The Tragedy of War is the Tragedy of Men

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to wonder about the relationships between and among war, tragedy, and justice:

There’s a hazy line between my posts arguing that the Civil War wasn’t tragic, and my posts on the 30 Years War. The key dilemma I’m trying to wrestle with is how we should think about war, given its consistency throughout history, its horrible consequences, and the tendencies of people to canonize, in varying degrees, its practitioners.

I don’t have any good answers to his questions about writers or thinkers who have also grappled with these questions.  All I do have is another observation, perhaps just a variation on one I made some months ago: war can be simultaneously tragic and just; an evil that is, in the end, a kind of good.  I continue to hold that the Civil War was, ultimately, both tragic and not a tragedy.

This goes beyond my earlier observations about the tragic qualities of the ways in which that war was carried out.  How, at any given moment, you view the war (or any war, for that matter) depends on the angle from which you view it and the degree and character of your “zoom” or focus as you view it.  TNC is right to note that the Civil War ended slavery and that World War II stopped the Holocaust and the Nazis, and that, therefore, one cannot rightly call them “tragedies.”  But on the level that humanity, again, slipped into a state of kill-or-be-killed—that, again, whether or not war was the only answer, it was the answer chosen—viewed from a longer perspective, each can look like another manifestation of mankind’s long process of stumbling toward goodness while slipping, from time to time, into evil.

Perhaps that view forces too teleological a view onto the matter of war, but I offer it as an example rather than as the example.  Perhaps what I described isn’t “tragic” but merely deeply saddening or deeply shameful.  But there are reasons other than a Greek taboo against depicting gore onstage that tragedy in its original sense dealt so often with the aftermath of war or the decisions it requires men to make rather than the physical carrying out of the war.  (Antigone, Agamemnon, Andromache, The Trojan Women, Helen, and that very early and very puzzling Persians, for example.)  War is either the result or the cause of tragedy—that is, it stems from the failures of men or, in its process and aftermath, sows the seeds of new failures.

When looking at history, don’t those very failures of men that lead to war—that led, say, to the Civil War, or that allowed otherwise common people to acquiesce to and ultimately participate in Hitler’s agenda—strike one as the subjects which were more rightly the purview of Sophokles than of Homer?  The idea of the Civil War as a sudden cataclysm that should have been avoided by the men of 1860 had they only compromised may be bogus and its true causes may stem back at least 250 years, to African slavery’s introduction to the New World, but this does not prevent us from viewing the Civil War as a kind of human tragedy.  It is tragedy precisely because it was preceded by two-and-a-half centuries of increasingly deliberate human blindness about the peculiar institution, precisely because it wasn’t a mistake but rather the outcome, increasingly inevitable, of deliberate human actions.  The very intransigence Coates cites when making his case that the Civil War, because it ended slavery, was a net good and therefore not tragic—frequently from men who could have otherwise been, or perhaps otherwise were, good or honorable—also lend support to the case that, in a Greek sense, it was, indeed, tragic.  One doesn’t have to be good to be a tragic figure.  One just has to be human.

Shelby Foote, from the opening pages of his first volume, links Jefferson Davis with Milton’s Lucifer.  There are convenient primary source comparisons that may have planted the idea in his mind (including several wonderfully vicious—and literate—letters from Sherman to his wife and brother), but his Civil War is a literary work with a literary design and the reasons go beyond coincidence.  Davis is Lucifer; the Confederacy is tied to that rebellion; Lincoln, as the war draws to a close, is tied, sometimes subtly, to the Son.  He looks to Milton in addition to the Greeks and in addition to historiography because Milton’s genre was not pure.  His scope, his genre, and his subject matter may have been epic in nature—as, in some ways, are Foote’s—but his characters—Lucifer above all—owe their nature more to Sophokles than to Homer.

(So perhaps I do have recommendations, Classicist that I am.  Their wars were different than ours, but they lived closer to them than we do: Aeschylus fought the Persians, and Sophokles and Euripides lived to see Athens, led by a kind of tragic hubris, fall to Sparta.  I’d start with the Persians.)

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6 thoughts on “The Tragedy of War is the Tragedy of Men

  1. Mr. Wall,

    I have pretty much the same reaction as you to the charge that the Civil War wasn’t (sometimes expressed as “couldn’t have been…because slavery ended) “tragic.”

    But how much of this is quibbling over what the words “tragedy” or “tragic” mean, and how much is real disagreement over how to assess the Civil War? For some people, tragedy or the tragic, it simply bad or harmful things happening. For others, it has the more nuanced treatment you’re contemplating.

    (Of course, your post is more than just about “was the Civil War tragic,” but I was wondering about your thoughts. By the way, I like reading your posts.)

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    • First, so the Nazis were just going to keep the Jews in Ghettos and leave them alone if France and Britain hadn’t declared war on them after the invasion of Poland? And second, what ended the Holocaust? The war, right?

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  2. Looking at it another way, war is always tragic for the individuals who are displaced or injured or killed or whose means of living or trade are destroyed.
    War can be seen as a terrible waste of human lives – regardless of the war’s impetus or outcome.
    But there does, I think, need to be some sort of distinction between the individuals who are swept up in war and the governmental entities who wage war. Are the hundreds of thousands of citizen deaths in the last Iraq war less tragic than the far lesser number of deaths of those shooting the guns? Are the six millions victims of Holocaust less tragic than the millions of soldiers killed in Europe and Asia? Was the ruin of Berlin any less tragic than the devastation of Leningrad? Were the deaths of Tutsis less tragic than the deaths of Muslim Serbs? Was the defeat of Germany in WWII more tragic than the defeat of Japan?
    Think of it another way: were the billions earned by the American manufacturers of materiel less valuable than the billions earned by Krupp and other German manufacturers? Were the tears of the mothers of dead German soldiers any less bitter than those of the mothers of the American dead? Or the Russian dead? Or the French or Italian dead?
    There is always tragedy for the individuals.
    The outcome of war for the governments involved is, one supposes, more significant in the larger historical picture than the personal tragedies of citizens. And yet nations continue to make war for various reasons – reasons which probably matter little, ultimately, to the victimized individuals of either side.

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  3. >> And yet nations continue to make war for various reasons – reasons which probably matter little, ultimately, to the victimized individuals of either side.

    Very dubious. It makes no sense to posit a will to “nations,” and then deny the purposes of those fighting. At least in all nation equally. If you got drafted and went to war because you’d be killed that would make some sense, but with government by consent and a volunteer army that would seem very odd. Likewise, Lincoln is often assumed by the usual suspects to have convinced a gullible public to go to war, whereas in fact he would have been impeached by the public if he hadn’t.

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