This Republic of Suffering

There was a time in my life when I really thought I was going to work with war for a living. My mother had an uncle who fought in World War II, but as far as I know, that’s the last service member who saw combat in my immediate family. She protested Vietnam, my brother a toddler in tow. Her father was a doctor who pulled extra hours at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he refused to treat a Nazi prisoner of war and was furious about making that choice. My other grandfather was a civilian air raid warden in Long Island, watching for planes coming toward the city. My mother brought my teenage brother to Gettysburg in hopes of discouraging him from enlisting.

What I mean to say is that when I was 7 and became utterly lost to a Books-on-Tape recording of The Odyssey, I was fascinated by the epic strife of the Trojan War, even the boring parts of The Iliad describing the gory and heartrending deaths of ordinary men. When I was 11, my fifth-grade teacher divided our classroom for a month or so and assigned us Civil War identities, and I consumed every Mort Kunstler painting, every Ken Burns episode, every general’s autobiography, every minute of Gettysburg and Glory. In 2008, a friend introduced me to Band of Brothers, a work layering so much oral history and adaptation that I truly considered creating a grad school program to tease it all out. I weep when Gandalf and the Rohirrim charge down to Helm’s Deep at sunrise; I ride waves of fury, action and tragedy in Shakespeare’s Harry Percy, the Hotspur of Henry IV, Part 1; I eagerly deconstruct Captain America’s relationship with violence and imperialism and doing the right thing in the MCU. I remind myself the war that I consume in entertainment has its own agendas and I’m fascinated by that.

I wore out my double VHS of this movie, I watched it so many times.

About a month ago, cultural critics began imploring us to stop calling our struggle against the novel coronavirus a war. The Atlantic, The Washington Post and the academics at The Conversation urged us to abandon the martial mindset, that it was poisoning us, even as others pleaded for a mass mobilization along the lines of World War II. This week, The New York Times published an op-ed that asks a familiar question during wartime in the United States: Where are the photos of people dying of COVID?

It’s upsetting. It shows coffins; it shows a body shrouded in paper; it shows a young man encased in medical equipment, doctors hovering over him. It brings me to the other media about war I’ve consumed: On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, which interrogate and do not absolve us and our desire — our need — to look and to not look. Savage Continent by Keith Lowe, which lays out the utter apocalyptic ruin of post-World War II Europe in ways I’d never grasped, even though I thought I knew. “The Good War”, Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of witnesses from the entire span on the conflict. The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer, the Long Shadow documentaries and book by David Reynolds, last year’s 1917 by Sam Mendes. City of Thieves by David Benioff. Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. War and the Iliad by Rachel Bespaloff and Simone Weil.

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

I’ve owned a copy of This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust for several years now, but I’ve never been able to get very far in. It’s a study of how the staggering death toll of the American Civil War shook and changed society, and it includes crystal-clear images of wounded soldiers looking right at the camera, documented at hospitals. Last year, I saw the famous Ken Burns documentary was on Netflix; I used to borrow each videocassette from the library endlessly on loop when I was a kid, I was so fascinated by it all. Since becoming an adult, however, the early photography which had seemed so distant sharpened into focus. I could see the living and the dead too immediately, too individually, and I couldn’t make it past the third episode.

Last week, a New York City COVID ICU nurse posted a long, immersive account of what it’s like to do her job. It’s harrowing, beyond belief. It should be not happening. It did not have to happen. COVID-19 does have this in common with all wars.

Back in graduate school, my second quarter of four had a segment called Newsroom, in which we chose a beat to follow and file in. I created my own: veterans and military families. I wrote about art therapy, homelessness, access to health care, marriage equality and motherhood while deployed. My last story of the quarter came out over Labor Day weekend, and it was about veteran suicide. Andy and Julianne Weiss of Naperville, Illinois, graciously let me into their home and told me about their son, 1st Lt. Danny Weiss. Danny was a paratrooper, an Army Ranger and a devoted Arrested Development fan. He sounded like an immensely good and cool guy; I wish we could have been friends. He deployed to Afghanistan three times, and was about to serve on a fourth tour when he took his own life.

Andy Weiss was the first person who explained to me the concept of moral injury. “You have to make a decision that assaults your moral intentions, which is to help people,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table.

Andy Weiss on moral injury, May 2013

As of this week, the United States has lost more people to COVID-19 than in all its years fighting the Vietnam War. Depending on how you calculate the total number, we’ve lost one-tenth of the dead lost in the catastrophic Civil War. In Michigan, armed protesters just took over the capitol to protest lifesaving stay-at-home measures. A number of states’ governors are lifting social distancing orders and reopening businesses that are vectors of disease, despite pleas from cities and citizens. One week ago, the president suggested we ingest disinfectants and ultraviolet light to “clean out” the virus. I know at least one person in my apartment building has died of coronavirus; I don’t know if any others are sick, but all I hear outside my Brooklyn apartment windows is birdsong and sirens.

I don’t know how to plan for the future anymore, but I certainly think about moral injury all the time.

2 thoughts on “This Republic of Suffering

  1. Thank you for this piece. I’ve been very disturbed by what’s happening in our ERs and ICUs. If you’re working in one, it must feel like a war zone, so these well-meant exhortations to stop calling this a war just feel wrong somehow.

    Watching the UZI-toting protesters at the Michigan statehouse shocked me to my core. I had no idea that this kind of thing was allowed anywhere in our country. You certainly couldn’t carry in a firearm into the California legislature. You couldn’t walk around anywhere with an semi-automatic slung over your shoulder. Those guys aren’t just putting themselves at risk–they’re risking the lives of their families and friends and neighbors, to say nothing of the first responders in their communities.

    If you haven’t already, I suggest reading “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry. It’s a great book, one of the best I’ve ever read about infectious disease.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you — I can’t fathom the kind of person who wants to carry a gun as a “peaceful protest,” but I’m absolutely glad and grateful there are people who will run into a pandemic to save lives.

      I should! Barry was just interviewed on the Chris Hayes podcast a few weeks ago and I was really impressed by him. I’ll have to check it out.

      Like

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