Our Monstrous War

Granger Collection
Winslow Homer: Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, 1864

Living Hell is an extended antiwar sermon. Like all good preachers, Michael C.C. Adams begins with a quoted text, this one from a speech in 1880 by General William T. Sherman to an audience in which many of the listeners were too young to remember the trauma and devastation of the Civil War. “There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory,” said Sherman, “but, boys, it is all hell.”

Growing up in Britain in the 1960s, during the centennial commemorations of the American Civil War, Adams “harbored romantic notions of dramatic exploits on the battlefield, of boys being forged into men through the ultimate test of combat.” But as he grew older, moved to the United States, and became a professional historian teaching at the University of Northern Kentucky, he learned about the dark side of the Civil War with its “pain, heartbreak, and tragedy.” Living Hell is the result, and it paints a dark picture indeed.

Living Hell is not Adams’s first anti-war sermon. Twenty years ago he published a book with the sardonic title The Best War Ever: America and World War II. It challenged the notion of that conflict as a “good war” that brought Americans together, struck down evil tyrannies, and created a beneficent new world order under the leadership of the United States. “In fact,” wrote Adams,

combat in World War II was a horrible experience and left lasting physical and mental scars on many combatants…. Loss of personal freedom, sexual deprivation, physical misery, chronic exhaustion, and immersion in a chamber of horrors coalesced to produce strain beyond endurance.

As for bringing Americans together and saving the world,

the myth of national unity in World War II has blinded Americans to the continuing racism in US culture…. For many of the world’s population, including Americans, the Four Freedoms [of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear] were not realized: the poor still suffered want, and minorities and women still did not have full freedom.1

Living Hell presents an even grimmer picture of the Civil War. As a percentage of the population, the Civil War killed seven times as many American soldiers (Union and Confederate) as World War II. To illustrate the horrors of Civil War combat, Adams puts together a “virtual tour” of the firing line drawn from a pastiche of contemporary sources:

We watch Corporal James Quick stumble back as a bullet enters behind his left jaw and exits through the nose. He is just twenty-two. Next to him, Lieutenant William Taylor has been hit in the neck by a bullet that missed the arteries but severed his windpipe. He clasps his hands to his neck, trying to stanch the flow of blood and air hissing through the wound. Private Keils runs…

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