Monday, April 02, 2012
Shiloh and scabbards
Maybe it's the distance of years; maybe it's that so much blood was shed there, right here in the U.S. of A.; maybe it's simply the nature of that war itself, brother against brother--whatever the reason, the numbers are overwhelming: of the nearly 24,000 American casualties (North and South killed, wounded, or missing) at the Battle of Shiloh, 150 years ago this very week in Tennessee, 2400 were Iowans.
One Civil War battle. Compare that to Iraq and Afghanistan. Skirmishes.
An article in yesterday's Des Moines Register nearly took my breath away. "One of every four Union soldiers killed at Shiloh was an Iowan," wrote Timothy Walch, emeritus Director of the Herbert Hoover Center. "Never before or since, has our state given up so many of its sons in so short a time."
Walch claims that it wasn't supposed to be that way. When the war started and all those Iowa farm boys enlisted, the whole deal wasn't supposed to go more than a few months. Iowans, like many, many others, simply assumed that this gallant attempt to save the Union would be decisive and short-lived. Soon enough, they'd all be home--soon enough to get in a crop or take one out. That was 1861, when the war started. It ended at Appomattox in 1865, four long hellish years later.
All of which made me wonder whether we aren't hard-wired to perceive wars as being short. I know that when the Dutch Resistance started hiding Jews out in the country side in 1941, after the Nazi Occupation had begun, they simply assumed that urban Jews and the rural Calvinists would be holed up together for only a few months. After all, the world would soon enough bring down that odd little mustachioed liar and his German jackbooted henchmen. It took four years of hell.
Just one reason for George Armstrong Custer's demise on a hill above the Little Big Horn River in 1876 was idiotic, racist overconfidence. It never dawned on him that he and his white soldiers couldn't beat the tar out of a bunch of savage redskins. How'd that work out for him? If you're ever in eastern Montana, visit his grave--and that of 268 of his men
Yesterday's Passiontide sermons were on John's gospel account of the arrest and crucifixion of our Savior. What struck me deeply is Christ's simple declaration to Peter, who was not always The Rock. In a fit of ambition and hate and fear I'm sure, Peter whacked off the ear of one of the guards. "Put away your sword," Jesus told him.
That's it. That's all. So much for guns. So much for war. "Put away your sword."
It's one of those commands that's impossible for human beings to follow. We start into singing, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and we just can't seem to help loving the shriek our swords make when pulled from their scabbards. Thank goodness there are no more Republican debates; the war rhetoric on Iran grew almost obscene--all that blessed saber-rattling turned into a game. I wonder whether our passions for calling in the troops has to do somehow with some strange conviction that a good rollicking war doesn't have to take all that long.
Think Afghanistan--ten years and counting.
Think Vietnam--more than 50, 000 American lives.
Walch ends the Shiloh article this way: "National service often requires substantial personal sacrifice" [it certainly does--he risks understatement] ". . .and we should always cherish and commemorate those who gave so much." Surely true. "We must never forget those Iowans who gave their last full measure of devotion 150 years ago this week," he says. "Let 'Shiloh' forever remain on our lips and in our hearts."
Without question, he is not wrong. Every Iowan should know what happened at Shiloh. Every school kid should hear the story this week. I'm serious. It ought to be law.
But this week, Passion week, every Iowan should also hear Christ's rebuke to the too-often impetuous Peter--"put it away."
"Put down the sword."
Something else never to forget.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:15 AM