“under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country”

Worth Fighting For - cover  I can’t stop reading Rory Fanning’s Worth Fighting For. Every time I pick it up to check something, I’m swept into this prose poem disguised as a veteran’s memoir.

moments, its first a sergeant’s 2002 shout of “Gimme 20, Tillman!” addressed to Pat Tillman,  college football legend turned Army Ranger trainee. Tillman’s dignified, defiant response, refusing to be humiliated after following orders, sets the tone for the rest: be smart, be critical, be worth admiring.

Along the route Fanning has raised $45,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation, mostly not talking about the fact that he was also a conscientious objector or that Tillman had considered doing the same before dying by friendly fire in 2004. Fanning walked to learn more about this country and its people, and many of the moments include those people, paired with his own memories and those of the nation.

The title of this post is an excerpt from the Ranger Creed, which Fanning provides in full mid-way through, adding that “I’m sure I both betrayed and honored every word of this code.” Those words, of course, remind me of so many other soldier-dissenters: I can still hear shards of Army/Navy/AF creeds in the voices of young vets who talked to me, most then saying that it was their command violating the requirement of honesty, integrity, selfless service.

This essay is thus less a review of Worth Fighting For (which you should absolutely buy) than a meditation on what he turned up, adding a few notes to his powerful music.

In each of the book’s moments,Fanning alternates telling his (and Tillman’s) story and offering glimpses of what he learned on the road, whether it’s the amazing people who welcomed him or the history evoked by each spot.

As he hits Raleigh, NC, he flashes back to his early days at Fort Lewis, having enlisted shortly after the September 11 attacks — and to his most high-stress/low-profile Ranger mission, jumping “into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran…The Iraq War broke out at the end of this tour.” Fanning then inserts a visit to nearby Monroe, NC, site of open war in the 1960s between black residents and the Ku Klux Klan.

In Chatsworth, GA he’s back to Ranger school, which he began after “nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan […] Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets: Any signs of disapproval and they’d be subject to the [U.S.’] violent whims….” Such reflections built toward that moment when he told a Ranger School instructor: “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.” For this reader, that moment recalls Lt. Fred Marchant in Okinawa after seeing photos from My Lai, tearing through the base legal library until he saw the words “conscientious objection.” I don’t want to be part of this.

Fanning instead reaches toward a different time, when in-service CO discharge didn’t exist, as he reaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Ambrose Bierce recovered after numerous battles and before writing his trauma-scarred stories. Fanning contemplates evidence that most Civil War recruits died with their muskets unfired: Had he been there,”I likely would have been part of the majority who died with loaded weapons in their hands.”

Reading the above, I found myself wanting to tell Fanning about Bierce, or about the real Civil War COs: Cyrus Pringle, who starved rather than accept any military designation at all, or Jesse Macy, who fought to stay in uniform as a noncombatant. But Fanning’s four-paragraph essay on that ‘majority’ likely offered better comfort. Compression is a tool used by poets to maximize impact, and it worked.

Near the Oklahoma border, Fanning talks to veterans about Tillman, recalls being deployed again to Afghanistan as a pariah after his CO decision, and reflects on the Ranger Creed before reflecting on the real story of Oklahoma as former “Indian Territory.” He traces their fate to the tribes who supported the losing side in the Civil War, and gives the result in numbers: the 1890 census “showed 237.000 Natives living north of the Rio Grande,” a 97% decrease from their estimated numbers before colonization. This time I wanted to introduce Col. Benjamin Grierson, who intervened so often on Indians’ behalf around 1890 that his command thought him “too Quaker” for the job.

In Texas, Fanning similarly gives a lot of ink to the San Patricio Battalion, who switched sides during the Mexican-American War — after a valentine to the town of Commerce, TX, which had declared a “Rory Fanning Day” in his honor, and before meeting an activist who herself had walked across America — but in 1986, in the anti-nuclear Great American Peace March.

In New Mexico, a state whose grandeur he already adores, Fanning also puts his descriptive talent to work at the White Sand Missile Range: “That night, under all the stars and in an exhausted trance, I listened to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Lovesick Alien‘. Then the earth shook […] The major explosions went on for hours.” Camped just outside the testing, Fanning endures the sound of “blacked-out helicopters unloading heavy machine fire.” You almost don’t need his interstitial essay on “Trinity Site Nuclear Testing” after that.

