The Good Fight

In war commemorations, the epic often eclipses the real.

Francisco de Goya, "Scene from the Spanish War of Independence, After 1808"
Francisco de Goya, "Scene from the Spanish War of Independence, After 1808"

Outsized men with swords, armor-clad and helmeted, swarm the decks of ships, pressed together in close combat.

An illumination in Froissart’s “Chronicles” depicts the Battle of Sluys, fought off the Flanders coast in 1340, at the outset of the Hundred Years’ War. The decisive action in this major battle happened when English archers rained arrows down upon their French foes. But the artist doesn’t show us much of that.

Instead, the illuminator imagines a battle that followed the chivalric conventions of equestrian warfare, with yeomen as knights and ships as steeds. Although a few mangled corpses float in the water — another illuminator who drew the same scene more priggishly left those out altogether — this is combat as the artist wanted us to see it, without the intrusion of archers or the subterfuge of arrows.

To recollect war, more often than not, is to idealize it. The centennial anniversary of the 1914 start of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” offers as good a time as any to remember the disparity between war’s brutal reality and its noble memorials.

Over history, how many artists, chroniclers or poets have dwelt upon war’s horrors? Not many — the painter Goya did, but he is one of the unflinching few. Most of war’s storytellers exalt rather than deplore, and the way they do so tells a tale almost as instructive as the acts of war themselves.

Aside from some hieroglyphs about the Battle of Megiddo, fought about 1457 BCE in what is now Israel, the oldest record of war describes the Battle of Kadesh, waged about 1295 BCE between the Egyptians and the Hittites in northern Syria. Etched onto the walls of Egyptian temples and inscribed on papyrus, the Kadesh chronicle turned an indecisive military encounter into a propaganda victory for Pharaoh Ramses II — “the very model of a false communiqué,” in the words of one historian.

Three thousand years later, Jacques Louis David, the most famous French painter of his day, rendered the same service to Napoleon Bonaparte. Though Napoleon was an avid self-promoter — he made sure songs and paintings kindled and rekindled his luster — surely the most outlandish piece of Napoleonic marketing is David’s portrait of the young general crossing the St. Bernard Pass in 1800, at the beginning of the Second Italian Campaign, pointing the way forward astride a rearing white stallion.

David created five versions of the painting, which were dispersed among various chateaux. Each dissimulated the banal reality: that Napoleon was a wretched horseman, ill at ease holding the reins in any setting, let alone a steep, treacherous Alpine pass.

In 1915, a monstrous iron statue of German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg went up near the Reichstag in Berlin to mark his 1914 victory at a place called Tannenberg. In 1410, the Prussians had been defeated there by the Poles and the Lithuanians. This time, however, there was no actual Battle of Tannenberg. The real battle — at which Hindenburg played less of a role than his subordinates did — took place a short distance away, near today’s Olsztyn, Poland. The shift in location allowed the future president of Germany to reap the glory of an invented revenge.

Members of the warrior class — who were usually members of the aristocracy — also played starring roles in tales told and retold, tales that stretch credulity. We will never know whether Bronze Age heroes performed any of the deeds Homer describes in “The Iliad.” It’s possible they did; Bronze Age warfare was more individualistic than it became under the Greek city-states.

But the medieval ethos of chivalry — glorified by troubadours, recorded in chronicles, re-enacted at tournaments — definitely sits oddly beside what we know about the savagery of war during the Middle Ages. Even as Froissart and others praised the valor and forbearance of knights in combat, the Hundred Years’ War was filled with the sacking of towns, the burning of crops, the killing of prisoners, the hunting of heads. The cult of chivalry was an intermittent, largely futile effort to regulate behaviors during war.

By the 18th century, the common man had recaptured center stage in war’s idealization. The French Revolution used images from classical antiquity to celebrate citizen-soldiers rushing to the defense of la Patrie en danger; sculpture on the Arc de Triomphe represents the French volunteers of 1792 as Greek and Roman warriors. But soon the real soldiers had to be conscripted, and their ardor cooled, however fiercely it still burns in the era’s painting and statuary.

Although World War I held little cause for celebration, its common soldier did become an object of reverence (the celebrity of some contemporary pacifist poets has obscured this detail a bit). Occasionally, the reverence reached absurd heights. The French commemorated the Battle of Verdun by consecrating a trench that infantry soldiers had valiantly held until it collapsed and buried them alive. The Germans honored a unit that had taken a formidable French fort. But there had never been a trench on the hallowed ground. And the fort had fallen to the Germans only because the French had not defended it.

Then there was the “good” war. During World War II, we hear again and again, ordinary Britons gathered around their wirelesses as Churchill urged them to resist the Nazi juggernaut. But many Britons never listened to Churchill’s wartime speeches. American GIs, we learn in story after story, fought passionately for liberty. But real soldiers are often more cynical, more preoccupied with the pressing concerns of surviving, getting the fighting over with and going home.

In truth, the way a society idealizes war reveals how it thinks about war. Neither deliberate nor sinister, war mythologies spring from a natural impulse to find meaning in life-or-death events.

Sometimes, far from falsifying war, legends illuminate it. The ideal of the citizen-soldier helps explain the Greeks’ use of the phalanx in combat as well as some of the revolutionary and Napoleonic formations used by the French army.

Sometimes, whatever their accuracy, legends distill the essence of an emerging doctrine. The two absurd legends from Verdun — stoic French defenders, decisive German attackers — eloquently describe France’s and Germany’s military cultures during the interwar years.

Sometimes legends merely sanitize the recent past, exiling its unspeakable realities from the present.

And sometimes they perform all these functions, and more. Chivalry, for example, flourished as the warfare it celebrated slowly gave way to more prosaic form; the cult, perhaps, marked the vain boast of a dying order.

Legend is part of the vital history of war, less fleeting than war’s experience. Historians should never confuse the two, but they must always be attentive to the rich, reciprocal ties between them.

Paul Jankowski is the Raymond Ginger Professor of History.