Nearly everyone on the battlefield is just fighting “to not get licked.” That’s more a testament to the poverty of our social relations than to the poverty of individual souls, and it’s just as pertinent to the impoverishment of our social imagination as it is to the amorality of war.

WWI diary, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, via Flickr

A People’s History of the U.S. Military:
Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan

by Michael Bellesiles
The New Press, 2012, 384 pp.

The most cynical televised event of the year is likely Mark Burnett and Dick Wolf’s Stars Earn Stripes, where jovial B-list celebrities (Todd Palin included) competed in “real” military exercises with the aid of “real” veterans of war. Wesley Clark hosted the series, assuring his viewers, “There are no stunt doubles. This is real. Real ammunition. Real explosives. Real danger.” Burnett peddled his moneymaker as a “love letter” to the troops, “in a fun way.” He was also quick to boast that the contestant prize money went to veteran groups and other charities.

The first season aired from start to finish, despite a public statement calling for the show’s cancellation signed by Desmond Tutu and seven other Nobel Peace Laureates. In the words of the signers, the program “continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” This is all well and good, which just makes the following questions all the more troubling: Why did the protest fail? And why did a combat vet from the Falkland War (Burnett), a retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander and former presidential candidate (Clark), and a slew of other hardened war fighters back the travesty in the first place?

Michael Bellesiles’s A People’s History of the U.S. Military doesn’t explain why so many servicemen and women who know armed conflict are so reluctant to challenge its mythos, but by inference, it might just point us in the right direction.1 Regardless, if Americans are interested in what a “real” love letter to our military looks like, they’d be well advised to check it out. The reading will prove anything but fun, though I do suspect it will prove enlightening, maybe even galvanizing.

A People’s History offers a strict chronological accounting of the wars fought by the United States, much like John Tirman’s recently released The Deaths of Others, which ought to serve as a companion piece. Whereas Tirman engages with our violent past from the viewpoint of the civilian, Bellesiles confronts similarly suppressed memories from the angle of the American soldier. He achieves this, in large part, through hard work at the archives, digging up freshly discovered or long-forgotten letters, diaries, and memoirs by everyone from privates to generals; when he finally arrives at our latest misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, blog posts and interviews come to the fore. What’s striking is how the perspectives and experiences of Tirman’s civilian and Bellesile’s soldier seem to parallel one another; how uncompromising vengefulness, machismo, cruelty, and moral breakdown come to coexist with sublime empathy, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, and ambivalence. This doesn’t mean, at the level of power politics, that the aggressor is interchangeable with the victim. (In the context of American empire, this needs to be emphasized.) But at the level of the individual, where one side’s hard-knock lot is tasked with killing another side’s hard-knock lot, the distinction is fraught with nuance, and is often rendered meaningless.

Take the journal entry of a twenty-seven-year old doctor at Valley Forge, albigence Waldo, who describes having to relieve a fallen Indian soldier:

He was an Indian—an excellent Soldier—and an obedient good natured fellow. He engaged for money doubtless as others do;—but he has served his country faithfully—he has fought for those very people who disinherited his forefathers—having finished his pilgrimage, he was discharged from the War of Life & Death. His memory ought to be respected, more than those rich ones who supply the world with nothing better than Money and Vice….What a frail—dying creature is Man. We are certainly not made for this world—daily evidences demonstrate the contrary.

War could bring about recognition of the other’s humanity, but right next to feelings of fellowship springs total loneliness. Private Josiah Atkins, a soldier who gave his life for the Revolution, wrote home to his mother (presumably with Exodus in mind): “Once I enjoyed the pleasant company of many friends, but now I am among strangers in a strange land.”

Alienation and comradeship can also converge, occasionally in the form of mutiny. Soldiers in the War of 1812 joined forces against their own command on account of miserable pay and rations, and Andrew Jackson replied by pointing his cannon in the direction of his hungry, half-naked troops. Other times, it’s the common experience of estrangement itself that forges a bond. Leander Stillwell, a Union soldier present at the Battle of Shiloh, wrote in his memoir:

I listened with delight to the plaintive, mournful tones of a turtle-dove in the woods close by, while on the dead limb of a tall tree right in the camp a woodpecker was sounding his “long roll” just as I heard it beaten by his Northern brothers a thousand times on the trees in the Otter Creek bottom at home.

