Tuesday, January 15, 2008


According to the book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War”, by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, half of the dead soldiers in the Civil War were never identified. Neither military force, Union nor Confederate, had a mechanism to identify the dead or notify next of kin. Families on the home front were sometimes notified by a comrade of the fallen soldier, if notified at all.

And countless sailors, soldiers, adventurers, immigrants, died anonymously and far from home. And after the Civil War, Americans, often disenchanted and disheartened veterans, migrated westward. They left their farms, their small towns, their urban slums, or their decimated lands for the frontier. And a new start in a rootless and anonymous country.

Life in the Old West was likely, as Thomas Hobbes described the pre-civilized human condition, “nasty, brutish and short”. People died of injury, disease and violence and were interred in unmarked graves in the vast and shifting landscape.

In the 1990 Kevin Costner film “Dances with Wolves” there is a segment that graphically illustrates the anonymity of death in the west. Costner’s character and the teamster who is hauling his supplies to Fort Sedgwick come across a human skeleton lying on the vast grassy plain. The Teamster says to Costner’s character, after spotting the skeleton, “Someone back east is saying ‘Why don’t he write!”


In such an environment and culture, news of the loss of a loved rarely made it back home. Only the obvious absence over an extended period would mark the loss. The loss was anonymous, distended, cloaked in disconsolate uncertainty.

It is a maxim of conventional thought that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Can it equally be said that missing knowledge requires an acceptable story? Do all effects require causes?

How are such losses explained, placed into context, perhaps finally to be accepted? When can the corpse in the corner of the far-away field be completely laid to rest?


Humans seem hard-wired to look for “satisfiable” answers to questions, causes for effects, reasons for everything. As young children age, “why” replaces “give me”. It isn’t until adolescence that the “pat” answers of paternalistic mythologies short circuit nascent curiosity. Only a few children, those destined to be scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs, adventurers and artists of various sorts, carry that curiosity into adulthood and out into the pathless land.

One of the reasons proffered for the human need for explanation is that it allowed early humans (and animals) to find food, shelter, or to defend themselves against predators. It helped humans create a reproducible and transferable worldview, an extensible package of survival skills. And a way to learn and explain by metaphor. Consider this:

When it rained, game animals camedown to the water puddles to drink water. Early human hunter-gatherers learned that when it rains game animals will be available by the water puddles.

Early human hunter-gatherers learned that when spring comes, edible plants and fruit appear.

This group of hunter-gathers later migrated to a climate that was colder and drier than the one they had formerly occupied. But they take their lessons with them. When trees and plants began to green and grow after the winter season, they knew to look for edible plants and fruit.

Similarly, where there was water in this new dry climate, there would be game animals. And perhaps a new thing to consider. Large predators that take humans as prey!


Many readers are familiar with “The god of the Gaps”. This is the concept that human beings employ mythology, stories, deities, other supernatural entities to explain phenomena that otherwise cannot be explained. Prior to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, nearly all events were written off to a supernatural deity. In the Christian and Judaic world, that was god. In the Muslim lands, it was the same name, although this iteration of god is called allah. And the Vikings had thor, the Greeks zeus and the Sumerians gilgamesh.

In a pre-scientific world, everywhere there was a gap in knowledge, the god de jour was inserted. God made the heavens and the earth. Thor made the thunder. Gilgamesh flooded the earth in ancient Sumeria.


Science can explain just about every phenomenon in the universe. Humans know how life evolved from proteins and single-celled organisms into the range and scope of life today. We know how the earth was formed, we know how the universe began and will end. We know how the universe works at both the inter-galactic scale and the sub-atomic scale.

We have broken the basic code of life and can now manipulate life through its basic building blocks. Sure, there a lot of gaps in our knowledge. But we recognize that through better science, better and more refined theories, we will continue on our course of understanding. We don’t yet know everything, but we will yet know everything.


Injurious random events, murder, and death in violent conflict strain the human psyche as perhaps nothing else. Humans drape such events in ritual, gin up justifications, layout litanies of lies to explain the unexplainable.

Nobody dies for nothing in the enterprise that is war. They do not die for political gain, they never perish in the name of territorial expansion. No one dies to secure oil supplies or establish military bases near the main oil supply route. Graves are not filled to steal the assets of others.

No, they die because they did not pray as hard or as heartfelt as their more devout trench mates. They die because they failed to secure upper-middle class parents. Or because they put their bible in their right chest pocket when the bullet of destiny was aimed at their left side*.

Tthey die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. War is always the wrong place at the wrong time. It takes lying demagogues to convince the masses otherwise.


*It is a common war tale that small pocket bibles stop bullets that would otherwise penetrate the heart. There are probably cases of this happening, but they are probably many more where the round or piece of shrapnel breezed through the paper and dissected the heart.

The Author read one wrenching story by a Kentucky mother whose son was killed at the Hurtgen Forrest in World War II. The boy was killed by a grenade. The Army sent home his possessions and among them was the ubiquitous pocket bible. However, this pocket bible was stained in the boy’s blood and rent by pieces of shrapnel. So much for stopping power.


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