By the time Fanning reaches that west coast, we’ve learned the whole story of Fanning’s journey and the crucial ways Tillman supported it. One finishes having learned, we feel, nearly as much as Rory, and grateful to him for taking us along.

In addition to my own obvious desire for a dialogue between Fanning’s book and mine, I read this with a mix of admiration and deep sadness, for the string of broken promises he notes. But that could have as much to do with this year’s entry into Iraq War III as anything else.

Most of all, I felt myself savoring his poem, and glad that we’ll likely be having this conversation for years to come.

 

 

 

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Nashville tea party? Not.

I wake up and  the ‘nets are buzzing with a speech last night made in Nashville by that shapeshifter from Alaska (Governor?  Talk show host? Avatar?). But another quiet buzz came in a report about another Battle of Nashville, one that was hardly a tea party. Unsurprisingly, it’s from a Fort Campbell-oriented paper, Clarksville Leaf-Courier, about some often-overlooked troops fighting in that other battle:

“These troops were here, for the first time, under such fire as veterans dread, and yet, side by side with the veterans of Stone’s River, Missionary Ridge and Atlanta, they assaulted probably the strongest works on the entire line, and though not successful, they vied with the old warriors in bravery, tenacity and deeds of noble daring,” said Col. C.R. Thompson in his report.

These troops were members of the 13th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, freed black slaves — recruited from Clarksville and other Middle Tennessee cities.

“This was a very active area for black troops,” said local historian Dr. Richard Gildrie. “They saw a lot of action.”

Newsflash to some: The story of black recruits in the Civil War is hardly limited to those Massachussets units we keep valorizing (mostly because of that movie about the 54th). To this weekend’s Nashville warriors, the thought of armed Negroes is enough of a surprise, I know.  (If that feels harsh, read this roundup of the crowd at the Gaylord Hotel.) But the rest of us need to keep being reminded — thank you, the best-writer-on-the-web-Ta-Nehisi-Coates — of the dimensions of their full role in bringing forward emancipation’s promise.

Speaking of the 13th U.S. Colored Troops our old friend Ambrose Bierce was nearly the regiment’s commander. Born in the Appalachian section of Ohio, Bierce declined the commission, but later saw his racism challenged when he saw them in battle at Overton: ““Better fighting was never done. Their chances were hopeless and they knew it. Still they showed courage and discipline.”

Back to current issues shortly. But I wish some of those USCT reenactors who threw their photos all over Flickr had showed up at the so-called Tea Party convention, just in time for Miss Sarah’s coronation by the likes of those at left/ They could have turned up in full uniform,  maybe with real guns. The woman who left college in Hawaii because of all the less-white folks in the state (“a minority type thing,” her dad said) might have then been slightly more restrained in her slanders.

Notes toward an introduction

It’s been a long time since I first started batting around the idea of a book about the G.I. Rights Hotline, (a book I’d still love to write someday), and instead took on this behemoth of a project. Below is what I’m calling my faux-introduction; we hope that someone with more clout (Dan Ellsberg? Cynthia Enloe?) will write the real one, but in the meantime I tried to articulate my multiple themes and my reasoning behind who I included and didn’t. For those who’ve been following my travails all along,  some of what’s below will feel familiar; my hope is that it will also explain, a bit better, why I zeroed in one the people I did.

My inspiration, kind of my gold standard, was people who’d taken the path directly from warmonger to peacemaker, like Philip Berrigan or the just-recently-lost-to-us Howard Zinn (seen as a 1944 bombardier, right). But that inspiration, and the way I frame it above, is too incomplete to be honest,  or even narratively interesting to me.

On the simplest level, some kinds of military dissent — desertion comes to mind —  ALWAYS constitute a challenge to the military’s functioning, and need to be described even when it’s for non-political reasons.

More profoundly, what’s come clearest as I finish the book is that my interest is not only the total transformers, though that’s kind of the core of the inquiry, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I’m asking for what ends government-sponsored violence and preparation for same were being relied on —especially, perhaps,  including odious ones like slavery and genocide of indigenous people — and honoring soldier-dissent against them, too. My old friend Sam might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but it’s not.

