I just got back from a trip to Jacksonville, Florida. (I didn’t see any Lynyrd Skynyrd historical sites that I know of, sorry, but I did think about it.) I’d been listening to the audiobook version of A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin for a few weeks and I listened to the book on the way back home to keep me company during a 5-hour layover at DFW.
There are different styles of history. There are those that are centered around events which are very analytical and theory driven, and then there are those that are centered on the people in those events, which — in my opinion — make history much more lively and inviting. A Team of Rivals is of the latter sort. Having read it — or listened to it all the way through —I now feel I have a better picture of the workings of the country at that time.
There is a portion later in the book in which the author describes Lincoln’s reaction to the Siege of Petersburg. It is estimated that the Union had 42,000 casualties in that battle and the South had 28,000. While the Union lost more men, Lincoln had the realization that if this went on long enough the South wouldn’t have an army any more while the Union still would.
This is the horrible arithmetic of war.
By the end of the book, with the Fall of Richmond and the assassination of Lincoln (and the failed assassination of Seward), I found myself sitting at DFW with a hanky in my hand blotting tears from my eyes. The author managed to use her craft to make these people from whom I’m separated by history into people I felt I knew.
That is a rare gift.
When I arrived home from my trip, I went to see the movie Ender’s Game with my son-in-law. It’s a well-made movie with some nice special effects, but don’t go to it for action: it’s a mental movie. You are going to have to pay attention in order to enjoy it.
And I did enjoy it, but it has left me with some questions that take me back more than 20 years.
I remember during the First Gulf War. There was a particular clip of video in which a cruise missile went into the front door of a hangar as pretty as you please. Did I say pretty? It was beautiful. I think I cheered. I know I did.
But then there was the realization that were were people in that hangar. This isn’t a game. It is war.
Now, I am not a pacifist by any means. If someone tried to get to my family, I would do whatever it took to protect them. Whatever. I can justify that rationally and I can justify it emotionally.
When we get into the arena of warfare, the technology involved allows us —for a time — to put distance between ourselves and our enemy. This is true with bows and arrows, with muskets, with rifles, with cannons, with artillery, with bombers, with missiles, and now with drones.
Each of these allows the soldier to attack the enemy with much less risk to himself, at least when he has a technological advantage. When we can’t see the human being killed, it becomes easier in our own minds to deny it. Just like with abortion.
In matters of morality, our emotional thinking can be an invaluable ally to our rationally thinking. In the case of war at a distance we blunt the value of our heart as an ally to our brain, so we must be ever so much more clear with our thinking and ever so much more circumspect. We must also strengthen and discipline our emotions. Praying for those who are put into horrible situations never hurts.
Ultimately, Lincoln understood that horrible arithmetic of war and brought in Grant to put it into effect. The body count was horrendous and in the end the South was put down. The Union was saved and the slaves were set free.
And we do — most of us — cheer at the end of it, but we should also cry.
But it’s definitely not a game.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com.)