That that nation might live

If large, deep holes opened up on highways across America and every day carloads of people drove into the holes and crashed, would we sit and watch as a nation?

Would pundits debate the rights of drivers to continue driving on the highways and and the liberty to fall into the holes, killing themselves and their passengers? Or would you expect a mass uprising to demand government fill the holes and stop the driving until the highways were safe?

As the COVID daily death tallies come in — 2000, 3000, more — I’ve been thinking about America’s relationship to mass death.

How does America deal with mass death? Do we mobilize and make a national cause to save lives? Or do we normalize it and pay attention to other things? How does mass death change the country? Or does it? Can it change politics, or just become part of it?

We’ve had pandemics before; an estimated 675,000 died in the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. Until COVID, the great influenza was the largest mass death event in the country. And yet it was was hardly noted in popular memory; maybe a paragraph at most in American history. We’ve had other forms of mass death — wars, of course. And the numbers are large; 60,000 in Vietnam, WWI deaths were over 100,000, WW2 deaths were around 400,000. But these wars were conducted on other people’s lawns, out of sight. The American sacrifices were discreet- mostly soldiers, mostly young men. And as a fraction of the population they were small; WW2 deaths were 0.39% of population. Still these deaths are commemorated in monuments and memories. The American Civil War killed more, approximately 650,000 North and South. And it was a much greater fraction of the population; more than 2%. And it features prominently in our popular memory.

So, looking for insight in to how mass death is treated in the US, I read This Republic of Suffering, by Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust. I’m a bit of a Civil War fan, and it was highly reviewed and recommended. But, it was a slog, even with an interest and some knowledge about the Civil War. I also have a bit of an interest in death — I took a class on “Death in the West” in college and learned all about the social and historical context of death.

The book is, at heart, an academic, historical study. So, even while it spends time analyzing and exploring popular understandings of the wartime death, it does not then abstract or apply that learning to modern times. But if you’re interested, there’s a lot there.

America didn’t expect the Civil War to be as long, as deadly as it became. And as time passed and the losses mounted, Americans had to come to new terms with death. The Army at the time had little provision for the dead — didn’t record them, communicate with families, had poor and ad hoc burial and funereal accommodation. In large part due to the incredible neglect of the government, new institutions for identifying the dead and responding to worried — then grieving — families emerged. Death had previously been a largely religious matter — and a good death meant eyes on God at the end, and “patriotism was not piety.”

So the sacrifice for the cause, North or South, wasn’t — at least at first — seen as meaningful for the death. Over time, the cause became more significant in the rendering of death and Lincoln at Gettysburg heralded the sacrifice as a consecration. Not religious but civil.

So, what did I learn about America and mass death? The Civil War was a massive, traumatic event that fundamentally reshaped America. In retrospect, the sacrifice was deemed worth the outcome. Or, one could say the awful death was made meaningful by the outcome. There was no guarantee it would end with victory for the North. And ending slavery wasn’t even the goal of the war when it was launched (for the North, for the South is was always about preserving slavery). The Northern dead sacrificed to the war were vindicated by the outcome. It took time, but the Southern dead were also vindicated eventually by the “Lost Cause” mythology which elided slavery in the mist and mystique of the antebellum South. But in both cases, the mass death was given meaning, and, thereby was made acceptable. In any case, the social and political upheaval was on a scale that matched the death. Death, in the words of Lincoln,“That that nation might live.”

The political, social, and moral meaning of the Civil War — which became clearer and more distilled over time — makes it hard to compare other mass death events which don’t have such a “meaning.” Other wars have more muddled outcomes and goals. Do pandemics have any meaning at all?

Image from book: soldiers’ graves in Virginia

But the Civil War may be more exceptional than instructive. Most American mass death doesn’t have that historic and moral meaning. And yet, most American mass death is accepted, more or less quietly. The public seems to quickly adapt to death and consign its meaning as a personal tragedy to be managed personally and within families. In addition to the examples of wars and pandemics described above there are the more quotidian mass death events that we hardly consider: 30–40,000 traffic-related deaths a year, mass shootings, gun accidents, suicides. It’s not that people are unaware of these deaths. It’s that they don’t, by themselves, inspire action, or anger, or political mobilization, for the most part.

So, yes, we can get used to 2000, 3000 people driving into holes in the highways without bothering to do much about it, nor blame our political leaders for their neglect. And, when the holes are finally filled and the death rates revert, we’re more likely to forget the whole thing than remember or have any lasting impact.




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