Hair-Trigger Nation

The End of the Beginning

Like most of America, thirty years ago, I fell in love with the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War.

I’d been a weird history kid my whole life. In elementary school, my mom bought me a monthly subscription to these collectable index cards called Story of America. They had descriptions of historic events on one side and a depiction of the event (or a photo of something related to it) on the other

They were color-coded into different categories that you would organize in the included flip-top file box. Every month you got ten new cards on some significant event or person in American history. They’re how I learned about The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and The Sand Creek Massacre, and the Tweed Machine. They were great. I still recall many of the illustrations.

In second grade, I was enthralled by Dick Cavett’s Remember When on HBO, and Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War on PBS. I was probably the only kid in class who was genuinely excited to watch old black-and-white episodes of Biography when they rolled in the projector.

Which is why, thirty years ago, I was happy to be sitting cross-legged in the orange shag carpet of my parents’ living room, watching PBS.

As kids, we used to crowd around the massive old Zenith console TV like it was a campfire. Even in the twilight of my teenage years it was a habit I hadn’t quite broken, and I recall the sharp silhouette of the Gettysburg cannon filling the screen just a few feet away as the first episode opened.

By the end of that episode, the Sullivan Ballou letter had gutted every single viewer. It made people call other people, sobbing into telephones, to tell them about this heartbreaking thing they’d just heard and this series they just had to watch.

It was the talk of all the morning shows. People told their co-workers about it. By the end of its five-night run, The Civil War had attracted over 40 million viewers, becoming the most-watched show in PBS history.

It broke my heart too, that letter. And, like the rest of America, I got hooked on the series, and the films of Ken Burns. I’ve seen everything he’s ever made multiple times, but The Civil War is unique in the number of hours I’ve devoted to it.

In fact, it’s embarrassing the amount of times I’ve re-watched it. It’s over a thousand, certainly. (I tend to think it’s double that, but it’s just too ludicrous to admit.)

I’ve owned it continuously for twenty years, on all formats, and would rent it from libraries before that. There were a couple of years where I watched it every day. I would put it on in the background while I cleaned, or cooked, or wrote. I can’t recite it start-to-finish, but I can quote it very extensively.

Not far into the first episode is a line written by Ken Burns’ brother, Ric, and read by the narrator, David McCullough. He says:

“Somehow between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in great numbers– if only to become the kind of nation that could no longer quite conceive how that was possible.”

In the thousand times I heard that line, it never struck me as tragically ironic, until a few years ago.

We can all conceive how it’s possible now.

In fact, as the election looms, many of us may be feeling that not only is it possible, it may well be inevitable.

I can’t state unequivocally that war will result from the November ballot, but I do believe this election won’t be the end of anything. To paraphrase Churchill, it won’t even be the beginning of the end. It will only be the end of the beginning.

All One Thing Or All The Other

The feeling among the Southern members for dissolution of the Union is becoming more general. Men are now beginning to talk of it seriously, who twelve months ago hardly permitted themselves to think of it. The crisis is not far ahead.”

Alexander Stevens

That quote comes not too far into the first episode of The Civil War. It is meant to illustrate how quickly it all dissolved back in the 1860’s, but it could just as easily describe the nation today. As the quote concludes, the camera holds on an old still photo of the Capitol Building, the dome still under construction.

“The country was falling apart,” says the narrator.

It would be hard to argue that it isn’t doing so again.

Shelby Foote called the Civil War “the crossroads of our being,” and I think it is clear to most people that we are at another crossroads –half of us committed to one direction, half the other– and it is tearing the nation in two.

“We are separated because of incompatibility of temper…We are divorced, North from South, because we hated each other so.  If we could only separate- a ‘separation a l’agreable’, as the French say it, and not a horrid fight for divorce” 

-Mary Chestnut

Just like Miss Chestnut’s America, we are in camps whose ideas are hateful to one another, but unlike those factions, we can no longer agree even on the nature of what is real.

We have visions of the country that are polar opposites, and an array of beliefs that are diametrically opposed. Our goals for the nation are abhorrent to one another, each side feels that the other is a grave threat to their way of life.

We are, as Lincoln said, “a house divided.”

It’s tempting to think that the house can be reunited; that (as Shelby Foote said in “Episode 1“) it could all be avoided by compromise:

It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it…and it failed.

Shelby Foote

But, there had been compromise before the Civil War –a lot of it.

There had been acts of Congress with “Compromise” in the title. There had been decades of compromise leading up to Secession –nearly a century of it, in fact– and in the end, it didn’t matter. The chasm was too wide to bridge.

