Charlottesville, VA, University of Virginia Press, 2011, ISBN: 9780813931456; 344pp.; Price: £35.50
University of Missouri
Date accessed: 28 February, 2024
The liberal enlightenment idea of progress has promised many benefits over the past 300 years. Liberal progress, we have been told, would provide cures for diseases, remedies for ignorance, alternatives to superstition, and antidotes to poverty. Nothing however has raised higher expectations than liberalism’s claim that it could put an end to war. According to Kant, Condorcet, Godwin, and a host of others, the spread of knowledge and the accumulation of wealth would reinforce rational thinking, and promote an understanding that gain need not be achieved at the expense of someone else. With the resultant conquest of fear and hate, it seemed only reasonable to anticipate that violence would cease as the means of self-assertion, whether by groups, individuals, or organized states.(1)
Yet, as with so many of liberalism’s promises, the vision of a peaceful future has proven impossible to sustain. The French Revolution, which was supposed to put enlightenment ideals into practice, eventuated, after 1792, in a gruelling, 25-year-long transcontinental struggle that left approximately five million soldiers and civilians in their graves. Some decades later, when the world had recovered from this bloodletting, the champion of English liberalism, Richard Cobden, formulated a concrete political program in which open markets, free thought and representative government would guarantee that such a débâcle could not recur. Yet, as these institutions were gradually established, the spectre of war continued to darken the horizons. Open trade was ringed with tariffs, free thought spawned propaganda, while the industrial techniques pioneered by peaceful commerce were turned into dynamite detonators and machines of death. Armed with these tools of industrial destruction, enlightened men began to hurl them at one another during the First World War (1914-18), which left ten million fatalities in its wake. To the American President, Woodrow Wilson, this horrid ‘war to end all wars’ might actually have been redeemed, had it resulted in a mutually acceptable peace settlement, based on open covenants, national self-determination and an international economy of free trade. Alas, 20 years later, almost to the date, the curtain rose on an even bloodier world-wide holocaust that generated another 60 million corpses.(2)
This proliferation of mass murder, amidst paeans to pacifism, represents one of the most striking contradictions of the modern epoch. But where there is contradiction, there is also the seed for great literature. The ways that literature has navigated the relationship between war and liberalism provides the theme for Edward Adams’s sometimes brilliant, but occasionally maddening, book. Surely, we are told by our inner enlightenment philosopher, ‘war cannot be liberal, and liberalism cannot be warlike’. Yet, as Adams explains in Liberal Epic, the way in which the two have co-existed is much more painful, convoluted and complex. Since the days of Homer, as everyone knows, the war epic has reigned in the artistic firmament as a literary genre of enormous prestige. To compose an epic of Homeric proportions had been the goal of nearly every major poet throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern times. And yet, at the turn of the 18th century, François Fénelon attempted to invert this classical Homeric pattern with his clever sequel, Les Aventures de Télémaque. Picking up the travels of Telemachus from the point when Homer left them, Fénelon revises the bard with a story of Mentor’s further instruction: conducting his own odyssey in search of his father, the young prince is taught to renounce the war epic, to become a just ruler, and to abandon violence and corruption as instruments of political policy.
In the aftermath of Fénelon, as Adams demonstrates, aspiring bards, such as Alexander Pope and Voltaire, felt obliged to remodel the classical epic. As his bloody deeds were exposed by the early rays of enlightenment, the war hero was demoted from his epi-centric place. Thus, when Pope produced his celebrated translation of the Iliad, he engaged in a program of linguistic sanitization that greatly diminished the ubiquitous blood and gore of the Greek original. When the historian, Edward Gibbon, aspired to write a great prose epic, he found that a comparable strategy was required. Although The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was filled with fighting and battles, Gibbon abridged his coverage and downplayed their significance, hinging his declension narrative on the teloi of corruption and religion, rather than on the tides of fortune or the vicissitudes of arms.
