The tragedy of war

…is not that people die. It’s that they die for nothing. If war worked as a method of conflict resolution, doesn’t it stand to reason that we would quit having them?

Don’t get me wrong. I am moved by the stories of the Civil War. Who could think about the climb uphill at Fredericksburg, over a stack of tumbled bodies and inching up a blood-slicked hill only to be cut down near the top, and not feel the futility of it all. I am haunted by the sunny field laying before Cemetery Ridge where a slow-moving line of Confederate soldiers strode, waiting for the grapeshot to tear them apart, the line rising and falling out of sight of the Union men who chanted “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” as the line came on to their death.

It was not for nothing, but it’s very hard to say what it was all for. Slavery over? That’s a big thing, but I have to think hard about whether it was really the case that the Union Army accomplished that. I think the contrabands themselves (and yes, there were many in that category who also joined the Union Army) put that issue on the table and kept it there. And if this was the meaning of the war, then is it acceptable that the soldiers of the Confederacy died for a ghastly immoral system only? My personal gut response — not completely evidence-based, though I could support my bias if I tried — is that it is not enough to impose the winner’s narrative. Some joined for money and didn’t run because their ideas of manhood didn’t let them. Others fell in love with the grandeur of it and thought that they could not miss out on their part in the biggest event of their lives. I’m guessing that most of the CSA foot troops didn’t give a rat’s ass about slavery but weren’t going to be bossed by anyone. They got sold out by their leaders and once dead, got piled up in pieces, not to reknit until the next Harrowing.

I feel like I owe a little complexity to these dead men. Not bogus “honor” — the reunifying handclasp of white man to white man that excised slavery from the story and made the Civil War sound like an inexplicable bar fight between two mean drunks — but something else. I try to teach the big ideas (ideas you would die for) or the defining beliefs (beliefs you would kill for) but it always comes out unsatisfying and nonspecific. You wind up with a war that kills 2% of the US population and that still hasn’t been successfully resolved (see 2008 electoral maps) and damn if I can make it sound plausible. I still haven’t found the heart of it.

Lincoln struggled with it too and finally realized that the living can only finish the work. It’s not on us to consecrate or to make it mean something. We just have to finish the work as best we can.

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 12:01 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. B-

    Have you read Drew Giplin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering? Turns out, she’s not only doing a great job cleaning up at Harvard, she’s also a top notch historian who can write a “war book” that the most war-averse scholar (me) can appreciate and enjoy.

    Throughout the book, she examines the ways in which the Civil War provided both disruptions and continuities with Victorian processes of death. The most dominant of these themes was the ars moriendi tradition, which combined religious conventions and emergences in medical science in order to describe the process of “the Good Death.” Her chapter titles themselves, “Dying,” “Burying,” “Remembering,” are a form of poetry and do an excellent job at chronicling how the Civil War fundamentally changed both life and death in America. Actually, I think Kent would really like this book as well. It’s very approachable, I would consider using it at the end of the first half of an American History survey up through a grad class, which is where I first met This Republic.

  2. I haven’t read Republic of Suffering. I remember that Altars of Sacrifice had just come out a few months before I took Leslie Schwalm’s course on Gender, Race, and the South — which, just to connect it with the homosexuality post, is where I first read her bio on James Henry Hammond and Martin Duberman’s article on the archival closet. I think she’s a stellar writer and human being. It’s hugely disappointing when people who write great books turn out to be jerks (not naming names, but I’ve had this experience) and it’s great when authors turn out to be likeable. David Blight, for example, is smart, funny, gentle — if not for his support of the Detroit Tigers, he’d be pretty much the total package. Winthrop Jordan was also a model of human decency and genius. It might be that when you study really tragic stuff, you have to work hard on your soul-ease.

  3. I’m teaching three packed sections of US to 1865 next fall, with a new textbook (Foner) and so I’m selecting new readings because I’m getting bored of my same old ones. Have you run across anything else that you’d recommend?


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