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When death is everywhere

Drew Gilpin Faust’s acclaimed book on the Civil War and death begins by laying out the extraordinary statistics:  “The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined…  A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.”  And in the south, “Confederate men died at a rate three times that of their Yankee counterparts; one in five white military men of military age did not survive the Civil War” (xi).

When the numbers are so high they are also incomprehensible and devastatingly wound a society’s sense of itself – consider the dead of Hiroshima, or of the Holocaust, or those who died in America as enslaved persons, or the Russian war dead of World War II, or the genocidal slaughter of American natives, or the more recent devastation wrought in the gay community by AIDS.  As Faust recounts, the trauma is in some ways beyond expressing, and yet grieving communities and nations struggle for years afterward to bring the total costs back within the realm of the sensible:  as Philip Gregg, a Confederate soldier who died months before an essay he wrote appeared in print, noted, “the emotions of the returning soldier, who has yielded up his life upon the battle-field, can be scarcely imagined.”  The only fitting final response cannot even be said publicly:  “What I would say to my family the world has no right to hear” (183).  In such a context, articulation only compounds the effect:  Walt Whitman wrote that the letter announcing a son’s death is a kind of double death, since its arrival destroys the mother just as the bullet killed the son (125).

For the defeated American South, the effort to assimilate the lessons of death were made more difficult because, while the federal government invested millions in properly burying and identifying northern soldiers, the south’s war dead were often abandoned.  John Trowbridge wrote for the Atlantic Monthly (in 1865) about his disappointment and even horror upon discovering bodies near a Virginia battlefield that, as Faust puts it, “had been left to rot as a matter of policy rather than simple negligence” (237).  Not all northerners were so inclined, of course, but many influential ones were, unable to imagine how the south’s dead could be treated as respectfully as those who had fought to preserve the Union.  One southern consequence was the formation of voluntary associations pulled together, often by women, to raise funds for postwar commemorations and decent burials.

Mark Shantz is arguing in a new book that the Civil War devastation was made worse by the preexistence of a national cult of death that laid the foundation for a wide cultural acceptance of the horror to come, and Mark Neely is arguing in his latest against the idea that it was really a Total War.  But whether either scholar is right or wrong, the psychic consequences of the Civil War were certainly enormously compounded for the entire nation because the old mythologized distance between faraway fighting and the homefront was obliterated by the newly popular mechanisms of mass communication, especially photography.  The New York Times, editorializing about a Matthew Brady exhibition held in his New York City gallery, wrote that “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”  The upended distance of war death was thus doubly traumatizing:  the ugly brutality was foregrounded by the photograph in ways that made it impossible to imagine death as dignified, but because the death often happened hundreds of miles away the old comforting sense of the “good” death as happening in one’s own home surrounded by loving family was destroyed.  The worst of all worlds:  carnage right before ones’ eyes, but the comforts of the loved one actually close at hand denied.  Mangled corpses are hard to romanticize, and Good Death hard to see in brains randomly sliced open.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served in the Civil War and was traumatized by what he saw and then went on to a life of public service including his long stint on the United States Supreme Court, turned to pragmatism as a philosophical system that made more sense to him than the kind of blind “fighting faiths” that lead to unfathomable carnage.  (For the nation, the norms of eloquence were changed as well as those of philosophy, away from florid oratory and in the direction of stripped down piainspokenness; it was as if rhetorical expansiveness started to sound as much an insult to the dead as utopian metaphysics, all this completing the democratic transition to simple speech inaugurated in the Jacksonian period).  But thirty years after Holmes’ disillusioning war service, he was still returning to the scarring experiences of his youth in search of more hopeful lessons.  His 1895 Memorial Day address (“A Soldier’s Faith”) declares that “I do not know the meaning of the universe.  But in the midst of doubts, in the collapse of creeds,” he was certain “that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”  Faust further quotes Holmes as concluding that: “War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull.  It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.”

The future president James Garfield also saw the devastation and was shattered by it.  As William Dean Howells put it, “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again:  the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.”  One Union soldier said that his wartime experience left him “sentenced to life.”

Such searching attempts at commemoration struggle most to come to terms with the absurdity of battlefield death.  Bullets randomly scattered across the landscape make no distinction in bringing down the deserving or courageous versus the terrified and foolish.  And all this is made worse by the typically long distances (both geographical and cognitive) separating soldiers and their happy-talking civilian commanders – after long desperately dull weeks of sitting around come spasms of incomprehensible carnage.  Devastated polities rush in to symbolically suture the wounds and dress them with the rightful platitudes of commemoration that still cannot make real symbolic recompense to those who have actually lived through the hell.  For the awful cost of war is that even when its larger purposes are just, the local costs are random and awful and searing and cannot be made right by repetitively spoken platitudes about every death having served some moral purpose.  The survivors know better, even if saying so is impossible since any expression of doubt only risks insulting the dead and compounding the survivor’s guilt.  So the inevitably trite platitudes are left alone on the national consciousness when alternative expressions of dread and anguish cannot be easily spoken (this is, I think, why the Holocaust survivor narratives carry such moral force and are so bravely unusual).

These dilemmas are reflected in Holmes’ eloquent but also hopelessly contradicting eulogy. Does he really mean to so wholly endorse the soldier’s decision to “throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty”?   Is the sacrifice really made more compelling, more true, when the cause is “little understood”?  Is the loss actually made more meaningful when contributed under circumstances where the soldier fights even in the face of his own skepticism about the “tactics of which he does not see the use”?

Of course in hindsight, as one’s distance in time and memory come stepwise closer to a God’s eye view and is more fully fogged by the erasure or repressed recollections of the worst carnage, one comes to see in the dogged and perhaps foolish self-sacrifice a purer innocence, and in the dull waiting a kind of saintly patience, and in the ignorance a more genuine martyrdom.

Even in a culture where death was a common occurrence on account of high infant mortality and emerging sanitation systems (American life expectancy before the war was only forty years), the Civil War imposed losses that were experienced as orders of magnitude higher.  Journalists and commentators debated the question of how to report the dehumanizing statistics; describing the casualty numbers, William Fox noted for readers that the numbered dead were statistics “every unit of which stands for the pale, upturned face of a dead soldier” (260).  And so, while the accumulating numbers delivered body blows to grieving families, so also did the cultural commitments to the expression of “sentiment” and memorlalization multiply as well.

As the killing machines of industrial warfare came into existence, Faust notes that even today “we still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world.  We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists” (271).

SOURCES:  Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War (New York:  Knopf, 2008); Mark S. Schantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country:  The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2008); Mark E. Neely, The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2007); Malcolm Jones, “Death of a Nation,” Newsweek, 21 January 2008, pgs. 76-77; Adam Gopnik, “In the Mourning Store:  Burying the Civil War Dead,” New Yorker, 21 January 2008, pgs. 77-83; Edward Ayers, “Dead Reckoning,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 January 2008, p. B7-B10; James McPherson, “Dark Victories,” New York Review of Books, 17 April 2008, pgs. 78-79.


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