A View To A Kill

Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967), The People, Yes (1936)

Okay, so I’ve had this bee in my bonnet since finishing Bernard Cornwell‘s Rebel a few weeks ago:

What is it with people going out to watch battles being waged, as though it’s a Cirque de Soleil performance or something?

In Rebel, a bunch of politicians from the North go to watch their Yankees beat the Rebels (yeah, it’s a Civil War book) and bring their wives. The Southern ladies also set up a spot from which to watch the fighting.

And in some Regencies, and in Cornwell’s Sharpe series, people go watch the battle. I just don’t get it. Like, not get it so much that it’s really bugging me.

Why would anyone want to go watch people die? Why treat it as an exhibition? What happens if your side loses and the victors decide they want some of your lovely fried chicken? Or if you distract someone fighting so they lose an eye or something worse?

I know it’s a small thing, but I just cannot fathom how this even came to be. Not that there weren’t observers at these types of battles; journalists often came to write up the proceedings for their papers. But dilettante viewers?!?

But because I am a writer, I wonder how the fact of observing battle could be turned into a fun or provocative book: What if a woman watched and learned how to fight? Then joined up herself, in drag? What if someone saw one soldier kill his commander in the heat of the battle–but no-one else saw? What if the observers saw a way, because of their position, for their side to win if they had some crucial information?

What would you never want to see in person? What have you always wanted to see for real? How could you imagine a Regency lady would react to seeing this carnage? What other scenarios for fiction could you imagine?

Thanks, and I am really glad to get this off my chest,


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13 years ago

If you take out the Roman Circus aspect, perhaps the onlookers were in search of news? Should they pack their belongings and flee? They couldn’t stay home and read about it on the Net.

But that brings up an interesting dichotomy, we present day people are simultaneously exposed to news of wars around the globe, yet we are removed from the basic violence of life,(unless you’re a gang member), such as cutting the head off of tonight’s dinner.

For my part, I don’t look at car crashes and I wouldn’t attend a battle viewing because of the chance of a stray cannon ball.

Although a stray cannon ball into a picnic-at-Box Hill-type setting might be a very useful addition to a book. Especially a dark satire. 🙂

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

Books are full of Dickensian characters, like Madame DeFarge, who took knitting to attend guillotine spectacles. Children were taken to hangings in medieval Europe and 19th century America. That crowd that watched as William Wallace’s body was quartered. The macabre fascinates. In fact, the more gruesome it is, the more fascination of the voyeursm.

Do I understand it, condone it, or do it? No, a thousand times no.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Is it such a jump from watching hangings, quarterings, witch-burnings, battles, etc, to watching slasher movies where we see teenagers (usually), women (usually)being killed in all sorts of gorey, horrible, bloody ways. Used to be on TV, the cowboy got shot and fell on the ground. Now we see the bullet in slow motion tear into his brain and explode his head, pieces of which spatter on nearby people.
Not much progress….

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“Now we see the bullet in slow motion tear into his brain and explode his head, pieces of which spatter on nearby people.”

I should not have put a chocolate in my mouth just before reading that, ugh! 🙂 Sadly, it’s true that human nature doesn’t change much. In Elizabethan times it was considered big fun to watch gory executions–these days people flock to disgusting “torture porn” movies like “Saw.” I guess we can say it’s different because the movies aren’t “real”, yet I can’t see how they fail to make people callus to suffering. Perhaps going to watch a battle didn’t feel “real” to the spectators, either, until a cannon ball lands in their carriage!!

13 years ago

I found this phenomenon when I was writing Transgressions, which is based around the English Civil War–when the first battle (Edgehill) took place quite a lot of sightseers turned up, because such a thing hadn’t been seen on English soil for many many years. I could hardly believe it, but was very pleased that it happened because it was the ideal trick to describe the battle from my protagonists’ point of view.

Nowadays of course we do it all from our armchairs.

13 years ago

I totally agree. I can’t watch any sort of torture, slasher or horror film. Sorry, just can’t. I believe the hundreds, no thousands, of times our children see such cruel things on TV and in the movies, slowly desensitizes them….

Thanks for the frank and interesting post!


Megan Frampton
13 years ago

You guys all make some thought-provoking points–it’s common for any given society to deplore the depths to which we’ve sunk, but is this reality TV society any worse than the people who attended hangings or guillotine beheadings? So to turn Diane’s point back around, isn’t the current slasher aesthetic similar to what Amanda and Keira mention?

