Saturday, August 29, 2009

American exceptionalism, domestic peace edition

Jeffrey Goldberg recounts a joyful day of whale-watching off Cape Cod with Andrew Sullivan and spouse, and concludes:
And no, Andrew and I didn't discuss the Middle East. Provincetown seems very far from the Middle East.
That chimes with a thought I had last week at Antietam and again at Gettysburg, at the end of a five-day progress up the Blue Ridge and through the Shenandoah valley and points North with my wife. Both battlefields are preserved (and signposted) to the extent that you can easily visualize men slaughtering each other at close range -- in the sunken road and across Antietam Creek at Antietam, from Little Round Top to Devil's Den at its foot at Gettysburg, not to say in the vast open space between the armies' respective ridges, Seminary and Cemetery, where Pickett's suicidal charge presaged the killing fields of World War I.

The thought, which I associate most clearly with the bridge over Antietam Creek in the late afternoon of a cloudless summer day, was that there's been no such slaughter on these fields or on any other (Continental) U.S. soil --- with the anomalous, jarring exception of 9/11--since the Civil War ended. Not just the stillness of the moment but the domestic peace of a century and a half overlies those fields, the cemeteries on their peripheries, the bodies beneath a visitor's feet.

That's not to minimize the sacrifice and sufferings of Americans through a steady stream of foreign wars, or at home through segregation and discrimination, multigenerational poverty and inner city street violence. But here I am, 50, and I can count peers I've known who have died on the fingers of one hand. My wife and I have four healthy parents between us, and had seven grandparents who lived into their seventies or later. I don't think I've been to a dozen funerals in my life. Middle class Americans of my age and younger who have not served in the military are privileged like no generation anywhere has ever been privileged.

Provincetown -- and Iowa City, and South Orange, NJ, and Denver, CO -- do seem very far from the Middle East. If you're not deployed there. We should never forget how lucky we are, and what our forebears have accomplished. Or what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - through their assault on our most basic liberties and Constitutional defenses against dictatorship -- imperiled.

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