Soldiers’ Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.
As a way of building on some points I made in the previous post about the interconnectedness between modern nation-states and mass violence, Dan Vermilya has an interesting post at his blog Our Country’s Fiery Trial. Vermilya is a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, who previously worked at Gettysburg National Historical Park. Reflecting on the meaning imparted by national parks that preserve the sights of mass slaughter during the Civil War, he emphasizes the usual, though still important, roles battlefields serve in reminding contemporary Americans why so many men died during that horrendous conflict. We as the American populace continue to honor the Civil War dead for making the “last full measure of devotion,” for sacrificing their bodies on the nation’s altar.
Such an idea is so commonplace, however, that I think its easy to really gloss over the full meaning implicit behind such sentiments, namely, that it is impossible to separate violence from the idea of the modern American nation. If we imagine the United States as metaphorically being constructed out of bricks, those bricks only hold together because they are tempered with the blood of the 600,00o plus soldiers who died at places like Antietam. The traditional, and far more inspiring way to acknowledge this national blood sacrifice is through honor and gratitude. As an example of this, Vermilya prints a portion of an 1881 letter written by Rufus Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, to his wife. In the letter, Dawes recounts his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he gazed over the graves of his fallen comrades:
I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.
The key statement in this passage is “for what they died, I fight a little longer.” And what did these men die for? They died for their country, of course. Their blood spilled so that a government of “freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest ” might live on. Generally, we give such sentiments the due respect they deserve. Yet, to fully understand the meaning of such sentiments, we would do well to consider that violence; horrible, mass violence, is intrinsically tied to our modern concept of nationalism. And we continue to legitimize that violence.
Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who gave their lives to their country, but they also, by extension, sanctify and consecrate the mass violence that was integral to the creation of the modern American nation. This is the darker side of patriotism, the darker side of honoring war dead, because through such rituals, we tacitly acknowledge, even embrace, a history of brutal acts on human bodies committed by other humans. So ingrained is the idea of blood sacrifice in modern national cultures the world over that we scarcely stop to wonder if by turning the macabre act of war into a regular, communal ceremony, we lose perspective over our stated human desires for peace. Of course, through honoring war dead, we promote the notion that their blood sacrifice will bring about peace. Historically, however, violence begets violence in a continually repeating pattern. This was certainly true with the Civil War: the end of the formal fighting gave way to a savage, decades-long cycle of terroristic racial violence, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with today.
From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor war dead by acknowledging that they paid the ultimate sacrifice. But it is to say that if we’re serious about taming the level of mass violence in the modern world, perhaps we should be aware of how commonly we sanctify violence in the name of our most cherished ideals, especially nationalism. I mean, if we really want that cake, we should at least be aware of how many eggs we need to crack.