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December 30, 2003

Cold Mountain, conscription and war

Just went and saw the film Cold Mountain. Earlier in the day I read Abiola note that "it is the height of absurdity that an entire movie could be made about the American Civil War without putting any focus on the central issue at stake in that war." Well, I think there was a nominal (perhaps tokenistic) nodd to the slavery issue, and there were more black faces in the background than on the set of Friends. Also, I would point out that there was the stock Evil-Blonde-Blue-Eyed-Guy that seems to show up in many movies made today. Overall, a good film. Nicole Kidman was exquisite, blah, blah, blah....

I want to focus in on a small part of the film: near the beginning the young bucks exclaim that "they have their war." I wonder if this isn't back-projection of the famed hysteria of 1914 in Europe to the Civil War just like The Patriot put the souls of the Waffen-SS in the bodies of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. But in any case, the concept of war hysteria is interesting to me. I just had a recent post that pointed toward some historical differences between professional and conscript armies.

The Civil War was in many ways an appetizer for the industrialized conscript wars of the 20th century. But in the beginning there were often plenty of volunteers. I just recently read The Pursuit of Power by William McNeill where he asserts that this sort of patriotic fervor was a product of the nationalism that emerged out of the 18th century and matured in the 19th. Could one imagine the peasants of Germany rising up to fight for their heimat as they did in in the 19th century against both Austria and France in the 16th? In 1525 the commoners of southwest Germany rose up against their overlords, roused by the sermons of Thomas Muntzer, and they were crushed by the professionals. On the other hand, the New Model Army, a mix of nonconformists and Puritans, destroyed the Royalist Cavaliers in the 1640s.

Conscript vs. professional. The dichotomy can be hard to parse sometimes, especially in the recent past when fear of being ostracized by one's community might have compelled Canadian men to fight for the Queen in World War I or American boys to avenge Pearl Harbor in World War II. Today the American army is both professional and patriotic. As I noted earlier in the week, the two do not always go hand in hand.

Historians like Victor Davis Hanson like to point to classical precedents in showing what makes Western man what he is. The free citizens of Greece stood up to the combined might of the Persian army and defeated them. Centuries later, the free citizens of Rome outlasted the armies of Hannibal in a war of attrition. In both cases, volunteers of their free will, but not professionals, defeated a mix of mercenaries, conscript levies of foreign peoples in the service of alien kings and lords as well as those moved by personal loyalty. It is interesting to note that in both cases, true professional armies that fought with rational efficiency and planning might have conceded defeat. After all, the Hellenes looked beaten on paper, and the touch of the Persian king of kings was light as far as oriental despots went. Similarly, Rome endured years of despoilation of its hinterlands and the defeat of army after army by the brilliant general Hannibal, but not to be cliche, the Carthaginians could defeat the armies, but the city of Rome remained unbroken.

Irrational pride and principle can sometimes break the inevitable storm of massing enemy forces. Remember, in our lifetimes the British stood alone against the Nazi regime. If the Western European states had looked the other way while the Germans found their lebensraum to the east, history might have been different.

Posted by razib at 12:26 AM