January 26, 2008

This Republic of Suffering

Americans had never endured anything like the losses they suffered between 1861 and 1865 and have experienced nothing like them since. Two percent of the United States population died in uniform — 620,000 men, North and South, roughly the same number as those lost in all of America’s other wars from the Revolution through Korea combined. The equivalent toll today would be six million.

The New York Times Book Review this week features Drew Gilpin Faust's new book on the pain and suffering wrought by the obscene casualties during the American Civil War. Faust, a Virginian and a product of Abu Muqawama's alma mater, is currently president of some university in Boston. (Abu Muqawama has also been listening to a podcast interview of Faust, which you can find here.)

Abu Muqawama is from East Tennessee and thus has complicated feelings about the Civil War, an event which lives large in local memory. Memorials dot the landscape back home. The bloody battlefield at Chickamauga is just a short drive down the road, and Abu Muqawama went to high school on another battlefield. Over 60 members of Abu Muqawama's family -- on just one side of his family, that of his paternal grandfather -- fought in the Confederate armies. He has no idea how many people fought on other sides of his family. But as was so often the case in East Tennessee, much of his family likely sympathized with the Union. President Lincoln spent three years trying to rescue East Tennessee, and the fighting there was, honest to goodness, brother against brother. People burned the houses of their cousins and in-laws. Those of you from Lebanon, think of the fighting during Harb al-Jabal during the Lebanese Civil War, and you have an idea of what it was like. Nasty stuff, the likes of which were probably only replicated in other politically contested places like Missouri. For those of you who have an interest, there have been several good books written on the ugliness of the fighting in East Tennessee during the Civil War, most of which are referenced in Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars

Anyway, Abu Muqawama has been dreading the inevitable 4,000th U.S. casualty from the Iraq War (the current count is 3,931) and now feels a bit silly about it. On the other hand, it's important to note the things the U.S. military has done really well since 9/11 and that we probably take for granted. Things like casualty notification and proper burial, for example:

When the war began, the Union Army had no burial details, no graves registration units, no means to notify next of kin, no provision for decent burial, no systematic way to identify or count the dead, no national cemeteries in which to bury them. The corpses of officers often received special treatment, boxed up and sent home in what one entrepreneur advertised as “METALLIC COFFINS ... Warranted Air-Tight” that could “be placed in the Parlor without fear of any odor escaping therefrom.” Dead enlisted men were generally just wrapped in blankets and buried where they died. Officers “get a monument,” a Texas soldier wrote, “you get a hole in the ground and no coffin.” Men going into combat were issued no identification tags. One soldier made sure he always carried a used envelope “somewhere about me so that if killed in battle my friends might know what became of me.”