Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500–1865 by Wayne E. Lee
The history of warfare encompasses such a variety of experiences that historians may attempt to distinguish a conflict by the degree of its ferocity. Whether “vicious” (223), “brutal” (115), or even “unimaginable” (165), the intensity and ugliness of war matter to scholars appraising everything from combatants’ motives to the societal effects of organized violence. In a book that functions as a social and cultural history not only of warfare but of the very act of fighting itself, Wayne E. Lee argues that the severity of war—what he calls its “frightfulness” (8)—hinges on whether those fighting see the enemy as “barbarians,” savage others who must be exterminated, or as “brothers” (8), equals who deserve restraint in order to ensure future reconciliation.
Examining cases throughout the early modern Anglo-Atlantic world, Lee argues that the distinction between barbarian and brother has more to do with the logistical realities of warfare than with preexisting racial prejudices. Insisting that “war is defined by both violence and restraint” (2), Lee identifies four factors that influence a conflict’s frightfulness. These include an army’s practical capacity to carry out horrific violence, its control over its own soldiers’ behavior, the calculations commanders make regarding the utility of violence, and a society’s definition of what constitutes acceptable brutality. Because even the most horrific examples of warfare are rarely without some restraint, the author argues that each of these factors serves as a better explanation for the level of brutality in war than racism or other beliefs.
Lee begins with the English colonization of Ireland, a process influenced by both ethnic hatred and extreme cruelty. Attempting to correct previous histories that stress the colonizers’ irrational prejudice, Lee notes that even amid massacres and executions, the English were making careful calculations about how to prosecute the war. While ethnic and sectarian hatred led some commanders to ponder extermination, scarce resources often pushed English leaders to favor Irish submission over wholesale destruction. In some cases, the difference between a peaceful surrender and a gruesome massacre hinged more on perceived violations of the courtesies of war than on the particular animus of those outside a castle’s walls. Still, Lee notes that these calculations were fluid, with the ruthlessness of violence intensifying as English leaders increasingly came to see the Irish as irredeemable barbarians. Local resistance ranging from [End Page 175] ambushes to spying eventually wore down the chivalric intentions of English officials, who instead grew to prefer the simple practicality of violence as a means of controlling the Irish population.
Ruthlessness did not, however, depend solely on the decisions of commanders, as Lee shows in the chapters focusing on the English Civil War. In the conflict between defenders of the king and supporters of Parliament, a common heritage as Englishmen often helped preserve a modicum of restraint during violent confrontations. English soldiers largely respected accepted standards of negotiation and imprisonment to degrees notably absent from skirmishes against the foreign Scots and Irish. Nevertheless, there were limitations to such restraint. When states lacked the administrative capacity to properly supply their armies, soldiers were forced to seek out food and shelter by other means. Thus, forage and plunder were not always angry acts of retribution; they were often practical necessities. In response to enemy pillaging, towns mustered militias of “Clubmen” (63) to stave off hungry garrisons, producing a de facto compromise between ordinary people and a maturing early modern state. Using both written demands and the threat of force, the Clubmen could protect their villages from plunder by appealing to aristocratic elites’ growing preference for peace and stability. Of course, common heritage did not always guarantee brotherly restraint. Parties in a civil war might declare their opponents to be traitors and thus deserving of treatment as barbarians.
In the book’s strongest and most fascinating section, “Peace Chiefs and Blood Revenge: Native American Warfare,” Lee demonstrates how differences between European and Native American cultures of warfare made for frightful clashes in British North America. Historians of early America have long known that contrasting ideas about property, agriculture, and economics often undermined settler-Native relations. But Lee stresses that misunderstandings of the other’s military traditions and expectations, their “grammar” (130) of warfare, often lay behind each side’s most ruthless attacks. Many Native Americans expected and accepted that their angry young men might violate peace treaties and viewed guerrilla raids as humane because they limited the scope of casualties. Europeans saw only treachery in these practices but equally confounded Native people by refusing to incorporate prisoners of war into colonial society. Where the Powhatan tribes considered their chief Opechancanough’s 1622 raids on English settlements along the James River a definitive and final retributive show of force, Virginia colonists regarded the attack “much the way Americans understood Pearl Harbor in 1941” (165), as a calamity requiring a massive, ruthless, and sustained response.
Lee’s work closes by showing cases of notable violence and restraint during the early years of the United States. A number of wartime practices [End Page 176] helped to mitigate the brutality of the American Revolution, many stemming from Enlightenment values that informed the proper conduct of officers. These included the orderly tactics of tightly formed musket fire, politely coordinated prisoner exchanges, and the distaste George Washington generally held for scorched-earth strategies. This relative civility unfortunately did not extend to the western theater, where Washington ordered his deputy John Sullivan to devastate Native foodstuffs in an attempt to put a definitive end to Iroquois raiding. Here American fury was on vivid display, as soldiers felt liberated by Native attacks to unleash grisly violence. Lee acknowledges the role of colonial prejudice and hatred in the fearsome Sullivan campaign but argues that practical considerations regarding land were just as responsible for its atrocities. Seeing the financial potential of Iroquois territories, many American soldiers fought all the more viciously, unable to imagine a future republic where Native Americans retained ownership of the land as equal citizens.
Lee’s conclusion moves ahead to briefly deal with the American Civil War, arguing that the military discipline and intellectual restraint of the Napoleonic era yielded to the fearsome capacity of total war, which, while theoretically limiting threats to civilians’ lives, allowed combatants to ransack their property. That Southerners had little interest in future reconciliation as brothers only fueled the conflict’s viciousness.
Barbarians and Brothers is an important and widely applicable book that has the potential to reinvigorate the study of wartime practices for scholars outside the subfield of military history. Lee effectively demonstrates how strategy, logistics, and cultures of warfare directly produce important, lasting social and cultural consequences. Although his choices of episodic examples can at times seem arbitrary, Lee’s illustrations consistently and effectively show the practical forces at work in determining the nature of armed conflicts. Lee writes clearly and is careful to address rank, class, and other social divisions. Of course, the ambitious breadth of the work necessarily makes for a few loose threads. While Lee demonstrates the importance of studying wartime practices, the four factors he uses to explain a conflict’s frightfulness at times overlap and muddle causal explanations of events. Lee’s most potentially controversial assertion is that “prejudice and racism do not suffice to explain the violence of these wars” (241), and throughout his work, the author deemphasizes the place of ideology in inflaming brutality on the ground. This point seems more persuasive in early discussions contrasting colonists’ and Natives’ war cultures, but by the sections on the American Revolution, one wonders if colonists with decades of experience with Native Americans might have held simpler racial prejudices that fueled the intensity of combat.
Lee’s work also suggests an extremely interesting but unexplored question: how wartime practice itself might have contributed to the [End Page 177] formation of racial and religious prejudices. Additionally, the dichotomy of barbarian and brother sometimes seems disconnected from the more nuanced, and thus more persuasive, treatment of practical wartime realities. Lee is not always clear about the steps that pushed an enemy from one category to the other, and the author could have followed his interesting observation about traitors losing their status as brothers more concretely, especially in the case of American Loyalists. Nevertheless, Lee’s work is a compelling meditation on the history of Anglo-American warfare and an important analysis for any histories touched by armed conflict. By demonstrating the capacity of wartime practices to intensify or restrain a conflict’s violence, Lee shows that even scholars unconcerned with military history should not only know why wars are fought but also how. [End Page 178]