combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

"War is sacred; it is instilled by God; it upholds in men all the great and noble sentiments — honor, self-sacrifice, virtue and courage. It is War alone that saves men from falling into the grossest materialism."
by Helmuth Johannes von Moltke

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
by Ambrose Bierce; Penguin Books [$12.95] (©1892, 2000)

This collection of stories is a rare forgotten gem of American literature. The same can be said of its author, a dark, cranky, brilliant cynic and iconoclast, mentor to the young H.L. Mencken and role model for Westbrook Pegler, two titans of twentieth century journalism. Unfortunately for American readers, Bierce's fiction has been unjustifiably neglected by the Academy – perhaps because the short story as an art form is moribund in this postmodern age – and he is now remembered chiefly as a prolific newspaper writer and author of some witty aphorisms. He was, also, however, a magnificent short story writer, a true master of the genre and every inch the equal of such virtuosos as Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner.

It is a curious and fascinating fact that a disproportionate number of American short story writers belong to what might be termed the toxic school of fiction. Included are contaminated geniuses like Edgar Allan Poe, a pedophile and drug-addict; Nathaniel Hawthorne, a sex-obsessed Puritan; Mark Twain, a churl and a misanthrope; Jack London, a racist savage; and Ernest Hemingway, a literary necrophiliac. Ambrose Bierce, to be sure, is comfortably at home among this group, both for his tremendous talent and his morbid fascination with cruelty, suffering, and death.

Bierce is certainly a diseased writer. What other type of mind would devote years of effort to composing a bilious, gall-and-wormwood work like The Devil's Dictionary, droll and bitingly brilliant though it undoubtedly is? If the essence of humor lies in deconstructing current mores, then Bierce eclipses most humorists by debunking every convention known to Western man. The Dictionary is a volcanic eruption of burning ridicule.

Having fought bravely in the Civil War's western theater of operations – he saw action at the great battles of Shiloh, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta – for the entire four years as an officer and cartographer with the 9th Indiana Infantry – the only writer of stature courageous enough to have done so – Bierce, who suffered a serious head wound in the war's final months, migrated to England in 1872 and wrote vitriolic articles, his wicked wit earning him the sobriquet Bitter Bierce. Returning home in 1876, he found his niche and went to work for William Randolph Hearst newspapers in California and became a columnist in the San Francisco Examiner.

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians presents Bierce at his very best: imaginative, dynamic, grim, sardonic, sadistic, and as a technical innovator. He was a born storyteller, and these riveting tales, full of diabolical twists and turns, are concerned chiefly with how and why men die. Sometimes they die courageously, sometimes uselessly, sometimes just to prove a point; often they die horrifically, agonizingly. Bierce's theme is that although war is hell, men are still eager to fight because fighting satisfies a deep and powerful need. Bierce saw firsthand how human beings sacrificed and willingly laid down their lives for a transcendent cause, whether that cause was called The Union or Southern Independence or Emancipation. The tragedy of the war for him was that both sides were right. And both were wrong, albeit for different reasons.

The most well-known piece in this collection, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, while masterful and structurally ground-breaking, is not the best; Chickamauga is. The scene of a fierce battle in northwest Georgia in which 35,000 men died, the battle is never once mentioned except as the title. The piece could easily have been called Vicksburg or Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania or Fredericksburg. Bierce impressively depicts the destructiveness of the encounter, not with combat scenes, but solely by describing the aftermath. A six-year old boy, playing soldier and lost in the woods outside a farmhouse, happens upon a ghastly company of maimed men crawling weakly through the fog-shrouded forest. We are not told if they are Federal or Confederate, and it does not matter. With their flesh in tatters, their bloody, grotesque faces shot half away, they delight the child by reminding him of painted clowns he has seen in a circus. Pretending to be their general, he leaps upon their backs to ride them as horses and urges them forward with blows from his wooden sword. Eventually he comes across a smoking wreck of burning buildings and is shocked to discover his own home. He spots a female form on the ground, his mother. The story concludes with a grisly flourish:

"Conspicuous in the light of the conflagration lay the dead body of a woman — the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson. The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries – something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey – a startling, soulless, an unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute."

Typically, it is not enough for Bierce that the boy should discover his ruined home and dead mother. Anxious to give the screw another turn, he describes her mutilation in lurid detail, forehead gone and frothy brain oozing out. And to pump up the pathos, Bierce turns the child into a defective, a device totally superfluous to the plot and necessary only if one finds pleasure in imperfection and misfortune.

In another potent story, The Coup De Grace, the war's brutality is shown as being all the more reprehensible when it is unintentional. Behind the lines, wounded men are dying painfully and in droves because doctors are overwhelmed and medicines are in short supply. The title refers to mercy-killing, what Bierce labels a rite of compassion. But even his compassion is tinged with cruelty. With exquisite irony he has a soldier shoot a wounded horse, yet when the soldier presses the revolver to the temple of his best friend who is writhing in agony with a gaping belly-wound, the hammer merely clicks; the cylinder is empty. The soldier has spent his last round on the horse. He manages finally to dispatch his friend, and in barbarous fashion — hacking him to death with a sword-thrust through the chest. Such situations recur constantly throughout these tales.

Another story, Killed at Resaca, deals with a lieutenant who is thought by his comrades to excessively vaunt his courage by constantly exposing himself to enemy fire. After he is killed, the story's narrator finds a love letter indicating that the dead man may have been responsible for one hundred deaths due to his cowardice. Only then does it become apparent that the lieutenant was not swaggering but seeking expiation of guilt through a suicidal act.

This is the kind of profound insight of which Bierce was capable. With his uniquely cynical illustrations of man's desire for martial glory – beautifully symbolized by the six- year old boy – set beside the gruesome reality of the Civil War, he is revealed as a shrewd psychologist as well as an artist of the first rank.

In appraising Bierce, it is worth recalling the dictum of his contemporary, Henry James: we must not quibble with an author's choice of subject; what he makes of it is our only legitimate concern. What Bierce understandably made of the war and incorporated into all his work thereafter was the idea of humanity's wickedness and savagery. It is a true enough vision as far as it goes, but is only half the picture, because it never takes account of the opposite side of human nature. To put a Freudian slant on it, Bierce sees all Id and no Superego.

Despite his wizardry with words – his prose at times soars to poetical heights – Bierce still has limitations. He can depict friendship but not tenderness, loyalty but not devotion, sacrifice but not love, because he is incapable of any real warmth or affection. The impetus behind his work is a purely negative energy. Yet his jaundiced outlook is precisely what gives his writing its vitality and force.

We do not know the origin of Bierce's pessimism. Perhaps it was caused by the horrors of the war, or perhaps it was something innate that the war exacerbated. In any event, that morbid strain in his nature apparently found its logical conclusion in his end. Death came for him just as it did for the lieutenant in Killed at Resaca — by personal invitation. Here is what he wrote in his last letter in 1914, at age 71, from Mexico, where he had gone to find Pancho Villa and observe the Revolution:

"If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!"

Bierce vanished south of the border and was never seen or heard from again. It was a perfect ending for him, exactly as he himself would have written it. Come to think of it, he did.

contributed by Christopher S. Baldwin

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones