On this Memorial Day, I take my traditional, tried-and-true, consistently conflicted position. A Quaker and a pacifist, I am never sure how to commemorate military service. Many Friends find today an incredibly difficult, awkward holiday, especially when combined with jingoistic platitudes about glory and honor. Ours has been a minority view for years.
The holiday was originally known as Decoration Day, and sought to honor the dead of the Civil War. Today I aim for the magnanimous. I would like to believe, as Abraham Lincoln himself noted in the Gettysburg Address, that our dead in any conflict shall not have died in vain. In my more judgmental moments, however, I believe that the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life is foolish and immoral. In my best moments, I can empathize with the severe belief in duty and devotion that spurred men on to pick up a gun.
In school, I excelled in history. As part of my studies, I read accounts of great battles, notable generals, and deft military maneuvers. A skillful retelling of warfare holds the interest of its audience well. Battle narratives often sensationalize human struggle. The fact that others risked life and limb only adds to the fascination and engagement of the reader. Still, I’m supposed to find war deplorable, an ancient, shameful practice of barbarism and violence regrettably not yet obsolete. And yet, today I find once again that there is something irresistibly compelling about the very idea of armed conflicted.
As is true with many Americans, I find something very fascinating, but also heavily tragic about the Civil War. Today, those who served in combat will be rededicated once again, in remembrance of their toil and struggle. Following the war’s most decisive battle, Confederate and Union veterans met on the battlefield of Gettysburg every Memorial Day to commemorate the Herculean human struggle of both sides. This year, they come together again for 145th time.
There is something more to war than maneuvers and strategy, iron and blood. The hopes of an entire people can be caught up in a valiant struggle, one waged against all odds. History is written by the victors, but it is remembered by the losers. William Faulkner, in a 1948 book entitled Intruder in the Dust, wrote in part about the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It is a concept that seems incomprehensible to those not reared in the South.
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863…Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
The romanticism inherent in this description only makes sense when it is a byproduct of the humiliated and vanquished. Stark odds against the continued persistence and longevity of the Confederacy existed from the outset. It would make sense, then, that the war is a footnote outside the rebellious states and an everlasting topic of cultural fascination in Dixie. A defeated people built a mythology around themselves, to deflect the humiliation and destruction left behind.
150 years later, Faulkner’s description of a defiant, unbowed, belligerent region was passed down to me and for many I knew. This persistent legacy has never completely died out. A belief in state’s rights, one that challenges perceived meddling by the Federal Government is still a Southern tradition. Former Republican Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked the specter of secession under this same persistent regional mentality.
Our Civil War, or for that matter, any Civil War holds a special poignancy for its country of origin. Other wars our nation fought involved mostly foreign participants, often Europeans. Here, Americans engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with their countrymen, giving rise to a thousand ironies great and small. When taking the field with divided loyalties from the beginning, it’s more difficult to resort to dehumanizing propaganda. When it is we who are across battle lines from each other, vilifying one’s enemy is more complicated. Siblings, cousins, fathers, and sons all took up arms against each other.
The United States in the late 19th Century was an extremely religious nation. North and South both used Old Testament language to justify this bloody conflict. The Union and the rebelling South believed that they were the Israel of ancient days, their cause vindicated by a vengeful God. The Almighty would forcibly destroy the idolatrous invaders, in the minds of the South, and force out the treasonous secessionists, in the minds of the North. In Lincoln’s words, given a month before the formal surrender of the South, the prayers of neither were answered.
I return to the meaning of Memorial Day. War may be hell, but it has existed since the dawn of humankind. Why does it remain so persistent, with any number of loyal believers? When will we rid ourselves of the need for what I and others see as senseless slaughter and needless suffering? Following the battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee summarized well the conflicting emotions I experience every holiday in which we place a singular focus on armed conflict. “It is well that war is so terrible,” Lee wrote, “otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”