Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"Thank God, I have done my duty."

I'm in full sail right now with Adam Nicolson's account of the battle of Trafalgar, Seize the Fire, and until I'm done with that--or have a couple of non-work hours available to write about other books I've read recently that require more complex treatment, I'll give you just this description of Admiral Nelson's approach to the battle, and his command in general.

Nelson wanted a conflict that was indescribable, not in the sense of moral revulsion, but as a plain narrative fact. The pell-mell battle, the anarchy in which the individual fighting energies of individual ships and men were released, could not submit to narrative convention. The fleets become their ships, the ships their men, the men their instinct. Decision-making, moves from admirals to captains, to gun captains, to the powder-monkeys, the surgeons and their assistants buried in the bloody dark of the cockpits. Life—and deat—in Nelsonian battle is atomized, broken into its constituent parts, made to rely not on the large-scale maneuvering of destructive force, but the will to kill and to live. . . . Every ship in all fleets considered that they fought Trafalgar almost entirely on their own.

It's a similar decentralization to what enabled Grant to win in the American Civil War: you find good subordinates, make sure they understand the overall goals, and turn them loose.

Seize the Fire
is a sharp book, and it's getting better towards the end, as Nicolson reveals himself to be very good at illuminating important and interesting details of the battle. It reminds me, yet again, that everything about war is hideous and repugnant, and it leaves me, again, wondering how anyone can actually go through it sane, let alone, as some people seem to, come out wanting more.


  1. Sure they come through wanting more: they haven't come through sane! (Or they drank enough Nelson's blood to pickle their sanity.)

  2. I think you're right, Jer: those who want more just aren't sane. One of the most interesting--and horrifying--bits in the book is the contemporary account of how a scene of carnage witnessed by the Victory's chaplain "haunted him like a shocking dream for years afterwards. He never talked of it."

    And a quote from a Wordsworth poem about meeting a discharged soldier on the road and walking with him:

    "While thus we travelled on I did not fail/To question him of what he had endured/From war and battle and the pestilence./He all the while was in demeanour calm,/Concise in answerL solemn and sublime/He might have seemed, but that in all he said/There was a strange half-absence and a tone/Of weakness and indifference, as of one/Remembering the importance of his theme,/But feeling it no longer."

  3. My wife puts it succintly: "War damages humans." As in, there's no alternative outcome.