April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Here it is April, the month of blustery weather and Paul Revere. Much fifing, much drumming, and many reminders that The British Are Coming.
But of course the British are already here. They are here in their red coats and bearskins, accoutered cap-a-pie like their predecessors of ’75, and you can see them starting on page 45 of this issue. The occasion is a re-enactment of the Battle of White Plains, and we have placed it right after an account of the real battle. The participants were hundreds of enthusiastic hobbyists drawn from almost every walk of life. Their organizations are based on many famous American, British, and even Hessian regiments, whose uniforms, insignia, and weapons have been painstakingly copied; there are ceremonial relationships between the “regiments” and their surviving real-life counterparts here and overseas. The members carry real muskets, drag a few real cannon, and conduct their exercises on historic battlegrounds. There is a great zeal for drill, punctilio, and authenticity, except perhaps for those who have been detailed to play dead on rainy days. No one seems to mind being on the eventually losing side—the British—since they have so much more brilliant dress and, in the long view, such a great tradition.
As the bicentennial of the Revolution draws ever nearer, more and more such events will take place, just as many Civil War battles were re-enacted by eager pseudosoldiery during the recent centennial ofthat monumental conflict. There was a great rattle of musketry and roar of cannon from 1961 to 1965, too, even though the rules—for instance, that battles come out as they did originally—required a few rather reluctant retreats. And as for mere numbers, there were 2,500 men, Yanks and Rebels, at the restaged Antietam.
This is pasteurized war, to be sure, with nearly all the harmful ingredients taken out, like getting killed or wounded, and some of the fun, like looting and censoring mail, but it is a compelling phenomenon just the same. Is there some serious historical purpose hidden behind all the smoke puffs and cries of “Charge!” and “Forward, the Black Watch!” ? Is it merely a chance to indulge Walter Mitty-ish heroic fantasies and frustrated histrionic ambitions? Is it just the fun of playing soldier? Is the boy forever locked in the man?
The popularity of war seems a strange thing in a time when, as every organ of news and opinion tells us, there is a great yearning for peace. It is preached from every pulpit and promised by every politician. Not one of our readers can have failed to see at least one recent peace demonstration—or peace march, or peace rock-throwing-at-the-cops. Although their terms may be a little different, college students, flower children, military men, and all the rulers of the world profess alike their love of peace. The peacemaker has replaced the conqueror in the world’s pantheon, giving us a mixed bag of heroes like Hammarskj’jöld, Gandhi, and Henry Kissinger. And even though the Bible and the chronicles of ancient, medieval, and modern history are pretty solidly full of martial exercises, one might have hoped, somehow, that change might be at hand. But the cynics usually have the last word. Here is a wry comment by that dean of cynics, H. L. Mencken:
If the abolition of war were really possible it would be a pity to lose an enterprise that has given so much delight to mankind. It remains the greatest of sports, and I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of those who are forced to engage in it enjoy it, and look back on it afterward with high satisfaction.
During the Civil War centennial, which seemed to prove out Mencken’s gloomy thesis, it was the fashion among serious historians to deprecate re-enactments. Today the planners for the oncoming bicentennial of the American Revolution (on whose advisory committee your editor has the interesting privilege of sitting) are attempting to discourage them, too. There will at this writing be none permitted in national historical parks, although the denial merely gets at the symptoms of belliphilia. The disease lurks deep within our fiercely competitive, pageantry-loving souls, for most members of the human race are both pacifists and militarists at one and the same time.
There are, of course, palliatives, and it seems to us there are harmless ones, like the events just mentioned at White Plains or the current wave of interest in colorful fife-and-drum corps. Whatever the yearning for warlike ceremonial in us may be called, it is very well understood in England, an otherwise up-todate kingdom where the daily pomp of the changing of the guard before Buckingham Palace acts as a kind of combined memorial to past glories and safety valve for the ever-bubbling martial spirit. There are the disciplined redcoats, just as they must have looked at Bunker Hill or Waterloo. The guards have a kind of class that General Washington probably understood but that seems to escape the Pentagon and the modern White House, with their penchant for gleaming helmets, Buck Rogers jackets, and musical-comedy trumpeters.
As for war itself, we personally have taken pan in it, hated it most of the time while it was going on, and looked back on it, we must confess, somewhat as Mencken predicted. And when earnest young people tell us that war is “unnatural” as well as evil, we refer them to a famous short story of the late H. H. Munro (“Saki”) called “The Toys of Peace.” Many subscribers will recall this account of an English family, full of pacifist zeal, that snatched away the lead soldiers from its children and substituted little figures of town councillors, garbage collectors, and other good and useful workers. These could be arranged and moved just like the toy soldiers, but they would be going about their socially beneficial lives. Hearing sounds of delight and excitement in the nursery, the man of the family rushed in to find his horrid little charges happily enjoying their new playthings. They had smeared them with red ink, for soldiers, and were conducting a fine make-believe war with France. Munro wrote his story before World War i, in which he was killed, for king and country. There is nothing the matter with the world except for the people in it. As Louis xiv might have said if he had taken a broader view, L’état, c’est nous .