There have been uneasy compromises between our respective factions, too –going back fifty years or longer– but, just like The Missouri Compromise, it seems they have done little but forestall the inevitable.

Then, as now, there simply comes a time when the gulf between ideologies makes compromise impossible and our government –which is founded on compromise– grinds to a halt, and things fall apart. It happened then, and it’s happening now.

Each side believes they have a moral imperative, that compromise on their core principles is tantamount to treason. Increasingly it feels as though there is no acceptable center, and the nation must, as Lincoln said, “become all one thing or all the other.”

The middle-ground is disappearing, and we are each unshakable in our respective beliefs that our side represents the thing the nation must become –the other side, the evil that must be opposed.

As Lincoln observed when it happened in his time, “both sides may be, but one must be, wrong.”

It took a war to decide who was right or wrong in 1861, and I fear we may have another in 2021, because –although Lincoln was talking about factually– the moral question of ‘right-ness’ and ‘wrong-ness’ lies at the heart of our disagreements today.

We are like a couple at the end of a marriage, realizing that we do not share the same values, and that there are no more concessions or compromises to be made; realizing that what used to bind us no longer exists; realizing that we are incompatible and that the end has come.

Unfortunately, even more than in 1860, we are finding that an agreeable divorce is not an option. Then, at least, there was a general geographic divide –North and South– but now, (despite the Red State/Blue State maps), we are interspersed. The demarcation divides households. Where can we draw a line?

There is nowhere to run, no safe boundary behind which we may withdraw. We are surrounded by one another –all feeling pressed from every side.

We are a hair-trigger nation; a wire about to snap.

We The People

I live on the north Oregon coast in a miniscule little town called Rockaway Beach. We have no more than 1,500 full-time residents, no grocery store, no gas station, not even a stop light.

When I first came here, I described it to people as going back in time, and it still feels like that to me –and not just because the nearest Big Mac is a half-hour away.

When Rockaway was first settled, a little over a century ago, the only way in or out was to make the sometimes-treacherous journey across the beach, which stretches south to the mouth of Tillamook Bay, a few miles away. If travelers misjudged the tides or beach conditions, they were in real jeopardy.

It didn’t take long for a corduroy log road (and then a railroad) to be constructed, offering residents and visitors safer, more convenient travel options. By the mid 1920’s –fifteen years after the town was founded– the corduroy road was replaced by a thin ribbon of asphalt, first called the Oregon Coast Highway, then renamed Highway 101.

Highway 101 –a two-lane strip of blacktop a hundred yards in from the beach– runs north-south and is the only way in or out of town. Rockaway is bracketed by two bays –Nehalem to the north and Tillamook to the south– and until very recently, frequent seasonal flooding would cut the road on either side, sometimes leaving Rockaway isolated for weeks at a time.

Even with flood mitigation projects in the bays, the artery that is the 101 is still frequently cut by traffic accidents, rock falls (or tree falls), or road washouts.

Our electrical supply is equally vulnerable to the whims of men and Mother Nature, and being frequently without power is just a part of life in Rockaway. (Especially in the winter, when storms shriek in from the wide Pacific, clawing at the beach with forty-foot waves, and slamming into trees and power lines with hurricane force.)

Residents here have to be very comfortable with not just the idea of isolation, but with the daily reality of it. Independence and self-sufficiency are overwhelmingly the defining characteristics of those who choose to make a life here.

That said, we also have to depend on each other here. The isolation has bred a deep sense of community –of belonging; an acknowledgement that we are all in this together. People still help people here.

This is more than abstract observation on my part. A neighbor who saw me struggling to retrieve my garbage cans from the street has taken to frequently returning them to their wood-fenced enclosure on my porch within minutes of the truck emptying them. Which neighbor? I’m not sure. They’ve never identified themselves (though I can make a pretty good guess). I take them out in the morning and they magically return to their pen by noon.

Neighbors have often mowed my lawn without being asked, trimmed my trees, hauled loads to the dump.

A little over a year ago I was struggling with some things surrounding my terminal illness and transplant, and eventually found myself in danger of foreclosure. Many of the town’s residents came together (along with my friends and family) and helped me save my house.

And it’s not just me. A couple of years ago, many of us chipped in to help the café across the street pay off a tax bill and reopen its doors. After the town’s sole grocery store folded, the owner slept in the back room on a cot, living off his shelves of canned goods, not emerging for weeks. Concerned townspeople brought him home-cooked meals.

It’s not that the political divisions that have cleaved the rest of the nation don’t exist here (they very much do), it’s that we know each other as people first, political opinions second. If I were to try to hate one of my Rockaway neighbors for their politics, I would have to ignore what I know about the humanity of that person.