In Walter Scott’s novels, the hero is turned into a passive protagonist, while his Life of Napoleon, the one true epic that Scott actually produced, continues the sanitization of military history that Gibbon had begun. The romantic poets further destabilized the war epic, starting with Southey, whose Joan of Arc refigured the warrior as a female saint (not to mention, a revolutionary enemy). Two decades later, he felt obliged to compensate for these youthful indiscretions with his Lives of Nelson and Wellington, and his Peninsular War. Purveyed from the opposite end of the political spectrum, these were little more than reactionary tirades – in which ‘every rhetorical opportunity to diminish the French enemy and aggrandize the English is taken’ (p. 119). By contrast, Byron’s Childe Harold was an anti-war manifesto that was scarcely redeemed by his subsequent Don Juan, which begins with a list of soldiers, only to settle on a conqueror of a different kind.(3) In the aftermath of Britain’s own heroic, anti-Napoleonic crusade, it was left to a liberal general, Sir William Francis Napier, to provide the multi-volume prose epic of these recent events. As a military man with ardent sympathies for radical reformers, Napier refigured the war in Spain as a campaign against native retrogression, in which the original French liberators had turned into tyrants, necessitating a second, British, invasion to institute regime change.
As Adams shows, it was during the high Victorian period that the war epic came under full frontal attack. For John Stuart Mill, the progress of society could be measured by the degree to which people were protected from violence, and the extent to which they felt free to express their individuality in peaceful ways. To Herbert Spencer the entire history of mankind could be encapsulated in a shift from primitive, static ‘militant’ societies, organized for competition in war, to progressive, dynamic ‘industrial’ societies, which shifted competition from the battlefield to the marketplace and the higher realms of invention and thought. A comparable historicist scheme was offered by Henry Buckle, who argued that climate governed human progress during the early stages of civilization, but that advanced peoples had created their own pacific environment, in which the pace of progress was determined by mental laws of scientific discovery and innovation. Under these circumstances, Edward Creasy dared to publish his popular Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851) only by offering a disclaimer that the battles (from Marathon to Waterloo) had been chosen because each had contributed to advancing the cause of civilization and peaceable progress.
Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, Adams shows, the war epic would not entirely go away. The Crimean War alerted Britons to the dangers of military unpreparedness, while the Indian Revolt of 1857 reminded them that their empire must ultimately be sustained by force of arms. Even Mill discovered ‘just wars’ of liberation in Europe and America that rendered his later writings a good deal more bellicose than the theoretical pacifism which had marked his earlier work. While Dickens wrested the novel away from the ghost of Scott, Thackeray attempted to re-inscribe the older epic forms. Carlyle, meanwhile, celebrated the return of the hero, and spent 15 years writing a 22-volume History of Frederick the Great. Most notably, T. B. Macaulay, arguably the most popular writer of the age, capped his essayistic celebrations of progress with a bestselling five-volume History of England, in which battles and wars found a significant place. This resurgence of the war epic continued to accelerate throughout the medieval revival of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Adams traces it in William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung (1868) and The House of Wolflings (1889), even though his subsequent conversion to Marxism enabled him to dream of a future entirely free of warfare in his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890). Moving on to the last years, before the end of the 19th century, the journalist Alexander Kinglake, the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy, and the historian G. M. Trevelyan each found in the ‘progressive’ wars of the 19th century – Crimean, Napoleonic, and Garibaldian, respectively – material for a new kind of war epic, in tune with the telos of liberalism.
Needless to say, the carnage of the First World War put an end to this fledgling genre, although Adams’s last chapter offers a telling contrast. On the one side we are given C. V. Wedgwood’s History of the Thirty Years’ War, which reflected on the futility of state violence. On the other side, we are accosted by Winston Churchill’s early war reportage, and his post-Gallipoli biography of his ancestor, Marlborough, which revels in the blood and gore of battlefield violence in a disturbingly anachronistic Homeric way. If Churchill rose to the occasion, when the fate of freedom hung in balance, during the ultimate conflagration of 1940–5, it was his sadism, not his liberalism, that fitted him for the job. ‘To be blunt, Churchill saw war coming before others and rose to its challenge, because Churchill wanted to see that challenge, welcomed the exhilarating violence of war in life and art, and clutched at such heroism and such domination as a leader and a historian’ (p. 256).
