leadimageVitalities of the Mind

“Bathing in Reeking Wounds”:
The Liberal Arts and War

Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University

Lecture for the Gustafson Faculty Seminar
Emory University
April 16, 2008
Not to be quoted or cited without permission of the author

Vol. 11 No. 2
October/November 2008

Return to Contents

Vitalities of the Mind
The Gustafson Seminar on the future of Liberal Education

Educating the Vitalities of the Mind

2007-2008 Gustafson Seminar

Vitalities of the Mind Matrix

A Vitalities of the Mind Glossary

“People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education.”

Civility and contemplation and ethics and compassion and courage—all these things are great. But we need Apollo and Dionysus. ”

Website special:
“Bathing in Reeking Wounds: The Liberal Arts and War”
Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University

Comments on the Liberal Arts
Response to the Gustafson Faculty Seminar

Some Thoughts on Overcoming Paralysis
Education and curricula in the context of war

Can the Liberal Arts Reduce the Likelihood of War?
An important but limited resource



I will begin in a spirit of gravity. We are to speak together on the subject of war and the ducts that connect it to the liberal arts. Although we in this room are secure, we are aware of the violence now flooding through the world. Today, April 16, marks the first anniversary of the murders at Virginia Tech University. Then bullets broke the peace of a campus in the hills of western Virginia even as they shattered the bodies of students and faculty. My country has military forces around the globe, the most overt battles taking place in Iran and Afghanistan. My president has declared a Global War on Terror (GWOT). In Africa, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, rape is an instrument of war as it was in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century. Darfur is decimated. On the urban streets of the Americas, gangs battle for prestige, power, and turf. As I often do, I searched for a poem to articulate—and by articulating suture—my anxiety and anger. I rediscovered “May-June 1940,” written during the period between the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the United States entry into the World War II on December 7, 1941. Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) writes

 Foreseen for so many years: these evils, this monstrous

      violence, these massive agonies: no easier to bear.

We saw them with slow stone strides approach, every-

       one saw them; we closed our eyes against them, we


And they had come nearer. We ate and drank and slept,

         they came nearer. . . .

They are here. And now a blind man foresees what fol-

        lows them: degradation, famine, recovery . . . ”

Strengthening my gravity is the knowledge of how historically vast war is and how numerous are the depth charges of its actions and meanings. They threaten to overturn the vessels of the liberal arts.  The entry on war in the fifth edition of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is nearly two closely-printed columns long. A recent issue of PMLA, a leading journal in the liberal arts, asks for submissions for a special issue on the topic of war. The call is giddy, even delirious, with the vertiginous immensity of its topic and the responsibilities of the liberal arts in response to it:

Heraclitus says, “War (polemos) is both father of all and king of all: it reveals the gods on the one hand and humans on the other, makes slaves on the one hand, the free on the other” (trans. Gregory Fried). PMLA invites analyses of war as a structure of feeling and as an objective reality. Examinations of any and all war-related forms of aesthetics, rhetoric, text, theory, emotion, and performance in ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern times will be considered. How do literature, religion, theology, and metaphysics—indeed, how do radio, film, new media, and live performance—reflect, rationalize, or prevent the launching of war, or of peace? Have books or performances started wars or stopped them? What is the effect of medicalization, humanitarianism, environmentalism, racialization, nationalism, and capitalism on the conduct and propagation of war? What are the changing roles of the animal, the human, and the machine in the ecology of war? The journal invites submissions that shed light on the theory and performance of wars past and present—and also prognoses for the future of war and peace—with reference to both cultural particularity and worldwide scope. 1

