Americans have a peculiar relationship to war. It structures and shapes much of our history: the nation was forged in war (American Revolution), divided by war (Civil War), emboldened by war (World War II) and radicalized by war (Vietnam). Too often, we tend to speak of war in positive, patriotic and Manichean terms: wars for “freedom” and “liberation”; wars to “extend American democracy” and “protect our American way of life”; “good” wars versus “evil” enemies. One consequence of this is that we tend to romanticize war, especially in hindsight, as an unambiguous catalyst for “progress”: the birth of the nation, the end of slavery, the empowerment of certain marginalized peoples, the defeat of fascism, communism or terrorism. All of this involves glossing over the hellish aspects of war (the immense violence, the death toll and civilian casualties, the suffering of loved ones, the physical and psychological trauma, the devastation of land and people) and forgetting that our history is chock full of invisible wars, illegal wars and wars we choose to ignore. The most recent example of this—the war in Afghanistan—is now the longest war in American history, a modern “quagmire” if ever there was one, and yet most of us go about our daily lives as if it doesn’t even exist. Of course, this was similarly true of Iraq. Sadly, our national ADD—to say nothing of what the late historian Howard Zinn called “our addiction to massive violence”—has produced a perilous state of denial over our collective PTSD. But let us not fool ourselves: war is still hell, whether we choose to fight or forget.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about war—the history of war, the realities and consequences of war, the future of war.
Two weeks ago, on the morning of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I got together with several of my current and former students on the steps of Memorial Church at Harvard. We were a diverse group—men and women, gay and straight, multiracial and multi-faith—precisely the kind of gathering of good souls that makes me feel blessed to be alive, even in this precarious moment in history. Over the course of an hour or so, we prayed, offered readings, shared reflections and sat in silence. It was the first time I had marked the occasion in any formal or collective way. Usually, I keep to myself on 9/11, quietly reflecting on the scope of this tragedy, not only the 3,000 innocent lives that were lost to violent lunacy but also the countless lives—American, Iraqi, Afghan and the like—that have been lost in a subsequent fog of war that has only produced more violence, misunderstanding and terror. I have long argued that 9/11 destroyed America by unleashing some of the worst angels of our nation. This is never more evident than in the toxic mix of patriotic vengeance and pathetic indifference that has accompanied the wars waged in our name since that terrible day more than a decade ago.
At this recent gathering with my students, I decided to recite Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 “Gettysburg Address.” The poetic mix of sorrow and humility always gets me, to say nothing of Lincoln’s prophetic capacity to envision a better future—a “new birth of freedom”—in the midst of such a violent crucible. This was as rare in his day as it is in ours. I still can’t help but wonder if Lincoln would have loved or lamented the fact that his violent death turned his political life into one of the great ironies of American history. After all, he was a literary man as well as a political one.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that last Tuesday I attended the premiere of the PBS documentary Death and the Civil War, a film by Ric Burns inspired by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s prize-winning book, This Republic of Suffering. The film, like the book, argues that the Civil War transformed Americans’ relationship with death. Faust’s book is part of a new wave of studies—including superb books like Jim Downs’s Sick from Freedom and Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation—that seek to restore a sense of realism to our study of the Civil War by reminding us that the war and its aftermath were hell for everyone (and everything) involved. All told, the war claimed 750,000 lives; adjusting for the size of the US population at the time (31 million), that would be the equivalent of roughly 7 million lives lost today. But unlike today, nearly every mid-nineteenth-century American knew someone who fought, was injured, or died in the war. One of the major themes of the film is the way the Civil War inspired the first large-scale federal effort to care for wounded soldiers, to provide support for the troops and their families, to account for the unprecedented death toll and to identify the bodies and ensure the proper return and burial of those who died in battle. As Faust argues, the Civil War inspired a “bureaucracy of death,” including the creation of military hospitals and national cemetaries. At the time, nearly every American—black and white, male and female, civilian and soldier, North and South—struggled in some way to answer another of Lincoln’s prophetic challenges (from his Second Inaugural Address): “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” This was easier said than done, of course, but the Civil War was the first time in US history where Americans felt a national moral duty to come to terms with war by honoring the dead and trying to live together in peace.