Today is 5 Chik’chan 18 Sip

935 shopping days until 4 Ahau 3 K’ank’in.

Graves of unknowns, Cemetery Hill, Gettysburg

Today is also Memorial Day, and Walt Whitman’s birthday. There is a certain felicity in this confluence of dates. Memorial Day was originally enacted to honor the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, and Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in the hospitals around D.C. during that war; his brother was a Union officer who was captured and held as a prisoner of war, but who survived the war. Though Whitman did not serve on the front lines, in the hospitals the horror of war was omnipresent. He helped tend to men with ghastly wounds and sick with infectious disease, and watched many of them die.  After the war he wrote in memory of these dead, and in his memory the faces of the dead shone in the preternatural light of a blazing moon:

Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;

Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;

On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss’d wide,

Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.

In clouds descending, in midnight sleep, of many a face of anguish,

Of the look at first of the mortally wounded—of that indescribable look;

Of the dead on their backs, with arms extended wide,

I dream, I dream, I dream.

Of scenes of nature, the fields and the mountains;

Of the skies, so beauteous after the storm—and at night the moon so unearthly bright,

Shining sweetly, shining down, where we dig the trenches

and gather the heaps,

I dream, I dream, I dream.

Long have they pass’d, long lapsed—faces and trenches and fields;

Long through the carnage I moved with a callous composure—or away from the fallen,

Onward I sped at the time—But now of their forms at night,

I dream, I dream, I dream.

In a country with a population of maybe 30 million souls over half a million soldiers died in the Civil War. Shelby Foote (now deceased, alas) and others have asserted that the weapons were way ahead of the tactics the officers had been taught, and accounted for the high casualty rate. The large caliber soft lead musket bullets inflicted terrible wounds. But most of the deaths in the Civil War were due to the fact that no one knew how to dig a proper latrine, sterilize a scalpel, or had any inkling of or opportunity for personal hygiene. The majority of soldiers died in camp of infectious diseases. The number of American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan is miniscule in comparison. This does not mean we do not have just as much reason to mourn their loss. The number of total casualties is not quite as small. Some have asserted that the deaths have been so few because of our vastly superior military technologies, weapons, and tactics. The real reason so few soldiers (and that few too many) have died in the field in the Iraq and Afghan war, I think, is our vastly superior medical technology, triage, and evacuation techniques. Soldiers who would have died on the field in any former war are scooped up and saved for a fate worse than death: spending the rest of their lives as human jigsaw puzzles. I am sure that some of the severely wounded soldiers are simply glad to be alive; I am equally certain that some of them wish they had died on the battlefield. As per Tommy Franks (remember Tommy Franks?), we’re not counting the civilians, and the DoD keeps the exact number close to its collective bemedaled chest, but as far as total American casualties go, the ratio between the wounded and the dead must be at least 6 to 1. I’m just guessing here, so if anyone wants to go do my research for me and come back and tell me I’m a commie pinko idiot, be my guest.

The ones who live through war remember. Like Walt, they dream of the dead. They dream, they dream, they dream. In their tens of thousands, they dream. The duty of those who send soldiers to war, those who let their children go to war, is to remember, and care for, the living dreamers who dream of dead distorted faces under an unearthly bright moon.


2 responses to “Today is 5 Chik’chan 18 Sip

  1. Dave at collinda

    Well, your guess was in the ball park, the reported casualty figures put the fatality ratio closer to 8:1. However, given VA data for OIF and OEF (Iraq and Afghanistan) veterans, that ratio is likely far higher. Lots of dead men and women walking. And dreaming.

    You call on those who send sons, daughters, loved ones, and strangers to war to care for them. Good call, that. However, a better one is not to send them unless the need is absolute and as a result of a direct and credible threat to the country and its Constitution (rather than that old cover story “our way of life” which for over 150 years translates to “our profits”). Of the 0ver 240 times that those in US uniform have been sent in harms way, only a tiny handful – most generously 3 since the founding of the Republic – represented such a threat and in one of those cases – your example – it was brother killing brother to “preserve the union.”

    USMC General Smedley Butler summed it up perfectly after coming to recognize what his 33 years of service, complete with two Medals of Honor, really meant. He wrote “War is a racket, always has been. It is the only business in which profits are reckoned in dollars and losses in lives.” He went on to observe that for those 33 years [roughly 1900-33] he had been a “high-class hit man for Wall Street.”

    As my brothers in Vietnam Veterans Against the War first declared some 40 years ago, “Honor the warrior, not the war.”

  2. Indeed, Dave, better not to send them at all. Almost all soldiers’ memorials whether the ceremony of a day or piles of stone intend honor the warrior end up glorifying war, it seems to me.

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