On Michael Warner's "What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive?"

This was for Dee's class. I put off doing an assignment this semester wherein someone had to read an essay and then do a write up for class. I thought I would learn by watching others, but in the end, I was face to face with Professor Warner. This is what I submitted to the class. I was going to read it all, but the 10:45 spectre grew too close.

Keep in mind that they were spared my hypothetical impersonation of Herman Melville as well.


Warner's essay deals in redemption and undeception: the manner in which a group justifies its actions, however violent they may be. Violence is rationalized through relativism, such that “our” violence is nullified by “their” violence. When violence begets violence, like the battle of Shiloh somehow making up for cessation and attacks on Fort Sumter, everything refers back to the initial act rather than the acts that followed it. To paraphrase something normally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, violence is always illegal in the third person, as in “their violent act.” It is always legal in the first person, or “Operation Enduring Freedom/Justice.” Warner’s argument is that in order to reconcile our acts to ourselves, and often time to others, we must take the acts of others and construct a justification based on that action.

Redemption, I believe, goes hand in hand with guilt and factors leading to a desire to appear more genial than you actually may be. For Melville and other Northern liberal intellectuals of his day, the war became about “a redemptive vision of war in general and of the United States in particular as the redeemer nation” (43). Through concerns that America was splitting over a general conflict between states came the desire towards being the savior of the New World, reestablishing the connection created on the continent a little more than eighty years previous. However, the fact that the war “escalated beyond anyone's imagination and altered the cause for which it began” (44) had become a source of unhappiness for Melville, whose “moral framework had provided both the rallying language for the war” (43). “Shiloh,” then, becomes Melville’s act of redemption towards the end of the war, and especially at the time of publication, 1866.

By treating the foemen of North and South without distinction, Melville eliminates violent agency from war. You don't have to blame yourself, then, because you don't have to blame anyone avoiding the complex social issues that accompany the causes of violence, according to Warner. In the same way, we are not reminded of any acts of violence brought upon American soldiers fighting overseas. We, through media, see no body bags and rarely even see soldiers maimed in battle dealing with issues or returning home. If there are no problems with our soldiers, then there are no problems with theirs or with any civilians who might have been bombed out of their homes.

In discussing deception, violence, and undeception with regard to Melville and the Civil War, Warner avoids discussing it in modern terms, which he briefly mentions in the opening paragraph. “Our” actions in Iraq are justified as “we” were merely responding to the violence that “they” brought to “us,” via the 9/11 attacks or events. In the same vein, if “we” downplay the violence caused by Al Qaeda in Iraq through the media, “we” can also downplay “our” violence there as well. Warner never mentions these examples specifically, but by positioning himself from the beginning as a referent to 9/11 and Robert Pinsky's reading of poems in consolation, ”a natural thing to do, I'm sure,” I believe the conclusion he hopes for us to move towards is related back to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Similar to a point made in class, if Warner were to outright mention American warfare and discuss violence as an on-going aspect of these wars, he would be branded an “other” by the Bush administration and/or much of mainstream media. In some ways, Warner's discussion of Melville and the Civil War is its own act of deception, which “we” (leftists, students, academics, etc.) are supposed to see through. Warner expects us to take his logic in the essay and follow it forward into modern times: if “we” blame Al Qaeda for everything, “we” can avoid talking about global poverty, American foreign policies dating back decades (we put Hussein in power, we helped the Taliban gain power to avoid a Soviet take over) — almost anything, really.

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