Instead of mining and sweeping throughout past and present and future, I want to offer some simple suggestions about the liberal arts and war. My focus will be on what the liberal arts can do. Following Elaine Scarry, I will think of the structure of war as a contest that seeks to injure and that sanctions killing.2 So constructed, our wars are cosmic and earth-bound, religious and secular. We can modulate and/or subliminate our organized violence into contests that are less fatal than warfare: courtrooms, sports, debates. We can also mobilize our financial and human capital against a reified enemy that lacks a human face: cancer, poverty, drugs. The terms and participants in these clashes of arms and armies are variable. For example, much of my own work has been on the risibly named “Battle of the Sexes.” Not only are specific structures of gender connected to specific structures of war. Gender itself can be constructed as a battlefield. Moreover, both in such wars and at peace, the self can be divided, the parts at war with each. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 begins, “Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,” and then figures this psychomachic battle for the speaker’s soul as a battle of the sexes. The better angel is a man, the “worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.” No matter what the terms might be and who the participants might be, war is an injurious contest in which one side seeks to win.

A primary text about these all of these injuring contests for the liberal arts, especially for the humanities, is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, produced around 1605-6, a drama about an energetic, childless couple in Scotland, erotically attracted to each other. Part of the doubled nature of war is that it is inseparable from love: love for those at home, love for those at war.3   The pun in English on “arms” reflects this doubleness. For “arms” are both weapons and an embrace, the sign of both Mars and Venus. Especially but not exclusively in civil wars, we have close bonds, even those of blood, with the enemy.)

 The Macbeths struggle over the execution of their ambitions, he initially more divided than she.  The play famously opens with thunder, lightning, and three witches plotting their interventions into local history. The scene then quick cuts to a military camp. Although King Duncan is good, he is fighting both a rebellion and the incursions of the King of Norway. He, his son Malcolm, and his staff receive a battle report from a sergeant who praises the valor and military skill of Macbeth, the king’s cousin, and his companion in arms Banquo. The two warriors are doubling and redoubling their “strokes upon the foe” that they must wound and kill. The sergeant continues, before he collapses, that they meant either to “bathe in reeking wounds” or “memorize another Golgotha.” (I, 11, 39-40). Despite recognitions by King Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth assassinate him, get the throne, and then murder and murder in their ultimately futile efforts to secure it. “Bleed, bleed poor country!” laments Macduff, another warrior/noble.  Lady Macbeth will die mad. Macbeth will die on the battlefield at the hands of Macduff, whose wife and children he has killed. Malcolm will become king.

All this is familiar stuff. Familiarity, however, does not wipe away complexity. For the tragedy has doubled and redoubled meanings about war that the liberal arts must confront beyond Macbeth.  One doubling occurs in the phrase “bathing in reeking wounds.” War horribly wounds individual bodies, families, societies, and the land itself. We bath, not in water, but in blood. War leaves us wound up in shrouds.  However, many believe that blood, like water, can also cleanse, purge, and redeem us. This is a message of the Apocalypse, of other holy wars, and of Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified.

The most recent production of Macbeth that I saw dramatized still another doubling.4 At the end of the play, Macduff gives Malcolm the severed head of Macbeth. Shaped like a globe, its colors are red and gold. Malcolm lifts up the head, and in the stage light, I could not tell, nor could many in the audience, if the object was the golden crown of another good king or the blood-red crown of another homicidal maniac. Is Malcolm the son and heir of the fruitful Duncan or of the previously childless Macbeth? Were all the wars a terrible prelude to peace, or were they a series of repetitions in the repetition compulsion of violence? The audience is left oscillating between hope and fear. Behind this oscillation is still another between our beliefs about human nature. Does Duncan embody the “reality” of our species, or does Macbeth? Or do human beings constantly swerve between the two?

Oscillating movements go back and forth. No matter how vaguely, a Macbeth audience is aware that the play is also the result of another kind of motion, here cultural, a series of transformations that have moved forward in time. Some events have become part of a series of histories that have become Holinshed’s Chronicles  and that has become Macbeth and then Macbeth has itself been changed through the vagaries of productions and interpretations. The larger and well-documented point is that wars inspire documentation, invention, and creativity—out of resilience, courage, anguish,  desperate necessity. The reeking wounds are generative.  Indeed, the laws of war arise in order to tame the lawlessness of war. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) writes Concerning the Law of War and Peace in 1625, about two decades after the first production of Macbeth. Slavery and apartheid in the United States push out the blues.  World War II speeds up the development of radar and computers.  Regarding such truths,  I once again oscillate, this time between bitterness at the setting of the invention or creation and an ironic gratitude for the invention or creation.  

