The other day I walked around the Manassas National Battlefield Park with a friend. As in, I took a leisurely stroll on a cold, cloudless day through what had been a Civil War battlefield; “today, more than 5,000 acres comprise the battlefield park, allowing the visitor to explore the historic terrain where men fought and died for their beliefs a century ago.” We walked around some of those acres, and we read signs that told of where people died and where people were injured, and we saw cannons where they stood at the time of battle.
According to the park’s website, these are the fatality figures: Battle of First Manassas in July 1861: 4,122 (Union: 2,896; Confederate: 1,226); and the Campaign of Second Manassas, August 27 - September 1, 1862: 23,869 (Union: 14,449; Confederate: 9,420). For a “grand” total of 27,991 men killed “for their beliefs” on those 5,000 acres almost one hundred and fifty years ago.
Yes, I know, the Civil War was an important war to fight and win. And so many wars are important because people are fighting for their beliefs. Most recently in Gaza, the Israelis were fighting for their beliefs and the Palestinians were fighting for their beliefs. And we could place placards along the streets that read: “A rocket landed here,” “A man/fighter/terrorist/son died here,” “A building collapsed here,” “A hope for a peaceful future expired here,” “A dream ended here.”
Yes, fighting for one’s beliefs is important. The only problem is, someone is generally going to have a different belief, one that either denies yours or seeks to eradicate yours. What to do? Pretend that only your side counts? Pretend that you can wipe out all detractors? Pretend that those whose beliefs go counter to yours are less human than you? Pretend that all those who don’t agree with you are stupid or naïve or unworthy of thought?
What to do? Fight for your beliefs so that there will always be battlefields to walk through, as parks or re-creations or as real-life battlefields? Or is there an alternative? Is there a way to look in horror at the loss of life and not say “it had to be,” but to say “they didn’t do enough to prevent the killing field”?
If you die for your beliefs you cannot live to fulfill your beliefs. So what, really, are you fighting for?
Yes, this is surely sacrilegious to say, especially for a Jewish woman, what with our history of fighting and dying for our beliefs. But really, we are in the 21st century now, can’t we somehow progress from fighting and then talking, to talking and then NOT fighting? It’s not as if we don’t know what happens when two sides fight, we know. We know that people die, people get bitterer, people hold onto their positions even tighter to validate that loss of life. Yes, they died for a reason, which is just a circular argument with death itself validating the reason for dying.
If we can transplant hearts and lungs, the very things we need for life, can’t we finally transplant those swords into ploughshares? Hasn’t history presented us with enough battlefields to stroll along? And enough heroes who died for their beliefs to honor and uphold? Isn’t it time to take to heart non-violence, not as an anomaly but as strategy and tactic and way of being? Does human history really need to keep repeating itself?
I’m not sure how this would come to pass, but perhaps a start would be for each person to accept every other person on this earth as being worthy of life and hope. Surely that shouldn’t be so hard for isn’t that, really, the basis of all religions (which seem to be used as the raison d’être for far too many wars, or at least the never-ending ones).