Adams’s book is filled with shrewd and sharp observations like the one just quoted, but in the end it does not entirely live up to its promise. In part, it suffers from poor organization – a 57-page prologue/introduction, which does not so much introduce, as prefigure, the argument of the chapters, and individual chapters that are constantly signalling ahead, looking backward, and turning in on themselves. In a 280-page book (plus 13 pages of notes) Adams is trying to cover so much ground that he is constantly jumping from one argument to another (usually based on contrasts between two or more literary/historical works). This leaves little space for the kind of exegesis and meta-commentary on specific poems or prose epics at which he clearly excels, and that his argument requires.
Adams has clearly made the right decision to define the modern epic extremely capaciously, so as to include not only poetry but also prose histories and novels, (although he hints that the novels would require a separate treatment). But to treat books like J. M. Keynes' Economic Consequences of the Peace, or William Morris’s News from Nowhere as in any sense epic, is to stretch the genre beyond all meaning. Here again, this extravagance is a product of Adams’s restless intelligence and great erudition. There appears to be little that he has not thought about, and even less that he has not read. His chapter sub-titles indicate the range of figures on whom he is writing: François Fénelon, Alexander Pope, Edward Gibbon, Walter Scott, Robert Southey, William F. Napier, W. M. Thackeray, T. B. Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, J. S. Mill, Edward Creasy, T. H. Buckle, William Morris, Alexander Kinglake, Thomas Hardy, G. M. Trevelyan, Leo Tolstoy, J. M. Keynes, Winston Churchill and C. V. Wedgwood. Yet in addition to this epic cast of characters, Adams gives almost equally starring roles to many of the most important intellectuals of the modern age. According to my running count, John Milton, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, Bishop Bossuet, John Dryden, Voltaire, Giambatisto Vico, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, J. J. Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, William Blake, Leigh Hunt, S. T. Coleridge, William Godwin, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens, Henry Hallam, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, W. E. H. Lecky, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, Lord Acton, Henry Adams, Francis Parkman, H. G. Wells, Mikhail Bakhtin, Fernand Braudel, Isaiah Berlin, Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Keegan, S. L. A. Marshall, Elaine Scarry, and Martha Nussbaum all make more than walk-on appearances in Adams’s pages. This is not mere name dropping, since Adams has interesting and original things to say about many of these figures, but their appearance on so crowded a stage creates frequent confusion, dialogue that is rushed, and lines that are cut off almost before they have begun.
When we do step back to distinguish Adams’s forest from his trees, we must question his concluding paragraph, which contends that ‘epic survived or persisted or flourished in the modern liberal world and in spite of liberalism’s profound ethical and intellectual objections, because liberalism still needed and still needs its horrific or sublime, offensive or beautiful drama of domination’ (p. 290). On the contrary, what Adams shows (at least to this reader) is that liberals have slowly but steadily striven to put ever increasing distance between themselves and the Homeric war epic’s blood and gore. If this process has taken an unconscionably lengthy period of time, it is because of 1) the lingering literary prestige of the classical epic, 2) the repeated appearance of post-liberal critics who have been motivated by disillusionment with its betrayed ideals and 3) the ever renewed supply of sanguinary politicians eager to stoke up war fever, such as Churchill, or the (thankfully unnamed) architects of the 2004 Iraq War, who have clearly served as the muses for Adams’s book. Indeed, to understand why anyone genuinely committed to liberalism can no longer find in the war epic ‘the one literary genre supremely dedicated to convincingly representing agency’?, we need do no more than to turn to Churchill’s insight that ‘war, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid: It is all the fault of democracy and science. Instead of a small number of well trained professionals championing their country’s cause with ancient weapons and beautiful intricacy of archaic maneuver ... we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination, and only a set of blear-eyed clerks left to add up the butcher’s bill’.(4)
Does this mean that the modern liberal world no longer offers any literary genres ‘supremely dedicated to convincingly representing agency?’ Of course, it does not. However, to find an epic genre that is dedicated to representing agency in organically liberal terms, we need to look beyond the confines of Adams’s book. For the authentic liberal epic is the epic of peaceful conquest, of entrepreneurial capitalism, of modernization and technological development, indeed (as Churchill might have it) of scientific discovery and the search for truth. Like the classical war epic, this epic of the marketplace – in goods, in projects, in knowledge and ideas – has its own distinctive forms of tragedy and inner contradiction. Yet, to tell the story of this wholeheartedly modern epic requires an itinerary rather different from the one that Adams has traced. To be sure, in his capaciousness, he does momentarily glance in this alternate direction, in the context of his discussion of Buckle (chapter four), who replaces the epic of war heroes with an epic of heroes of intellect and production, ‘scientists, inventors, economists, scientific historians and the like’ (p. 185).
