During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?
Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South:
“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.”
Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.
But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”
There’s something to this, isn’t there? War and the urge toward it boiled down to the simple “pleasure of agency,” with so much justification as some kind of window-dressing for the latent violence in our hearts that flows from the desire to justify one’s existence by one’s own force of being?
The “pleasure of agency” versus the law of the cross.