Why is war so momentous in America’s history? According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 1776 and 1991, a total of 41,892,128 American soldiers died during U.S. wars (America’s Wars). From the Revolutionary War all the way to intervention in Syria today, it is ingrained in the American identity that war is constitutionally permitted when trying to protect the natural development of societal order. It was a freedom of speech, however, that continually led the charge into each battle. Baym writes,
“The assurance of a universal sense of right and wrong made possible both the overthrow of tyrants and the restoration of order. How Americans used or abused that right in the service of self-interest would become the theme of countless writers” (376).
History is full of tales of the lengths Americans went to protect what they felt was the right to live without oversight or intervention. The threat to freedom has always been a part of the American ideology, but the act to protect it was also a founding principle born from a loss of liberties and socio-economic power. Analyzing the literature of Walt Whitman and George Saunders will show inherent similarities between the American Renaissance and modern America which justified war because of societal disorder, capitalism, and social decline. Additionally, while modern Americans exhibit the same characteristics and pride in the American identity, the question remains if the equal rights to declare a civil war still exist today.
Philosophy Of American Identity
The American Identity began forming much earlier than the founding fathers. Europeans elevated God and king, so it takes little thought to know that the people who escaped it would design a new world with an identity defined by the freedoms and rights long denied them. The New World, however, had a flaw. Religious followers who were oppressed became the oppressors setting off a century of religious and political power. The first arrivals, the Puritans, quietly existed under their own colonial rules. Other denominations like Protestants and Quakers soon followed their direction and began to thrive because of fertile soil, bountiful harvests, and an abundance of natural resources. It is during this time that Christians like William Bradford and Roger Williams used their writing to instill in colonists a sense of religious identity as unique as the new world they now lived. It is also because of Williams’s banishment that the idea of separation of church and state and freedom of religion formed.
In the 18th-century, an official identity established which incorporated lessons learned from political pulpit preachers. Baym wrote, “The eighteenth-century saw enormous changes-economic, social, philosophical, and scientific-that inevitably affected the influence and authority of clergymen” (p. 365). The change from colonists to countrymen set off a new age of self-discovery and societal order. Revolutionists like Jefferson, Madison, and Paine used their writing to establish equality, patriotism, and religious and political freedoms, but they also set a precedent that justified war for self-defense. In Common Sense, it says, “…independence is the only bond that tie and keep us together” (Paine 2014). The American identity established a new people loyal to God, country, and family who were free to live as one saw fit without fear of oppression or political domination. America’s birth, most significantly, gave birth to the principles that citizens had the right to justify a war when freedoms were at risk. It divided the American identity in two ways: Lawful citizens and lawless outlaws. Interestingly enough, there was no definitive answer as to which group was right.
The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the Age of Reason because of the social mindset of authors who dared to shine a light on both the oppressors and the oppressed. One again, self-interest caused a split in ideologies in the 19th-century that hindered the progress of a unified American identity. The Civil War undeniably was one of the darkest moments in American history which fiction and non-fictional writers alike have analyzed for centuries to balance combative social and political disobedience. Beliefs of oppression that ancestors fought for were once again at risk as more Northerners learned through literature about natural rights and enslavement. Walt Whitman was, perhaps, one of only a few writers who had learned from history and dared to experience the world around him first-hand. Gray writes, “Whitman identiﬁes himself…with the ‘spear of summer’s grass’ that, at the beginning of the poem, offered him a medium of mystical insight” (111). It is an apt description as Whitman’s words captured the world around him in such a way that readers feel as if they, too, are watching it unfold.
In 1848, Whitman became an editor in New Orleans at the Crescent where he learned about slavery at the French Market slave blocks. After returning to New York, he began writing abolitionist literature aimed at bringing an end to those denied their freedoms. After his brother fell on the battlefield, he worked as a union nurse caring for soldiers in Washington, D.C. Whitman’s literature is one of the few that documents the hardships on citizens, soldiers, and countrymen alike. Buinicki writes, “…the poet’s time and attention were consumed both by the spectacle of the soldier’s marching-‘good looking hardy young men’ filling the streets-and, as his journals attest, the many wounded lying in a far worse state in Washington’s hospitals” (3). It is this type of attention to events around him that made Whitman so powerful a poet.