Back when I was on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, I used to half-joke that  “if there’s gonna be a revolution, it’s going to happen because of antiwar veterans,” like those who volunteered for my branch of the G.I. Rights Hotline. Being defiantly uninterested in Marxist predictions of actual revolution, what I meant was that fundamental, progressive change has been escorted into American life with such figures, half-ignored even as they’re being lionized for other reasons.

I’ve usually described my criteria for inclusion in the book as “a kind of reverse funnel,” one ending in a laser-sharp focus on truly antiwar soldiers but beginning with a much wider palette:  Chapters 1-7 including mutinies over late pay and desertion in protest of the freeing of slaves (one of the least glorious moments for Civil War soldiers) and then narrowing through Vietnam and beyond —until, by  the 21st century, “we have our hands full just challenges thrown up to what some Iraq vets call “gee-wot” (the Global War on Terror).” Earlier rebellions, such as the 1779 mutinies against price-gouging and the 1930 Bonus March, seen only as “important reminders, especially through the Cold War, of the immense potential power of such rebellions.” That all sounds way too glib to me now, after three years of learning and writing.

What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian, and equally true to the spirit of Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn, is this:  Include a selection of those who, having had a significant experience in the U.S. military, have used that experience to help nudge American society as a whole away from militarism. Mili-what? Think simply of the concept of “relying on armed enforcers to protect us and our stuff” (the latter meaning land, or water, or oil, or more amorphous concepts such as national identity, ideology or “credibility” ,e.g. saving face).  You can look up the Webster’s definition if you like.

As I write this, Howard Zinn has just died, and a 2004 Nation quote has just surfaced: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” It’s those surprises, in the form of challenges thrown down to the established order by soldiers, that I’m tracking, making semi-educated guesses as to which of those zigzags was pointed toward peace.

Show me the money. The name “soldier” is derived from the French “soldat,” meaning money: and issues of how well troops are paid was a flashpoint of dissent from day one.  The opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,”  is rooted in such rebellions, including the 1754 mass desertions of colonial soldiers, the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved, Captain Daniel Shays’ uprising against bankers (whose veteran-troops were called “The Regulators.” Take that, Bernanke!). Class issues were alive and well, continuing when Lt. Matthew Lyon, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” was defeated by a mutiny on July 4, 1776 when his men refused orders that involved not fighting the British but guarding absentee landholders’ property. Matthew Lyon, the commander of that 1776 mutiny and publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths, ended up, twenty years later, a foe of John Adams imprisoned under the 1798 Sedition Act.

There wasn’t yet a concept of an antiwar soldier, especially after James Madison nearly secured for Quakers an exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. But in the meantime, men from “peace churches” in uniform were a wild card of their own, as when Methodist minister Lee preached peace to his Continental Army brigade: “ Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.”

Hardcore mavericks and original sins. For the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, one of the main tasks of the American soldier was to perpetrate those two original sins I mentioned earlier — the slave economy, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by  Thomas Jefferson. “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote to future president William Henry Harrison, adding that if they resisted “we need only close our hand to crush them.”  Or, either become private capitalists and gentleman farmers like us or kicked off your land, which conveniently becomes ours. Precious few, especially during active duty, saw anything wrong with the latter, though half-native soldier William Apes did wonder why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his Pequot ancestors.  His matter-of-fact “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs,  in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land,” cast triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims (for all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, the war ended when the Brits exacted an immediately-broken promise not to mess with the Indians).

A few years later General Ethan Allen Hitchcock called the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” Hitchcock, the Hamlet of American expansionism, railed in his diaries against President Andrew Jackson, who was acting to put Jefferson’s Indian policies into bloody practice. When another president sent him to Mexico for another very-regretted war, Hitchcock made common cause with West Point dropout and rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist, who negotiated peace with Mexico, even as hawks back home were chanting for his recall.

