[This is part 3 of a series on the Power of Storytelling. You can start anywhere, but if you want to, or feel compelled to, you can start at Part 1: Ruminating on the Power of Storytelling, or Part 2: Human Nature & Old Pianos]
I’m a military historian, by training. I study war, weapons, tactics, and strategy. I read and write about how people find ways to efficiently kill each other.
It’s not the most uplifting subject, I know. But I love it. I used to love it because I was Hobbesian, a believer in the nasty, brutish, and shortness of life. Now I love it for a different reason.
The Beauty in War.
I know that many, probably yourself included, would argue that there isn’t any beauty in the senseless slaughter of war, and I definitely get where you’re coming from, and a large part of me would agree. War is completely avoidable, in theory at least, and is chock full of senselessness and tragedy, no doubt about it. But to argue that there is no beauty in war depends entirely upon the focus of your attention, the story you want to tell about it.
That’s because as much as Thomas Hobbes, and his followers–one of which used to be me–want to argue to the contrary, people are generally good.
There, I said it. They aren’t basically evil, or self-centered, and there are so many examples to support my statement that I could write volumes upon it, and maybe I will at some point.
The Other Side of War
One of the things that happens in war is that thousands, or millions of men and women go out and kill each other. But the other thing, or I should say many things, is that men, women, and sometimes children, perform extraordinary acts of kindness, charity, compassion, courage, and self-sacrifice all for the sake of their shared humanity, or for those whom they love, for whom they feel comradeship, and even, many times, for those whom they are fighting against: their enemies.
In fact, I think that the level of beauty in war is equal, or greater, than the ugly that occurs. This is an equal and opposite reaction. And the beauty could not happen, without the ugly. It is very much a Yin and Yang scenario. Without the bloodshed and mayhem of war, you cannot have Courage and Compassion that war brings with it. Courage never exists without Fear–something there is no shortage of in war–and Compassion (defined as to suffer with) cannot happen without a heavy dose of suffering–something war delivers in spades.
This is NOT to say that I think war is a good thing. I do not, although I have said such ridiculous things in the past. I was a bit mentally untidy at the time. War is destructive, and should be eradicated. But when we do, we will also eradicate a lot of opportunities for amazing Courage and Compassion.
Angels in Rivers of Blood
In the American Civil War, Americans slaughtered each other in the hundreds of thousands. Six hundred thousand Americans died during that war. The majority of them died of disease, but plenty of them died of bullets, shrapnel, and rifle butts to the side of the head. It was a brutal war by any account, and compared with any in history.
But that’s only part of the story.
In one of the most brutal of the battles of that war, the Battle of Fredericksburg, in 1862, the Union army attempted to seize Marie’s Heights, the ridge overlooking the city, from General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Wave after wave of blue uniforms marched up those hills, and wave after wave of them were mowed down in a hail of hot lead, in clouds of sulfurous gun-smoke to the roar of cannon fire and the smell of cordite.
The first night of the battle was a horrific scene, as thousands of Union men lay dead and dying on the hillside in the cold December air, while an eerie light-show appeared in the heavens—a rare occurrence of the Northern Lights. The wounded cried out in agony for death, for relief, and for the comfort of their mothers, no doubt.
They had no food, no water, no shelter from the cold.
Into this morass waded one Confederate soldier from South Carolina, Robert Rowland Kirkland, with canteens of water, with food, and with blankets. For over an hour and a half he returned, again and again, passing out what little comfort he could to the wounded: Rebel & Yankee alike. Miraculously, no one on either side opened fire upon him, mistaking him for an attacker.
For his bravery, he is known as the Angel of Marie’s Heights. Unfortunately for Kirkland, he would not survive the war. He was cut down in the Battle of Chickamaugua in 1863, but his act of Courage and Compassion in the face of so much inhumanity is now legend, even if it’s also fact.
“War is hell, it’s all hell”, General William Tecumseh Sherman once said.
But that’s only one way to write the story.
War is indeed Hell. But it isn’t all Hell. The story of war can also be written from the perspective of Courage and Compassion, like Kirkland at Fredericksburg. The story of September 11th, can be told as the story of self-sacrifice by firemen and policemen who rushed into those buildings to save their fellow human beings. Many of them never came back. Their deaths, while a tragic, are stories of Courage, Compassion, and Sacrifice.
I recently read a quote from the great Fred Rogers, of the famous, Mr. Roger’s, television show that illustrates this point. He said that when he was a child, and he saw, or heard news of tragedy and death, it would upset him, until his mom told him, “Always look for the helpers.” What amazing advice. He spent most of his life doing just that: looking for the helpers, and becoming one himself.
While war, or suffering in general, isn’t beautiful in and of itself, there is always beauty, usually in the form of Courage and Compassion, following in its wake. You just have to look for that story. It’s always there.
We get to choose the story we want to write, about the world we live in, and about ourselves. So the next time tragedy comes into your story, how will you rewrite it? Will it be one of suffering and defeat? Or will you find a way to make it a story about Courage, Compassion, and our shared Humanity?