Strange the bits of conversation you'll overhear in passing. Especially as you grow older and hearing begins to fade. This one came from a lady talking about a book she'd read about the war in Iraq. She liked it an awful lot. Stayed up reading it till the early hours of the morning. Then I thought I heard her say, "Seventeen lost in one day. It was the worst loss in American history."
Surely I misheard. But the comment kept running through my mind as I left the bookstore and got out into the fresh air and the hard, cleansing rain that day. I kept shaking my head slowly, half in amazement, half in dismay, but what she'd said wouldn't wash away. The worst loss in American history?
So much for the first day on the Normandy beaches. And the Battle of the Bulge. Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I tried to dredge up others further back: Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. All the way back to Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, where the casualties on both sides were American.
And the sunken road at Fredericksburg, which sent me to a Civil War memoir: "I never realized before what war was. I never before felt so horribly since I was born. To see men dashed to pieces by shot and torn into shreds by shells during the heat and crash of battle is bad enough G-d knows, but to walk alone amongst (the) slaughtered brave in the 'still small hours' of the night . . . God grant I may never have to repeat my last night's experience."
That was Col. Samuel Zook of Winfield Hancock's 2nd Corps writing home after walking amidst the carnage left by one of the many futile charges that day against the Confederates' impregnable position. The Rebs fired at will, crouched behind the stone wall that ran along the old road. And still the Yankees kept coming. Till they stopped. And only death was left.
Every one of those 17 troopers lost that one terrible day in Iraq will leave a gaping wound in their family, in their unit, in what Edmund Burke called the little platoon of society to which each of us belongs. But to think of their loss as unique, as the "worst loss in American history," is to shrink that history, and lose touch with the terrible sweep of the past.
Row after row with strict impunity/The headstones yield their names to the element,/The wind whirs without recollection . . . Allen Tate, "Ode to the Confederate Dead"
The ahistorical think of peace as the normal state of man, rather than a prize won for a precious time by war. In amnesiac America, war is assumed to be the unnatural aberration, an interruption of the normal course of things, rather than a state as old as man himself. Every loss indeed, every war becomes "the worst in American history."
It is good to live in the present, but to live only in the present is to deprive it of proportion, perspective, meaning. Without some appreciation for the past, we cannot live fully in this present. We reduce it to one dimension. And everything that happens seems to be happening for the first time.
No wonder we are always taken by surprise. We forget we can be awakened from our happy dream at any moment. On any day of the calendar. Like September 11. Or December 7. And we are regularly shocked. Imagine: There are people in the world who wish us ill, who are willing to spend years to carry out one devastating attack, who live to die. And kill. Unimaginable. Unless we have some sense of history and our place in it.
Learned fools write impressive books about The End of History, but it refuses to end. It goes on producing one shipwreck after another, but some of us are genuinely astounded, and angered, to discover that we're not on some luxury cruise. War? There must be some mistake. Or a conspiracy. This isn't what we ordered, waiter, this isn't what we ordered at all. Can we send it back?
We'd all prefer to be tourists in history rather than participants. Who wouldn't? But just because we're not interested in war doesn't mean war isn't interested in us. And one day, one perfectly ordinary day, the passenger planes go crashing into the New York skyscrapers, or the Zeros come in low over Pearl Harbor. And we are all so surprised. Again.
I once took the popular cemetery tour down in New Orleans. The pre-Katrina New Orleans, before history struck there, too, three years ago. It was peaceful in the cemetery, lulling. All the love and loss recorded on the cracked old tombstones was so long ago, the pain had faded. Only the fading inscriptions remained. One felt history there no more than the chipped angels on the stone monuments might have felt a mother's pain. It was just an afternoon's entertainment.
Then I got to a little section of plain white, government-issue tombstones, like the ones, row on row of them, at the National Cemetery on Confederate Boulevard here in Little Rock. But all of these bore a single date: June 6, 1944. The Normandy beachhead.
Realization struck: All of us wandering around the old cemetery were breathing free because these men, some of them just boys, really, had died that day. And so many before them, and to come. It was noon in New Orleans under a bright sun, but I felt the shadows lengthening. I felt history beckoning, and realized anew that those who decline to shape it will, one perfectly ordinary day, be unable to escape it.