Life during wartime Essay

This essay has a total of 7124 words and 35 pages.

life during wartime

There's nothing I can say about the parade of still pictures, the faces on the television
- except, perhaps, that they all seemed to share a fierce pride in their eyes,
photographed for the first time in their Marine Dress Blues. Surely their families are
proud of them. I certainly am, and I never got to know any of them. And now, I never will.

Names scroll in little yellow letters across the bottom of our glowing screens: Sergeants,
and Captains, and Privates. These men have died for us. More will follow. We asked them to
go, and they went.

All across this nation -- here and there, sparkling across the map like fireflies on a
summer night - sedans are slowly rolling to a stop outside of small, modest homes. Men in
uniform emerge, straighten their tunics, and walk slowly up driveways. Doorbells are rung.
Maybe here and there smiles will evaporate in shock and surprise as doors are opened, but
more likely the face will be one full of stunned realization that the very worst thing in
the whole world has happened. And children will be sent to their rooms. And the men will
speak in somber, respectful tones. And sons and mothers and fathers and wives will be told
that the one thing they love more than anything in this world has been taken away from
them, that their sons and daughters will not be coming home, that their fathers or mothers
have gone away and will never come back, not ever.

Why do we do this? What could possibly be worth this?

The war is an abject and utter failure. What everyone thought would be a quick, decisive
victory has turned into an embarrassing series of reversals. The enemy, -- a ragtag,
badly-fed collection of hotheads and fanatics - has failed to be shocked and awed by the
most magnificent military machine ever fielded. Their dogged resistance has shown us the
futility of the idea that a nation of millions could ever be subjugated and administered,
no matter what obscene price we are willing to pay in blood and money.

The President of the United States is a buffoon, an idiot, a man barely able to speak the
English language. His vice president is a little-seen, widely despised enigma and his
chief military advisor a wild-eyed warmonger. Only his Secretary of State offers any hope
of redemption, for he at least is a reasonable, well-educated man, a man most thought
would have made a far, far better choice for Chief Executive.

We must face the fact that we had no business forcing this unjust war on a people who
simply want to be left alone. It has damaged our international relationships beyond any
measure, and has proven to be illegal, immoral and nothing less than a monumental mistake
that will take generations to rectify. We can never hope to subdue and remake an entire
nation of millions. All we will do is alienate them further. So we must bring this war to
an immediate end, and make a solemn promise to history that we will never launch another
war of aggression and preemption again, so help us God.

This was the condensed opinion of the Copperhead press. The time was the summer of 1864.

Everyone thought the Rebels would be whipped at Bull Run, and that the Confederacy would
collapse within a few days or hours of such a defeat. No one expected the common Southern
man to fight so tenaciously, a man who owned no slaves and who in fact despised the rich
fire-eaters who had taken them to war.

Lincoln was widely considered a bumpkin, a gorilla, an uncouth backwoods hick who by some
miracle of political compromise had made it to the White House. Secretary of War Stanton
had assumed near-dictatorial powers and was also roundly despised. Only Secretary of State
William Seward, a well-spoken, intelligent Easterner and a former Presidential candidate,
seemed fit to hold office.

After three interminable and unbelievably bloody years of conflict, many in the Northern
press had long ago become convinced that there was no hope of winning the war, and far
less of winning the peace that followed. After nearly forty months of battle and maneuver,
after seeing endless hopes dashed in spectacular failure, after watching the magnificent
Army of the Potomac again and again whipped and humiliated by a far smaller, under-fed,
under-equipped force, the New York newspapers and many, many others were calling for an
immediate end to this parade of failures.

It took them forty months and hundreds of thousands killed to reach that point. Today,
many news outlets have reached a similar conclusion after ten days and less than fifty
combat fatalities.

Ahhh. Progress.

A few years ago, I made up my mind to visit for the first time many of the places I had
come to know so well. So before my 1996 Christmas trip to visit my father at his house
adjacent to Valley Forge - another place rich with ghosts and history -- I made a tour of
as many Civil War battlefields as I could, driving northward through Virginia, seeking out
the unremarkable hills and fields that I had followed with Shelby Foote through more than
2,300 pages of his magnificent Civil War trilogy.

It was bitterly cold the day I walked up the steep embankment where Hood's Texans broke
the Union line at Gaines Mill, and then I thrust my hands into my pockets and walked a few
hundred yards and three blood-soaked years away to the lines at Cold Harbor, where the
remains of the opposing trenches lay almost comically close.

As I walked from the Confederate to the Union positions, the green pine forest was as
peaceful and serene a place as is possible to imagine. And there I stopped, halfway
between the lines, listening to the winter breeze swaying the trees, and looked around -
at nothing. Just a glade like any other in the beautiful back woods of Virginia. And yet
here lay seven thousand men - here, in this little clearing. Seven thousand men. The Union
blue lay so thick on this ground that you could walk from the Confederate lines to the
Union ones on the backs of the dead, your feet never touching the grass.

