One reason that Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels (New York: David McKay, 1974) is among the best fiction of the past forty years is that it was written to reclaim and reconceive the American war novel. Within a few years of the Second World War, John Horne Burns’s Gallery, Vance Bourjaily’s End of My Life, Irwin Shaw’s Young Lions, and Mailer’s Naked and the Dead had established an orthodoxy. The war novel was to narrate combat and army life at the platoon level, and at that level, as a reviewer said about a reprint of The Gallery, the grunts were “disillusioned with what they had to go through for their country.” Novels of the Vietnam war like Going After Cacciato (in which a platoon is sent after a deserter) or Dog Soldiers (which suggests by its title that an ex-G.I. is merely extending his tour by running heroin) diddled with the formula, but did nothing to change it. The battle scenes may be hallucinatory, but the grunts still die as cattle, and what else needs to be said about war?
A veteran of Korea and later a policeman, Shaara approached the battle of Gettysburg with a different set of convictions and a different armature of methods. The Killer Angels narrates the battle from multiple perspectives on both sides, but except for the opening chapter, which relates what is observed by a southern spy, the centers of consciousness are all officers—Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Lewis Armistead from the Confederacy; John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. The difference in vantage is like becoming a parent. Rather than viewed from the bottom, where the battlefield is confusion and the war aims obscure or absurd, Gettysburg becomes a conflict of strategies and philosophies—a continuation of policy rather than an uninterrupted anarchy. Nor is the attitude a gruff fatalism as urged on his men by General Savage in Twelve O’Clock High:
Shaara’s officers have a more thoughtful attitude, and when called upon to address their men, they strike a more thoughtful note. Chamberlain has been sent some mutineers, one hundred and twenty men from a regiment that has been disbanded, and he is authorized to shoot any man who refuses to do his duty. Like him, they are from Maine, and he knows he cannot shoot them; if he does he will never be able to go home. He must talk them into fighting, but what can he say? “A man who has been shot at is a new realist,” he reflects, “and what do you say to a realist when the war is a war of ideals?” You teach him the language of idealism:
The idealism was not exactly his. Shaara was the native of a different century. But unlike other American war novelists, he understood that ideals can be just as concrete as the names of villages and the numbers of roads and can give to war a terrible beauty. Here is Longstreet, witnessing the end of the battle: