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September 10, 2014
Summer films at St Luke's were a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Last year it was a group of nature films about birds. The year before that, it was African American films. This year, the 150th anniversary of the church's founding, we watched Ken Burns' powerful documentary about the bloodiest war in American history. It was 1864 when a small band of townspeople here in Metuchen began to meet for worship in one of their homes -- whatever else they were praying about, the war must have been at the top of their list. That house was very near the train station: they must have watched soldiers and supplies go by on the rails every day.

Nobody alive in America at the time was unaffected. Everybody knew somebody who was serving, and most people knew somebody who had died. Many families lost more than one son. Some families lost all their sons.

Many of the generals in the war, both North and South, knew each other from West Point. Some who opposed each other in battle had been classmates. John Lafayette Rosser and George Armstrong Custer were roommates. Rosser defeated Custer at Trevilian Station in Virginia in July of 1864. In October, Custer defeated Rosser at Tom's Brook and seized his entire wardrobe, including his underwear.

At the war's beginning and before, it seemed clear to some -- on both sides-- that the South could not prevail on its own. Its population was smaller, and it lacked the large industrial centers the North possessed. Both sides anticipated help for the South from its trading partners, England and France, who were hungry for the cotton it grew. That help would never materialize. Still, raised closer to the land than their Northern counterparts, Southern soldiers were more accustomed to many of the things essential to military success at the time: horsemanship, the use of firearms, familiarity with the terrain. And Southerners counted on the ferocity of their devotion to their native soil and the passion of their families' connection to it.

Thousands perished in a day during some encounters, on both sides. In some instances, thousands perished in half an hour. More soldiers died of disease than of gunshot, and the grievously wounded outnumbered both of these.

Sherman's March to the Sea burned its way from Atlanta to Savannah from mid-November to just before Christmas of 1864. It was primarily purposed to demoralize the civilian population, to convince Southerners that their government and its armies could not protect them. It was the largest destruction of civilian property in the entire war, destroying homes, farmland, animals, tools, equipment, food supplies -- everything in its path.

Sherman believed that it would hasten the end of the war. Perhaps it did. What it did not do was bring peace. Military defeat was one thing; the widespread destruction of the people's means of future survival was another. The South was laid low for generations. Some would say it has yet to recover fully.

I am reading Shelby Foote's compendious history of that war. It is slow going -- it's a trilogy, and I am only now finishing the first volume. I read it after listening to the evening news, sometimes, and it can feel like a continuation of what I just heard on the radio. The themes of invasion and destruction, the effect of civilian casualties, the way the passion of defending one's own land differs from the more distant resolve of the invader - it is all still there in war today. In war anywhere, at any time in any century. Armed hostilities may cease, but their cessation does not really end the war. The peace has yet to be won.

Do not expect people to reconcile easily if you destroy their homes or kill their children, no matter who you are or why you struck. Do not expect them to understand. Do not expect them not to strike back. Do not expect the reasons for which the war began to matter much to them -- to matter at all, really. The dead remain dead regardless of the reason, regardless of the cleanness of the method you used. That cleanness was one sided, anyway, clean only for you: the civilian bystander in Iraq killed by a drone launched from the air-conditioned comfort of a bunker in Utah bleeds as red as if he'd been bayoneted on the spot.

We must be careful what we begin. We must be careful of even our noblest motivations: a war may be just or unjust, but it is still a war, and a war is about death and destruction. It cycles around and around, attack for attack, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Do not expect such a deadly symmetry to stop of its own accord.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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