My chief criticism of what is otherwise a valuable and highly recommended book is that Wachtell sometimes misjudges her audience: she says what she is going to say, says it, then says what she has said, running through this pattern several times in each chapter. Even so, this is a noble fault, which at least makes the argument easy to follow. Part of her case is that the anti-war impulse, during the Civil War, is self-censoring. Whitman, for example, saves his most horrific and sceptical descriptions of the Civil War for notebooks and poem drafts, and does not suffer them into print. And Melville, more outspoken than Whitman, is largely ignored (according to Wachtell) because of the unpopularity of his views.
Short chapters on such huge authors cannot go far, which is why Wachtell is most impressive when writing about a lesser-known figure like John William De Forest, who served in the Civil War, and regretted not having taken part in 'one of the greater battles, such as Gettysburg or Chickamauga', but who wrote with unusual candour about the experience of combat. His novel of 1867, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, loudly broadcasts its author's own loyalties even through its title, but Wachtell's account and sensitive quotations suggest that it amounts to more than a victor's smugness. For example, a soldier is shot while reading a newspaper: 'The ball had struck him under the chin, traversed the neck, and cut the spinal column where it joins the brain, making a fearful hole through which the blood had already soaked his great-coat.'
Wachtell expertly demonstrates how the great authors expose the pro-war platitudes of the age. Given that her study stops at 1914, she has less need to consider the possibility of anti-war platitudes. Her conclusion acknowledges a general shift in the American consciousness:
As a nation of readers, we have gone from idolizing the valiant hero to idolizing the alienated antihero. We have gone from being a nation of romantics to a nation of skeptics. Even so, wars continue to be fought.
While puzzling over this paradox, Wachtell seems to imply that Americans today are ethically better and more enlightened (at least in respect of attitudes to war) than their 19th-century predecessors. Yet 'Americans continue, all too frequently, to engage in war'. Why should a democratic nation consistently frustrate --- and have the power to frustrate --- the will of its people? Could it be that, for all our fine rhetoric and our hand-wringing artworks, we share our humanity with our ancestors? Homer represented the pity of war and the glory of war as equal and mutually-reliant truths. There may be times, such as during the Civil War, when one of those truths needs to be emphasised in order to address an existing imbalance in public discourse. But I am not persuaded that anti-war writers are wiser than Homer.