Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Booknotes: The Calculus of Violence

New Arrival:
The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Harvard UP, 2018).

The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War represents yet another call to scrap the traditional interpretation of the Civil War's violence and destruction as a linear progression from conciliation/limited war to hard/total war. Instead, author Aaron Sheehan-Dean wades into the war's endless cascade of contradictions and recognizes that the worst aspects of the conflict were present from the start but also that restraint was evident at every stage.

The book "demonstrates that this notoriously bloody war could have been much worse. Military forces on both sides sought to contain casualties inflicted on soldiers and civilians. In Congress, in church pews, and in letters home, Americans debated the conditions under which lethal violence was legitimate, and their arguments differentiated carefully among victims―women and men, black and white, enslaved and free. Sometimes, as Sheehan-Dean shows, these well-meaning restraints led to more carnage by implicitly justifying the killing of people who were not protected by the laws of war. As the Civil War raged on, the Union’s confrontations with guerrillas and the Confederacy’s confrontations with black soldiers forced a new reckoning with traditional categories of lawful combatants and raised legal disputes that still hang over military operations around the world today."

"In examining the agonizing debates," both domestic and international, "about the meaning of a just war in the Civil War era, Sheehan-Dean discards conventional abstractions―total, soft, limited―as too tidy to contain what actually happened on the ground."

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