Whitman first documents societal disorder when noticing regular citizens preparing for war. In “First O’ Songs For A Prelude,” Whitman writes, “The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court, / The driver deserting his wagon in the street /…The salesman leaving the store, the boss, book-keeper, porter, all leaving” (30-35). On the cusp of war, the call to balance right and wrong reigned which required sacrifice from every citizen to protect a much bigger ideology of identity. Whitman created poetry about regular citizens who became untrained soldiers who left an economic hardship for the wives they left behind. Social roles changed from positions held solely by men to moms who became the breadwinners which document the shift taking place in America.
Whitman’s poetry documents three characteristics of civil war: societal disorder, capitalism, and social decline. In “The Wound Dresser” Whitman wrote, “Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave” (Whitman 13-14). The mention infers Whitman’s belief that there would be no winners in a civil war as the price of freedom is paid by all citizens. Whitman writes, “Pass and are gone they fade — I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldier’s joys” (The Wound-Dresser). This line shows that so many soldiers were falling on the battlefield that citizens became disillusioned with war and death. When soldiers forget what they are fighting for, what is the use to continue the war? He is also a voice of wisdom to citizens and slaves alike. In “Over the Carnage Rose a Prophetic Voice,” Whitman writes, “Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet” (Whitman). It seems to be a response to the disheartened soldiers to take care and remember what was at stake. In his image of America, he knew that what was taking place during the Civil War would affect the new America significantly. He was right as the lawful had won that round, but those with self-interests were not finished fighting for their dues.
Philosophy Of War
The cost was higher than anyone during the war could have guessed. Gray wrote, “The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, with over 360,000 Union soldiers and 260,000 Confederates lost on the battlefield or in military hospitals” (122). Even with the catastrophic toll on American soil, it did not hinder the belief that war was necessary to protect the idea in one nation under God that lived by the principle of liberty, justice, and equality. The end of slavery gave birth to the Reconstructionist Period that remodeled slavery by using laws to condemn citizens to long sentences as a source of free prison labor. Self-interest had officially become a part of the American identity because, constitutionally, no one had the right to tell one how to live. That was the crux of the problem as two distinct American groups with self-interests in social and political powers existed.
By the beginning of the twentieth-century, African Americans and women were finding their voices. By the mid-century, women could vote but citizens were once again engaged in civil disobedience because of inequality and lack of liberties. Much like the Civil War, it was successful as several groups worked together to bring about reform in civil rights, anti-war, and equality. War was just as present in the 20th-century as it was in the nineteenth, and citizens were still fighting for national interests against self-interests. Capitalism, however, still reigned in America which voices of reason continued to take note. While authors justified the need for the Civil War, do modern societies have the same rights? Rodin writes, “…soldiers fighting a defensive war are permitted to use violence against persons who pose no imminent threat to anyone exceeds that which could be justified solely in terms of the right of individual self-defense” (127-28). The right to bear arms for self-defense is an inherent part of the American identity, but one has to question why Americans continue to turn to war as a solution to differences both nationally and globally. Rodin’s War and Self-Defense forces Americans to examine if a moral and social responsibility exists within the scope of the modern American identity to justify and declare war. It is a good indication as to why contemporary authors like George Saunders wrote stories to make Americans in his society question just that.
In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders creates a society within an amusement park mirrored after Whitman’s Civil War. Lee writes, “Saunders […] creates two ‘story worlds’: one that is the diegesis of a standard story world his implied and actual readers decode; the other the narcissistic story world where his protagonists position themselves as always-understood heroes” (81-82). The narrative and plot are written in a way that tells the story from beginning to end, but the characters of the narrator, the theme park owner, and Quinn help to differentiate social class behaviors in a contemporary American setting. The narrator also positions himself as a down-and-out manager who is forced to do the theme park owner’s bidding because he has no other economic opportunities.