Those who actually took public action against “Indian policy”   were, almost without exception, also connected somehow to the abolitionist movement, which had begun to move from relentless newspapering and prayer to a harder core. These included Hitchcock, who found in the Civil War the fight he could finally get behind, andSilas Soule, who offered some of the rare light refusing to participate in the  massacre of Indians at Sand Hill after having volunteered for Lincoln’s war against slavery, along with two of his brothers.

Also lining up to end slavery were Ambrose Bierce’s uncle Lucius Bierce, who sent guns to John Brown before raising two regiments for the war; the iconic Charles Shaw and George Garrison, sun of the iconic William Garrison, among the white officers leading battalions of black soldiers, and the Carpetbagger officers who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. These soldiers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President, throwing “surprises” at the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy.

Without them, we would likely not have the minority who took the next step and went on to become prominent antiwar voices when the Spanish-American and Philippine wars came along —  Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis; the younger Bierce, who William Randolph Hearst feared sending to the Philippines because of his veteran’s skepticism;   and the flotilla of grizzled vets who joined with Andrew Carnegie’s Anti-Imperialist League, like Donelson Caffery (whose brigade had fought Bierce’s at Shiloh), John Adams descendant Gettysburg veteran Charles Francis Adams. Not to mention Mark Twain, who lived to vacation with Woodrow Wilson years after the League was gone and few remembered his“The War Prayer.”  But Twain’s antiwar poems and the writing of the younger Bierce, especially his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” would be remembered by those looking centuries later for a soldier’s story that rang true.

From “nostalgia” to“shell shock and beyond. Bierce, darling of the yellow press and bete noire of plutocrats, would eventually become what  journalist and veterans’ advocate Lily Casura has called “the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD,” wandering to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields. A close read of his early postwar writing. as in “What I Saw at Shiloh” which ends: I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh;  when that same battle took place, hundreds of soldiers of both sides broke down, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” That was around the time that commanders and military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns as less “weakness” and more something related to war, even positing that the trials of battle damaged the heart muscle — both accurate and prescient, considering the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring that we now know takes place when stress responses harden.

This, unlike the money and mavericks, is a stream I was looking for, having been near-obsessed with PTSD as a subject long before I knew I would write this book. The relationship between the military and traumatic stress is a complex one, as noted by experts like Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill on War and Society. Some, like Andrew Jackson, never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others, like Bierce and George Garrison, turned it all inward. Still others, of course,  turned trauma into art —like World War I vet Lewis Milestone, the protagonist of whose All Quiet on the Western Front tells a group of schoolchildren: “We live in the trenches. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”

By then, the Freudians were grabbing hold of what laypeople had called “shell shock,” a grip that was complete by the time John Huston, still having nightmares from his World War II service in Europe, made the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light,  whose subjects ask earnestly to be cured of their “psycho-neurotic” ailments.That suppression, added to general cold-war amnesia, meant that when Vietnam veterans started experiencing something similar, they had  to work hard to know what was going on.

The process of doing so, getting those truths near-permanently exposed and their treatment mandated, also has required a lot of those surprises, and a fair amount of dissent; like soldiers’ compensation, its psychological damage is another cost of war.

Speaking of the cold war, however,  civil rights icon Bayard Rustin once told his old friend David McReynolds that before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, national discourse was like a brittle steel wall, and it took a mighty shake from Montgomery to fracture it. That wall squelched a lot of early postwar surprises, from Howard Zinn’s own American Veterans Committee and early organizing by Medgar Evers, while energy underneath it continued to bubble in all sort of unexpected ways, as J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller poured PTSD onto the page and the paradigm-shattering ROTC dropout Rustin, who’d long since finished his prison term for refusing the draft, began organizing to infuse “Gandhian” principles into the fight for racial justice,  until he showed up at Montgomery to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. take his boycott national.