Buckle’s epic of liberal entrepreneurship/improvement (in which he assigns himself an implicit part) does indeed represent a full-blown ‘liberal’ alternative to the war epic, possessing its own counter-logic of struggle and triumph, hubris and nemesis. It is an epic tradition whose grounding ur-text is not Homer, but the Faust legend, haltingly formulated by Marlowe, classicized by Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and magnificently elaborated in the second part of Goethe’s Faust.(5) Being, at heart, a modern epic, it rises through the 19th century from a work like Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers to the American stories of Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and John D. Rockefeller, whose heroic feats (and failures) have never properly yet been told. Taking a mythological turn in the operas of Wagner, it is ushered into the 20th century by the Fabian critiques (and dramas) of Shaw. Since then, it has headed in many directions, my own favorite being Robert Rhodes’s magnificent trilogy on modern physicists and the birth of the atomic age: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, and Twilight of the Bombs.(6) Must we conclude then that the modern epic of scientific (or capitalist) development necessarily terminates (like the war epic) in Churchill’s ‘cruel and squalid exercise’ in ‘brutish mutual extermination’? Does it have sufficient stores of energy and optimism to accelerate mankind forward to frontiers yet unknown? Adams’s framework provides no basis for answering this question, but it would be churlish to end on a critical note. His rich brew of poetry, prose and historical argumentation gives us much food for thought, and inspires us to rewrite the recipe book with a different set of ingredients.
- Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN, , 1983), pp. 107–43; Condorcet, Selected Writings, ed. Keith Baker (Indianapolis, IN, , 1976), pp. 209–82; William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (London, , 1976), pp. 506–23.Back to (1)
- Charles J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (New York, NY 2007), pp. 6–14, 561; David Gates, The Napoleonic Wars, 1803–1815 (London, 1997), 272; Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, (New York, NY, 1999), p. 295; Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms (Cambridge, 1999), p. 894.Back to (2)
- Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan, and W.W. Pratt (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 46–7.Back to (3)
- Winston Churchill, My Early Life, A Roving Commission, (New York, NY 1930), p. 65.Back to (4)
- Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, (Northbrook, IL, 1950); Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Faust, (New York, NY, 1976), pp. 118–308.Back to (5)
- Robert Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, (New York, NY, 1986); Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York, NY, 1996); Twilight of the Bombs, (New York, NY, 2011).Back to (6)
Most of all I would like to express my appreciation for this serious, well-informed, and generous review in a major venue for historical studies of what is essentially a literary-critical study of an important post-Miltonic tradition of epic poetry and history. It was always my hope that historians would pay attention to Liberal Epic, but it remains a literary study, one largely focused on the internal logic of a much neglected genre and, indeed, on the intricate permutations of the notoriously artificial style known as poetic diction. Its speculative conclusion (there are other, more solid ones, such as its detailed refutation of John Keegan’s influential theory of the battlepiece, but the review understandably lingered over the most provocative one) arises from its extensive taxonomy of various epic narratives that together demonstrate the failure of the liberal imagination to shake off a deep fascination with heroic warfare and violence long after it had earnestly set itself the specific goal of evolving beyond such primitive pleasures. On the basis of this undeniable phenomenon – and detailed analyses of its various generic manifestations – Liberal Epic asserts that the progressive liberal ideal of self-determination seems to require the regressive heroic scene of violent domination in order to believe in itself, in its founding myth of autonomous agency: ironically, only in determining others does the liberal self seem convinced that it can determine itself. Perhaps the reality of history tells a different story about liberal modernity and heroic agents, but mine is a study of literature and it sees this seemingly paradoxical bond growing stronger, not weaker.
