Essay: Those who fight wars die in wars

Perspectives: The Gettysburg Battlefield after 150 years

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As we stop to remember the 150th anniversary of the bloody battle of Gettysburg, it is important to look beyond the monuments and remember the lives that ended there. This provides an opportunity to think again about war, about what it is we ask of those who fight them. I engaged in this process recently as a means to conclude my study of the meaning of America's wars and the sacrifices they ask of those who fight them.

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- On a warm June morning two years ago -- it was the week following Memorial Day -- my wife, Susan, and I visited Gettysburg, stopping at peaceful places with pastoral names such as the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Plum Run and Rose Farm, and pausing at bucolic places like McPherson's Barn, Culp Farm and Codori Farm.

We looked at a long line of Confederate cannons ironically resting on Seminary Ridge. Across a gentle valley Union cannons faced them. They sat on a peaceful Cemetery Ridge. The fields and hills in and around this community were filled with stilled and spiked cannons and with monuments: to individuals, battles, military units and states. By one count there are 1,300 solid works of bronze or granite that silently memorialize.

The Southern states were reluctant in the early years after the Civil War to establish monuments at Gettysburg. In the 20th century they did. The North Carolina Monument is striking. A bronze sculpture by Gutzon Borglum, who did the famous sculpting on the face of Mount Rushmore, this monument has five figures in it. Each wears the look of a man engaged in a very emotional experience. One is downed with wounds and is urging his friends to advance; another is young and scared; others are resolute.

The sculpture is positioned on Seminary Ridge, near the fields where a North Carolina brigade went to join in Pickett's bloody and unsuccessful charge on the third and final day of the battle.

The 26th North Carolina Regiment had suffered heavy casualties on the first day of battle at McPherson's Ridge, and the remnants then joined with Maj. Gen. George Pickett on day three. They suffered 82 percent casualties in these two days at Gettysburg, the highest of any regiment on either side in the battle. This included, by some accounts, four sets of twins, all of whom were killed or wounded.

Across from the North Carolina monument, we stood at the "Angle," that place where the old stone wall on Cemetery Ridge moved sharply perpendicular. Here was the high point of the Confederate charge, a high point touched but never held.

A small remnant of the 26th North Carolina planted its colors here briefly. A monument marks the spot where Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead was mortally wounded while leading a charge into the Union lines. A few hundred yards away a few months later, Abraham Lincoln delivered his address inaugurating the cemetery.

Looking out from the Angle to the west and northwest is a long, sloping field that was a major killing ground. Now a meadow, in the summer of 1863 it was corn, wheat and clover. The Emmitsburg road, a country lane, meanders through, and its wooden fence evokes pastoral nostalgia.

On July 3,1863, the fence that stood there was an obstacle that slowed the charging Confederates and made them even better targets for Union fire. Over three days in early July 1863, there were some 50,000 casualties in the fields around Gettysburg; about 7,900 men died.

David Smith was a 39-year-old blacksmith from Elmer, N.J., who served with the 12th New Jersey Volunteers. At Gettysburg he was near the Angle, and his unit was also involved in heavy fighting in the area down the hill where the Bliss farm was located. Smith would write to his wife, Elizabeth, in early August 1863, "I think you would not want to read the details of the fight as it was."

He said that on the afternoon of July 3, he sat by the stone wall at Cemetery Ridge and fired until he "had blisters on my hand as big as 10 cent pieces." His gun was too hot to touch. After the fight, he went down onto the field littered with Confederate dead and dying, "the hardest mission I had ever been on, the ground being nearly covered with the dead and wounded, the wounded crying for help & water & to be killed & so on."

Gettysburg is as good a place as any to reflect on the meaning of America's wars and the sacrifices they have required. Such reflections need to acknowledge that they cannot provide absolute answers or generalizable meanings. Each war and each battle in each war was different. Here, around this little Pennsylvania town, finally the momentum of this great and terrible war shifted; there would be more bloody battles, but the Union would be preserved, and it would be a Union without human slavery.