The fracturing of that wall, its accompanying surprises (the Beats, the civil rights movement), is part of the origin story of the 20th-century peace movement. As soldiers and veterans increasingly became involved in the latter, the learning was mutual:

Stand up for your beliefs, brother. How do the less-antiwar dissenters interact with the most hardcore objectors? The dynamic between the two is simultaneously twisted and heartening: From the Revolution on, non-dissenting soldiers often took note of what we’d now call “peaceniks” not with horror but with solidarity, and when the wars themselves turned explicitly bad looked to them for guidance, or at least proof that to object wasn’t insane.  Early examples included  and Civil War medic Jesse Macy, who kept refusing to be shunted aside all the way to the end of the war; conscientious objectors who encouraged strikes at military prisons during World War I and II; and in-service CO’s like Desmond Doss, who saved hundreds of soldiers as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa, and Lew Ayres, who went from playing a traumatized soldier in AQWF to spending months as a medic in the Philippines, some of it under the command of Major William Kunstler.  In these new wars, many young soldiers and veterans tell similar stories: “There’s a lot of respect for what you did,” a Marine once told Stephen Funk (above), one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I hardly mean to claim that the pacifists were making converts left and right (certainly not right). It’s probable that the majority of the soldiers were little affected by these dissenters, but I’m not writing about the majority. And at many points on this zigzag path, there they were —the series of surprises, the wild cards in the deck, the grace notes or minor crescendos that cut against the standard music. As the book proceeds, you’ll glimpse both sides of these interactions — and watch them collude, as when some of them show up sick.

Also in this stream are the civilians without whom the soldiers might never have been able to get the word out, from War Resisters League founders Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt to the stalwart military law experts and volunteers, from Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign to the indomitable Kathleen Gilberd, co-author of Rules of Disengagement, the Politics of Military Dissent. (I know that by doing so I leave out whole swaths of equally dedicated activists who did NOT focus on dissenting soldiers, but ….) In a few cases, like my old friend Steve Morse, it worked the other way just a little; Steve went from Swarthmore to joining the Army so he could better organize soldiers, though at the time he was also part of a somewhat pernicious subset of civilians who saw in soldiers (working-class  and armed!) the  perfect recruits for their brand of socialism. (That subset has remained in action, on all sides of the political spectrum  – from Ron Paul to World Can’t Wait.)

One is for fighting, one is for fun. As better scholars than I have noted, the U.S. military has long been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity, in ways that have actually increased as those other walls kept crumbling. And the mouse in all those houses is the presence of non-gender-conforming soldiers, from the women who “passed” in the pre-20th century wars to the gays who did the same (Walt Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle or Major Alice Davey Sheldon, also known as James Tiptree Jr.). By the time we get to the 1990s, women have been welcomed into the U.S. military with mostly open arms while gays remain simultaneously criminalized and ubiquitous; the resulting fights for equal treatment, sparked in part by revelations of sexual assault of women in uniform just as gay service members really began to organize, is actually where gender could stop mattering, and stop threatening the military ethos — and thus, no longer belong in this book. Stay tuned to find out if that ever happens.

Everything old is new again. So what’s happening right now, in the dual wars that some aggregate into “the long war” or the “global war on terror?” A series of new and old surprises on all the paths above, along with some new ones enabled by technology and globalization and the sheer kick-ass defiance of the soldiers themselves.

what we write about when we write about war

My current bookshelf is weirdly focused. The collection might seem a bit scary, if you didn’t know I was writing a book. (“What kind of obsessed veteran lives here?”)  When you know, some of what’s here might then seem obvious: David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, Kingston’s Veterans of Peace anthology, the trauma stuff ( Jonathan Shay’s iconic Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery) and the war-specific guides: Rich Man’s War/Poor Man’s Fight, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, The New Veteran ( by Charles G. Bolte, c1945).

Lately, i’ve been poring over the biographies and novels on the shelf, looking for guidance in the writing. (And kicking myself for never making the annual writers’ conference at the William Joiner Center.) Roy Morris’ invaluable  Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’ s Ghost, and James Tobin’s Ernie Pyle’s War seamlessly join narrative detail with the swing of history. So do Panther in the Sky, James Alexander Thom’s fictional biography of Tecumseh, and Joe Haldeman’s peerless 1968. (That last, however, is a bit like reading Joan Didion: you read it to be spun around by the master, not with the illusion you can write like that. )

But given the period I’m dealing with this week, I’ve been brought back to studying with Doctorow. More specifically, The March. In his 2005 review, Walter Kirn attaches to one of its core themes, which in some ways is half of mine:

The rampant destructiveness of Sherman’s march is, of course, the stuff of high school textbooks, but what isn’t so obvious is the way that destruction transfigures and transforms, pulverizing established human communities and forcing the victims to recombine in new ones. Inside the churning belly of Doctorow’s beast, individuals shed their old identities, ally themselves with former foes, develop unexpected romantic bonds and even seem to alter racially. Yes, war is hell, and “The March” affirms this truth, but it also says something that most war novels leave out: hell is not the end of the world. Indeed, it’s by learning to live in hell, and through it, that people renew the world. They have no choice.