One example of this bitter paradox from the thousands we have available from the liberal arts and that provoke our oscillation: in 1945, the great classicist Bernard Knox was a captain in the U.S. Army. He was working with partisans in the grueling Italian campaign. Their task was to hold sections of the mountain line at the famously impassable Passo dell'Abettone. As he marched he thought about the Roman legions of Octavian and Mark Antony  who had also marched in those regions in 43 BC. At one point, Knox and his men stopped to have a smoke in a bombed villa off the road. In the wreckage he noticed a book on the floor, a text of Virgil, the classical Roman poet, published by the Roman Academy "By Order of Benito Mussolini." Knox closed his eyes, opened the book at random and put his finger on the page. It was a prophecy for Italy, from lines at the end of the first Georgic. In
translation it reads:

        . . . a world in ruins . . .

        For right and wrong change places; everywhere

        So many wars, so many shapes of crime

        Confront us; no due honor attends the plow.

        The fields, bereft of tillers, are all unkempt . . .

        Impious War is raging.

Knox continues,

 ‘A world in ruins.’ It was an exact description of the Italy we were fighting in—its railroads and its ancient buildings shattered by Allied aircraft, its elegant bridges blown into the water by the retreating Germans, and its fields sown not with seed by the farmers but with mines by the German engineers.
The fighting stopped; it was time to move on. I tried to get the Virgil into my pack, but it was too big, and I threw it back to the cluttered floor. But I remember thinking, ‘If I get out of this alive, I'll go back to the classics, and Virgil especially.’ And I did. 5

Of our human activities, the liberal arts are best equipped to anatomize the constellations of doublings, redoublings, and creative transformations that our injurious contests lay upon us as well as anatomizing the injuries themselves. Obviously, before practitioners of the liberal arts can begin, in order to avoid false consciousness and smugness they must first excavate their own complicated relations to war---at once studying it, deploring it, justifying it, and serving various war machines.6 As obviously, our sense of what the liberal arts are and what their complicities might be has changed over time. What has not—except our needs for food and shelter and our capacities for love and aggression? Codified as the 7 Liberal Arts by Martianus Capella in the Graeco-Roman tradition, they became the basis for the famous Medieval curriculum of the trivium (grammar; rhetoric; dialectic, which might include logic and philosophy) and the quadrivium (geometry, with some geography; arithmetic; astronomy; music). After great cultural upheavals, these evolved into our academic disciplines in the 19th century: the humanities with their moral, cultural, and aesthetic concerns; the social sciences; and the sciences.

This triad is now the staging area for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work that shuttles among them. Each discipline has its individual contributions to make to the critical understanding of wars. Literary studies can tell us about war poems and fictions;  musicology about the noise and music of war7; economics about shifts in the distribution of goods and services during wartime;  Anthropology or History about the cross-cultural dimensions of the warrior ethic; the biological and health sciences about the breaking and healing of bodies and about the relations between war and disease; psychology and psychiatry and about the breaking and healing of minds; psychology and neural science about the brain’s wiring of aggression and fear. Together, politics, philosophy, law, and religion can teach us about ways of controlling wars through treaties, negotiations, conventions, laws, and theories of the just war.  But only when disciplines of the liberal arts begin the genuinely difficult task of putting their methods and insights at the service of each other, and then quarrelling and disagreeing about the terms of their joint labor, do they have a chance of seeing great and complex phenomena—like war—broadly and holistically.

