As is frequently the case, a couple of recent incidents have combined to get me interested in the concept of reconciliation. The first incident was the February edition of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall’s fine “Second Saturday Civil War Lecture Series.”
This presentation, entitled “The Meaning and Legacy of Gettysburg,” was made by a well-qualified Civil War historian, retired Air Force officer David Albert. One of the several concepts that he believes contribute to the long-term legacy of this sacred battleground is that of reunion.
It is well known that the battlefield was the site of regular reunions of men from both sides who fought in the battle, for many years. Mr. Albert exemplified this by showing a famous photograph of two grizzled veterans, one in Union blue and the other in Confederate gray, shaking hands in 1913, 50 years after the battle. It is not clear why this concept became so important at Gettysburg, but indeed the battlefield has become a symbol of reconciliation, the eventual healing of a great wound.
Recently, I came across a video of an interview of Dr. Paul Zolbrod for the Veterans Breakfast Club, which includes numerous references to a novel he wrote about the Korean War, “Battle Songs.” Zolbrod is a 1950 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School whom I knew in the early 1950s. I learned that his military service paralleled mine. Drafted seven months before me, he too served in Japan immediately after the Korean cease-fire was signed.
Obviously, I had to read the book. Written when he was a graduate student, it wasn’t published until 2007, when he opposed our war against Iraq. Despite its obscurity, I found it to be quite thought provoking; it is the March selection for our book club.
Zolbrod describes “Battle Songs” as a story of the Korean War in four movements. It documents the experience of four young men from Western Pennsylvania who are drafted early in the 1950s and end up in combat in Korea. The four movements refer to four different perspectives on war in general as personified in four different young men.
The first perspective is man’s inherent need for conflict, to show his superiority over his inferiors. The second perspective is man’s instinctive need to fight to protect his companions against their common enemies. The third perspective is the absolute horror and insanity of war.
The final perspective I found to be profound, the idea that the only way a combatant can overcome his guilt about participation in such an uncivilized activity is by reconciliation with his enemy. In “Battle Songs,” the author exemplifies this by inventing a relationship between a noncombatant GI in Tokyo and a bitter, badly injured survivor of Hiroshima.
Historically, reconciliation has an excellent track record. I recently heard Todd DePastino give a fine presentation on the conclusion of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, which focused on punishment rather than reconciliation, virtually assuring the certainty of World War II. In contrast, our treatment of the defeated Axis powers after World War II has produced healthy nations that are among our strongest partners.
One wonders if reconciliation can ever be achieved with the victims of our society’s social injustices — the Holocaust, slavery and the uprooting of the Native Americans.