I missed having the opportunity to comment on this story last week. First, let me say that I couldn’t be more pleased that developers will be prevented from building a casino at Gettysburg. That said, I’ve always thought that the battlefield preservation debate is best understood as a negotiation between legitimate competing interests rather than a moral crusade. Gregg Segal’s photography project in which he situates re-enactors in various scenes of urban sprawl is perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency to offer a mutually exclusive choice between preservation and commercial development.
Do Civil War re-enactors not shop at Staples, order pizza from Domino’s and do they not live in condominium developments? The assumption seems to be that we must acknowledge these people as the official guardians not only of these important landscapes, but of the past itself. It’s as if we are supposed to believe that they alone commune with the past through a deep connection with the landscape. Consider author David Von Drehle’s over-the-top exercise in melodrama:
The images, which are first of all very inviting with their bold color and dramatic lighting, pack a complex wallop. At first they are funny—proving the theory that humor arises from the unexpected collision of jarring frames of reference. But deeper lies a strong poignancy. These ancestors are all around us, if only we could see them. And what do they think of us, and of what we’ve done with the world they passed along?
These pictures ask us to remember that it happened right here—right where our car slowly drips transmission fluid onto the vast parking lot outside Staples, or where we stand and drink a beer with the neighbors while steaks sizzle on the shiny new gas grill and kids thumb their new Xbox controllers in the basement. And they tell us it could never happen again. We’re too busy shopping.
I don’t mind admitting that I will take a strip mall over the preservation of a large Civil War-era camp site any day of the week.