Gettysburg, Still

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. – Proverbs 11:29

It was a late spring morning, still early enough in the day and the year to be cool. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park had its share of visitors, as it has had every single time I’ve visited, but was not yet crowded on this off-season day. We got our map from the visitors center and made our way to the parking area near the old observation tower, a good place to get some perspective on the site of this horribly bloody American Civil War battle.

We were just orienting ourselves when several large buses pulled in next to our car and unloaded hundreds of men and women in camouflage fatigues. They assembled smartly for a talk about the battle, which had taken place almost 150 years ago. The speaker discussed the positions of the forces, relative size and strength, leadership, movement, tactics, and so on. He took some questions, then went on to describe the horrific nature of war in those days, what the battlefield was like for the men fighting and dying, what it must have sounded, smelled and looked like.

The speaker then went further, deeper. He discussed the social and political context of the Civil War itself. The clash of egos, the carnage of a society grinding against itself, the insanity of neighbors and brothers fighting each other, the resulting destruction.

The camouflage-clad audience was rapt.

Turns out, this group was the graduating class of West Point. And, I came to find out, it’s an annual pilgrimage. The United States Military Academy, in order to train the next generation of our Army’s leaders, still requires cadets to take a trip to this place, and to learn its lessons.

I’ve rarely been more gratified by or prouder of my country’s armed forces than I was at that moment.

History is not just reviewing dusty, old facts. It is fully living in the present, understanding that where we are today is dependent on where we’ve come from.

To show proper appreciation for the great, indeed complete, sacrifices of our brothers who fought and died at Gettysburg, we must all – as West Point cadets do – learn the lessons that are still there for us.

We cannot continue to divide ourselves, particularly over trivialities, and expect to survive.

Do we need another Gettysburg to finally understand this lesson of our history?

Adio, Olympia. Goodbye, Civility.

Why does someone leave a safe Senate seat? If you’re Maine’s Olympia Snow, it might be because you’re good and sick of the direction American government is moving, or, more precisely, the way our elected officials increasingly behave while they conduct the public’s business.

She had first assumed elective office in 1973, a turbulent (think Watergate) yet more civil time in American politics. Officeholders from both parties talked and worked with each other, even in public, to get things done for the broad public benefit. There was general agreement about the necessity of a functioning government. And few, if any, candidates or officials called political opponents agents of Satan, or anything.

By the time Snow was first elected to the US Senate, in 1994, there had been some erosion of civility but, in general, senators behaved like the members of the ultra-exclusive club they were. The Clinton impeachment was a turning point, by all accounts. Things got nasty, got personal, went nuclear. It wasn’t enough to get your bills through, wasn’t enough to stop the other sides bills. You had to diminish your opponent.

Washington politics became fighting to the death.

These days, politicians aren’t only uncooperative, they’re openly hostile to each other. They insist their opponents’ evil with religious fervor. Yesterday, Olympia Snow, the senior senator from Maine, declared she’d finally had enough.

She will leave her seat in America’s highest deliberative legislative body, and leave the verbal bomb-throwing to others. I’ll miss her intelligence, rationality and civility. Her departure is a sign that our country is surrendering to its worst impulses.