…I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it is impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is embedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and the more history your learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.
All history is the history of longing. The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions that nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire. Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and eternal salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been the personal.
Yet circumstances alter cases. At crucial historical moments, personal longings become particularly influential in political life; private emotions and public policy resonate with special force, creating seismic changes. This is what happened in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. During those decades, widespread yearnings for regeneration—for rebirth that was variously spiritual, moral, and physical—penetrated public life, inspiring movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century.
For 3 days (July 1-3, 1863) the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hunkered down in their homes and cellars, waiting for the violent storm to pass. Outside the air was filled with bullets, exploding artillery shells, the pounding of horse hooves, and “rebel shrieks” that “permeated their homes, their cellars, their souls” with the “unearthly yells of the exultant and defiant enemy.”
And then finally, it was over. The morning of July 4th was quiet. The guns were silent. During the night the confederate army had pulled out. In his book, The Gettysburg Gospel, the historian Gabor Boritt describes what the residents of Gettysburg found as they emerged from their homes and cellars.
Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps 180,000 men and more than 70,000 horses has been left behind in the area. There are thousands of flies, millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. Seven thousand dead men? More likely close to 10,000. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand, five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses “steaming in the sun.” The smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. Then it had gone and left the horror behind.
But this initial scene portended another horrific scene that would quickly follow. Amongst all the death and destruction around Gettysburg, the fields and hills and woods were filled with the moans and wails of wounded and dying men. There were 21,000 of them between the Union and Confederate armies. That July 4th morning, Gettysburg woke to find the greatest man-made catastrophe in American history.
Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, tell much the same story. “The whole town . . . is one vast hospital. . . . The road, for long distances, is in many places strewn with dead horses . . . the earth in the roads and fields is ploughed to a mire by the army wheels and horses . . . avenues of white tents. . . . But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us! It is absolutely inconceivable. . . . Dead and dying, and wounded . . . torn to pieces in every way.” Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth.
You can’t read Boritt’s narrative of the horrific scene in Gettysburg after the great battle and not be thankful beyond words for the care and compassion and sacrifices made by so many women who came from all over to volunteer as nurses. “Angels” is the only word to describe them. For many of the dying soldiers, the last face or voice they saw or heard would have been one of these nurses providing them with as much comfort—and oftentimes prayers—as possible as they slipped from this world.
At the time of the battle, it was generally felt the outcome of it would decide the fate of the nation. A lot was hanging on what happened during Lee’s invasion of the North. Lee’s invasion plan was to draw the Union army out into the open and destroy it. He came close at Gettysburg. But it just wasn’t meant to be. The significance of the Union army’s victory, the fact that the rebel army was repulsed, badly mauled, and had to retreat, saved the nation, and brought about the planning for the November 19, 1863, ceremony to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for Union army soldiers killed in the battle. Today is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg by train on the evening of November 18th. He stayed at the home of David Wills (no relation that I know of), a local Gettysburg attorney and the man selected by the governor of Pennsylvania to plan the event. There’s been much debate, and Boritt covers much of it in his book, over when Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address. But we have strong evidence to believe Lincoln wrote the first part of it at the White House in ink on White House stationary, before he left Washington, and then finished his speech, in pencil on lined paper, at the Wills home the night of the 18th, possibly during the morning of the 19th.
Lincoln’s primary goal for his short speech was to justify the continuance of the war and to give meaning to the tremendous suffering and sacrifices—“that these dead shall not have died in vain”—being made by Union soldiers and their families so that “the nation might live.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of whether “a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” The war would be the trial-by-fire of this test, from which “a new birth of freedom” would emerge and set America on a new path. Lincoln called upon his listeners to take from this battlefield an increased determination to preserve the national government, to continue the fight for democracy, because in doing so Lincoln believed the American people, in winning this struggle, would affirm to the world that democratically elected governments—here and wherever they may take root—-can and will survive. “That government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I must admit that I can rarely hear Lincoln’s address all the way through and not get a little emotional. Those 265 words, written using the rhythms and phrases of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, are beautiful and so meaningful. I’ve searched the internet for a good reading and the best one I’ve found was one done by former President Barack Obama. So take a few moments on this 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and reflect on Lincoln’s words, their meaning, and how incredibly timeless they really are. To hear these words and feel the force of their meaning is to understand that “the proposition” is still being tested and that it is for us, “the living,” to demonstrate its truth.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.
My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.
I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian “Jose” Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.
My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.
And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.
One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There is no doubt that by eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.
On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.
At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,
‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’
‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’
‘You must’, said Keay.
‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.
For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:
‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.‘
We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.
Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*
Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.
The essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “We may be intolerant even in advocating the cause of Toleration, and so bent on making proselytes to free-thinking as to allow no one to think freely but ourselves.” Hazlitt was anticipating what we’ve come to call PC or political correctness. In this country, as one recent study showed, those who favor or support PC culture are in a very small minority. I personally don’t know anyone who favors it. I do read, however, a fair number of right wingers on twitter who seem utterly consumed by a hatred of it and of anyone for whom they believe stands for it. So let’s return to the central concern of Hazlitt’s quote, “the cause of toleration.” Whether it’s PC culture or the right wing reaction against it, we have people and groups of people who are very intolerant and even some of whom push ideas that are anti-democratic and potentially, given enough time and political chaos, dangerous to the Republic. That’s not, by the way, an opinion; that’s demonstrated history.
So should there be limits to our tolerance? I think it’s a fair question to ask. At what point is being tolerant and open minded a foolish idea? Or should we be tolerant, personally and as a society, of all views, regardless of their danger-to-democracy nature? Should we, for example, regardless of the potential destruction it may bring, be willing to tolerate, say, a Nazi party, or something like it, establishing itself in America, in government? One would hope that couldn’t happen, but just for a moment imagine that it could. Consider that in 1939 there were actually a fair number of Americans open to that idea. If you doubt that, just take a few minutes and watch A Night at the Garden, a video that should haunt anyone’s casual dismissal of the idea.
In a democratic society we should be open to debate and civil discussions of various ideas, especially those we disagree with. But what about anti-democratic, authoritarian, ideas? What if, as some fear now, those ideas start catching on? As history demonstrates, a number of violent and destructive movements—costing the lives and freedoms of millions—could have been stopped had the society and its leaders acted to arrest its growth.
Germany and other European nations currently have laws that constrain hate groups, hate speech, and the symbols used by these groups. These nations are Western liberal democracies, but they have a well founded fear of how things, like the tolerance of the intolerant, can ultimately cause things to get out of hand. These are very tolerant societies to be sure, but only up to a point. We Americans have never had to suffer what many Europeans have, so we can be naive about what could happen in our own country.
And yet being tolerant, I agree, is an important virtue. But when and at what point, I’d ask you to consider, does this virtue potentially empower a virulent set of vices that could threaten our democratic society and the liberties and way of life we cherish? The answer isn’t easy, and yet the question should, I think, be something each of us considers as we observe the forces of reaction in this country and in other places around the world.
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.