Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Struggle

Last weekend I posted a message saying that I wished to take some time to think about the direction of this blog. For those who have been kind enough to visit here over the past few years, I feel that I owe you an explanation.

In a post some time ago, I mentioned that I came to my interest in the American Civil War in an entirely serendipitous manner. I stumbled upon Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, "Killer Angels", and was so moved that I immediately drove to Gettysburg to see the place where such deeds had occurred. Standing for the first time on Cemetery Ridge, I gazed across the mile wide open fields where Southern men advanced into the awaiting frenzied maelstrom of Union rifle and artillery fire. I could not fathom the courage such an act required and set about trying to comprehend.

For the better part of the last decade, I have walked the fields where our ancestors fought and marveled at the hardships they endured to forge the country we now call home. I began to think that perhaps I understood some of what occurred. I wrote blog articles implying as much, expressed opinions, and created a large web site with over 600 pages of photographs and information. I read constantly. The American Civil War became my obsession. Yet, despite all of my work, another chance event has made me question whether or not I have approached any real understanding at all.

Several weeks ago, I began to read more about later wars in American History, looking for evidence for or against the uniqueness of the internal conflict which had captured my fascination. Settling on World War II, I began to read about the primary events, the causes, and the staggering numbers of casualties. Despite some knowledge of the second Great War and the number of American casualties, I was stunned to read the estimates of 60 million people or more killed during WWII, with civilians making up more than half of those numbers. As I continued to read, my focus on the primary battles naturally led to June 6, 1944 and February 19, 1945.

On the morning of latter date, the United States forces set foot on the black sandy beaches of the island of Iwo Jima, a Japanese stronghold coveted by the Allies as a necessary staging area for their continued counter-offensive. The battle lasted over a month, much longer than expected, and resulted in slaughter on a horrific scale. Of the 22,000 Japanese who sought to defend their ground, almost all were killed. The Americans suffered about 26,000 casualties of which over 6,000 died.

Similarly, on June 6, 1944, the Allies launched their assaults on the beaches of Normandy. Serving as the beginning of the Battle of Normandy, the Allies would suffer about 10,000 casualties with some 2,500 dead on that fateful day. Estimates of German casualties on D-Day, although not verifiable, fall between 4,000 and 9,000 men.

These very familiar battles carved gut-wrenching suffering and pain into the hearts of thousands of families, into the psyche of those who braved the machine gun and artillery fire, and into the wounded soul of humanity worldwide. And yet, the human wreckage at Gettysburg paralleled and by some measures eclipsed these battles. Again, to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of our history, the casualty figures ring all too familiar.

I am not a veteran and have never seen combat. I realize that what I have read, what I have seen, and what I may imagine, cannot begin to approach true comprehension of the horror of battle. I cannot place myself in the boots of the American Servicemen who tenaciously fought a faceless, hidden enemy at Iwo Jima, one willing to die where he fought. I cannot fathom the staggering degree of courage required to surge forward on Omaha Beach in the face of such terrifying, horrific losses.

Although I cannot conceive of what these men endured, I have written for years about the great battles of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg among them. In each of these battles, men were torn apart by canister, shot, and shell. Minnie balls shattered bodies leaving the less fortunate to writhe in agony on the unforgiving ground. In some instances, soldiers died via the bayonet, rifle butts, rocks, or anything else which served to assault or defend. At Gettysburg, in just three days, ten thousand men died. Thirty thousand men emerged no longer whole. Another ten thousand were officially designated as missing. By some estimates, the killing at Gettysburg reached such a level of devastation that about as many mules and horses were killed at Gettysburg as Allies and Germans combined on D-Day.

As mentioned in a recent post, the 20th century saw about 200,000,000 people killed by war, a greater number than at any other time in human history. While I unquestionably admire the bravery of the United States servicemen and veterans, while I remain ever grateful for their contributions to the world that we now know, and while I will forever honor their memory, my questions are simple. I wonder about my responsibility for the impact on the children of today of what I write. I wonder about my responsibility to the men and women who are dying right now in yet another human war. By writing in a manner which to some degree glorifies and romanticizes the exploits which occurred during warfare, do I add my small voice to the chorus of those who may view war as acceptable or even desirable? If the answer is yes, do I then, even in a small way, contribute to the acceptance of the continuation of this human holocaust? I cannot help but wonder if by writing with such admiration and wonder about the soldiers of the American Civil War, I perpetuate the idea that war is somehow an acceptable mechanism to resolve conflict. At times, to fight is necessary. But should it ever be acceptable?

Perhaps I flatter myself. Perhaps what I write is ultimately irrelevant. And yet I fear that even in a small sense, I may contribute to an unnecessarily romantic image of what is one of the most brutal and unforgiving of human endeavors.

As the fires of each previous war flicker out, the echoes also fade of the countless wishes that this war will finally be the last. Perhaps, just this once, I should listen to the long, stilled hopes that our ancestors had for this country.

In "Killer Angels", Michael Shaara implies that we have within us a divine spark coexisting with something much darker. What I must decide is, have I perhaps inadvertently fed the latter.

With all due respect and sincerely,


D-Day Museum

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