20 September 2008

Dulce et decorum non est

Mannie Gentile, who works at the Antietam battlefield park, assembled a diorama on his lawn depicting events that occurred in the fighting over Bloody Lane on 17 September 1862. He used unpainted toy soldiers, with some very detailed flags, and in between the photos taken at various stages of the project he has inserted excerpts from the Official Records or from other books about the American Civil War.

What struck me about the Official Records excerpts was how they utilize familiar expressions that we would expect to see in an account of a mid-19th-century battle. 'Quick and deadly thunderbolt' and 'men falling thick and fast' sound too much like well practiced rhetoric to me to really convey the nature of the battle. By contrast, the photos of toy soldiers, often taken in close up, are more effective in conveying an absolute chaos. Smoke emerges from lines of riflemen, the dead confront the next wave of living as the battle flows forward. As if in a movie, one moment we catch a shot of a flag, and another of ranks of men surging up against a rail fence. Yet, in the end, we are none the wiser as to what actually happened. The rebel position is flanked and rebel units then flee as the biter is bit. Without maps illustrating different stages of the battle, we are left with an amorphous account of the engagement that gives us some appreciation of what it might have been like to be present as a 'war reporter', but no real understanding of the operational art involved.

This is not to criticize, exactly. I think Mannie Gentile's technique offers a superb alternative to those neat maps. Imagine if what you saw were things like Mannie's photos, and you had to compile something that went into the Official Records. You would more than likely end up using rhetorical devices to fill in the gaps between simple facts. Union soldiers attacked us. We fired at them. They fired at us. They fled. We charged after them.

It's all rather bald and does no credit to the 'honoured dead' or 'glorious dead' as they would become known. For thousands of human beings, life stopped that September day. Their memories perished just as much as their physical bodies. Whatever value they were perceived to have among friends, family and community was lost forever. For any morally sensitive human being who witnessed these individual tragedies, better to commemorate them with purplish prose and a structured account than to give in to some kind of amoral, heartless chaos that sweeps all before it. That can be left to those more distant in time.

Hat tip to Brett Schulte.

1 comment:

Mannie Gentile said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful analysis of my Sunken Road project.

It started as a way for me to better understand that event of the Battle of Antietam.

Eventually it took on a life of its own.

Between the images of monochromatic plastic soldiers and the rather arid accounts from the OR and War Department tablets, I was quite taken by the contrast between the two as well as by their bloodless commonality.

Very best wishes,