Given this ironic reversal or complex double-bind at the core of my thesis and my genre, my main reply to Theodore Koditschek’s frustration with the movement and shape of my argument is that, although I take pride in having given a much stronger narrative thrust to my book than is typical of literary criticism, much of my task nonetheless required the frequent looking forward, backward, and turning inward necessary to exhibit and anatomize this liberal epic genre as a total system, a logical structure standing somewhat apart from history, in short a poetical Aristotelian phenomenon with its own internal rules – and not simply a matter of the external historical development Koditschek focuses upon and so skillfully reprises in his careful review. I will limit my further comments to two related points – one a simple correction and the other a broad response.
First, the correction: Koditschek’s long list of the major and minor figures treated in my study, while it documents and praises my erudition and wide reading, also is meant to expose what he sees as the excessive, self-undermining ambitions of my book. There are good reasons for such ambition – indeed the ambition is the necessary condition for this epic study to exist at all – but Koditschek’s critique is misleading. For he implies that all of the figures listed are regarded as practitioners of the neglected genre I have dubbed liberal epic, but indeed many are there precisely because they did not write liberal epics. They function as boundary markers or antithetical examples that help me better to define and characterize the smaller, core collection of texts that I do genuinely regard and treat as liberal epics. Thus, for example, he specifically faults me for extending the term to J. M. Keynes and William Morris’s News from Nowhere. The latter, however, appears in my study because in it, I argue, Morris’s earlier practice of liberal epic dramatically evolved beyond that genre’s limits into something new and different, as his utopian romance deconstructs the earlier ideal of Morris himself as an agential poet-hero, and as its account of the revolution that brought about this utopia rejects one of the key conventions of liberal epic, namely, its focus upon a progressive war hero. Morris’s text ceases to be a liberal epic in part because it turns that essential generic convention into the counter-revolutionary clever young general, that is, into a middle-class leader who fails to stem the workers’ uprising. His individual brilliance succumbs to the triumphant logic of the anonymous masses.
Similarly, Keynes, as indeed all the economists discussed in my book, appears as a prime example of the prominent tradition of liberal political-economic treatises that stand in intellectual opposition to liberal epic and its heroic ideal. To be sure, I am repeatedly at pains to detect evidence of a lingering fascination with the importance of war and individual agency in these political economists, but their main function in my study is to serve as an antithesis. They advance the notion that history is ruled by the invisible hand, impersonal agency, or market forces in opposition to the bloody hand of the epic, even the liberal epic, hero. To repeat, the list of figures I treat is indeed a long one, but Koditschek’s implication that I turn them all into examples of liberal epic poets and historians is simply mistaken – and thus his larger criticism based upon that complaint is nullified.
