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War Is Once Again Desensitized and Fun

Created on 17 August 2012

dunker-church-antietam80How many American soldiers were killed fighting in our current conflict in the Middle East yesterday? How about in total over the last month? Do you know? Of course not! Why? Because no one bothers to report the casualty figures anymore. It was a television mainstay during Vietnam, where people could sit in their living room and witness the horrific pictures and numbers being broadcast right into their  homes. The fact is, this month of August alone, 31 soldiers from the combined coalition forces currently rummaging the deserts and fighting for my  proverbial right to sit here and type on my computer have been killed. 297 have died so far this year. Over 3100 have been killed since the conflict began in 2001. While these numbers pale in comparison to the number of battle deaths and casualties experienced during other wars (the battle of Antietam alone resulted in 3600 deaths combined from both sides during a mere twelve hours of fighting), each one of those numbers represents more than the single, solitary soldier who was killed in action. It represents a family who will never spend another holiday together, a best friend who will never be able to talk to his confidant, or a sports team that will now have one extra locker available. That is why war is horrific, battle trauma aside, because the families that are back at home have to experience the ultimate horror that war can bring: the message that their loved one will not be coming home. Think for a moment and ask yourself which is worse: the bullet that may kill you instantly, or the wait of your spouse standing in the doorway seeing a serviceman walking up the driveway carrying a telegram? War has changed so many times over the course of humanity that it is hard to get an accurate picture of people who were actually against it. During ancient and medieval times, war was constantly inevitable and to take part in it was honorable and glorious. To not participate was cowardly, if not treasonous. Soldiers were viewed in a romantic light as knights in shining armor off to do battle to save a beautiful damsel in distress, or so the epic works tell us. Fast forward to the American Revolution and similar conflicts, and there are no anti-war writings that stand out with any luster. There were Patriots and there were Loyalists. You were for the Crown, or against it. It seems that the nation was swept up in war hysteria, because although people were against a particular side, no one was actually against fighting. The same can be said of the War of 1812 and Mexican-American War. Defense of the homeland from British invasion and the lures of Manifest Destiny in later years erased any thinking that war may actually be bad. That and the numbers of casualties were so small. Weapons were inaccurate, tactics were inept, and the shooting of officers was seen as dishonorable. Wars were fought on distant battlefields where an oblivious population only recieved news from the people on their side, exaggerated news one could presume. More soldiers died from infection and poor sanitary conditions than they did bullets and shrapnel. Could it be that was why everyone was so eager to go off to fight in the Civil War? The Civil War was going to be fun! It was also only going to last only a few days. Maybe a month. Want to know the kicker? Nobody was going to die! Both armies were going to show up, fire a few volleys, some guys would get shot, then a winner would be determined. Any one Johnny Reb could whip ten Billy Yanks, and vice versa. Headstrong was the term of the day. As Shelby Foote wrote in his mammoth The Civil War: A Narrative: “…whatever the consequences, [these people] had allowed themselves to be persuaded that all the blood that would be shed could be mopped up with a congressman’s pocket handkerchief; whereas it now turned out that, at the modest rate of a gallon for every dead man and a pint for each of the wounded, perhaps not all the handkerchiefs in the nation, or both nations, would suffice to soak up the blood that had been spilled at Gettysburg alone.” The reason why the Civil War was different and why it started anti-war movements, something groundbreaking for the time, was because nobody was prepared. People were ignorant of the possible and oncoming bloodshed. By this point, everyone who had fought in the Revolutionary War was deceased. The stories passed down were of bravery and duty, where men stood shoulder to shoulder and took turns blasting away at one another. The Mexican-American War was fought in another country, thousands of miles away. The Civil War would be different, because for starters, the same archaic tactics that had lasted so long were now being put to task with more accurate and deadly weapons. Secondly, this war would not be fought out of sight from the American public, at least not in the south—farmlands and personal property became converted into killing fields and graveyards overnight. Lastly, there was a new stunning invention which would captivate a nation: photography. For the first time ever, people outside of soldiers who had been there could see what carnage would look like. There were no romantic, gallant paintings here, just straight up death. His cause may have been glorious, but in the end, he’s not getting up ever again.