Saunders’ literature documents societal disorder at its best. The theme park owner, the narrator, as well as the unseen gang, represents social decline because of conflicting self-interests. Mr. A says, “If I could kill those kids I would kill those kids. One shouldn’t desecrate the dream of another…” (Saunders). Mr. A believed that others should follow the law, but he quickly shows he is not above breaking it when it serves his self-interests. Saunders also uses capitalism as a primary theme with lines like, “Societal order,’ Mr. A says. ‘Sustaining the lifeblood of this goddamned park we’ve all put so much of our hearts into” (Saunders 144). He further demonstrates his power and control over the lives of poorer employees who have little choice socially and economically. The narrator says, “Quinn’s dirtpoor with six kids and Mr. A says that’s a plus, as we’ll need someone between a rock and a hard place” (Saunders). Quinn only cared about acting, so he never stopped to think about the motivations of the owner or the manager when they offer a dollar more for the new promotion.
The theme of social decline is also an issue. The narrator says, “We decide to leave the police out of it because of the possible bad PR” (Saunders). Mr. A then turns to his workers to play the role of soldiers. Saunders writes, “What he suggests we do is equip the Desperate Patrol with live ammo and put Quinn in charge” (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline). Perhaps it is Saunders’ humor trying to take modern Americans to task in not learning from history when he wrote, “Were our faces ever red when we found it was actually the Irish who built the canal” (Saunders). It served a warning to Americans that if citizens were going to reenact it, they should at least take the time to learn from it. This story reminds readers that history bears significant influence on modern behaviors and belief systems. Saunders created characters that embody political and social dysfunction as well. Sylvia is the liberal. Samuel is an ex-soldier down on his luck and suffering from mental illness (possibly untreated PTSD). The narrator, a father, also knows his wife is having an affair, but he feels it is a trade-off so that he can spend time with his kids. Each character displays selfishness for their actions that contribute to Saunders’ critique of a decline of morals and values. Were they any different than citizens who lived during the Civil War? They were much the same because the American identity instilled in each of them the idea that no one had the right to decide one’s fate. As a war occurred in every American society since 1776, no one can ignore the implication that like life and liberty, war too is part of our belief system in that all Americans are taught to believe in both a societal order and the explicit right to engage in disorder.
Comparison of Societies
Analyzing Whitman’s vision of the Civil War and Saunders’ fictional theme park battle, there are eerie similarities between the two societies. Whitman and Saunders both documented a war between countrymen, enslavement as an economic strategy, and a lack of respect for societal order. Whitman’s transcendentalism and abolitionist background determined his beliefs long before the civil war took place. He was also gay, so he, better than most, understood social subordination and oppression. Although Saunders’ literature was fiction, he too seemed to critique America satirically. Even after a century and a half passed, the philosophical, political, and moral belief systems were much the same. Each had capitalist groups willing to do anything to control social and political structure. Both the plantation and theme park owners believed it was their right to protect their property and economic livelihoods even at the high cost of the men and women around them. There is even a commonality between the abolitionists and the CivilWarLand gang in that both understood the way to strike at their enemies was to hinder their income potential. Many Southern soldiers did not even have a reason to fight as their farms suffered since they could not compete with free slave labor, but the Southern politicians used identity to validate the war. So, too, did Mr. A as he convinced the entire staff that they had to take on the gangs because of self-interests. Both societies saw the decline taking place, but they also understood that their economic well-being depended on ways not changing. Is Saunders’ vision of a self-governed society the future of the modern American identity?
America still embodies the same characteristics of societal disorder as both Whitman’s American Renaissance and the fictional world Saunders created. Their literature also infers that there will always be two sides to every American story. Instead of white tents, smoky campfires, and grassy battlefields filled with cannons and neatly uniformed soldiers, the new battles play out on the world wide web. With virtual societies colliding, the words spoken online are no longer autonomous. With just a few characters, careers are lost, and relationships end. In this new America divided by political and social differences, it will be modern writers, as Baym noted, who will have the most significant power in holding people accountable for their actions. It is Whitman who sums up America’s philosophy of war best when he said, “Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy” (Whitman). Societal disorder, capitalism, and social decline will always be a part of the American identity, but so too will be the people who fight to balance it. A word of caution, though, as today you may be lawful and tomorrow the outlaw because justice is not always going to be your vision of it. As history has already dictated, America’s philosophy of war seems to be the only way that a balance in societal order continues.