 Interdisciplinarity in the liberal arts has too often meant the collaboration of neighboring disciplines—for example, history, literature, and anthropology, or biology and mathematics. However, I now see emerging alliances  among previously farther-flung neighbors: musicology, psychology, and the neurosciences for studies of music and the brain; economics and neurosciences for Neuroeconomics; history, anthropology, and science for science studies, which include technology; and so importantly for the liberal arts and war, the combining of  literature, psychology and psychoanalysis, history, law, medicine for Trauma Studies. Institutionally, this brings together the liberal arts and the professional schools. But perhaps the most important interdisciplinary questions of all for students of war are about casuality?  Why do wars seem to drive us, and we drive them? Is this the invisible hand of evolution, the invisible hand of the markets, the visible or invisible hands of the gods? Or are the hands our own, clenched into fists, or holding a sword, or tapping on the keyboard of a computer?

Of course, the liberal arts do more than teach a subject, a content-rich curriculum. They are advocates for and demonstrations of ways of thinking.  Interestingly, a group of West Point cadets was at the production of Macbeth that I previously mentioned. Upright, disciplined, they were in the famous grey West Point uniforms with black stripes down their trousers. When asked why they were there, they said they were studying Shakespeare. From its founding in 1818, the United States Military Academy has offered the liberal arts, at first ethics, history, and geography. Of course, the tradition of training the warrior in the liberal arts, the ideal of the soldier/scholar, far predates West Point.  Judged by its website, the Academy now answers the question of how the liberal arts can think as effectively as any college or university.

 To be sure, at least one answer in praise of the liberal arts was instrumental. The History Department assures students that history majors are “more competitive for promotion than the average!”8 However, other answers persuasively describe the competencies of the liberal arts that enable the liberal arts to understand war and all the rest of what our species does. They endorse history through warning that without history a student will be no better than “an individual with amnesia,” a quote from the historian David McCullough. More affirmatively, history majors have “a passion for understanding the human condition”; “an intellectual curiosity that seeks growth in learning how to think critically, not what to think”; a capacity for “higher order thinking” and “interdisciplinarity”; a desire to find the “lasting satisfaction that comes from working hard, learning much in the process, and in the end producing quality work.” The consequence is the ability to “make sense of the inherent complexity of the human condition.”

Possibly, even probably, the work of the liberal arts in understanding war by using these competencies is more urgent than it ever has been. In part, this is because of the heavy pressures of the mid-twentieth century discovery of Holocaust and the invention of atomic war. In part, this is because globalization has increased the sheer quantity of information about wars—their varying nature, their causes, their processes, their consequences—that we must access. Adding to the burden of learning are our new tools of communication that quickly spread news and messages about war far and wide—sometimes openly, sometimes secretly and in code; sometimes from combatants, sometimes from observers. These tools, of course, can also serve as instruments of surveillance.  In part, our work is so urgent because the languages that war-makers use for their work, their jargon if you will, has become so opaque, at once technical and euphemistic. It calls out for textual analysis. In even greater part, this is because our weapons have become so sophisticated and destructive, be they on land, at sea, in the air, or in space. I look to the scientists in the liberal arts to decipher and describe this development.   And in even greater part, I believe we are entering a very risky period , a period of even greater unevenness and scarcity in the distribution of regional and global resources, of acute competition for global leadership, of the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons,  and of collision among strong faiths. The temptation to use force to for a variety of motives leers out and can compel us. 

Fortunately it is possible, even probable, that the practitioners of the liberal arts are more prepared than they ever have been to explore and describe and explain war. Our competencies are sharper and more agile in execution.  For we, too, have the new tools of research and communications.  Not only can we set up electronic communities of inquiry. We can widely distribute ideas and information, including sonic resonances and visual images. As others have said, the ubiquity of images is double-edged. It can threaten to turn war into spectator sports or games without the nasty physical interactivity of actual combat, but it can also document the sordid, the repellant, and the injurious, and force our recognition of them.