I can love and respect my Rockaway neighbors, even when we disagree deeply on political issues, because I cannot deny their humanity and bedrock decency.

The jagged edges of rough opinions are encased in flesh and blood, hard remarks softened by familiarity with core character.

Here, in this place, we are still a community, even when we disagree.

Here, we are still a people.

But we aren’t unique.

There are tens of thousands of Rockaways dotted all across America, in small towns and neighborhoods in every corner of the country. Maybe the circumstances and specifics differ, but the people are the same.

When we look in our immediate vicinity, the ties that bind us still exist. It isn’t until we lift our gaze to view the nation that they disappear, because we view it through a prism which slices those ties like a razor.

It Made Us An Is

Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’ –grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’

Shelby Foote

In the time just before the Civil War, most Americans had never been further than thirty miles from their own front doors. The conception of the United States as a nation was different then, and most people felt more allegiance and connection to their states and towns than to some abstract and amorphous notion of the nation, because their towns, counties, and states were familiar and relevant to their daily lives. The nation was just words on paper; abstract ideals that rarely intruded in the day-to-day.

It was the war that drove them from their front doors and out into a nation they didn’t know.

At the end of those four bloody years, the men from both armies had tramped the fields, roads, and forests of America, and had met more of their fellow citizens –friend and foe– than they would have happened across in an entire life lived in the antebellum era.

It united them, not just with their comrades-in-arms, but even with their former adversaries, and with the nation as a whole.

Certainly there were still grudges.

A Confederate officer summed up what might as well have been a preview of the Southern attitude for the next century, when he said at the Appomattox surrender, “You may forgive us but won’t be forgiven. There is rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, Sir.”

But even the simmering resentment couldn’t overcome the sense of national community that arose from what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the shared, incommunicable experience of war.”

While the above quote from Shelby Foote may not be totally historically accurate (evidence suggests that the change from ‘are’ to ‘is’ was occurring slowly before the war) it is true in a broad enough sense to make his point: that the war transformed the nation from a loose collection of disconnected communities to a much more unified collective.

The war made people care about their country and feel like part of a national community.

Today, I feel as though the condition has been somewhat reversed: people no longer feel connected to their local communities –our neighbors have become potential enemies– so we’ve withdrawn into safe, virtual communities, where we can vet the beliefs of those we meet, where every interaction is a known quantity.

The United States as a nation is every bit as much of an amorphous and illusory concept today as it was in 1860, so we have created a virtual nation on social media. Every day for two decades we have marshaled armies, fired salvos, and fought vicious battles on a digital battlefield, in the vain hope that victories there would translate to a bloodless victory and a real-life vanquishing in the physical world of the fellow citizens who oppose our views.

In beating this retreat into the digital realm, we have abandoned the ties that hold us together. We view the world through the prism of our phones, turning multi-faceted humans into one-dimensional representations of an ideology or belief.

We attack the belief and conflate it with the person, because we know fewer and fewer people whose beliefs conflict with our own. And so the human understanding –which is inextricable from in-person communication– has vanished from our conversation.

Thus have our devices become knives, cutting at the heart of our republic, slicing at our ties to friends, family, and community.

Having lost these ties, most of us feel more connected to our Facebook groups than our neighborhoods and care more about the opinions of our followers than the erstwhile friends we shed like ill-fitting clothes when we can no longer tolerate their opinions.

Unless we do something soon –unless we find a way to connect with our real world communities and become a unified ‘is’– then I do not believe anything will stop the virtual war from becoming very real, or prevent us all from experiencing, as they did at Gettysburg, an ‘awful universe of battle.’

In writing this piece, I have had a chance to reflect upon my own actions and contributions to the general discord, and I keep thinking back to another, more recent Ken Burns film: The Vietnam War.

In seperate interviews for that film, two former Vietnamese soldiers from opposing factions lament the war, saying:

BOA NINH: “From 1970 on, our enemy on the battlefield was the Army of South Vietnam. They were Vietnamese. That’s the tragedy. The tragedy of the war is that Vietnamese killed each other. American firepower, Vietnamese flesh and blood.

PHAN QUANG TUE: “It was a fratricide. You can say, ‘Well, but-but they are communist.’ Okay, they’re communist. They are the worst Vietnamese in the entire world. We were the good Vietnamese. But let’s face. Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. How – how do you deny that? If you don’t call that fratricide, what do you call that? What do we… How do I explain that to my children?”

If we allow this war to spring to life, then many of us will die for no other reason than the crime of being ‘worse’ Americans than someone else, and if we let it get started, there will be no stopping it.

If that happens, there will be a lot more Sullivan Ballou letters for us to cry over.


Leave a Reply