In The Killer Angels, a novel about the battle of Gettysburg, General James Longstreet—generally, the hero of the book—is enormously struck by the changes in military tactics that he is in the middle of. Longstreet is, himself, a protagonist of these changes. He has seen, in the battles of the Indian Wars in the North American West, that traditional methods of combat are bound to result in unnecessary deaths, and ultimately in the loss of the war. A single artillery gun in a good location, or even a single rifle wielded from behind a tree, will simply massacre any army that tries to capture it. Longstreet’s solution is to emphasize defense, and to deemphasize honor. He prefers to abandon a hard-won battleground rather than defend it at the expense of a more likely victory elsewhere; to withdraw in the face of greater force rather than attack simply in order to be first to strike; to cut off the enemy’s supply lines rather than confront them face to face in battle. And he prefers to find a defensible location and dig in rather than lead a glorious charge.
Robert E. Lee, who happens to be Longstreet’s commanding officer, is a soldier of the old-fashioned school. It may well be that Lee is losing the war because the needs of the age are for mechanism, not for honor, but Lee will not change. Shaara presents his determination as a kind of virtue, in line with the (now usually poorly thought of) view that the South deserved to win the Civil War in some kind of “higher” or actually moral sense, regardless of the immorality of slave-ownership and racism. And Longstreet does come to doubt himself. He is fighting the war because he is a soldier and his commanders have ordered him to do so, not because he believes in the cause, and he recognizes the advantage of having the kind of cause he lacks. Regardless, the predictions and views which Shaara presents as Longstreet’s are more correct than those he presents as Lee’s. And even so, Shaara describes the old-fashioned kind of battle as more “human,” in some way, than an artillery charge, or even a careful trench-based defense.
It isn’t surprising to see a Rebel cavalry charge complete with Rebel yell (the “inhuman screaming of the onrushing dead”) depicted as glorious, if also primitive, even as those troops ride straight into the face of modern artillery and hidden riflemen. What is more surprising is to see the advance of a mile-long line of infantry described as beautiful and as noble. The sight of thousands of men in brightly-colored uniforms marching slowly forward under constant artillery fire must surely be impressive in some way, even sublime, but it is hardly one of the greatest expressions of the human spirit. Yet Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Yankee college professor turned officer, with little combat experience, immediately thinks in just those terms. Chamberlain has been learning to see battle as his fellow soldiers do, to see it in its gritty details as it really is, and what this classicist and professor of theology discovers about the dying art of Napoleonic battle array is that it was a triumph of human will. The horror of so many men bound to die does not appear to enter his mind. By contrast, Chamberlain’s reaction on experiencing his first artillery barrage from behind his own line is to dive to the ground, stunned, and fall into unconsciousness (having failed to give his troops any orders). The repeated violent shaking of the earth under the impact of machinery is, for him, is what registers as true horror.
Does Shaara—in this book, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975—intend to make a comment about modern military practice? What, exactly, does he have in mind when he mentions the modern, mechanized military? I’ve been reading about game theory and wonder if it might provide some hints.
On page 64 of Luce and Raiffa, Games and Decisions, a military strategist named Haywood is quoted on the “American” decision theory for battle. It is striking. He says that the US military commander bases his strategy not on the intentions of the enemy, but on the capabilities of the enemy. This is a little chilling. It calls, logically, for building up capacity even in the face of the fact that the enemy has no plan to attack, on every possible battleground even when the enemy cannot possibly attack on all of them at once. This kind of talk rightly gave Cold War hawkish thinking a bad name, and tarred much of the field of game theory along with it. (The result, in part, was an emphasis by doves on the limitations imposed on game theory’s having restricted itself to the narrowest range of human motivations, those associated with the purest self-interest. An example is research, publicized by Douglas Hofstadter and others, on the absurdities that result whenever a game-theoretical example is brought down to earth and put into effect.)
Less dramatically, however, it also calls for a rather mechanistic view of the army itself (both ours and that of the enemy), as questions of intention are set aside. All that matters is a tallying up of the numbers of weapons of various sorts, of their capacities (probably expressed in numerical terms), of their geographic placement, and of the numbers of soldiers deployed to make use of them. Old-fashioned strategical thinking—trying to get into the mind of the commanders on the other side—goes by the board.
Thus, all opportunities for finesse have dissipated. The military strategist is no longer a strategist in the old sense; he no longer needs the skills of a chess master. Instead of pitting himself against an enemy who is human and his equal, he submits troop numbers to a computer. A concern about the potential replacement of human decision-makers by computers would explain Longstreet’s regret more plausibly than would a simple distaste for prudence and defensive strategy. It doesn’t make the idea that the South was some kind of glorious lost cause any more persuasive. It does, however, turn Longstreet into a character with whom late twentieth-century audiences may be more likely to sympathize.