Gods, Generals and the War

Posted: Feb 25, 2003 12:00 AM
The only reason that the new Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" hasn't prompted outraged protests is because so few people are seeing it that a boycott would be pointless. The four-hour-long box-office flop renders such a nuanced view of the warriors of the Confederacy that it is ripe for charges of bigotry. It's a shame that the movie isn't more "controversial." Then more people might be exposed to its profound meditation on war. Confederate leaders were utterly wrong, but "Gods and Generals" shows that they were idealistic men all the same. In so doing, it reminds us of timeless martial virtues that are often forgotten in our secularized and post-heroic culture, even as the U.S. military prepares for war in Iraq. Soldiers fight because they are patriots, and patriotism starts with a devotion to home. "Gods and Generals" opens with a passage from George Eliot: "A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship." Southern warriors were as patriotic as Northerners, but their patriotism was more local. "I love the Union," Stonewall Jackson says, "but I love Virginia more." During the 1990s, global capitalism was supposed to wash away national sovereignty, and the atavistic hangover of patriotism. The spirit of the era was: "We're all citizens of the world now." When advocates of missile defense wanted to defend the "homeland," they were taken to be hopelessly backward. Now everyone talks of "homeland defense." Sept. 11 brought to the fore the military's most basic role -- defending native soil and the lives of our countrymen. Suddenly, the flag, that most powerful symbol of devotion to homeland ("Gods and Generals" is soaked with flags), was everywhere, from the East Village to cable TV broadcasts. The first word in the title of "Gods and Generals" is a cue to its emphasis on religion. Men cannot die and kill unless they are informed by something infinitely higher than themselves, whether it's Stonewall Jackson's austere religiosity or Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain's determination to help bring God's justice to Earth. If an army marches on its stomach, it also marches on its faith -- even today. As Rod Dreher reports in the latest National Review, the U.S. military depends crucially on the comfort and inspiration of its chaplain corps. Soldiers are also devoted to honor, to their duty to their comrades and their reputation for bravery. Honor suffered in the 20th century. World War I made it seem foolish, and irony and postmodernism steadily eroded it. Falstaff carried the day: "What is honor? A word. What is that word honor? Air. ... Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday." The men of "Gods and Generals" know, in contrast, that honor lifts us beyond ourselves, and the military realizes that now, whether it's Army Rangers fighting for their fallen comrades in Mogadishu or pilots going to extreme lengths to avoid hitting civilians in Afghanistan. A final note on the film: It is a paean to the martial vigor of the South that still animates the U.S. military. American combat units are dominated by a NASCAR culture -- largely Southern and lower middle class. Major combat bases are almost all in the South, and are still named after Southern generals (Fort Bragg, Fort Hood). Southern soldiers were fearsome, but the industrial might of the North wore them down. Contemporary America combines the technological prowess and (importantly) egalitarian vision of human rights of the North with the fighting spirit of the South, making a military engine that is irresistible, fierce and moral. We might ask now, when there seems to be so few heroes, where are the men who love their home more than their lives, who fear God, who follow the dictates of honor like the giants of the past? They walk among us still. Too "sophisticated" to believe in old-fashioned heroism, we just don't allow ourselves to see them.