Most war fighters, I suspect, recognize this sentiment. In Afghanistan, I jotted down doggerel about “the howls of the strays of the Pashtun dust.” The canine wails reminded me of my own childhood pets. This “plaintive” indulgence—to use Stillwell’s term—followed on the heels of a medevac earlier that day, after Marines stumbled on a couple IEDs out on patrol. I witnessed the second explosion atop a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, safely positioned “behind the wire.” I’m guessing my (and Stillwell’s) association of the wild with longings for home isn’t exceptional among the warrior class. It’s just one of the many strange associations we share, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Unexpected forms of solidarity recur in A People’s History, particularly when it comes to race. This is most movingly depicted in the Civil War chapter, where Union soldiers were forced to reckon with their deepest prejudices. M.M. Miller, the white captain of the Ninth Louisiana Colored Regiment, explained his turn of heart in a letter to his wife:

…I never felt more grieved and sick at heart, than when I saw how my brave soldiers had been slaughtered,—one with six wounds, all the rest with two or three, none less than two wounds. Two of my colored sergeants were killed; both brave, noble men, always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray. I never more wish to hear the expression, “the niggers won’t fight.” Come with me, a hundred yards from where I sit, and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of sixteen as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel….I can say for them that I never saw a braver company of men in my life.

Another naval captain, who had initially sworn against the use of black manpower, changed his mind on the battlefield. When he later saw a passenger on a street car issue a bigoted slur to a black soldier, he rushed to the soldier’s defense: “Come here, my good fellow! I’ve been fighting along side people of your color, and glad enough I was to have ’em by my side. Come and sit by me.”

Even Confederate soldiers seem to have been swayed by African-American valor. The black journalist Thomas Morris Chester recorded a heartwarming amnesty between Confederate and black Union forces:

Immediately in our front, an arrangement has been entered into, in which the enemy has agreed to discontinue firing on this part of the picket line. The rebels and our colored soldiers now converse together on apparently very friendly terms, and exchange such luxuries as apples, tobacco, and hard tack, by throwing them to each other.

As Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese recounted in Fatal Self-Deception, a tiny fraction of slaves even fought (unofficially) on behalf of the Confederacy. Such instances were few and far between. Events like the Fort Pillow massacre—in which Ku Klux Klan founder General Nathan Bedford Forest ordered the execution of about 200 black Union soldiers after their surrender—were closer to the rule. But however unrepresentative these exceptions, they point to a pattern lasting to this day. Contemporary uniformed service is a rare venue where citizens of all castes, racial or otherwise, watch each other’s backs, no matter their prior differences. Gang members are transformed into well-respected platoon sergeants, bigots into beloved corporals.

Alas, the encouraging racial and class dynamics in the military tend to coincide with ugly stereotypes about women, homosexuals, and, most of all, the enemy. Bellesiles does a fine job honing in on the histories of the former two, devoting a fascinating section to the disguised female soldiers of the Civil War and culminating with each group’s latest legal victories and present disappointments. And the book is riddled with examples of the kind of bloodshed that proceeds from unsavory attitudes toward the enemy: the Cheyenne Village Massacre (Indian Wars), No Gun Ri (Korean War), My Lai (Vietnam War). One could add Haditha (Iraq War) and the Sergeant Bales shooting spree (Afghanistan War) to the list, along with hundreds of lesser known or unknown atrocities and notorious state actions like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden. But Bellesiles also highlights those warriors who rejected the hatred surrounding them, if only to remind the reader that a humane sensibility can be maintained even in the most trying of circumstances. Chauncey Cooke, a soldier who fought in the Union’s campaign against the Minnesota Santee in the early 1860s, is one of those souls:

There are some things in this war that make me feel that I am an infidel. Why does God crush all these poor Indians and give it all to the white because he has wealth? They owned this land from ocean to ocean by the best title on earth given by God himself and yet because we are stronger we drive them away from the homes of their fathers and the graves of their ancestors and claim that Christ is on our side….when they took up arms in desperation for their homes and the graves of their sires they are called savages and red devils. When we white people do the same things we are written down in history as heroes and patriots. Why this difference?…I often think of what father said of justice in the world. That…it is the winning party the lions of the earth, that write its history.

