Monday, December 28, 2009

CWL---The Awful Shock of Battle, New Social History, And Marginalizing Veterans of Combat (Part Two)

'The Awful Shock and Rage of Battle': Rethinking the Meaning and Consequences of Combat in the American Civil War, Eric T. Dean, Jr., War in History, 8:2 (2001), 149-165.

Dean turns from Mitchell's Vacant Chair to Earl Hess' The Union Soldier In Battle (1997) to further explore the impact of New Social History on American Civil War studies. Civil War soldiers engaging in combat experienced a 'crossing over' from naive imagination to brutal reality states Hess. This brutal reality was an experience that soldiers felt could not be described or comprehended by the community at home. Dean faults Hess' assumption that the common mas was an autonomous, empowered and heroic in the struggle against social and political elites, a tenet of New Social History. To gain victory over the horrors of combat, Hess states that Federal soldiers avoided bitterness and callousness and became survivors. Some failed. It are these failures that Hess ignores and Dean embraces. (pp. 157-158)

Though agreeing with Hess on most of his interpretations, Dean asserts that the notion that real men made real soldiers and those who failed the test of battle were cowards. For Dean, those who failed the immediate tests of battle run counter to what has been learned from 20th century wars. Dean would augment Hess' analysis of courage and of the devices employed by soldiers to adapt to the brutal reality of combat. It is the long term effects of the short explosions of battle that goes unmentioned that attracts Dean. He discusses instances of veterans being committed to asylums after the war.(pp. 158-160)

A third work of New Social History with which Dean contends is Divided Houses; Gender and the Civil War, edited by Catherin Clinton and Nina Silber (1992). Whereas Reid investigated the connections between home front women and battlefield soldiers, the essays in Divided Houses seize upon the conflicts between the genders. Union nurses thwarting male doctors authority, Confederate women being duped by the myth of sacrifice promoted by politicians, editors and generals. Hess welcomes explorations into the meaning of gender in the Civil war era. Yet an emphasis on conflict, separate identity, exploitation, hegemony, and cynical white males in a patriarchal society obscures the way in which the phenomenon of war pulled communities and families together rather than apart. (pp. 161-162)

Indeed, long term effects of anxiety and dread upon women caused mental instability among them similar to the long term effects of the short explosions of battle affected soldiers. Dean discusses of instance of veteran's wives in asylums after the war.

Dean concludes that at times the New Social History, in similar ways to military history, narrows and make predictable the human experience of war. Race/gender/class based interpretations must be tempered by Clausewitz vision and understanding of war. Bridled and unbridled violence lies at the core of war. Historians should never lose sight of the fact that ware is about violence and the effect of violence on men, their families and communities is the "irreducible bottom line in warfare." Warfare has internal dynamics and is a driving force of its own. It is not a "mere continuation of society and social forces as one finds these in peacetime." Understanding soldiers and their families on their own terms and in their on contexts is required. Imposing race/gender/class agendas, preferences and beliefs accomplishes a distorted, self-serving picture rather than a revelation of truth. (pp. 163-165).

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