of body counts and word counts

The quietude here has been almost a good sign: I’m finally sucked in by the book.  I walk to the gym thinking about Donelson Caffery and Lewis Douglass, sleep followed by the ghost of Bierce. I then have to remember to work in the data I sort of started with, about desertion and dissent and the size and strength of armies.

Now, when I look at Civil War photos of famous officers, their facial hair looks painted into the faces of children – just as I felt about this one of Bierce in uniform, or the one at right (after the war ended, age 22).

I’ve also been haunted by the way Walt Whitman, via his biographer Roy Morris, explained the way the last two years of the Civil War were fought:

Grant was a new type of warrior for a new kind of war, one based less on grand heroics and noble gestures than on the simple ciphering of sums he had learned in his brother’s dry-goods store. With the war now entering its fourth spring, the North had roughly twice the number of soldiers as the South, and the new Union general-in-chief intended, with Abraham Lincoln’s enthusiastic backing, to improve those odds by forcibly subtracting, one by one, the country’s dwindling stock of defenders. When enough Rebels had been subtracted, the North would win. It was as simple – and brutal — as that.

None of the pounds of Civil War lit and film I’d consumed for this chapter, none of the dry monographs or discussions on H-WAR listservs had sung that song so clearly to me. And it brought first to my mind Vietnam and body counts, the official obsession with the number of enemy dead.

I took a very deep breath.  Then I decided to try to fact-check: While I count Roy Morris as a personal avatar (nearly as much as Adam Hochschild) and adore Whitman, that kind of connection felt almost too easy. And after shaking the dust off my ears from the arguments of Civil War historians (e.g. “Grant wasn’t the butcher they said he was!”),  I was only more confused. I tried to call some trusted vets, like my friend Capt. Montalvan, for some insight, but they were all at the conventions. So I kept digging and found the shit: “The American Way of Operational Art: Attrition or Maneuver?“,  by a commander/prof at the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth. And lo and behold, perhaps I should have trusted Roy Morris.

While everyone admired the brilliant maneuver campaigns conducted by Lee, they adopted the techniques of the bloody but successful campaign of attrition waged by Grant. Professor Weigley concluded that “Despite the veneration of R.E. Lee
in American military hagiography, it was U.S. Grant whose theories of strategy actually prevailed.” ….Operational planning focused on how to best wear down the enemy’s
vast human resources. Our well known attrition concept in Vietnam  that relied on higher “body counts” as a measure of success needs no further description.”

There you have it, from the Army War College. Not just from the old poet medic, whose boyfriend broke after Antietam and begged for discharge, and said years later when asked if he ever thought about the wounded he tended back then: “I have never left them.”

(As for the word counts in the sub title: As thrilled as I am to be dreaming the book, I’m simultaneously watching my word count and worrying. So far 4500 words on this chapter, and I’m just now at New Years’ 1863. No wonder Frederic Tuten once called me a graphomaniac).

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One thought on “of body counts and word counts

  1. Pingback: stray news, necessary wars and fantasy presidents « Incredible Panic Rules

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