Second, the broader response: there is no denying that I allowed myself an expansive, speculative, even polemical conclusion and can hardly complain if Koditschek (or any reader) concludes by resisting my claim about the liberal imagination’s persistent fascination with violent agency – and does so by sensibly turning to a very different, much happier tradition of economic and/or scientific narratives that foreground a more peaceful hero or, better yet, forego the hero altogether. Nonetheless, though that counter-tradition certainly exists, I do think Koditschek too easily dismisses the implications of the abundant evidence my study unearths. More to the point, he too readily characterizes his tradition as the ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’ liberalism, when the deeper point of my argument holds that, in the end, it is a mistake to find anything inorganic or inauthentic in liberalism’s abiding attachment to the violent heroic agent. The liberal epic genre that I theorize and present is, despite its paradoxes, as authentically liberal as any, indeed perhaps more authentic insofar as it is the most wedded to the essential ideal of individual self-determination, so wedded to it that it cannot let go of the heroic scenes of violence that most convincingly dramatize it in action. This genre consists of a powerful series of best-selling, culturally acclaimed texts that cohere as a self-conscious tradition, one woefully neglected by the too-firmly-established literary historical orthodoxy that major military epic subsided into cultural obscurity after Milton. By showing in detail how a 17th- and 18th-century poetic tradition of translating and humanizing Homeric and Vergilian epic became the model for a series of major historians from Hume and Gibbon through Macaulay, Trevelyan, Wedgwood, and Churchill, I am able to present a single great block of evidence – not a scattered collection of exceptions – that points very disconcertingly to how the liberal imagination, however sincere in its sympathetic humanity, proved unable to let go of heroic violence as its most compelling evidence for its core ideal of individual and national agency. I do not claim that the evidence meticulously presented by my study overwhelms or cancels out the evidence in which he finds such solace, but, in turn, I do not think his cancels out or overwhelms mine.
And there are dangers lurking even where Koditschek finds comfort – above all in his own exhibit A against me, namely, his concluding Churchill quotation. To be sure, in it Churchill vigorously expresses humane and liberal revulsion over the horrors of modern warfare. At the same time, this very same passage, upon closer examination, fully embodies my thesis: Churchill clearly longs for the kind of individualized, heroic warfare banished from our overly scientific world. What’s more such nostalgia was hardly barren: it underwrote Churchill’s own herculean (and successful) efforts (culminating in his Marlborough of 1938) to compose great historical narratives along just those lines – and this literary task went hand-in-hand with his effort to fashion his own political career as an agential, world-historical, war hero, which climaxed in 1939–40. Churchill’s achievement re-energized liberal epic, even as literary historians were yet again blithely claiming that the First World War had made grand heroic depictions of warfare impossible. (Here Koditschek repeats this old and unquestioned thesis, but is again simply mistaken in suggesting that Liberal Epic also follows it. I do not argue that the infamous trenches of the First World War killed off my ‘fledging genre.’ My point is precisely the opposite: 1914–18, like many a cultural watershed before it from 1688 to 1815 to 1851, proved a false or failed endpoint to liberalism’s romance with violent heroism; and the Second World War only reinforced such liberal epic thinking, as the influential writings of Churchill, Berlin, and Trevor-Roper, among others, make clear.) Churchill’s successes, for better or for worse, have been passed on to legions of popular military historians and generations of self-styled political liberators.
Most of all, as my study demonstrates, that curious word ‘scientific’ applies not just to the removal of the heroic individual from the battlefield, but to the excision of the hero from the practice of history. Far from announcing the reality of this humane but unheroic scenario, Churchill’s statement dramatizes a proud resistance to it by liberal theorists, historians, and statesmen – a resistance that has resulted in precisely the great and productive tradition of liberal epic that Koditschek seems to think will just go away if he looks to the likes of Samuel Smiles – or Goethe and Wagner. For, I agree, their magnificent epic visions are emphatically not instances of what I am calling liberal epic. Indeed they celebrate a fundamentally illiberal Germanic cultural paradigm, one centered on a totalizing ideal of scientifico-philosophical knowledge, an increasingly ominous goal that culminated in the work of Heidegger and Hitler, and one that my book considered, in its prologue, as the ultimate antithesis of Western European liberalism – not, as Koditschek would have it, its happier alternative.