When Mathew Brady snapped the first battlefield photograph of dead bodies, near the Dunker Church at Sharpsburg, Maryland, people had a chance to see something that they otherwise only heard tell. It was ghastly. It was horrific. It was fascinating. The New York Times in October of 1862 had this to say about his work: “As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the street, he has done something very like it.” In other words, war is no longer desensitized. It is for real now. It did not take long for anti-war movements to begin, such as the Copperheads who wanted to see a quick end to the bloodbath, whether it be through Confederate victory (which at around the time the previous quote was written seemed like a very real possibility) or a truce to be signed between both armies. For the first time, people were actually against fighting and not just a particular side. It was revolutionary. People now, after hundreds and thousands of years, recognized that there are not many things worth seeing thousands of young men dying over. Perhaps, for once, people thought of the innocents left stranded on the homefront, with nothing to cling to except hope, memories, and a tiny tint-type photograph. Times are much different now, as were are engaged in a conflict in the Middle East, which as I alluded to earlier, is simply ignored by nearly everyone except those directly affected. Since the Civil War and the birth of the anti-war sentiment, America has gone through a whirlwind of emotions. Two world wars and a conflict in Vietnam have spun our heads around so much that the dizziness will never end. At the end of the “War to End All Wars”, we saw a birth of anti-war popular culture. Erich Maria Remarque gave us All Quiet on the Western Front while Ernest Hemingway penned A Farewell to Arms. Could it be that people finally had enough of war? One would have thought so, but that only lasted a little more than twenty years, before a second world war came around. Once again, the cause was patriotic and just. The negative fervor that surrounded such work that went against the status quo was quickly forgotten as soldiers enlisted by the thousand. Though there were those who spoke out against our involvement in that war, any utterance of the attack on Pearl Harbor would lead to a quick dismissal of any who doubted it (does September 11th ring a more recent bell with anyone?). Jump ahead to Vietnam and all of a sudden we have quite a change of pace. Something happened here that brought back the same feeling first experienced during the Civil War. Maybe it was seeing so many young men being pulled into the service to fight, or the fact that our involvement in Vietnam was corrupt to begin with. I hesitate to call it a “war” and though the verbiage for many years was “conflict”, there are now those who refer to it as a “police action”. Thirty years and more than 50,000 dead Americans later and we cannot even agree on what to call the damn thing. Perhaps that is the cue that we should not have been there in the first place? Nevertheless, something changed during our involvement that led to a complete flip in how anti-war protestors were viewed. There were extremists on both sides, one must admit, but generally, it was now the protestors who were in the majority, and the “War Hawks” who were backwards and ignorant. For the first time in quite a while, it was fashionable to go against a war effort. Do we still feel that way today? There is no clear answer to that question. We are not a pro-war society in the sense that we enthusiastically support the army sending soldiers all over the world, but we still love experiencing warlike, gratuitous violence as seen in video games and certain movies. But are we anti-war? My summation is that we have become so desensitized by war and violence because we see it every day through fiction that we cannot comprehend it when it happens for real. We are so anti-war that we have become ignorant of it. Case in point: how people feel about the fighting we are currently involved in. Ask any person on the street a question relating to it and you will probably be met with a blank stare. I too am guilty, because until I did the research to present you with some casualty figures for this posting, I had no idea either about how many coalition soldiers had died this week, or month, or year, or decade. Just last month I had a chance to witness this lack of feeling for myself, as I taught two week-long educational camps back-to-back at the school I teach history-related electives and coach hockey at, one on the Civil War and the other on World War II. It was a chance to teach them about the major battles and people through PowerPoints, watch some movie clips, and yes, play dodgeball to reenact the battles. It also gave me a chance to probe their minds and see what they know. I asked the middle-school aged audience what I thought were common-knowledge questions about the two aforementioned wars. With the exception of a few of the older kids, who happily give me a run for my money during lectures and presentations (they truly give me hope that the seed of knowledge is not withered and dying, at least not just yet), I was met with your stereotypical cricket-chirping silence. Then I asked, “Who here plays Call of Duty?” Every hand shot up and there were proud smiles on their faces. Of course they play those games. They’re boys, and the game is full of violence. I was the same way. I then asked them, “What happens after you get shot?” The reply was, “You die.” My next question, “Yes, but what next? When you die in the game, what happens next?” Someone then yelled you, “You re-spawn!” That was exactly my point. Your animated death is fictional—bloody and overly violent—but fictional nonetheless. You die, get a little angry that your friend shot you, then you hit restart and come alive again. The point I tried to drive home to these students was the following: “In real war, you do not re-spawn. You do not get up again. You do not pass ‘go’, you do not collect $200. You’re dead, and that’s that.” Depressing? Absolutely, but I was definitely getting through to them because maybe nobody had put it like that to them before. I’ve seen their textbooks and their learning material and how wars are treated. They would do just as well tearing out the pages and throwing them like confetti out the window. We looked at pictures taken from Civil War battlefields and I reiterated, “Every person there is a real human being. I know you play your video games and kill without thinking, but this is real life we are looking at. Those guys laying there are real. They had families. They had loved ones who will never see them again. Think about that.” All that said, I made sure to not discourage them from playing these games because I am not that extreme. All I asked is that they try to learn something, however minute, from these games—believe it or not, these kids surprised themselves with how much they already knew about WWII technology and terminology by playing them. But I also wanted them to remember that their video game is just that, a fantasy. It’s not real. The value of a human life cannot be found in cyberspace. It cannot be cherished and respected. They may know the game is not real, and maybe their parents allowing them to play borders on severe reluctance. But there are people out there who will never know the value of a human life because their sensitivity and grasp of reality has been destroyed by immersing themselves in a fictional culture and being uniformed. Ask some veterans and survivors of wars how they feel about kids and even adults having fun with these games, and maybe they will tell you that is why soldiers do not get the respect they deserve, why people do not think twice before killing someone over something insignificant, why no one has a clue about where our army is in the world and what it is doing, and why war, even after this centuries long roller-coaster ride, has once again become desensitized and fun.