The stories in In the Midst of Life were published individually in the 1880s and 1890s, when the United States was undergoing a re-imagining of the Civil War as a conflict between brothers, rather than the libretory revolution. Of course, this shift in historical memory took place at the same time that racial boundaries hardened through disfranchisement and Jim Crow. This moral distance from the issues of economic exploitation, racism, and slavery is striking in Ambrose Bierce. We can perhaps forgive him because he is so strikingly modern in his interpreation of warfare. The first half of In the Midst of Life is made up of 15 stories of the experiences of soldiers during the American Civil War. None touch on the profound issues of the war. Bierce is interested in the mundane, the ironic, and the banal happenings of military life. That is not to say that these are not tragic events. From the perspective of the grand military writers, these everyday hanging of spies, shooting at scouts, or the slow death of wounded soldiers are banal. Bierce makes them the heart of his stories. In this way, he foreshadows how war will be understood in the 20th century: indifferent and egalitarian. This is the dilemma of warfare in a democratic era. If we are all equal before the law and before our creator, how do we prove our quality. Our failures are a measure of something lacking in ourselves, not in an system of structured inequalities. We want to believe that training, skill, gallantry, honor, or strength translated into martial victory. In an era of democracy, we have only ourselves to blame for our failings, including our defeat on the battlefield. The realities of war, however, are also democratizing. A cannonball or bullet is just as likely to hit my neighbor as me. His death, or mine own, is just as likely. Warfare becomes brutish mathematics. However, one need only watch a late 20th century war film to see examples of honor, valor, or skill winning out. It is this tension that Bierce powerfully explores in In the Midst of Life.
David Simon talked about Paths of Glory and made the interesting point that even books and films that try to be anti-war often tend to praise warriors and suggest their nobility. This, he suggests, undermines the anti-war spirit.
There is some of this spirit in Bierce, but as he believes that the indiscriminate nature of the violence in the American Civil War was still running oddly against a people eager to show their valor whenever possible. In “A Horseman in the Sky” a private for the Union Army meets his father on the opposing side as a Scout. He kills his father, but not before taking in the beauty, actually the divinity, of the equestrian scene. In “A Son of the Gods” a brave scout doomed to die, exhibits a suicidal bravado. “He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right have straight above his head. His face is toward us. Now he lowers his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade of the sabre describing a downward curve. It is a sign to us, to the world, to posterity. It is a hero’s salute to death and history.” (32) In “Killed at Resaca” we learn that women played no small role in encouraging this reckless valor. In this story, one of the bravest and most reckless men in the unit dies. With his death the narrator finds a letter from his girlfriend saying “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.” (51)
Bierce puts us in the realm of total war and machine war, where killing is indiscriminate, executions are everyday events (In the famous “Occurance at the Owl Creek Bridge” the murdered Confederate sympathizer was entrapped.), and women and children experience war first hand. The story “Chickamauga” gives us a deaf-mute child walking through the battlefield, finding his idealistic, boyhood concept of war shattered by finding a dead woman near the battle. “There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman–the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles–the work of a shell.” (25) In the similarly themed “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, a young officer is horrified to find he is expected to shell guns located near his home. After the “affair” he finds his wife and child dead in the basement.
Notice with me that none of the stories describe battles. They only describe “occurrences,” “affairs, and “events.” They are objectively extraordinary. Men put in a position where they need to shoot their father or risk the lives of their children, men sent on one-way trips to “scout” the enemy lines and wounded men desperate for the means to kill themselves populate these stories. In the context of mechanized and indifferent warfare, these occurrences are horrifyingly commonplace.
Bierce reminds us that war has no business being romanticized. I might add that the barricade or the revolution is no less brutal and indiscriminate. Where I want to part ways with Bierce is in his moral indifference. Although war has become brutally egalitarian (at least before the age drones, when a technologically superior foe can murder his enemies without any risk of recompense – and still get medals for valor), struggle is not without purpose. I wonder how former slaves who served in the war read accounts like Bierce’s. I suspect they would have felt familiar with the natural equality modern war creates, but wondered why Bierce extended that equality to the divergent purposes of the two armies.
What has been our response to modern war? No longer can our heroes be drawn at the human level. In medieval romance, a knight could be presented heroically. The longbow and musket put an end to that. The general, hitherto, seen as running the battle like a god, has become a bureaucrat measuring death and destruction with mathematical precision. Without these heroes we have created superheroes. They are difficult to kill, reviving the possibility of valor. Often they are deinstitutionalized as well. Unfortunately, these models are perfectly useless for our really existing struggles.