Everyone has buttons that can be pressed, and I have one as big as a family-size pizza: war. I rail about state-supported murder; aiming and shooting at or bombing other humans; the enormous social, emotional, spiritual, and economic costs of armed conflict.
Yet there I was, in Manassas, Virginia, on assignment as a journalist, visiting the site of the Battle of Manassas (known as Bull Run in the North) — the first major conflict of the Civil War. On July 21, 1861, locals came in high spirits with food-laden baskets; they were going to picnic and watch the skirmish in a war that they thought would last for a single day. Little did they suspect that the Civil War would bloody the landscape for four indelibly horrible years, terminating the lives of 620,000 Americans.
I watched a film in the museum that showed, through re-enactment, how the battle was fought: in Napoleonic style, soldiers lined up abreast, walking toward the maw of the cannons. Boom! Some fell, and the rest continued. Boom! Boom! More died, and more marched on.
It was that damn button. I tried to control my fulmination as I asked the guide how the commanders could have abused the troops that way.
“The guns weren’t very accurate in those days,” he reassured me.
“But why did the soldiers agree to the death march?” I asked. “Why didn’t they turn around and run away? Or break ranks to become smaller targets?”
“There was the matter of pride,” he replied. “It was considered cowardly to run. Also, there was fierce loyalty to fellow soldiers. You didn’t just abandon them.”
“Pride? Cowardice?” I muttered. “And what does loyalty have to do with brain-dead butchery on the battlefield?”
Learning the Code
I was soon to find out that the Civil War code of honor is very much with us today. At the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in Triangle, Virginia, my guide was a young, gung-ho marine, just back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and eager to return to the latter for another round.
“Sorry, ladies,” he said to me and a few fellow female journalists as he led us to an elaborate display of deadly killing devices, “but we’re coming to some really neat weapons, and guys love guns! If I could camp out anywhere, it would be here. When I was six years old, I saw a war movie and wanted to do that. In Iraq, I was carrying my gun, going out to kill, and I was six years old again but this wasn’t a movie. I was in it. Hand-to-hand combat is one of my favorite activities.”
My button. My button. I bit through my lip, trying to control myself.
We walked past a display of a corpsman patching up a bloodied marine. I cringed, but my guide was clearly proud. “As a marine, you look past death. Your sole goal is to be a marine.” He sighed and added, “Semper fidelis is a way of thinking.”
I reeled into the museum’s movie theater and slunk in my seat, watching a film about the U.S. Marines. What first caught my attention was an officer who said, “I’m grateful I had that opportunity to bleed with my men.”
What does that mean? I wondered. Grateful to be wounded or die?
The second arresting quote was something like “You’re not fighting for your mom, your dad or apple pie — you’re fighting for the men beside you.”
The third was “You’ll sacrifice most anything for one of your fellow Marines.”
By then, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. On screen, one marine said, “He was a marine. I’ll take care of him,” and another offered, “No matter what, they’re not gonna let you down.”
In the dark theater, I thought about my own life. Would anyone lay down his life for me, or would I gratefully face death for my near and dear ones? Do we, as a society, foster and promote and teach loyalty, devotion, and total sacrifice for the group? No. Of course not. The emphasis is on career, success, money, getting ahead — the self above all else.
Not one marine, on the screen or in the museum, spoke about any of the above. Money? They earned a pittance. Success? It was only measured in how well they served the group. Getting ahead? No, it was always about partnerships, working together, being the first one in to face danger and the last one out, if that was what was needed.
Were they brainwashed? Did the rigors of boot camp pummel selfishness out of the newly enlisted Marines? Even if it was a form of brainwashing, was it all bad? Were loyalty, responsibility and group-mindedness the wrong messages to teach young people?
Just like that, I dropped my judgment about the prevailing attitudes of the men who fought in the Civil War and the men and women who are fighting our wars today. I do not support armed conflict, but I am in awe of people who can count on each other; who, in their hearts, would do anything for their comrades; who are semper fidelis — always loyal — always accountable.
We who are not fighters, who may be pacifists, who try to live conscious and enlightened lives have something important to learn from our compatriots in uniform. I am sure of it.