Whitman’s War, Our War

As I was saying — May 31 is Walt Whitman’s birthday. I’ve always been struck by his Civil War poems, their brevity and power, the immediacy of them, the empathy in them, the unflinching way he conveyed the suffering he saw and the suffering he took in. For instance, this scene from “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown“:

“We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building;

’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads—’tis now an impromptu hospital;

—Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;

By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down;

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily;)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all;

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers—the yard outside also fill’d;

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches. …”

Whitman was writing for an audience for whom this kind of loss was familiar. When the Civil War ended, every American knew someone who had been killed or wounded (rough arithmetic: 4 percent of the male population counted in the 1860 census died as a result of the war; that’s one in 25 men in the entire country; that ratio in today’s U.S. population would equal 6 million deaths). When Whitman wrote about the horror and tragedy of a field hospital, he was describing a scene that involved his readers in a very personal way.

The Whitman war poem — especially his picture of the field hospital — came to mind in part because, in the midst of my Memorial Day reading, I just happened across a piece from an American military doctor working in a combat hospital in Iraq. It’s immediate and moving in its own way:

“They wheeled the soldier into the ER on a NATO gurney shortly after the chopper touched down. One look at the PJs’ [pararescuemen’s] faces told me that the situation was grim. Their young faces were drawn and tight, and they moved with a sense of directed urgency. They did not even need to speak because the look in their eyes was pleading with us – hurry. And hurry we did.”

The piece isn’t Whitman. For one thing, a lot of the it’s given over to marked pro-war rhetoric and a sort of “Top Gun” meets “ER” attitude that seems a little foreign to the humanity of the situation. And the author is writing about a scene that most of us aren’t personally connected to and probably don’t want to think too much about. That in itself makes it worth the time to read and ponder.

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