Sunday, January 07, 2007

War: A Commentary

Over the last year, many of these blog entries have addressed the looming spectre of a casino on the outskirts of the sacred fields of Gettysburg. During that time, some who supported such a venture questioned the meaning of these grounds. Responses frequently discussed the soldiers' sacrifices and their impact on our future while rightfully underscoring our duty to honor the dead of our country. In focusing on such, we often avoid the issue of war itself for without war, without the colossal spilling of blood on these fields, few would view Gettysburg with such reverence.

A Small Section of Arlington National Cemetery

Throughout our history, witnesses to sanguinary struggles often expressed their desire that the conflict they experienced emerge as the last of its kind. Few would question these sentiments. During the American Civil War, casualty numbers eclipsed anything the nation had previously suffered. Single battles left dead and wounded in greater numbers than those produced by multiple combinations of previous wars. However, after sectional hostilities ended, the United States would continue their war with the Indians in a quest to control the lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. In the 1880s, a collection of Union and Confederate soldiers would volunteer to fight with a new wave of soldiers in the Spanish American War. With the birth of a new century, as Civil War veterans became fewer in number and the memory of their struggle faded, the United States would join the war to end all wars.

World War I, the Great War, produced devastation on a scale that, in comparison, relegated the American Civil War to a mere skirmish. Estimates for World War I vary but consistently range between 8 and 9 million deaths with a staggering overall casualty list of 30 to 35 million. In the summer and fall of 1916, the Battle of the Somme, which degenerated into a bloody struggle of attrition, would contribute over one million casualties to the angel of death's ghastly harvest. Civilian deaths added perhaps another 6 million or more to the war's grim total.

As the world suffered through the aftermath of World War I taking stock in what they had lost, the seeds of an even greater conflict already threatened germination. A few short decades later, the soul of humanity would cry out in sustained agony as over 60 million soldiers and civilians would lose their lives during World War II. At the end of the millennium, estimates for all wars conducted in the 20th century would range from between 170 and 216 million deaths worldwide.

Holocaust & Andersonville Camp Survivors

The Second World War will forever be linked with the atrocities of the holocaust. The temptation exists to view this immense tragedy as an event which, if remembered, will not occur again. But when viewing the skeletal forms of those who suffered through the years of Nazi persecution, one is reminded of the similarly emaciated forms of Civil War soldiers who emerged from our own prisoner of war camps. Motivations and intentions differed but this did not change the cruelty and suffering experienced by the individual prisoners.

In late July, 1861, as the press disseminated the casualty figures for the Battle of Manassas / Bull Run, many responded with horror that the conflict had killed over one thousand men in a single day. Less than one year later, Shiloh’s 23,000 casualties, with over 3,000 dead, would induce some to label General Grant a "Butcher" as Americans struggled to reconcile the costs of this expanding war. Antietam, Fredericksburg, Stones River, Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg would bring new levels of horror as the countless lifeless forms laying on precious American soil exploded in number. Gettysburg’s 50,000 casualties with nearly 10,000 dead continued to shape how the populace viewed war. The shock after Bull Run had long since faded into a very distant memory.

The Overland Campaign of 1864 would numb the senses as the number of dead and wounded continued their ascent from the previous year. General Grant would lose 60,000 men between the Battles of the Wilderness and the initiation of the Siege of Petersburg. That dreadful count closely matched the total number of men General Robert E. Lee commanded when the campaign began. General Lee would likewise see some 30,000 of his men fall. Despite the sorrow that enveloped much of 19th century America, these terrible numbers served only as an omen of the conflagration yet to come.

The Dead of Cold Harbor

War is fraught with contradictions. General Stonewall Jackson, one of the south’s fiercest warriors, would offer in a letter to his wife, "People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for; they don't see all the horrors that must accompany such an event." General Grant, although acknowledging the advantages of war, also stated in his memoirs, "But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future." Just a few paragraphs later however, he would also state, "We must conclude, therefore, that wars are not always evils unmixed with some good." After the war, General Sherman, whose forces devastated vast regions of the south, would offer to a gathering of Michigan students, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, vilified by some with accusations of a ferocious lust for blood, would offer to his defeated countrymen, "Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and, so far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested, and heretofore so widely but honestly differed. Whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society or to individuals, meet them like men." Of course, perhaps the most famous quote along these lines came from General Lee at Fredericksburg, site of an overwhelming Confederate victory. "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it."

Few could advocate successfully for the general desirability of war. Yet a similarly small number could discount its necessity as long as men pursue power on a vast scale at the expense of the lives and liberties of others. Perhaps the despair expressed at the loss of 3,000 US soldiers in the current Iraqi war serves as an encouraging indication that we have learned from experience. Regardless of the degree of support or disagreement with the current administration’s policies, as a nation, we express sadness at the loss of each life while supporting the soldiers who at this very moment risk death or dismemberment while we read this article.

We must preserve the relics and reminders of our history so that such lessons do not surrender to forgetfulness or indifference. Our Civil War battlefields must survive the pervasive threat of the developer’s shovel so that current and future generations can remember the lessons so painfully learned at the cost of so much of our ancestors’ blood.

Without the perspective of history, we cannot fully understand the context of today’s public affairs. Lacking both, we cannot act to the better good and will remain captive within the same prison of ignorance, violence, and retribution. With several thousand years of history, the human race, taking stock in all of the lessons learned, should prove capable of finding practical solutions to most interpersonal and international conflicts. Perhaps then and only then, will we yield to the better angels of our nature and end the slaughter of millions.



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Project Gutenberg - Grant's memoirs
National Park Service
BBC: The Somme: Hell on earth
A Path Divided
The Quote Database
Century, Bloody Century
Wars and Conflicts
AMG Publishers


Elaine Barnes said...


Your dad asked me to read your blog reflections on war. You have done a masterful job. As each war fades into history, we tend to forget the horrible reality and to glorify those who participated. War is waged by those who are far from the battlefield, for whom the remembrance of the reality of war is either far faded, or is built on that false glorification handed down by movies and television. They are not the ones who must live out the horror: our young men and women. Even more they forget the cost of war paid by the innocents: the aged, women and children.

You made mention of the great war. World war I was fought to bring an end to all war, World War II was fought to make the world safe for democracy: Neither of them reached the goal. In modern warfare there is no such thing as victory. I am not sure there ever has been. God save us from war.

Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.