Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Civil War...

... is over. The uncivil war continues unabated. Such was my feeling after spending a good part of this day at Gettysburg, where so many thousands of men perished because of a disagreement so profound that it set American against American and cost over six hundred thousand young men's lives.

But first, to start the day, we found ourselves engaged in the disagreement--often uncivil--that divides our country today. I mentioned in passing, at breakfast, my belief that government is a needed and beneficial system to provide society with the stability and equity it needs. I was thinking, of course, of the current health care squabble. My remark provoked an immediate, contrarian response from another, equally American person present, and we were plunged unwillingly into the dispute over who listens to whom... and how wrong they are. The discussion could very easily have degenerated into a much angrier exchange, but I think we all realized that this was not the time or the place.

We were still thinking about the country's current division--and not only over health care--as we drove toward Gettysburg. There seems to be, once again, a very obvious moral imperative--to provide for the health care for every one of our citizens, as is done in every other post-industrial country in the world--which has become ensnared in, and obscured my economic and social considerations. The issue is arguably less weighty than the great moral issue of the enslavement of human beings, but still a great moral issue, but it is nonetheless a defining issue about who we are as a nation.

Our visit to Gettysburg was all the more poignant, then, for what we brought to it on this day. Arriving at the Visitor Center, we spent some time in the museum before heading to the theater to watch the moving and informative video narrated by Morgan Freeman, which gave a historical overview of the context and the progress of the battle between North and South. From there, we went on the view the cyclorama, a new and spectacular installation of the massive painting of the battle by the French artist Paul Philoppoteaux, and left the Visitor Center armed with a map to take the Auto Tour.

The self-guided tour around the major battleground sites took us about ninety minutes, and we made only cursory use of all the information available. The huge area is filled with more historical markers, gravesites and memorials than you could possibly take account of, but we were moved to be in the place where so many had their courage tested and so many were obliged to sacrifice their lives. As someone once said, angrily, that idea of “giving one’s life for one’s country” is absurd. Those lives are stolen, snatched away.

No matter what you think of war—and I myself clearly think it to be the greatest and least forgivable aberration of our human species—Gettysburg is a profoundly moving experience. The only inspirational part of it is the memory of that great, brief address that Abraham Lincoln later offered as a memorial to those who died…

From Gettysburg we drove to our next destination in the Amish countryside—through virtually bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way. We arrived at our in near Strassburg, PA, with myself more than a little out of sorts. Drowned my sorrows in a martini before dinner at a local inn, and off to bed in good time.

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