You can see them, you know. Not that I believe in ghosts, or the occult. But when you
stand on a field like that, in a place like that, with a name like that - Cold Harbor -
you feel it. You feel the reality of it. This happened, and it happened right here. The
history of that ground rises like a vapor and grabs your imagination by the neck, and
forces you to see what happened there.

The next day, I stood in a tiny rut, a small bend in a shallow, grassy berm, where for
sixteen hours men cursed and killed each other at point-blank range, where musket balls
flew so furiously that they cut down a foot-thick oak tree. Here, at the Bloody Angle of
Spotsylvania, the fighting was hand-to-hand from the break of dawn to almost midnight;
uninterrupted horror that to this day remains for me the most appalling single acre in
human history. There, on that unassuming, peaceful, empty field - it might as well have
been the back of a high school -- men had become so agitated that they climbed the muddy,
blood-slick trenches, clawed their way to the parapets to shoot at a man a foot or two
away, then hurled their bayoneted muskets like a javelin into the crowd before being shot
down and replaced by other half-mad, raving automatons.

What trick of time and memory, what charm or spell does history possess, that can turn
such fields of unremitting violence and terror into places of religious awe and wonder?
Why are some people called to these places, in America and around the world, to stand in
wonder - not only at the brutality of war, but at the transcendental, ennobling power of
them? How does slaughter and death turn into nobility and sacrifice? Why can we recite the
names of places like Roanoke, Harrisburg, Phoenixville, Marseille, Kiev, Vanuatu and
Johannesburg with no more passion than we muster while reading the ingredients on the back
of a cereal box, while names like Antietam, Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Verdun, Stalingrad,
Guadalcanal and Rorke's Drift thunder through time as if the earth itself were being rung
like a bell?

Today we are at War. The future is dark and filled with uncertainties. We are at a time of
great peril and momentous decisions are being made by the hour. We know history is being
written before our very eyes. No one knows how things will turn out - only history will

We can, however, step back from 24/7 embedded coverage. We can in fact gain what is most
missing in these anxious days -- perspective. Like all worthwhile journeys, this will take
some time.

First, we need to go to the one place that could perhaps best make sense of all this blood
and terror and waste and pain.

I found it, finally. As with all the other places I had visited, I had great difficulty
realizing where I was because the reality was so much smaller than what I had imagined.
Off in the distance stood Seminary Ridge, where Pickett and Armistead and the rest would
march into history - but that was not what I wanted to see.

I had made my way over the boulders of The Devils' Den, caught my breath when I found
myself in a small alcove where a dead Confederate had lain in one of the most famous
photos from the war. And finally, I found the marker I was looking for, and walked - such
a small distance - down and then up again that little stretch of hill.

This was it, all right. This was the place. I was standing on the exact spot where the
very existence of the United States of America, where all of our lives and our history,
all our subsequent glory and tragedy, turned on what lay in the heart of an unassuming
professor of Rhetoric from a small college in Brunswick, Maine.

One of the most subtle distortions caused by history's telephoto lens is the sense of
predetermination. We know the Allies won World War II, as decisively as any conflict in
history. But in London, 1940, such an outcome would have seemed unthinkably optimistic.
The fact is, it was a very, very near thing.

We look back on the Union victory in the Civil War with the same sense of it being a
foregone conclusion. But it was not. By the second day of July in 1863, the mighty armies
of the Union had been beaten in every major battle except Antietam - and that had been not
much better than a tie. And they had not just been defeated. They had been thrashed.
Whipped. Sent reeling again and again and again by a half-starved collection of scarecrows
in homemade uniforms.

None of this was lost on the Union men that morning, not the least on that Professor of
Rhetoric from Bowdoin College. He had seen, first hand, the disasters at Fredericksburg
and Chancellorsville. For those men, as for us today, the future was dark and unknowable.
Yet history can often show where we are going by showing where we have been, in the same
way that a ship's wake extending to the Southern horizon is a sure sign of a Northward
course. And that course, for the Union, for the United States as we know it today, was

Were the South to win that July day, the first northern state capitol - Harrisburg - would
fall to the Confederates. Nothing would stop them from reaching Baltimore, and Washington.
If the Army of the Potomac lost yet again on this field, the South would very likely take
Washington, the British would enter the war on the side of the Confederacy and the mighty
Royal Navy would break the Union blockade. In the words of Shelby Foote, the war would be
over -- lost.

The Federal position was strong, but it had a fatal weakness. At the southern end of the
Union line were two small hills. The smaller and nearer, called Little Round Top by the
locals, overlooked the entire Union position. Artillery placed on that hill could fire
down the entire Union line, wreaking carnage on the men below. The entire position would
become untenable.

No one was on Little Round Top.

Across the ground that Pickett would cross the next day, this did not escape the eye of
Confederate Lieutenant General Longstreet. He knew that if he could get some guns on that
little hill the battle would be over. Indeed, the war would be over - won. He asked Lee if
he could send his toughest men, John Bell Hood's Texans and Alabamans, to take that hill.
Lee agreed.

