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Mindful : August 2013
community of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, which ma kes clea r that not long after horrific events we paper over the raw- ness with storytelling that ma kes a tidy package of what was, in truth, a chaotic mess. Our national myths demand it. I was deeply saddened by what I read, by what I saw. Now, when I looked on these fields, I saw something that the boy who played war had not seen. I saw death, occurring repeatedly, brutally, and in la rge num- bers. And not by accident or calamity, but systematically, by desig n. If you know what you’re looking at, as you gaze upon this well-preser ved open-air museum and linger there, you can see the 8,000 dead a nd the 4,000 horses rotting along- side them in the midsummer heat. You ca n understand why Abraham Lincoln was so sad and so mortally exhausted by this war that he would say, “Nothing touches the tired spot.” When Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg four months after the battle, the area was still devastated, a horror show of makeshift graves, dug up from time to time by marauding hogs. The town re- mained enveloped in the stench of war. It was not a scene that inclined one to think of glory or heroism. And Lincoln did not dwell there in his little three- minute speech. He went deeper. He re- defined the country’s past, implying that the phrase “all men are created equal” must now include all. And he offered an agenda for the future: “...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 gave the last full measure of devo- tion—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...” As Yale history professor David Blight has written, Lincoln called out to the liv- ing, proclaiming that they were (and we are) “compelled to remember, and from the stuff of memory, create a new nation from the wreckage of the old.” It’s worth contemplating on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address what unfinished work we still have to do, not just America ns but everybody seek- ing to find some peace and unity in the wreckage of a divided, chaotic world. It is worth remembering the spirit of those 270 words: that we are equal despite our many differences, and if we cannot resolve those differences except through violent means, we may not long endure. We ca nnot let our differences make us forget our fundamental equality, that which unites us all. Can real contem- plation of the facts of a place like Gettys- burg streng then our resolve to continue this unfinished work? On my visits to Gettysburg over the yea rs, I’ve encountered many people from ma ny different places. Under the torch of the eternal peace light memo- rial—inscription: Peace Eternal in a Na- tion United—a nine-yea r-old girl tugs at her father’s sleeve and asks, “How do you know who wins or loses?” Tour groups in multicolored commemorative T-shirts pour off buses bored and sweaty, dazed, unsure what you’re supposed to do for amusement at a battlefield. A middle school history teacher f rom Hawaii re- marks on how much less abstract the war is when you visit the battlefield up close, and “how sad it must have been for these boys to fight and die so far from home, how lonely.” A college professor f rom Maryland muses that the young people he teaches are the same age as the thou- sands who were mowed down in the field before him. A high school teacher f rom Massachusetts notes that we “see the thing as a whole now; those young men only saw their little piece of it.” After lis- tening to an historian describe Pickett’s Charge in detail, an older man pauses, turns away, takes off his Ray-Bans, and wipes his eyes. A black bus driver from Richmond, Virginia, tells me that this is where civil rights in America were born and “the fact that we are one nation in- stead of just many states was established here. Lincoln knew that was the rewa rd, but he also knew the terrible price that had been paid. You go to Disney World to be entertained. You come to Gettys- burg to learn, to stand here and gather a sense of what this nation is.” Visit Gettysburg. If you have children, take them. Don’t breeze through. Stay awhile. Camp there. Don’t be pulled away by the cheesy commercial distrac- tions of ghost tours and wax museums. Hire one of the guides to give you a tour and show you what tra nspired. You will be shocked and moved. By all means, let your children appreciate the bravery of those who fought there—it was monu- mental. But don’t let this lesson be lost: we will inevitably dispute—and deep- ly—with each other, but the results are catastrophic when we ignore how inter- connected we are and leave ourselves no means other than agg ression to navigate our differences. Aggression can start small, but it escalates. Gettysburg is a still portrait of what that escalation can lead to. These are lessons not for American history class alone. Forgetting the toll aggression takes is so much easier than remembering it. It’s easier to justify fighting as the solution to our inevitable opposing interests and viewpoints. The ultimate reason to remember Gettysburg is not so much to replay the exploits of the victors and the vanquished. It is to remember, to mourn, how much is lost when we, each of us, choose to fight to the death. ● Forgetting the toll aggression takes is so much easier than remembering it. Aggression can start small, but it escalates. Gettysburg is a still portrait of what that escalation can lead to. August 2013 mindful 63