Whenever I have pictured myself as a soldier, something IÕve done many times over the years, especially during the Vietnam era, IÕve imagined myself feeling totally out of place in war.
I imagine myself going along with whatever IÕm supposed to do, because IÕm basically obedient and a conformist, but keeping my thoughts to myself because I would be out of step with the people around me.
At a very deep level, I donÕt ÒgetÓ the idea of sacrificing oneÕs life for oneÕs country. IÕd do it if I were on the battlefield with no other choice, if obedience or conformity demanded it, but IÕd never actively choose to die for a cause.
Or at least, I think I wouldnÕt. I donÕt really know. People get into situations where they risk their lives, but does anyone choose to die?
Trying to understand all this might be the reason I said ÒyesÓ when my husband proposed a trip to Gettysburg, Penn. He started reading about the Civil War a few years ago, and it has become a real interest. To me, the Civil War presents an extreme version of the question I canÕt answer Ñ why die in war? Ñ because it was a war between our own countrymen.
With time running out before our trip, I read one of BobÕs favorite books: ÒKiller Angels,Ó a historical novel about Gettysburg, published in 1974.
It was written by Michael Shaara who became inspired on a trip to Gettysburg with his family, much like the one IÕm about to take, and spent seven years writing a new kind of historical novel that was rejected, at first, by 15 publishers.
Eventually a small publisher took a chance, but Michael Shaara didnÕt experience success because, like many soldiers at Gettysburg, he perished too soon. Although he was around to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Killer Angels in 1975, the book did not become popular and influential until several years after his death in 1988 at age 60.
ÒKiller Angels,Ó although sad, made me eager to see Gettysburg by informing me on three levels.
First, it offered facts. Casualties were horrific. Friend fought friend. West Point grad strategized against West Point grad. Both the geography of the place and the high spirits of the solders influenced the battle plans, some of them questionable, especially on the Confederate side.
Second, it recreated the emotions of the participants. The book doesnÕt pause every time one of the characters dies, and I suppose that simulates what happens on the battlefield. But it does conjure up the emotions of major figures like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Lewis Armistead, a brigadier general who died during one of the most gruesome charges in history.
Shaara also imagines for us the emotions of ordinary soldiers dealing with physical challenges: heat, hunger, exhaustion, and illness. This was all too real to me, since I hate being dirty and uncomfortable.
Harder to understand, at least for me, was the excitement in battle expressed by some of the participants. I donÕt understand why that happens, but I have to believe Shaara got it right, since he based much of his research on letters by soldiers.
Finally, his book is not only about the battle but also about the times, which made me think about our times, too. In the 1860Õs our country was so divided that it fought against itself. Shaara suggests that the motivation of Southerners was not to retain slavery per se but to hold onto a way of life. Is that very different from what todayÕs Tea Party wants?
We should probably be thankful that Republicans, Democrats and Tea Party members are sprinkled everywhere in the country, making it much harder for us to divide against ourselves than when there were slave states in the South and free states in the North. But maps of red and blue sometimes make me nervous.
My husband and I decided to visit Gettysburg in part because we hear that it has a new visitors center and because the battlefield has been restored to its appearance at the time of the war. It always amazes me how quickly the earth restitches itself after a terrible rent. I have heard that Gettysburg lost the look it had during the Civil War simply because trees grew.
But some things stay a long time.
My husband says to me, ÒI know already the marker I will see that will make me cry.Ó HeÕs talking about Lewis ArmisteadÕs marker, the southern general whose friend-against-friend story he finds especially moving.
In many ways, Gettysburg is a heart-breaking extreme of battle. Not only did brother fight brother, but my husband tells me that more Americans died in the Civil War than in World War II.
More died in three days in Gettysburg than in eight years in Iraq.
I usually travel back east to visit people, but when it comes to Gettysburg, weÕll be visiting a place. And a time. And a foggy memory of the history I learned as a young person. And a foggy idea of what I need to learn now.
IÕm going to Gettysburg because my husband wants to go. IÕm going because IÕve never been a soldier, and never will be, but there are still things I want to understand.
Ñ Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.