In War No More, Cynthia Wachtell examines the antiwar tradition in American literature from the shadow of the Civil War to the brink of World War I. Wachtell demonstrates that a pacifist ideology stirred the pens of American writers, both obscure and celebrated, long before the mechanized killing of the Great War inspired the antiwar fiction of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and other literary giants of the interwar years. War No More, therefore, upends the standard chronology of American antiwar literature, showing that American writers routinely questioned the morality and sanity of warfare decades earlier than most scholars have imagined. Inevitably, the book also [End Page 285] prompts reflection on America's present-day conflicts. The works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane reveal that our twenty-first-century debates over "the morality of warfare, modern weaponry, and American imperialism" are nothing new (p. 3).
Certainly, readers of American literature will not be surprised to learn that antiwar impulses informed the work of a handful of authors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wachtell's achievement is to clarify that such writing constituted a true literary movement, albeit a disorganized and sometimes conflicted one. She argues that pacifist writers inspired one another and established a tradition bent on robbing war writing of traditional emphases on glory, honor, and heartfelt patriotism. "Although their specific literary tactics varied," American antiwar writers uniformly "presented an unglamorous image of battle and routinely accentuated the dehumanizing and alienating aspects of combat." Modern war, these authors insisted, presented "a test of endurance not of valor" (p. 6). Although the breadth of Wachtell's project necessarily limits her discussion of any one author, those reading for an analysis of a specific writer under discussion will not be disappointed. Even when she at times generalizes about the personalities at hand (for example, Ambrose Bierce's attitudes toward warfare and death were more complicated than she suggests), War No More succeeds at enhancing our understanding of how particular writers fit within a larger pacifist tradition. Readers will benefit especially from Part Two of the book, "The Changing Ways of Fighting and Writing War," which charts how antiwar literature responded to rapid developments in the technology of war and the landscape of battle. For instance, Wachtell's account of the development of cordite, smokeless gunpowder, will help readers understand why turn-of-the-century writing could at once lament and celebrate the disappearance of black-powder smoke from the battlefield. As Jack London explained in 1900, it would be difficult for Americans to glorify any battlefield "without the merciful screen of smoke, which in the past hid the shock of the [End Page 286] charges, the wavering and indecision, the ghastly carnage" (p. 119).
Wachtell employs an impressive collection of sources, ranging from well-known fictions to private correspondence. Readers will find her twenty-three pages of notes invaluable, and her bibliography will serve as an excellent introduction to the primary and secondary sources in the field. The writing itself is clear and precise, a rarity in academic prose and hence one of the greatest virtues of the book. The organization of War No More is likewise accessible, and its conclusion is memorable. Wachtell asks on her final page whether "we [should] conclude that antiwar writers have failed" in light of America's continuing armed conflicts, and whether antiwar literature itself is "inherently futile" (p. 187). War No More advances no clear answers to these questions. Nonetheless, this important book offers readers the fund of knowledge necessary to reach their own conclusions about the power of literature, and moral protest, to shape American attitudes in the face of war.
Craig A. Warren is associate professor of English at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Scars to Prove It: The Civil War Soldier and American Fiction (2009) and the editor of the Ambrose Bierce Project, a Web...