Glory Is No Substitute for Victory

The Assault on Fort Wagner

Lester Allyson Knibbs

At some point in this essay, I am going to suddenly start writing about symphonic music. It will make sense, if you pay attention.

When I first saw the movie Glory I burst into tears when the strategy for taking Fort Wagner was announced. I had read a history of the Civil War and I knew that the announced objective of taking Fort Wagner was unnecessary. Sherman’s march through Georgia and north through the Carolinas subsequently rendered Charleston, South Carolina, and the forts guarding its harbor useless to the Confederacy. Moreover, I had read books on military strategy and I knew that a direct assault on a fortified position was foolish. Those men were going to die for nothing.

Or nothing but glory. The movie is appropriately named – in both an unfortunate and a fortunate sense. Unfortunate, in that glory is no substitute for victory. What Huey P. Newton called revolutionary suicide is a concept best abandoned. We should want to win, not prove a point. But fortunate, on the other hand, because the brave failure of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry proved that African American troops were up to the task of fighting and so “the event helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory.”

But why did this need to be proven? Are white people totally devoid of intelligence or memory? An earlier regiment which included black freedmen, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, had fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

If the movie is accurate, it is possible that Colonel Shaw was given this impossible mission because he had confronted his corrupt senior officers.

Prophet Muhammad said that war is strategy. An elementary principle of strategy is to avoid a direct assault on a fortified position.

The Civil War, particularly as fought by the Union officers, is an encyclopedic cornucopia of bad strategy. As depicted in Glory, Union forces were repeatedly sent out to march or run directly into the mouths of cannons. Grant and Sherman seemed to be almost the only generals with any sense of strategy.

Our nation, particularly before the 20th century, was never a highly cultured society – especially with respect to symphonic music. Our attitude towards symphonic music (regarding it as some kind of sissy thing) is surprising, considering that the word bombastic characterizes some of the best and some of the worst examples – sometimes by one and the same composer. Beethoven’s fifth symphony is considered one of the greatest symphonies ever written, and his Wellington’s Victory is considered one of the worst. Both are bombastic examples of symphonic writing. (Beethoven was a black man, by the way.)

Anyone who wants to actually win a war understands that bombast and bravado are not necessary attributes of victory. But strategy is. When Napoleon, confident of an easy victory against a weak and isolated Russian Empire, sent half a million men in a direct assault on that empire – he lost almost his entire army, suffering a major defeat. When Colin Powell sent half a million men against a weak opponent, Iraq, in 1991, he used strategy. Instead of launching a direct assault on the Iraqi fortifications, he had his huge army suddenly move a thousand miles to the west, around the Iraqi line, and assault the enemy from its flank. The victory was swift and decisive.

The value of music, especially symphonic music, is not in superficialities of style and expression. For African American men, the value of the symphonic repertoire is that it is an encyclopedic cornucopia of strategic options.

In a symphonic movement – generally, the first movement of a three or four movement symphony – there is a moment toward the latter part of the movement which is called the recapitulation. This is the moment when the music returns to the opening idea. The important thing is that this moment represents a goal.

In Glory, the goal was to take Fort Wagner. The officers had decided that the only option was a direct assault after moving along several hundred yards of open beach. It is amazing that any of the men actually reached the fort. If we consult examples from military history, we have General Alexander Dumas (a black man) leading his French revolutionary troops up a sheer cliff to take an Austrian fortress from the rear, and the Japanese taking Singapore from the British (during World War II) by way of an impenetrable jungle on the undefended side of the city. Fort Wagner should have been approached through the “impassable” marsh on its west side.

I had been listening to the first movement of Brahms’s first symphony for at least forty years before it dawned on me that at the crucial moment when the goal, the recapitulation is to be achieved – after a long and very tense build-up – Brahms does not launch a direct assault, as he has led us to expect. Instead, the music suddenly swerves to a seemingly distant key and in three swift moves swings into the recap from its flank (so to speak). It is an awesome moment!

The value, for us, in listening to symphonic music is not in necessarily making a conscious diagram matching the form of a piece of music to the events of the battlefield. The value is in having an intuitive and mostly unconscious ability to translate meanings from one symbolic language (symphonic music, for example) to another symbolic language (the battlefield). As Allah makes clear in the Qur’an, this world is not reality. This world – with all of its blood and guts, its tears and triumphs, its enormous wealth and power, and grinding poverty – this world is a symbolic language which, when we learn to read it, leads us to reality.

I keep thinking about those unfortunate soldiers in Glory, and wonder what could have happened if – having deceived the enemy that they were about to launch a direct assault – they kept going and, having made the necessary preparations, moved on the fort through the “impassable” marsh? Strategy is deception. That is how victory is won!