No doubt there are a few of you out there who are making your way through Drew G. Faust’s new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008). I picked up a copy yesterday and am about half-way through the first chapter, which doesn’t say much more than what was included in her Journal of Southern History article of a few years ago. I tend to stay away from reviews if I am reading the book in question, but in this case I was curious as to whether the timing of the book’s publication would be connected to the ongoing war in Iraq. Fortunately, I was not disappointed and located a number of references, including this one by Jon Wiener which appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
All history is contemporary history. Faust began writing this book more
than 10 years ago, but its publication now, in the midst of another
war, gives it a special meaning. Without being explicit about it, the
book reminds us what we’re doing when we tell war stories centered on
heroism and noble sacrifice, when we overlook the fact that wars are,
above all, about death. Despite the excessive carnage, the Civil War
did have a worthy goal, and a similar purpose is touted by our current
leaders: bringing freedom and democracy to an oppressed people. But it
seems that all we have brought the Iraqis is a new republic of
It’s no surprise to me that Faust – as a good historian – was not explicit about a possible connection to current events, but I am skeptical as to whether the book offers any lessons/insights regarding how we should go about coming to terms with our own war dead. I say this because as a nation we have been so disconnected from the realities of the Iraq War. In contrast to the Civil War most of us can safely ignore the death and suffering that has been visited on so many families, both here and in Iraq. The Bush Administration worked tirelessly from the beginning to shield the population from the realities of war which it accomplished by “embedding” newspaper reporters into various units and preventing photographs of the coffins of dead servicemen and women. It’s hard to believe that there was ever a debate about coffins. Rather than reflect on the sacrifice made by our military George Bush encouraged Americans to go shopping. And finally there is the entertainment factory that is our mainstream media, which has had so little to say about the war in recent months. For whatever reason the major media outlets kept the realities of war from entering our living rooms at night.
The significance of Faust’s book should not be understood in terms of its relevancy to our current situation, but should serve to remind us of just how disconnected we have become to the sights and emotional pain of war. The number of men mobilized on both sides, the rate of death and injury, the destruction wrought by battles and campaigns, and innovations in photography forced the nation and its leaders to deal directly with death on the grandest of scales. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is infused with imagery and references to the dead and it proved to be effective because his audience understood on the deepest of levels. George Bush has struggled to convince many of his sincerity when referencing the dead and wounded, not because he is necessarily insincere or his speech writers have failed to string together the right combination of words, but because the message falls flat on ears that can’t quite place the references. Perhaps we were too busy shopping.
Faust’s book details the ways in which the scale of death both challenged earlier assumptions about the “Good Death” as well as how it fueled the various debates that defined the Civil War period. Americans contemplated political questions the meaning of the war through the lens of suffering. The impact of war continued to shape the way Americans thought about its meaning long after the guns fell silent. John Neff has recently argued that the path to reunion was not an easy one as the dead on both sides defined the terms and the pace at which parties on both sides were able to reconcile. It is absolutely essential for societies to come to terms with its dead and wounded as it brings the human cost of war and the reasons for it into the sharpest focus.