Review (Guest): This Republic of Suffering – Death and the American Civil War

5 Star, Culture, Research, War & Face of Battle
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Drew Gilpin Faust

5.0 out of 5 stars Closure, or does the Suffering just still go on … ?, March 12, 2014

By Herbert L Calhoun “paulocal”

Quietly, this is an amazing book about the back side of war — the side we pretend not to know is really there at all — the ugly side, the painful side. It is a stunning academic treatise about that side of the “so-called” Civil War that the history books do not speak openly about: what happens once the glorification and breast-beating heroism of war ends?

What happened in the Civil War when that war ended — when the “real work of war” began — is that there were no bands playing; no protocols on how to respect the dead, no systematic way of identifying the bodies. Gawkers and wives were roaming the battle fields together in search of trinkets they could sell, or looking for their loved ones. The lucky dead had a letter or a picture in their breast pockets that would later identify them. That way, at least then their loved ones would be allowed the minimum level of closure, but this was not to be the case for most of the dead. Nor, arguably, was it to be the case for a nation that is still in need of closure from the Civil war.

This author tells us that the “real work of war” began when the flesh and stench of 5 million pounds of 620,00 death men and 1 million pounds of the flesh of 3,000 dead horses, all laying out in the hot sun stinking up the “land of the free and home of the brave,” had to be disposed of.

But when the Civil War began, there were no burial details, no way to register the dead, no way to notify next of kin, no protocols for a respectful burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them — all burials details were improvised. Bodies were literally thrown into mass graves, some into ditches and wells. Since only about half of the men could be identified, dog tags were invented for future wars. The ghastly work went on for six years, much of it performed by black soldiers. One of the important innovations of the Civil War, is that with every subsequent war, there is now a bureaucracy of death.

At the beginning of the book, the author posed an interesting rhetorical question, the answer to which, by designed, the book did not answer. I believe the author asked and then left this question unanswered so that with the backdrop of the clear carnage of the war, it would sink into the minds and hearts of every patriot who has ever studied the U.S. Civil War, prompting us to re-ask the larger questions that all war begs: How could God allow such suffering to happen? What has the war wrought? And its inexorable but implicit corollary: What were the reasons for and the clear consequences of all that suffering?

The book was not designed to provide answers to these questions, and only indirectly was it designed to make us think about war in a new way. Yet, in the same way that Chris Hedges book: “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning,” this book too makes the adult mind stand at attention, rendering one “stone sober,” and literally makes all of the sweet-smelling imagery that drapes our socially sanctioned attitudes about war, come crashing to the ground.

I believe all wars have three synonyms. They are: collective death, state sanctioned death and falsely glorified death! Engaging in war is not child’s play; it is not a video game for adult bodies and adolescent minds, because the consequences require adult responsibilities. People are killed and maimed in all numbers. And, even though I have read and reviewed many books on the Civil War, and consider this one one of the most thought-provoking of them all, I do not pose as a Civil War expert. However, one does not need to read a lot of Civil War books or be an expert to discover that while the moral struggle that caused the Civil War drew bright red lines between good and evil, between the inhuman institution of slavery and the freedom that our Founding Fathers claimed to revere, the outcome and consequences since then have served only to blur that clear moral red line, and thus has thrown doubt into the true meaning of the entire American Democratic project. And with it, it has also thrown the same doubt into the real reason and real meaning of that war.

Rather than rehearse the arguments on either side of the dispute, I believe one of the most profound consequences of the Civil War has been to make the U.S. forever a nation that is continually seeking ways to blur and finesse all moral distinctions, so that whenever it needs to, it can then justify following the path of least moral resistance?

This, in my view has slowly eroded, diminished and tarnished all of our high moral principles for which this nation claims to stand. And as a result, has turned our country into a nation that only pretends to be moral.

While constantly living on moral credit, we proclaim all of the high principles that we in fact have no intentions of ever living up to. And too, as we look at the interests that now run our government, the interests that were installed after the coup d’ etat that killed JFK, and especially the right-leaning Supreme Court, the Gerrymandering of Congressional districts, the crooks on K-street who have turned all our politicians into whores, we can easily see that there has been no moral closure in our country since the Civil War. And that perhaps, the wrong side may have lost the shooting war but in the interim, may just have now won the moral/cultural war.

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