 Moreover, the liberal arts are now far more diverse in their participants and their areas of inquiry. Both people and scholarship were harshly tested during the post-Vietnam “culture wars,” a kulturkampf that roared on in the United States and elsewhere. The expansion of the liberal arts was accused, hotly and not always wrongly, of being divisive, intellectually shoddy, politically motivated and politically correct,  unpatriotic, virulently at odds with the achievements of America and of the West, and unthinkingly, unconscionably anti-war.9   Although such attacks have diminished, they continue to rumble and flare. A waggish friend who works for Fox News recently sent me a recent salvo, A Field Guide to Left-Wing Wackos, featured eighteen different species of wackos such as self-hating vets, Proud Marys (gays), and Peace Moms, “a well-organized, well-caffeinated member of the suburban leisure class who has an overwhelming need to ‘make a difference.’”10

When all is said and screamed, because of such fields as African-American Studies, Gender Studies, the new social history, gay and lesbian and queer studies, and post-colonial studies, we know far more about who fought where and for whom and how and why; far more about soldiers and their animals and machines; far more about the war experiences of the ordinary, marginal, and unlettered; and, related to them, far more about the lives of civilians at war. The liberal arts may be gaining a deeper appreciation of the histories, testimonies, acts of witnessing, diaries, and autobiographies of non-combatants. Thus, we can now read Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen (1945), not as the minor work of an avant-garde modern writer, but for what it is, a brilliant ethnography of civilians in twentieth-century war, told as an account of Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, two aging Jewish American lesbians who manage to survive in Occupied France long enough to greet the American liberators.

 Our new technologies are increasing the number and availability of the personal narratives of non-combatants as well as combatants. Among the most revealing documents from the Occupation and wars in Iraq is Baghdad Burning, the now-published blog of “Riverbend,” the pseudonym for an educated Iraqi woman of twenty-four.11 The introductory materials framing the book are polemical, but she is not. Indeed, she is often wickedly satirical and witty, the humor that harsh circumstances can provoke, that defuses self-pity, and that asserts one’s own will and subjectivity.  She appreciates having readers, and likes questions and “differing opinions,” but she is in the midst of a hellishly hot city with little or no electricity, shattered glass and buildings, abductions and so much death that the process of mourning has become “automatic” (286). She is fearful of both the Occupation Forces and the Islamic fundamentalists. She has the right to reject Fox News criticism.  As she observes tartly, “. . . tanks and guns can break my bones, but emails can be deleted” (10).

 As the year of blogging (2003-4) passes, we watch her feelings about the American military presence shift. An initial pity and grief for Americans because of 9/11 evaporates. So does an initial sympathy for the American troops—in their uniforms, with their equipment---in the Baghdad heat. Burning her tenderness away are the photographs of Abu Ghraib, globally circulated electronically from a local prison. At last, repossessing the grievances of contemporary war, she writes with anger and weariness, “We have 9/ll’s on a monthly basis” (286).

Yet, even those of us in the liberal arts who have escaped the worst traumas of war can become uneasy and discomforted as we recover and unravel our experiences of war. They can involve memories of family, or they can involve that familiar Hegelian master/slave dialectic and its double discovery: first, how much we have constructed our identity through the construction of the Other, here as Mortal Enemy, and next, unappetizingly, how much the Other as Mortal Enemy has done the same to us.12

 I was a very young child in the Pacific Northwest during World War II. Every male member of my family of the appropriate age, including my father, was in the military. An aunt was with the Red Cross in the Pacific theater.  Little Catharine was an ardent patriot.  She worked in her mother’s Victory Garden, had her own war bonds, collected tin, memorized military ranks, followed battles, and could sing the anthems of every branch of the Armed Forces. On rainy and sunny days alike, she sat in a foxhole she had dug on a cliff overlooking Bellingham Bay, her wooden rifle on the lip of the hole, guarding against the Japanese who might swarm ashore and decapitate virtuous Americans. Years later, professorial Catharine, now an ardent advocate of pluralism and  multi-culturalism, was team-teaching Law and Literature with a section about the law of war. On our syllabus was One Man’s Justice  by Akira Yoshimura, a novel first published in 1978.13 I was shocked, and shocked to find myself shocked, by the narrative of a young Japanese air defense officer who, angry and traumatized by saturation bombing, participates in the beheading of a downed American pilot. After the Emperor’s surrender, which appalls him, he flees but is arrested. He is then imprisoned, tried, and sentenced. What I would have called a war crimes trial is to him the overwhelming control of the machinery of the victor’s justice. My virtue was the character’s vice.

