August 22, 2008

War - what is it good for?

Unlike with Greek and Roman history, I know which book I need to get to read about the American Civil War - Shelby Foote's 3 volume set The Civil War: A Narrative; considered by most to be the definitive book on the subject. Some day I hope to get the time and drive to read it but in the meantime, I really enjoyed an interview with the author on Book TV on CSPAN2 yesterday. This was a re-run of an old interview from 2001 and was part of "In-Depth" - Book TV's three hour live call-in program where they interviewed Shelby Foote at his house in Memphis, TN sitting in the very room and at his desk where he had been writing since 1966.

You can watch the entire program here.

Flipping channels during one of the innumerable ad breaks on NBC during the prime-time Olympic broadcast, I arrived at Book TV at around 9-9.15pm and never went back till the program was done at 11pm. I know almost nothing of the different wars and battlefields of the Civil War and yet for almost two hours, I was suckered into listening to Shelby Foote and his answers to calls from various people around the US. Bob Costas, baton-dropping American sprinters, and NBC's Olympic coverage be damned... I had to get my fix of history for the day! ;)

I love reading history but almost never war history. So, it was surprising to me that I was so struck by the interview. Perhaps it was because the narrative and discussion presented the human face of war. Also, there was something very captivating about Shelby Foote's cadence and style of talking. Maybe it was the Southern accent and his way of talking, which others have referred to as a "drawl so mellifluous that one critic called it "molasses over hominy"". Shelby Foote himself had this to say about the Southern voice at the end of the above interview, albeit not regarding his voice but in response to an email about his wife's lovely voice:

People always talk about Southern voices - the Mississippi delta and Memphis voices. It all comes out of having had what we call colored nurses when we were growing up. We get this from the blacks. That's where it all comes from. Practically everything we got - at some point in my life -- by the time I was twenty-one years old, I realized that every morsel of food I had ever eaten, every piece of fabric I had ever had on my back, ever hour of education, came out of black labor. It was all that when I was growing up. There was a woman who raised me. ... meant more to me than my mother or my aunts and uncles put together. It's all the black experience. I go down to the Delta today and it just breaks my heart to see it. It's like the place isn't there any more because all the blacks have left. That's was the Delta was. I was raised in a black society, really. They were not running it but they were doing it.
Coming back to the topic of war: While it is always good to read about history, the reasons why things transpired as they did, the follies and the heroism of people, I fear that a reasonable section of people are intrigued not by the human side of these wars but by the guns used, the planes, the patriotic feel-good sense that comes from being on the 'good' (and winning) side, and so on. I have never understood such fascination with wars - especially WWI and WWII, which, if the number of coffee table books I have seen on the subject are anything to go by, seem to be really popular. Lately of course, the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War have been popular in the US because of a number of good books on the wars and the people involved in them. And then there are any number of fine books on the Vietnam war, though sometimes I wonder if any lessons were learned at all from that disaster. Or to quote another Southerner (Mark Twain), "History does not repeat itself but it does rhyme a lot."

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

- War, Edwin Starr

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