A People’s History is filled to the brim with likeminded reflections, drawn from the stubborn traces of unsung heroes. It includes slightly more familiar names, too, like Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who boldly landed his bird in between My Lai villagers and the U.S. soldiers who hunted them, effectively saving the lives of ten civilians.

Were I to note every remarkable moment in Bellesile’s tribute, this review would finish at nearly the length of the book itself. As one Great War diarist and chronicler exasperatedly put his predicament, “I could keep it up for pages!” The pace and force of the narrative only increases when the twentieth century rears its bloody head, as an expanding field of voices is accompanied by an uptick in the inhumanity they are so intent on reacting against. Not all the featured participants, however, are voices of protest. Some are charmingly enthusiastic, like one of the first female service members. In a letter to her Marine boyfriend in 1918, she wrote:

Dear Bill: I’ve got the greatest news! No, I haven’t thrown you over; I’m still strong for you, Bill. No, it’s no use; don’t try to guess. You’re not used to that much mental effort, and you might get brain-fag…. I hear some people are giving us nicknames. Isn’t it funny the minute a girl becomes a regular fellow somebody always tries to queer it by calling her something else?…“Marine” is good enough for me….I can’t sign myself as affectionately as I used to, Bill. You understand. I’m a soldier now and you wouldn’t want me doing anything that wasn’t in the manual.

Yours till the cows come home, Pvt. Martha L. Wilchinkski

Other entries are neither noble nor endearing, but they help give granularity to Bellesile’s picture of what it is we call war. The continuities intrigued me just as much as the divergences. I learned that soldiers complained about the unfairness of combat awards as far back as the Mexican War; that corporations have been reaping massive and dubious profits from our conflicts at least as early as the Spanish-American War;2 that some of the most “patriotic” businessmen and politicians have remained consistently opposed to enlarging veteran benefits—from Kodak founder George Eastman to Republican senator Tom Coburn; and that the bomb disposal techs of the First World War were called “the pioneers,” with a job just as feared and respected as it is now.

The dominant feeling in A People’s History of the U.S. Military is one of admiration for those front-liners who not only served our nation, but served it honorably—which in Bellesile’s telling is frequently synonymous with those who served it critically. There’s a certain selection bias in A People’s History, not only because those war fighters who originally put pen to paper were probably more inclined to critical intelligence than the warrior population at large, but also because Bellesiles himself was probably more inclined to highlight the contemplations of warrior-critics as opposed to plain-old warriors. The dispiriting reality is that the majority of our soldierly population, just like the majority of any population, was (and is) less ethically scrupulous than the bulk of witnesses found in A People’s History. This goes a long way in explaining why a morally vacuous commodity like Stars Earn Stripes can be launched and sustained by so many veterans.

It’s crucial that we don’t let this concession lead us to self-righteousness. The sad fact is, in the words of one First World War soldier describing his combat experience, nearly everyone on the battlefield is just fighting “to not get licked.” That’s more a testament to the poverty of our social relations than to the poverty of individual souls, and it’s just as pertinent to the impoverishment of our social imagination as it is to the amorality of war.

Lyle Jeremy Rubin is a PhD candidate in American history at the University of Rochester. He served in the United States Marine Corps for five years.

1Bellesiles became the first winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize to see the award revoked, after it became clear that his prize-winning work Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture was plagued with errors, arguably of a fraudulent sort. The method and historiographical scope of the book under review, however, don’t lend themselves to the same pitfalls as their predecessor, so I’m going to approach A People’s History of the U.S. Military on its own merits, even though I find Bellesile’s past troubling, because I believe the veracity and relevance of this book warrant it.

2In that case, for knowingly providing the military with tainted beef for private gain, or raking in fortunes by making promises for goods and services that were never delivered. As one veteran phrased it, “Every dollar of their profits was flecked with the blood of dead and dying men.”