In his captivating novel, Losing Julia, Jonathan Hull describes war as “peer pressure run amok.” It’s the best description of war I know.
I remembered Hull’s description earlier today as John and I traipsed across the field where Pickett made his infamous charge on the last day of the battle at Gettysburg.
As we walked the 1000 yards, open terrain and slightly uphill, across which Pickett’s men charged on July 3, 1863, the same “Why?” entered my mind that had entered my mind when staring across Omaha Beach up to the German machine gun battery. It was the same “Why?” that had plagued me on numerous visits to the Dead Angle on Cheatham Hill in the Kennesaw Mountain National Park in Marietta, Ga. Why would sane men push forward into almost certain death when every cell in their bodies screamed for life in the opposite direction?
History from the Civil War to the present shows us that wars are instigated for power and money. War is the means for one group of men to prosper — whether in territory, natural resources or wealth — over another. But wars are marketed to the public and the soldiers who fight them in grandiose terms such as “the noble cause,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “equality” and a plethora of other positive adjectives that hide the brutality and horror of an exercise from which only the profiteers truly benefit unscathed. Soldiers die or suffer wounds that leave them and those who love them forever scarred.
Yet, on the battlefield in Gettysburg…on that beach in Normandy…up that hill to the Dead Angle, those positive adjectives were drowned in the heat of a life-or-death moment. Why? Why does a free man willingly run into cannon fire?
I asked this question of some fellow hikers years ago. I was driving home from a hike with three men and asked them this question — prefaced with the concession that perhaps my lack of testosterone inhibited my ability to “get it.” Having labored long and hard to bring life into the world, I truly didn’t and don’t understand men’s willingness to wipe it out in war after war after war…
To a man, they all said the same thing. When faced with a hill to take, they were most motivated by the men standing beside them. They did not want to be seen as cowardly…to disappoint their comrades in arms. Peer pressure.
I agree with Hull and see war at its most basic as peer pressure run amok…and yet I am humbled in the face of the valor it begets. It’s hard to visit a place like Gettysburg and not respect the sacrifices made there.
Some 52,000 casualties (dead, wounded, or missing) resulted from the three-day exchange. The armies moved on and the civilians were left to deal with the carnage. By November in 1863, they had removed all the dead from the battlefield and buried them on a peaceful hill, most in unknown graves.
It was here that President Lincoln came to participate in the commemoration of the cemetery. A monument marks the spot where Lincoln, the last speaker on the agenda that November day, delivered his famous address.
Some 151 years later, the solemn hope in Lincoln’s words still rings true.