So when my reviewer concludes by blandly forgiving me for failing to provide a basis to answer questions about ‘frontiers yet unknown,’ I must plead guilty – but only to that charge in its most general terms. For I do confidently predict, on the basis of my knowledge of hundreds of years of magnificent liberal epic war narratives, that one certain, clear, and liberal answer to Koditschek’s modest request – an answer now prominently on display in Star Wars, Halo I and II and III, and Star Trek in its many manifestations (and isn’t it curious how Star Trek’s premise of scientific space exploration, Koditschek’s ideal, morphed so completely into content emphasizing heroic wars against illiberal tyrannies from the barbaric Klingons to the posthuman Borg?) – is that the final frontier promises …war! – with all of its bloody pleasures. There bold men have gone before and there they will assuredly go again, not because history says it must be so, but because literary history and the relentless logic of this great and growing genre show that, despite our best intentions, we repeatedly end up imagining it that way.
But enough of sci-fi epics and imaginary futures, plausible or implausible, scientific or capitalist or military – I would like to conclude my response on a stronger note by suggesting that I paid a price for indulging in such speculation, because there is another, much more secure thesis advanced by Liberal Epic – one of real and practical significance for writers and readers of history (there are others of purely literary interest that I will not bother you with in this venue) – that Koditschek, in his distraction, passes over in silence. Indeed our bone of contention is merely the shadowy Viconian farside of a brighter argument central to my book. I refer to its systematic dismantling of John Keegan’s central thesis in The Face of Battle (1977), a major work of historiographical scholarship that has shaped much of the practice of military history for over 30 years now and has penetrated deep into popular culture in films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down (2001). Keegan neatly explains the sanitized presentation of combat killing in the conventional battlepiece of traditional military history in terms of the personal ignorance, on the part of most historians, of battlefield reality along with a humane squeamishness that unconsciously encourages them to soften or avoid even those graphic details still available through research.
While this scenario might be true of some military history, it is wrong with respect to the great tradition presented and analyzed in my book. In the case of all these liberal epics, the sanitization or softening of the graphic violence of combat killing was a deliberate literary and philosophical project. Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon onward through Napier, Creasy, Macaulay, Trevelyan, and Churchill (though matters take on a slightly new form in this readier admirer of heroic combat) intentionally suppressed the details of battlefield death, not because of their unconscious squeamish humanity before gory ugliness, but because they consciously feared that this sublime material would appeal to and cultivate the sadistic love of domination in their readers. To be sure, I also argue that these texts cannot ever quite let go of that pleasure, that they retain a need for the scene of domination they simultaneously sanitize and critique, but that is the dark side of my more optimistic main thesis. There I demonstrate that the principal and overt effort of my liberal epics was to narrate heroic warfare, but to do so in a manner that would short circuit any reader’s pleasurable identification with the heroic killer, which was seen as the essence of the Homeric sublime by philosophers such as Locke and Vico, poets like Dryden, Pope, and Byron, and historians from Gibbon to Macaulay. Instead they sought to narrate combat in such a way as to push the reader to sympathize more with the victims of war, thus making him or her a better liberal subject, one now viscerally aware of the ideal of individual autonomy. That conclusion clearly follows from my analyses of this tradition of epic histories and how their presentation of heroic violence was rooted in a sophisticated 17th- and 18th-century effort to translate and humanize Homer and Vergil, one which I also show had close intellectual ties to the contemporaneous development of the law of war or ius in bello by Grotius and Pufendorf. This claim is much less speculative; it is not an extrapolation from my texts, but a clearly articulated and carefully executed project standing at their very heart; and it does not ask us to wonder vainly about the future. Rather it exposes Keegan’s plausible thesis as deeply misguided with regard to the greatest epic histories of the past three centuries – and raises dire questions about the sadistic reality of all the military histories written under his spell in the here and now.
Although the rhetorical justification of these much more graphic contemporary histories takes pride in how they are finally and honestly showing readers the horrific reality of combat, what it fails to consider – and what my texts and my tradition understood (and feared) – is that intimate depictions of combat killing might not shock and dismay readers so much as entertain them with, and cultivate their taste, for the sublime pleasure of watching a more supremely skillful hero or army or nation dismember and destroy its lesser, and therefore deserving, foe. Here in the ultimate drama of human competition, there is not so much a killer, as a winner; not a victim, but a loser. That is a pleasure liberal epics struggle not to supply, but which post-Keegan military histories do provide – and in abundance.