One of the gifts of the liberal arts as it studies and teaches war is the potential of  such self-understanding. The sites of instruction are manifold. I have been told about a workshop in war poetry in South Philadelphia, its syllabus the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, for adolescents. The students are helped to unfold their relations with their brothers and sisters who have been in the Army. I have also read of a free form modern dance production of Macbeth  in Belgrade when the war in the Balkans was formally over but it was keeping its hold on Serbian politics. The production was a parable of Serbia, Macbeth representing Slobodan Milosevic, Lady Macbeth  Mira Milosevic. The first part was erotic and engrossing, showing the thrill for Serbians of the Milosevic promises of “power and glory and territory,” then and implicating them in what followed. At the end, this localized but radical interpretation of Macbeth offered recognition and catharsis. 14

Yet, as the liberal arts faculty at West Point knows, self-recognition, be it by an individual or a group, is impossible without an awareness of history. The promise of interdisciplinary effort is the promise of a total history.  Mourning the losses of war is one way of shaping its history. As James Tatum writes in his eloquent study of war memorialization, “The Iliad speaks to the way we think about war, because the one impulse that has proved as enduring as human beings’ urge to make wars is their need to make sense of them. The first step in making sense of any such loss is to mourn the dead.”15 But the liberal arts must move beyond mourning. The studies of war that we provide can express emotions—be they celebratory, angry, mournful, ironic, amazed. The study of war also deals with the entire gamut of human emotions and our mechanisms for dealing with them. However, the liberal arts must thoughtfully subdue these double swarms of feeling in order to cultivate those competencies that I noted before: critical thinking, higher order thinking, making sense of the complexities of the human condition. Doing so, in the contests over our collective memories, the liberal arts may get themselves in a whole lot of trouble. Not doing so, the liberal arts may help get the present in even more trouble.

In a fierce essay, Tony Judt, one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation, lacerates an American construction of history that, I suggest, the liberal arts must oppose. We are turning the past, he writes, into a museum, “a moral memory palace.” The mourning of war’s victims does not affect the present. On the contrary, it is a form of dues we pay in order to join a club of amnesiacs.16 For a variety of reasons, including the fact that no twentieth century war was fought on U.S. soil, Americans have for a century and more been free from the worst of war and thus have forgotten its meaning. Among the self-destructive consequences are a glorification of the military, a lack of understanding of the complexities and history of terrorist groups, a complacency about torture, and the knowledge that any real study of the twentieth century proves, “. . . war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike” (20). Reading these words, the pictures of a frantic Macbeth and a distraught Lady Macbeth, after they have won the throne and became King and Queen, rose up unbidden before me.

In the critical understanding of our injurious contests, the liberal arts should trace the radical competition between wars and the opposition to them. Real and representative warriors, in their psychomachia, alternate between their violence and their suspicion of it. So Macbeth, desiring and resisting the murder of his cousin/king, speaks of Duncan’s virtues. If Macbeth kills Duncan, “Pity, like a naked new-born babe/Striding the blast or heaven’s Cherubins, hors’d/Upon the sightless couriers of the air/Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye/That tears shall drown the wind.” (I,vi,21-25). Macbeth knows that pity for the victim can eventually overcome the terror the victimizer manufactures, and that tears can become the rushing waters of defiance.17
This radical competition will show a historic paradox: both sides of the contests between injurious contests and their opposition can use the language of war. Two of the most famous modern American statements of anti-war thought and feeling do so. In contrast, many feminist oppositional statements, especially the more Utopian such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), ache to imagine a benign, non-contestable domain. William James’ “The Moral Equivalent of War”, finished seven months before his death in 1910, begins rousingly, “The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”18 The essay, although brilliant and ambitious, is self-divided. Writing in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, suspicious of the rough riding of his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, James hates war and knows the horrors of the violent pursuit of “loot and glory.” Echoing Macbeth, he writes that “History is a bath of blood.” (1281) He also gets the strategy of standing a state on a permanent war footing under the rhetorical guise of preparing for war only in order to maintain the peace.  However, he understands and even responds to the attractions and virtues of war. For this “gory nurse” trains societies to cohesiveness and men to hardiness, daring, courage, risk-taking, and the obedience that is a check against unbridled individualism. War is romantic.  Straining to reconcile his pacifism and his admiration of the “higher aspects of the militaristic sentiment” (p. 1284), James offers up but thin sketches of morally and socially acceptable outlets for masculine energies and needs to live in extremis—a stable system of civic honours, an army “enlisted against Nature, (p. 1291), a  rigorous period of mining, fishing, building roads. 

