After a Time, All Losses are the Same

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

This past holiday weekend I visited two Civil War battlefields:  Antietam and Gettysburg.  While part of my motivation to go was purely the tourist’s curiosity, I also went to remind myself of the multitude of ironies present in armed conflict.  It does me well to contemplate what I believe to be the overall futility of warfare, regardless of the context.  I certainly found plenty of both.  I chose to go in part to celebrate Independence Day in a completely different sort of context.  While I do appreciate the sacrifices made to establish a new nation and with it a groundbreaking experiment in Democracy, my pacifist beliefs often leave me deeply conflicted.  To move nearly one hundred years forward in time from the Revolutionary War to the conflict that tore a hole in our nation’s fabric seemed much more suited for the occasion.    

To begin, when one first begins to survey the battlefield at Antietam, one comes across a Dunker church that was heavily damaged by artillery in the first day of the battle.  The Dunkers were a sect of the German Baptist Brethren, so named because they practiced baptism by way of full immersion.  They were also pacifists, an irony lost on no one, then as well as now.  German Brethren also believed in the value of simplicity, which was confirmed when I walked inside the small structure, noticing the plain wooden pews constructed from rough planks and the complete lack of ornamentation present.  What I saw wasn’t all that different from a Friends meeting house of the period; I tried to imagine what it would have been like during worship with everyone present.

War is a strange thing.  At both Gettysburg and Antietam, two to three days of heavy fighting transformed what had been a quiet, bucolic collection of farms to a muddy mess of bodies, shells, and destruction.  A very brief, but very vicious period of trauma commenced, but then quickly concluded.  The troops on both sides left, the dead were buried, local residents returned to rebuild, and over time the natural beauty of the place returned.  I’ve always thought of this as particularly poignant.  It seems obscene to me that humans would dare defile anything so pretty to air their petty grievances and bring them to some bloody closure.  Yet, with enough time even our own selfish designs are replaced by those of Mother Nature’s.  We may think we assert control and dominance over all that we touch and see, this is proven to be wishful thinking to the highest degree.  God’s ways are not our own, as much as we might think to the contrary.

When one surveys the course of the battle, one finds that despite efforts to the contrary, winners and losers were often determined not by successful planning and execution, but by capitalizing on blunders made by the other side, or simply making less of them than one’s enemy.  Nothing could be more human, and by that I mean mortal.  The technology of the time regarding instruments of death was the most advanced ever created, but human understanding of it was not.  Few knew precisely what fresh hell would be wrought by rifles, cannon shot, and gunpowder.  Few recognized how protracted a struggle would be this war and how much blood would be senselessly shed.  Both sides went into battle believing in the moral rightness of its cause and how quickly the war would conclude.  All were tragically mistaken.

One particular fact stuck out quite dramatically to me.  At nearly thirty, I would have been one of the oldest on the battlefield.  Most of the brutal fighting was done by men much younger than myself.  When I think of how I perceive of men in their late teens and early twenties now, I find the revelation ever more revealing.  When I was that age, I remember how much I had to learn about life and how this blameless deficiency influenced the decisions I made and my thought process.  Perhaps this helps explain the undercurrents and momentum shifts that drive a battle.  And, to this end, war is merely a kind of sport with deadly weapons.  Though our lifespan stretches far beyond youth, if we follow sports, we focus so much attention upon those of a relatively narrow age range.  When one takes into account the whole of one lifetime, athletes can perform at the heights of their talent a very limited number of years.  This is true for the soldiers who toil in the trenches, experiencing horrors I for one cannot even begin to contemplate.

As a Friend mentioned to me, The Civil War rent apart not just a nation, but also Quakers as a whole.  Our anti-war beliefs divided families, created its own variety of deep conflict, and scattered our numbers.  Some went to battle anyway and found themselves unwelcome at their home meetings upon return.  Some Friends were forced to relocate, heading farther into the Appalachian Mountains.  There they settled among hill people who never embraced the plantation system and were too poor to own slaves, as a result feeling no allegiance to the Confederate cause.  Some moved even farther west, eventually settling in Indiana.  A group which embraced pacifism and spoke against the evils of bondage made understandably few in-roads in the Deep South, which is why membership in that part of the country is still relatively minimal.  In many ways, we have still yet to recover.

It is good to be reminded of all of this from time to time.  And on that subject, I have always admired Abraham Lincoln for the context of his Second Inaugural Address.  Lincoln’s response to what was only a few weeks away from the cessation of hostilities and a Union victory was not of jubilant celebration, but instead of sorrow.  In a speech that read more like a sermon than an address, the President noted,

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration,  which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should  cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and  each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has  been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

To Lincoln, God can not be manipulated by human will to favor to one side or the other.  He then invokes the Gospel of Matthew (I have chosen a more modern translation), by stating,

How horrible it will be for the world because it causes people to lose  their faith. Situations that cause people to lose their faith will arise. How horrible it will be for the person who causes someone to lose his faith!

In this passage, Jesus is talking about the importance of preventing believers, particularly young believers from losing faith.  There will always be evil in the world, but this doesn’t mean that we should have the license to use this evil to divide each other for the sake of our own impure intentions.  Young believers, be they young in age or young in allegiance are trusting of those who have been around longer.  Thus, they are easy to manipulate for sordid ends.  As I read this passage, I think about the politicians, the generals, and the ideologues who sold this war and convinced others to enlist into combat.  We are to be like children in our ability to not harden our hearts and listen to the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit, but those who take advantage of this are harshly condemned.

“These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a large stone hung around his neck.”

For this reason, I oppose war.  As much as we try to insulate ourselves from the harrowing realities of the battlefield, it never stops there.  Or, as Catherine Davis so eloquently put it,

After a time, all losses are the same.

One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;

And we go stripped at last the way we came.

Though we shall probe, time and again, our shame,

Who lack the wit to keep or to refuse,

After a time, all losses are the same.

No wit, no luck can beat a losing game;

Good fortune is a reassuring ruse:

And we all go stripped the way we came.

Rage as we will for what we think to claim,

Nothing so much as this bare thought subdues:

After a time, all losses are the same.

The sense of treachery-the want, the blame-

Goes in the end, whether or not we choose,

And we go stripped at last the way we came.

So we, who would go raging, will go tame

When what we have can no longer use:

After a time, all losses are the same;

And we go stripped at last the way we came.


  1. I drove from Washington DC to Memphis last summer, and after a while I got bored with the Interstate and cut off onto some parallel highways that carry very little traffic.

    Every few miles there were “historic markers,” with signs explaining what happened there, mostly in the Civil War, and I stopped at a couple of cemeteries where Union and Confederate soldiers are buried together, just kids almost all of them, 18 or 19 or 20 years old, framed by dates like 1845-1865.

    Apparently the cemeteries were previously maintained by pious Southern ladies in organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, but now those clubs are out of fashion, and nobody bothers to cut the grass or lay wreathes any more.

    Little plots of ground, with iron fences around them, and vines growing over the fences…

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