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Gettysburg at 150: do soldiers die in vain?

ON NOVEMBER 19,1863, a ceremony was held on Cemetery Hill to dedicate a memorial and a graveyard for the Union soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg. Edward Everett was the featured speaker, and he spoke for two hours.

President Abraham Lincoln was invited to express a few appropriate remarks at the dedication and delivered the Gettysburg Address. His speech was over in less than three minutes. So short was his speech that the photographer of the event barely had time to set up his camera and snap the shutter as Lincoln sat down.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary, some of the events of that day were recreated. A succession of Edward Everett's addressed the few thousand people who attended, followed by a recitation of Lincoln's speech by an actor dressed up as Honest Abe. President Obama did not attend.

In the course of his address, Lincoln raised the matter of the dead at Gettysburg having died in vain. He exhorted his audience to highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. He was asking his audience to continue to prosecute the war to final victory in order that those who died on behalf of the Union at Gettysburg and elsewhere shall have had their goal achieved.

Does it mean that soldiers who die in a losing cause die in vain?

The Southern memorials at Gettysburg seem to support the view that they do. The cause of the South during the Civil War was the break up of the American Union and the preservation of the institution of slavery. Southern memorials refer to the devotion to duty, the sacrifices, and the courage in the face of long odds and much suffering of the Confederate soldiers. None of the memorials speak of the Lost Cause, for today everyone realizes the Lost Cause was evil in both its respects.

The people of Gettysburg look upon their military park as a place where the United States comes together. There must be more Confederate flags flown at Gettysburg than anywhere in the Old South. Confederate flags are placed upon the most touching of the Southern memorials: the place where CS General Lewis Armistead fell having crossed the wall near the copse of trees, and the places of furthest advance of the 26th North Carolina and the 11th Mississippi regiments--the stone wall bordering the Taneytown Road at the crisis of Pickett's Charge.

Having won, Northerners can forgive. They can show respect. It would be hurtful if they did the opposite.

If it is granted that soldiers can die in vain, then it is incumbent that the cause soldiers do die for ought to be good. If they die in a losing cause, they die in the satisfaction that their cause was good. Politicians who whip up public sentiment in favour of war need to be certain that the cause they ask others to fight and die for be a good one. Abe Lincoln was certain, and he was right. Just as certain was Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy: and he was wrong.

Like the United States, Canada has sent soldiers to fight and die in places like Korea and Afghanistan. These soldiers did not fight for the cause of Korea or Afghanistan. They fought for the cause of Canada. Their government asked them to go overseas and fight for reasons of national policy too complex to articulate. The evils of Communism and Talibanism require a rational argument to justify fighting. Fighting to protect home, family, friends, and a way of life is simpler and goes to the heart of the matter. Their motivation is simply the Cause of Canada. In the heat of battle, the cause is simplified even further: the guys next to you.

The war in Vietnam was, at the time, hated; and that hatred was turned partly upon the soldiers who returned from that war. They were somehow tainted by the evil that war came to represent. These soldiers went to Vietnam mostly because they were drafted; their government told them they had a job to do in the cause of the interests of the United States. Several decades and the experience of a couple of wars later, passions concerning the treatment of veterans has changed. Now we distinguish between the war that politicians send soldiers on, and the soldiers who answered that call to duty. We notice first and foremost their patriotism.

The passions aroused by war are among the most powerful felt in a society. We send soldiers to fight and perhaps die for some cause or other; and the most powerful and most direct political cause is the cause of Country. The country must be certain that its cause is good, for then the honoured dead, win or lose, shall not have died in vain.

Caption: "Does it mean that soldiers who die in a losing cause die in vain?"

Canadians stand on a bridge above the Highway of Heroes, showing their support for the family of a fallen soldier. lithe cause of war is just, then soldiers "shall not have died in vain." (PETE FISHER)

Vincent J. Curtis is a freelance writer who is interested in military and international affairs Vincent
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Curtis, Vincent
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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