If these are causes worth fighting for, and I believe they are, it would require more providential judgment, or simple arrogance, than I care to inflict in order to proclaim that these causes worth fighting for were also worth someone else dying for.

But if we have learned anything, it is that the one always follows the other. The more abstractly the deaths are counted, perhaps the easier to rationalize their sacrifices. Among compilations of numbers on reports and then names chiseled in stone, there are very human stories to be told. Numbers obscure names, and in time even names fade away from signifying human beings doing difficult things and dying too soon. Or suffering for a lifetime the trauma of a single moment.

Harvard philosopher William James spoke in 1897 at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston. He was not comfortable with what he believed to be the romantic view of the Civil War. He said it was necessary to remember the horror, "the great earthworks and their thundering cannon, the commanders and their followers, the wild assault and repulse that for a brief space made night hideous on that far off evening, have all sunk into the blue gulf of the past, and for the majority of this generation are hardly more than an abstract name, a picture, a tale that is told." Soon the great war will be like the siege of Troy, "battles long ago."

Wars may sometimes be necessary, even unavoidable, but for those who must decide necessity, it needs always to be remembered that fighting in wars means dying in wars. It is perhaps even more essential in this era of different types of wars, less crisply defined engagements, fought by less representative American forces, that Congress and the president agree up front that this is a necessary engagement and that they agree upon the military goals.

And they agree that the Republic is willing financially to pay for them. If not, no one should ask others to pay, possibly with their lives. Wars will never be constant from declaration to conclusion; goals will change as circumstances do, but if there is not a clear consensus up front and sign-off along the way, these will become more undefined wars.

Undefined wars are dangerous things; undefined, unknown, anonymous warriors are more than dangerous. They allow wars stripped of the very human dimension and understanding of personal sacrifice that are necessary consequences of war.

The heroic narratives of war and the abstract celebration of warriors do sanitize wars by stripping them of their personality. It is hard to take the personal stories of combat and fit them easily into the heroic narrative. Moreover, if Lincoln would instruct us to remember our obligation to ensure that those who died on this "hallowed ground" did not die in vain, what about grounds less hallowed or even less remembered? Did those who died on Pork Chop Hill in Korea or Hamburger Hill in Vietnam or the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, all places marked by fierce fighting that were later determined to be strategically unnecessary, then die in vain?

I hope not, but declaring these things is beyond my specialty. Nonetheless, each of these places is a reminder of what it is we ask young people to do. Neil Sheehan wrote of Hamburger Hill, "It ought to be one thing to perish on the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima in a great cause and another to fall in a rejected and unsung war." I am not sure who gets to define the "oughts" of these things; nor am I positive it is different for those who fall or for their families.

Sebastian Junger wrote the powerful book "War" and co-directed a companion documentary film, "Restrepo," that focused on Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Combat Team at Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.

Mr. Junger was embedded with this company at that time of sometimes heavy fighting. In 2010, when the army announced it was withdrawing from this place where some 40 soldiers had been killed, Mr. Junger wrote that the men with whom he lived "seemed to make 'sense' of combat in a completely personal way. They were not interested in the rest of the war and they were not much concerned with whether it was just, winnable or even well executed. For soldiers, the fight is what gives a place meaning, rather than the other way around."

As one man from Battle Company wrote, "They might have pulled out, but they can't take away what we accomplished and how hard we fought there."

It was just a base, but those who fought and those who died in this now forsaken valley were young soldiers who had answered the call. They deserve far more identity. They should not be reduced to the place where they fell. The soldier only asked, in words that might have echoed from every battlefield (including Gettysburg) on which Americans have ever fought, "Remember that."

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This essay is excerpted and adapted from "Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them." Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright (C) 2012. Mr. Wright, a Marine before he became a historian and the president of Dartmouth College (1998-2009), has repeatedly visited military hospitals and was named ABC's Person of the Week for his work with injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.


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