Unlike the civilians in Doctorow’s novel, the soldiers in my story are all doing just that — either by challenging the discipline that makes war possible, or by speaking out either during service or afterward. Call it a coda to that central theme. But that’s not why I’m looking at Doctorow’s novel again.

Instead, I’m looking at a far more technical issue; how does he keep the arcs of four major characters, and an equal number of minor ones, flowing ahead together for the reader?  Can watching his transitions, his narrative spins, help me do the same, at least for this chapter? Can the transformation of Ambrose Bierce from 20-year-old hothead to Homeric figure/journalist/mystery shape one arm of this March while still getting readers interested in the parallel transformations of Lewis Douglass, sailor Edward Strickland in Florida, little Quakers like Jesse Macy? Let alone Donelson Caffery, who became an ardent opponent of the Philippine war after not only preceding Bierce at the battle of Shiloh, but seeing his Confederate commander go down at that field with the funny name, which witnessed hand-to-hand fighting that sounds like tales from 1994 Rwanda?* (Leaving aside the related question of how to write honestly about it all as a non-veteran, and to keep it bearable without trivializing it.)

Some of it is making them vivid, not just externally but with some characteristic mental tropes/phrases. But most of those, the bits of dialogue that fill Doctorow’s work and stayed with me, are from fictional characters. Except for this historic meeting aboard a ship off the South Carolina coast, so dramatically right that it’s hard to believe it happened:

The long head was in proportion to the size of the man, but intensifying of his features, so that there was a sott of ugly beauty to him, with his wide month, deeply lined at the corners….What is important, the President was saying in conclusion, is that we do not confront them with terms so severe that they continue the war in their hearts. We want the insurgents to regard themselves as Americans.

Doctorow doesn’t use quotes here, smartly not putting words in the mouth of frigging Abraham Lincoln. (I checked; that poetry about “the war in their hearts” is a Vietnam-era formulation for sure.) He does well, considering his source (Sherman’s memoirs):

Lincoln was full and frank in his conversation, assuring me that in his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over; and he distinctly authorized me to assure Governor Vance and the people of North Carolina that, as soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country; and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto till Congress could provide others.

I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes. In the language of his second inaugural address, he seemed to have “charity for all, malice toward none,” and, above all, an absolute faith in the courage, manliness, and integrity of the armies in the field. When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but, the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship. The last words I recall as addressed to me were that he would feel better when I was back at Goldsboro’. We parted at the gangway of the River Queen, about noon of March 28th, and I never saw him again. Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.

Doctorow lets his own beloved Wrede Sartorius, brought in to witness the meeting, to echo Sherman’s description and to more explicitly say what many think when we see those later, brooding portraits:

Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the deck. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company…..His affliction might be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.

Doctorow has, I think, also added a dash of Walt Whitman, the Civil War’s Homer, who wrote after watching Lincoln’s second inaugural procession the he could see

the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and the demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever into his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, beneath the furrows.

That last except courtesy of  Roy Morris (again), in his The Better Angel: Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Morris quotes openly from both Whitman and Bierce in describing the events of their iives; I wonder if I can do something similar, while somehow using a contemporary voice to better expose all those  gathered wounds to air. Or is my object to let their voices do it, and get out of the way?

We write about war, as Kirn said, as a way of writing about our lives. But there’s got to be a way to let those experiences be what they are, for a reader, before storytellers and politicians start yammering about what it all means.

* Speaking of Rwanda — and of learning from the master—check out this incredible Christian Science Monitor piece by my friend Jina Moore. If you ever need a reminder about what journalism can do, go re-read it.

Cross-posted at Devourer of Books.