Gilpin Faust, Drew: Two wars and the long twentieth century

Gilpin Faust, Drew

Two wars and the long twentieth century‘, New Yorker, 13 March 2015

Honest History just found this one but it is a useful comparison of the American Civil War and the Great War in terms of the scale of death, the use of conscription to bolster the supply of cannon fodder (though not, of course, in Australia in the Great War), industrialisation to meet war requirements, the recruitment of women to war industry, the depiction of the war in photographs (and, in the Great War, film), the assumption by the state of responsibility for war graves, commemorative practices, and, most of all, the ‘discontinuity’ or ‘rupture’ in history that the war caused.

The most telling sentence in Faust’s long article, however, is this: ‘Firepower and matériel would outweigh élan and courage in determining war’s outcome. In fact, élan and courage would prove, in many instances, to yield defeat and destruction rather than victory.’ A cautionary sentence, indeed, for those who are wedded to romantic views of heroism and pluck in the face of adversity.

Faust also notes the misplaced faith generals of both her wars had in the bayonet. She could have added the faith (well brought out by Hochschild) that Haig had, even well into World War I, in the efficacy of the cavalry charge, that is, of men charging on horseback.

The article was originally a lecture at the University of Cambridge. Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (paperback edition 2009) is excellent on the aftermath of the first ‘modern’ war.

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