Yeah, I wouldn’t watch live death, so to speak, either in the Regency or now. Some people would. There’s the difference. I do like my violence realistic in movies, because I think it brings the harsh reality to the viewer, and doesn’t let us take it lightly.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Megan, I more agree with Caroline. I believe seeing all the make-believe violence desensitizes us to the real thing. Don’t get me started on video games.

For the American Civil War, though, the spectators of the Battle of Mannasas, I believe, romanticized the war, treating it much as we would a football game, eager to see the good Yankees triumph over the evil Rebs. I believe they were shocked to see the reality of men killing each other.

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

I think you are right, O Divine One. I have a feeling the ladies and gentlemen who attended Civil War battles in the hope of seeing a “jolly good show” or the triumph of good over evil were no doubt shocked and traumatized.

Today’s society is so saturated in visual versions of violence that it has become completely immune to the suffering of others.

We tried to get anti dog fighting legislation passed in this state for a long time. It wasn’t until a group made secret tapes of fights and showed them to the legislators that we got anything done. I have been on the ground minutes after a dog fighting bust and it is a horrific crime. The truly outrageous thing is that people bring their children to these events.

I am not sure if the news coverage of the carnage helps people to see the reality of it or desensitizes them to it.

War is not a spectator sport. I would never want to see it in person.

Megan Frampton
13 years ago

Diane, I do definitely see your point, and I know that my particular viewpoint is a cynical one, not necessarily the one I would have if the world were different. I deplore glorified violence, as in that in video games (and I have a nine year-old!), but find it a different thing when the violence is graphic–my own viewpoint, and one that I can argue against as well.

Pam Rosenthal
13 years ago

I have to disagree about real/simulated violence. I never get much agreement here, but gosh, when I watch a movie where people die (no matter how violently) I KNOW it’s only a movie. I may be grossed out, but it’s still on some level fantasy.

But just a few minutes ago, I raised my head from my laptop to see some cable tv documentary about US prisons, and they showed how electric chairs and lethal injections really work, and I found myself shuddering, disturbed, slightly nauseous.

So for me, simulated death and violence just doesn’t work the same way as contemplating the real thing. And so, personally, I’ve never been able to buy the desensitization argument.

Cara King
13 years ago

I wonder if spectators were sometimes watching the battles from far enough away that they could follow the progress of the battle, but not see much of the gore (beyond men falling down)? That might make it seem more palatable to some…

As to gore, I think I have complicated views. I agree with Megan on the gore thing — I think it’s better for viewers to see that gunshots aren’t the clean simple things they were shown to be in old Westerns, but weapons that cause carnage and pain as well as death. (I think kids who play with guns and then are shocked they lead to death perhaps saw too many clean action movies or old Westerns…)

Then again, it seems to me that showing lots of guts and gore, particularly to little kids, must desensitize them. (And a five-year-old recounting a gory bit of CSI with glee not only makes me cringe, but seems somehow morally wrong to me.)


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I have to disagree about real/simulated violence. I never get much agreement here, but gosh, when I watch a movie where people die (no matter how violently) I KNOW it’s only a movie. I may be grossed out, but it’s still on some level fantasy.

Pam, the thing is, not everyone’s brain works the way yours does. You may not be affected by simulated violence, but not everyone has your intellectual resources. You can fantasize and keep the fantasy separate from the reality, but not everyone is able to do this.

Here’s an article citing research on the effect of TV violence on children.

There’s been tons of research on this subject.

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

I wouldn’t want to watch sausages being made.

Rob W.
13 years ago

Sorry to be so late to this conversation.

In the American Civil War, I think there was only one battle where there were high numbers of spectators. A lot of Washingtonians came to First Bull Run with a picnic lunch expecting a rout and then wish their victorious army Godspeed to Richmond for the surrender ceremony. They were sorely disappointed, and then panicked when the Union army, bloody and retreating back to Washington, became intangled with the spectators.

That seemed to take the fun out of the war.

13 years ago

I’ve read similar accounts about First Bull Run, Rob…I think war sounds a lot more fun when you don’t really know what it’s like, and expect your side to win. One of the things that turned public opinion against the Vietnam War was the graphic imagery showing up on everyone’s TV screen every night.

In earlier eras, though, the sight of death (if not necessarily violent death) was probably much more common. Many fewer people die nowadays of accident or disease, and for the most part we keep death screened away as much as possible.

And while we may have a lot of violent entertainment nowadays, at least we don’t take our kids and a picnic lunch to watch public hangings.


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