War will always be with us in some form.
This August, we marked the centenary of the beginning of World War I – the Great War. It was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” The conflict introduced battle tactics that seemed novel at the time, and also forever changed warfare from what in the late 19th century was thought to be just and ethical to something monstrous and senseless.
Many of the tactics used and suffering endured had actually been encountered before. They had been used during the greatest conflagration on the North American continent, the American Civil War. Trench warfare, the use of trains, shellshock – all of this ravaged the nation that had thought itself protected by great seas from the conflicts of the Old World.
The war was shockingly bloody. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who captured Atlanta and led the March to the Sea, regularly denounced war as “hell.” But he was no idealist. In a letter to one of his brigadier generals, Sherman expressed his ruthless realism when it came to dealing with the South: “No rebels shall be allowed to remain at Davis Mill so much as an hour. Allow them to go, but do not let them stay. And let it be known that if a farmer wishes to burn his cotton, his house, his family, and himself, he may do so. But not his corn. We want that.”
My father, whose family has deep roots in the south, recounted a story to me when I was a child. I recently asked him to tell it to me again.
“Your grandmother and I were driving back from Florida to St. Simons Island, Georgia, and we decided to visit the historical site of the Civil War Battle of Olustee, also known as the Battle of Ocean Pond. We were on US90, southwest of Jacksonville. One of our relatives, on her side of the family, had fought and been wounded there. We drove into the parking lot to find it empty – not a single car. We got out and started walking toward the battlefield site, located behind a screen of trees.
As we were walking, I saw several flags flapping in the wind on the other side. We could make out only one flag, which appeared to be a Confederate battle flag. We could not make out the others. We assumed it was re-enactors, or maybe a memorial site with flags. When we got through the screen of trees, and entered the field that was the battlefield site, there was nothing, no flags. We walked back to the car and there was no wind, and we heard an airplane flying by.”
As we remember the beginning of the Great War, and look with concern on recent global events, I am reminded of my father’s story and the quote from William Faulkner in his book, Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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