Over a half-century later, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” displays a far more tempered muscularity than James in his struggle to break American apartheid, a system of social and racial injustice. Although King knows that freedom must be “demanded” by the oppressed, his tone is deliberately reasonable, judicious, loving. He wants to occupy a third way between “complacency” and a “bitterness and hatred” that “comes perilously close to advocating violence.”   Yet he is preparing for a “nonviolent campaign,” the goal of which is freedom. Like all good campaigns, it must be undertaken systematically and strategically. Facts must be collected to see if indeed “injustices are alive.” If they are, negotiations must be entered into. Then “self-purification,” a traditional preparation for warriors and questers, must be accomplished before “direct action” can be launched.19 “Letter” displays a warrior seeking to retain the warrior’s strengths but simultaneously to strip the warrior of the weapons of violence.

In their critical understanding of the complexities of wars—their causes, operations, and consequences—can the liberal arts prevent war? Control it? Heal it? For this, the liberal arts are not sufficient. They may educate the powerful and the powerless, but the liberal arts cannot dictate actions. Moreover, as Tony Judt implies, the best teaching about the horrors of war is experiencing the horrors of war—actually smelling the reeking wounds. However, I am a skeptical Utopian, and if skeptical, I retain the hope of Utopians. I believe that the insufficient is not synonomous with the unnecessary.  Traditionally, the liberal arts offer consolation against the ravages of war. They also offer alternatives to a brutal present. Students in Belgrade in 1997, protesting their corrupt and violent regime, set up demonstrations that included a Police University. On the street they taught Plato, the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Serbian history and literature, the poetry of Walt Whitman. One of their professors found it a “miracle” that the students could have escaped the saturation propaganda campaigns of Milosevic, but the liberal arts that they learned in academic classrooms and now taught on the pavements were the raw materials of the miracle.20

In addition, I suggest, the liberal arts can serve as an inoculation against propaganda for war at their weakest and against war itself at their most potent. A virologist colleague told me that inoculation uses an attenuated or crippled virus vaccine to protect a body against a virulent disease. The vaccine induces a protective immune response in the host and thus prevents a future infection.21 The virulent disease is war. The attenuated virus vaccine is our complex understanding of wars. Our inoculations may produce cognitive revulsion, the response that war is stupid and stupidly dangerous to the headstrong warrior. They may produce moral revulsion, the response that war is wrong and shameful. Or, our inoculations may stimulate a process of identification that inculcates empathy with the victims of war.  

When should we in liberal arts be trusted to inoculate the individual and collective bodies? Surely when we serve as witnesses to the powers of the liberal arts that do exist, teach with care and passion, and believe that life and death may be at some point be at stake in what we do. Surely, too, we can be trusted when the practitioners of the liberal arts exhibit certain habits of mind. This is not a matter of our methods, which vary. Some are called qualitative, some quantitative. Some are text-bound, some lab-bound. A philosopher thinks through a problem in logic; a musicologist analyzes a Bach fugue or a Beethoven symphony or a jazz improvisation; an economist or political scientist extends game theory.

