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Remembering the Civil War

On this Memorial Day weekend, we might well think especially of the war that gave rise to Decoration Day, in time so renamed.

Nancy Pearl has made the observation that every generation of Americans since the end of the civil war has re-written that war in fictional form to reflect its own "dreams, desires, fears, and beliefs."

The nineteenth century was not over yet when Crane wrote RED BADGE OF COURAGE.

Forty years after Crane, Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND gave us a crystallization of nostalgia for the antebellum society of Tara and the O'Hara clan.

Twenty years after that, MacKinley Kantor wrote ANDERSONVILLE, a novelization of the horrors of life in that prisoner-of-war camp.

Identifying more recent books is easy. Deciding which of the more recent ones deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those is more difficult. COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier, can make a strong claim. Pearl mentions others.

On a trip through Virginia a few years ago, I noticed that the sports teams of Appomattox High School call themselves "The Generals." I bet when they lose, the sportswriters of the towns of the rival team can't help but begin with a lede like this: The Appomattox Generals surrendered again Wednesday to the Jubreau Devil's crushing linesmen...."

Anyway, I'll close on more somber thoughts. I've never thought that the existence of war as such is much of a mystery. If you think of humans as mammals, with a pack instinct, and if you think of the packs as competing for often dwindling resources, then war however tragic and even self-defeating seems a plausible enough consequence of straightforward conflicts.

BUT ... war in that sense is always a matter of "us" versus "them" thinking. That is at its heart. and that is precisely why civil war is so mysterious and compelling a phenomenon.  A civil war happens when some part of "us" starts to think of another part of "us" as a "them." And that leads to reflections deep and dark enough to merit a long weekend.





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