it. In a less than ideal world, however, in which we sometimes labor under a moral imperative to war, we cannot afford to do less than demand a just war and a merciful outcome” (page 461).  Here, Stout takes back pretty much the entire thrust of the rest of the book.

It is hard to imagine a war that could make a better case for having been “a moral imperative” than the Civil War. Yet, Stout effectively shows us that even with this moral imperative and under the leadership of surely the most morally sophisticated and courageous president the US has ever had, we still end up with a fundamentally unjust war. And one has to wonder if it is romantic and unrealistic to think it could have been otherwise.

Stout hints at, throughout, with his critical tone, that the Civil War could have followed jus in bello principles. This seems questionable. Once a war is undertaken, it seems inevitable that it will take on a win at all costs momentum (at least is what has happened with actual wars). I wonder if, ultimately, we aren’t faced with only two genuine options—”blank check” (win at all costs, total war, do what the state asks for without serious question) or pacifism (simply saying no, whether because one believes in principle that war is always unacceptable or because one recognizes that in actual history since we cannot hope to have a “just war” we must say no).

If the “just war theory” has any teeth at all (cf. John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust), it must lead to saying no to unjust wars.  If this most justifiable of wars was unjust, what’s the alternative to pacifism? “Judging the Civil War” should indeed be a “brief for pacifism.” Humanity has created this terrible tool (total war) that has over and over shown itself to be fundamentally immoral, incapable of genuine justice. We have no moral alternative but to reject it, once and for all.

I am grateful for Stout’s book, though I remain deeply disconcerted by his closing words. However, even if he seems unwilling to stay with the implications of his best insights, he has given us a rich and troubling account of a crucial time in the history of our country and indeed the world. Hopefully, many will learn from this account and a few, at least, will be willing to take Stout’s analysis a few necessary steps further and indeed use it as brief for pacifism—humanity’s only hope.

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