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Posted on Mar 31, 2008 in Stuff We Like

The Myths of War

Gerald D. Swick

Recently, I listened to a group of Southern partisans discussing “The Late Unpleasantness” of 1861 – 1865. They waxed eloquent about how Confederate commanders were much better than Northern ones.

It’s an opinion I’ve heard many times before and not just from pro-Southern voices. I’ve noticed that the names of Braxton Bragg, Gideon Pillow, John Floyd and John Bell Hood never crop up in these discussions of the pantheon of Confederate Valhalla. Neither is the observation ever made that Confederate victories west of the Appalachians were rare occurrences, or the simple observation that the supposedly inferior commanders of the Union ultimately won the war.

Every war seems to generate its myths, and they aren’t confined to the side that lost, although that side usually finds it harder to let go of them. The American Revolution gave birth to the notion that citizen soldiers—farmers, shop clerks, schoolteachers and the like—who volunteered for short periods were superior to Europe’s professional armies. In part this was born of necessity, to convince those farmers and clerks they could survive on the same battlefield with the professionals. In reality, it was only after the colonial revolutionaries received standardized drill instruction from professional soldiers like Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben that they proved capable of defeating European troops on a regular basis.

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America isn’t the only nation that has generated military myths, of course. One of the best known is the one created by Paul von Hindenburg after the Great War that claimed German soldiers had actually been winning the war, but they were stabbed in the back by certain civilian groups. German civilians, who had been kept in the dark about the realities at the front by Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff’s control of the country’s media, found this myth very easy to believe. Adolf Hitler exploited it in his rise to power.

The question is, why do these myths hold such strong appeal so long after the events that spawned them are over?

America’s reliance on swelling its military ranks with civilian trainees in times of crisis, while maintaining a barebones force most of the time, continued well into the twentieth century. As noted above, Confederate leaders are still painted in broad strokes as inherently superior to their Union counterparts. And, since some people even claim the Holocaust of World War Two never happened, there are probably a few who still buy the “stab in the back” myth from World War One.

What do you think? Why do myths like these and others arise during or shortly after a war and then take on a life of their own? What needs do they fill?

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