Saturday, April 18, 2015

On a Battlefield

I'm writing this post on a miraculously tiny computer with a weak internet signal from a tent on the site of a battle from a war that ended 150 years ago.

I can hear someone playing a guitar somewhere, and I can hear my friends telling stories by a fire - a fire where our scout troop just retired six worn flags. In the flag ceremony, we heard about the men (and women!) who fought to keep our country together, the first responders and emergency personnel who keep us safe, and the civil servants who represent us in public office. It is one of the only times an American can burn the flag - and there are a number of customs incorporated in the ceremony to demonstrate respect for it.

It's hard to convey the depth of this to a gaggle of tired young people who just spent a day on a 15-mile bike tour of the battlefield. It's hard to convey to them how close they are in time, as well as space, to the people who died here.

Listening to some of them talk about war, and winning, and glory... and killing... I wish I could say something to them about what I'm seeing on this battlefield.

Because I understand that while we - the United States - won the conflict, we're still fighting that war. I study my family history, and I know how many of my great-grandparents fought, suffered, and sent children and fathers off to return broken, if at all. I know what those people wanted their war to be about, and I know that to these children, 150 years is an unimaginable eternity, and few of them grasp how profoundly different their world could be had things on this battlefield not turned out the way they did.

And I doubt their parents have thought about how remarkable it is that these children think Evil was defeated here. I don't know how we can explain to them that when the fighting ended, evil was still our neighbor, and forgiveness had to begin.

I heard some of the boys talking about other wars - castigating the British, denouncing the Nazis, and bitterly repeating what garbled accounts they have in their minds about Vietnam. I wonder when they will realize that in every case, once the guns fell silent, the survivors had to figure out how to put their world back together.

I have no doubt that some of these boys - maybe even my own - will end up in a uniform, trying to survive so they can put the world back together again. But I'd rather hope that we can figure out how to keep the fighting from happening.

This battlefield is a tourist attraction now. It's a solemn one, but there's no denying that people are here in their RVs, tents, and campers to enjoy themselves. Part of me feels bad about that.

But then I look into the fire at the ashes of retired flags, and realize that this is what the fighting was about. It was always about making a future that was better than what had come before the fighting.

And I'm on this battlefield, sleeping not far from my future, writing about it on a miracle.

That's how I know it's better, and that we won.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

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