January 23, 2013

Bierce: that is a law of nature

Ambrose Bierce had a lifelong fascination, perhaps even an obsession, with war. "Every generation must have its war; that is a law of nature," as he wrote in the January 23, 1886 issue of the Wasp, a publication for which he was editor-in-chief. Bierce had served in the Union Army during the Civil War (he fought at Shiloh, among other places) and,at the end of his life, went to Mexico to observe battles there before disappearing forever.

For Bierce, however, glorification of war through stories from old soldiers was inappropriate and misleading. The genre of war memoirs, both in long and short form, had become a dominant part of literary culture, though Bierce distrusted these accounts, noting that "hardly one has been free from lying." By that, he did not mean merely exaggerating the truth for dramatic effect. As he wrote: "most of them talk pretty well, [but] many didn't fight." The growth of these stories, he wrote, "threatens to swallow up every other industry in the country."

These battle yarns, indeed, are nursing a bably [i.e. babbly] war, which now lies mouthing its fat knuckles and marking time with its pinky feet, in a cradle of young imaginations, but in another decade it will be striding through the land in seven-league boots, chewing soap.

Bierce's own writings also reflect on war, most notably his short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Killed at Resaca." Perhaps, more tellingly, he including the following definition of "war" in his tongue-in-cheek Devil's Dictionary:

WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace. The most menacing political condition is a period of international amity. The student of history who has not been taught to expect the unexpected may justly boast himself inaccessible to the light. "In time of peace prepare for war" has a deeper meaning than is commonly discerned; it means, not merely that all things earthly have an end — that change is the one immutable and eternal law — but that the soil of peace is thickly sown with the seeds of war and singularly suited to their germination and growth... Let us have a little less of "hands across the sea," and a little more of that elemental distrust that is the security of nations. War loves to come like a thief in the night; professions of eternal amity provide the night.

*This post was inspired in part by Donald T. Blume's Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study (Kent State University Press, 2004).

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