Lately I’ve been thinking about my visits to the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. Antietam was the single bloodiest day of the Civil War; Gettysburg, fought over three days in early July 1863, left behind even more blood-soaked hills and fields.
Yet you’d hardly know it today. Both these battlefields are remarkably well preserved, even lovely. Compared to Gettysburg, Antietam is less compromised by encroaching development and tourist attractions, and less crowded by monuments to various units and notables. Fewer distractions make Antietam more pleasant, but both sites retain a bucolic quality.
There’s a tranquility, even a serenity, to these battlefields which is so deceptive. It requires a leap of the imagination to hear the cries and moans of the wounded and dying, to smell the awful stench of bloated bodies, to sense the terrifying maelstrom of flying lead and iron seeking out thin-skinned uniforms — and the even thinner human skin underneath.
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Maybe our past battlefields are too quietly beautiful. Maybe they’re too clean and tidy and vibrant. And when we add dioramas and films and gift shops to the mix, do they not become yet another form of mass entertainment? Another exercise in banal consumerism? Another tourist photo-op?
Somehow (and I’m not sure how) we need to regain a keener sense of the costs and horrors of our wars, whether of a century and a half ago or of a heartbeat ahead. For most of us are not getting it, whether from visits to Civil War sites or from virtual visits to Iraq and Afghanistan provided fleetingly in mainstream media coverage.
Whether past, present, or future, war should never be or become an exercise in consumption or entertainment. But we’ve allowed war — so personal and visceral and murderous — to become action-at-a-distance, whether that distance is historical or geographical or emotional. As a result, war and its cruel realities are ever so remote from our daily lives; indeed, for most of us today, our personal “exit strategy” from its horrors is the flick of a switch on a remote control.
Battlefields as serene preserves; war exercised by remote control (as in Predator drones) even as its horrors are excised from family viewing by a different type of remote control.
Our growing remoteness from war has created a new form of national “no fault” divorce: one that tears us asunder from the horrifying costs and realities of our wars.
This article was also published at HuffingtonPost.com