Back on Cemetery Ridge, the Blue commanders realized, at long last and to their abject
horror, the danger they were in. They immediately sent some regiments down the line to
hold that hill, extending the left of their line up Little Round Top. And there, on the
afternoon of July 2nd, 1863, history and the Professor of Rhetoric collided.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an amateur. And everything he knew about tactics he had
read, on his own, in a little book he carried with him in case it would come in handy. He
knew that his 20th Maine Regiment was the extreme left of the entire Union army. In fact,
he could look over to that man standing there, the one with the neatly trimmed beard: that
fellow, right there, was the end of the line.

Chamberlain knew the significance of his position on the field. He knew if he failed the
Union left would roll up and crumble the way the right had a few weeks before in the
disaster at Chancellorsville. He knew the Union could not bear another defeat of that

Up from the valley below came Hood's men: fierce, shrieking, caterwauling demons, the same
pack of wolves that had shattered the Union line at Gaines Mill and whipped and humiliated
their opponents every time they had taken the field. They came up through the thin forest
yelling like furies.

Chamberlain casually walked the line, keeping his men cool, plugging holes and moving
reserves while showing the utter disregard for his own life that commanders of both sides
were expected to show during those horrible brawls.

Repeated and steady volleys drove the Southerners back, but not for long. They came again.
Again they were driven back. Again they came with their weird and terrifying Rebel Yell,
and again they were knocked back by withering volleys from the 20th Maine. The Northerners
were holding on, but by sheer guts alone, for each charge and counter-volley knocked more
men out of the line, heads and arms and torsos exploding under the impact of the heavy
lead musket balls. Worse, they were by now almost out of ammunition.

The Confederates were skilled tacticians. When the men from Maine showed more
determination than expected, they looked for a way around them, to hit the line from
behind. Quickly they sent their men sideways, to the left, trying to get around the corner
and attack from the rear.

Chamberlain saw this. Armies could readjust themselves, but there was nothing in the
little book about what to do with a single regiment. So he planted the flag, and on that
spot, he sent men off at a right angle, like an open gate, to confront the flanking
Confederates head on.

Again they came on, getting right to the lines this time. Again they were shot and clubbed
back down the hill. Again they massed for another charge, their determination to take that
hill as strong as the 20th's was to defend it. Only now, Chamberlain's men were completely
out of ammunition. During this latest repulse the Rebel veterans had staggered back down
the side of Little Round Top under a hail of rocks being thrown by the exhausted men in

And so we come to this exact time and place. It is the 2nd of July, 1863, just south of a
small Pennsylvania town. You are on a small hill covered with thin pine trees. Your face
is black with gunpowder: it burns your throat and eyes, it has cracked your lips, and you
are more thirsty than you believed possible.

All around you are dead and dying men, some moaning, some screaming in agony as they
clutch shattered arms or hold in their bowels. The field in front of you is covered with
dead Rebels, and yet the ground looks alive, undulating, as the wounded Confederates try
to crawl back to safety. In the woods below you can hear fresh enemy troops arrive, hear
orders being issued in the soft accents of the deep South. You have no more musket rounds.
There aren't even very many rocks left to throw. And you know that this time, they will

These men have never been beaten, least of all by you. You are a professor of Rhetoric at
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As you walk what is left of your line, you know you
have fought bravely and well, done more than could ever be asked of you. You have no
choice but to fall back in orderly retreat. Your men are out of ammunition. To stand here
and take another charge is to die. It's that simple. These men are your responsibility.
Their families depend on you to bring them home. Many have already died. To not retreat
will likely condemn many more wives to being widows, not the least your own.

You look down past the dead and dying men to the bottom of the hill. Masses of determined
Confederate men are emerging, coming for you. They are not beaten. They are determined to
have this hill. Off to your left stands Old Glory, the hinge in your pathetic, small gate.

You know that this is a war to preserve a Union, a system of government four score and
seven years old. Many said such a system of self rule could not possibly survive. If you
retreat now, today will be the day they are proven right.

You cannot go back. You cannot stay here. Your men look at you. You utter two words:

"Fix Bayonets."

You can see the reaction on the faces of the men. No, that can't be right. He couldn't possibly mean it.

But you do mean it. You know history. In the middle of this shock and death and agony,
amid the blood and stench and acrid smoke, you have the perspective even now to see what
is really at stake here.

As Chamberlain walked his line one last time, he smiled, and shouted, "Stand firm, ye boys
of Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities!"

Today, the United States is at war with Iraq.

Before the Civil War, we would have said, "the United States are at War with Iraq." Before
the Civil War, the United States was plural, a collection of relatively weak, sovereign
nations. After the Civil War, we were welded by fire and death into a single, indivisible
nation. There is a marker, in a forest, on a hill, to mark that transition.
Continues for 18 more pages >>