Ambrose Bierce on the Meaning of War

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

J. H. E. Partington: Ambrose Bierce (painting).

Ambrose Bierce—Indiana youth, Civil War soldier, and newspaper writer—did not much like people. His infantry years were perhaps the highlight of his life, even though he killed men in battle and was, himself, shot in the head.

Bierce took a rather bitter view of human affairs. His two sons preceded him in death, one committing suicide and another dying from complications of alcoholism. He divorced his wife, suffered from asthma, and finally disappeared at age 71, supposedly into the chaos of the Mexican revolution, where maybe he joined up with Pancho Villa and perhaps wrote to a friend that he expected to be “stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags,” which “beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”

Did I mention Bierce was agnostic? He’s remembered mostly for his satirical treatment of political cant in The Devil’s Dictionary (originally published in 1906 under the title of The Cynic’s Word Book). His war story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is also famous.

War was Bierce’s big theme. His style was acerbic. He rivaled Mark Twain’s satirical wit. The Devil’s Dictionary is addressed, in the author’s preface, to “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.” Its opening image for the letter A (in the Folio Society’s 2003 edition) is an American eagle grasping a rifle in its right talon and a Christian cross in its left talon.

If compulsion is “the eloquence of power,” grapeshot is “an argument which the future is preparing in answer to the demands of American socialism,” and gunpowder is “an agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted.”

Grapeshot and gunpowder are used in defense of freedom and liberty. Bierce defines freedom as an “exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint’s infinite multitude of methods.” Not much is gained for all the lives lost. Freedom is “a political condition that every nation supposes itself to enjoy in virtual monopoly,” even though “naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of [freedom or liberty].”

Freedom, it seems, is something ethereal to spread by force of arms. An evangelist, Bierce explains, is “a bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.” To be “Un-American” is to be “wicked, intolerable, heathenish.” The Koran, as a case in point, is “a book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.”

War engages an enemy accused of wrongdoing. To accuse, Bierce explains, is “to affirm another’s guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.” We fight our wars with the aid of allies. An alliance is a phenomenon of “international politics” that amounts to “the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.”

History justifies our wars and keeps us from repeating the mistake of appeasement. As such, history is “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.” That brings us to the definition of an idiot, namely “a member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.”

At the risk of immodesty, we say America is an exceptional nation. To be immodest amounts to “having a strong sense of one’s own merit, coupled with a feeble conception of worth in others.” America’s enemies are evildoers. Their impiety is manifested as an “irreverence toward my deity,” for which they must be punished, while my “impunity” is secured by my “wealth.”

What is man if not a warrior? In Bierce’s book, man is an animal whose “chief occupation is extermination.” He is a martyr to himself, “one who moves along the line of least reluctance to a desired death.” He is obsessed with war, “vexed by an evil spirit.” The patriot is “the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.” Peace is merely an interruption, “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.” Reconciliation is nothing but “a suspension of hostilities . . . an armed truce.” The projectile is “the final arbiter in international disputes.”

Bierce looked into the mirror and glimpsed the dark shadow habitually projected outwardly to make confirmed enemies of one another. His devilish dictionary reveals the otherwise naturalized demonology of U.S. war culture.



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