However, we can share three habits of mind.  One is the extent and depth of our awareness of the materials relevant to our inquiries. In the humanities, these would be archives, texts, historical developments, languages, works of art and architecture, cultural institutions, and conflicts. I am far more apt to trust a scholar of  Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic wars in Egypt if he or she knows Arabic, English, and French, or, at the very least, Arabic. A second is excellence of sensibility, the ability to be subtle and original, and to create both a spacious argument or narrative and yet do finely-textured analyses. A third habit of mind is the capacity for interpretations, for seeing many meanings of an event or object.

We in the liberal arts can exercise these habits of mind as we connect the liberal arts to war, to the human capacity for bathing in reeking wounds and for ripping and tearing apart the fabric of existence. As we do so, may we be aggressively and lovingly capable of pity, of tears. In our sorrow, we must also remember that the root of “liberal” is “liber,” the Latin for free. We are not always free to choose what happens in our days and nights. Lady Macduff did not choose to be murdered with her children by Macbeth’s agents. But when we are free, we can choose to repudiate the way of Macbeth. 

Unsigned, PMLA, 122: 3 (May 2007): 630.

  Elaine Scarry, “The Structure of War, “ The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 60-157.

This is a point James Tatum explores in his eloquent The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 215.

The production was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March, 2008, and starred Patrick Stewart, both an accomplished classical actor and a popular star because of  his role in Star Trek.

Bernard Knox, "Virgil's Afterlife,” “Introduction” to Virgil, The Aeneid, trans Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, pp. 39-41.

An April 2008 Google search under the rubric of  “Liberal arts and war” illustrates my point. One finds institutions, including institutions of higher education, among them the Air Force Academy, teaching the subject of war. Some call for a revival of traditional approaches, such as military history; others call for the support of newer approaches, such as the study of gender and war. The study of artists and war is common; Goya is popular. There is also a reference to the proceedings of a 1942 conference about what the liberal arts can contribute to the war program.

My colleague in musicology Suzanne Cusick is doing important work about the use of sound and music in torture.

Arguably, anti-war attitudes were divided. Some pacifists were consistently anti-war, but others praised colonial wars of liberation or indigenous wars of resistance as the survival mechanisms of the powerless while condemning the other side as representatives of  the bellicosity and violence of the powerful.

A Field Guide to Left-Wing Wackos . Kfir Alfia and Alan Lipton, self-described founders of ProtestWarrior. New York: Penguin Group, Sentinel, 2007, p. 127.

“Riverbend,” Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. “Foreword” by Ahdaf Soueif, “Introduction” by James Ridgeway. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2005, pp. 286.

Clint Eastwood’s two 2006 films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima try, I believe, to cut into this dialectic.

The Japanese title is Toi Hi No Senso. I read the English translation by Mark Ealey. San Diego New York London: Harcourt, Harvest Book, 2001.

Lawrence Weschler, “Aristotle in Belgrade,” Vermeer in Bosnia: A Reader New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 75-76. Weschler’s superb reporting about the Balkans and the aftermath of war again and again show the liberal arts in action in wretched, wrenching circumstances.

Tatum, p. xvi.

The phrase is mine, not Judt’s. The essay is “What Have We Learned, If Anything?”, New York Review of Books LX: 7 (May 1, 2008): 16-20.

Denis Donoghue, “The Practice of Reading,” What’s Happened to the Humanities?, ed. Alvin Kernan. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 124-25. Donoghue is skeptical of current ways of reading---feminist, psychoanalytic, new historicism---.but  offers a survey of post-WWII interpretations of MacBeth that includes them.

Writings 1902-1910, notes and selections by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Library of America, 1987, p. 1281. The essay revises a 1906 speech at Stanford.

The text I am using is from The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, ed. Diane Ravitch. New York: HarperCollins, 1990, pp. 325-329.

Weschler, p. 49.

E-mail exchange with Professor Carol Shoshkes Reiss, April 2, 2008.