Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Value of Men

During the last 140 years, countless persons have found themselves consumed with a passion for the Late Unpleasantness, the American Civil War. Stemming from questions such as “Why did this happen“ and “What made them do this” they read, listened, and walked the fields in search of answers. They enthusiastically sought understanding of what led men to fight this catastrophic war and to die in such incomprehensible numbers.

The 142nd Pennsylvania at GettysburgWith a conflict of this scale, we could not, if we would, examine each death. We focus not on any one individual, but frequently opt instead for the more ghastly descriptions of death and the vast endless lists of casualties. The tragic, spectacular deaths and those of key participants predictably hold our attention. With the sacrifice of so many, we tend to overlook the simple, single loss of one.

In a nation of near 300 million, how do we define the relevance of the death of a single nameless man? When we discuss the preservation of Battlefields, the furnaces within which millions violently forged our nation, each argument includes the obligatory justifying statistics concerning the number sacrificed on the locations and grounds in question. But what of the parcels of land which claimed only a pittance, only one or two mortals now entirely forgotten?

In those places where our soil lays saturated with blood, where thousands of souls seeped from torn and battered flesh, we rightfully offer the proper reverence. Yet by such a singular focus, do we then deem as inconsequential the place where mother earth cradles the life’s blood of but a single man? While larger battlefields welcome millions of visitors annually, the small timeworn grave of the Civil War veteran in the hometown cemetery frequently goes unnoticed and unattended, their final resting place deteriorating further with each neglectful day.

Had we the ability to speak with them, the suffocating, enveloping sorrow of the soldier’s widow, orphaned children, or grieving parents would cry out in emphatic protest. Given a moment, we could to some degree understand their loss. Along our nation's highways, many erect small memorials to those they loved where fate stole a precious life from the ones left behind. Anonymous to most, these many small shrines mark ground of unquestionable meaning to those whose love will now go unreturned and whose regrets will remain painfully unassuaged. Now irrevocably gone from this life, they will never be seen, held, kissed, spoken with, or relied upon again. So too became the lot of many a young soldier.

With reverent determination, we hold sacred the fields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Shiloh and all others dyed by the blood of so many. These grounds welcome continuous streams of the curious and reflective. Yet by our inattention elsewhere, do we risk trivializing that one death, the solitary picket whose life spirit ebbed as he sank down onto the unmarked ground he did his duty to defend? Do we honor any less the soldier who marched, fought, and endured, only to join the tens of thousands who died a decidedly inglorious death from dysentery, cholera, or tuberculosis away from the now memorialized battlefields? How much less then do we hold dear the life of the unknown wounded soldier unable to drag himself into the open where aid instead of death might find him? So too, their families suffered as they went on with souls forever burdened by a hardened emptiness. When the soldier’s suffering and life passed, his agony rushed forward to claim as victim the many who would mourn his and their mutual loss. When his pain ended, theirs began. Over two thirds of the six-hundred and twenty-thousand men who died during this war perished not on the glorious field of battle but in inadequate medical facilities, tents, fields, yards, barns, and other nondescript places so very far from home.

And what of the men seared by the fire of battle who survived the war? How many more strode into battle on determined legs, with strong arms and a clear eye only to have lead or iron tear from them a portion of their formerly whole selves? Sanitized words like "wounded" or "casualty" hide the grim torment of the shattered soldier. Musket balls, round shot, shards of artillery, and bayonets tore through flesh and shattered the bones of men who then fell onto the bloody agonizing ground. Most did so on fields now no longer known as the places of their suffering.

How do we rightfully honor these men consumed by the horrors of war away from the grounds and monuments so treasured? We remember them, each of them. We hold sacred the lives and memories of all who perished, North and South, that our nation might live. We honor those whose blood nourished the growth of the young nation that became the country that we now call home. We mourn their loss, honor their courage, and protect their legacy.

But what is the worth of just one man, perhaps not of my blood, state, race, or time? On the day that we waiver in answering this question, we begin the perilous slide towards becoming once again a nation that would sacrifice hundreds of thousands to decide the rights and value of men.



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