We were late getting to Emek Hamatzleva, the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem where a number of the city’s scouting groups meet, and the ceremony for Israel’s Memorial Day was already in full swing. The scouts were seated in a semicircle on the ground; the rest of us stood behind them where we could get a view of the proceedings. As in the United States, boys and girls here join the scouts at around the age of ten and remain through their late teens, when some become scout leaders, but I could not imagine anything faintly like this being done by American scouts in honor of our Memorial Day, or even July 4th. (In Israel, the two days, Memorial and Independence, are celebrated, in Jewish fashion, one immediately after the other: first mourning, then joy.)
Toward one end of this gathering place, the older scouts and scout leaders had erected a stage and a podium, and on this stage through-out the evening were seated a choir, which now and then rose to sing, and several individuals who read poems chosen for their appropriateness to the occasion.
Israelis, I have noticed, seem to be especially drawn to the making and lighting of fires. Not long after Memorial Day there would come the holiday of Lag B’Omer, celebrated with great night-long bonfires for which children spent days and days collecting wood (and because of which the smell of wood smoke would afterward hang in the air for days). Perhaps, it occurred to me, this passion for wood fire is the result of the fact that Israelis live so heavily surrounded, both inside and out, by stone. On this night, too, fire was key to the proceedings, for suspended in various spots behind and alongside the stage the older scouts had ingeniously strung together a group of naked branches, wrapped in kerosene-soaked cloth, to form words or whole phrases, and as the program came to the point where one of these words or phrases was sung or spoken, a young man wielding a long burning torch set the appropriate group of branches on fire. It was nothing short of spectacular, these words set ablaze against the black sky—though a strong unseasonable wind now and then also sent showers of sparks flying into the audience.
It could have been the wind and smoke and sparks that caused so many eyes to blink back tears that night, but a far more likely culprit was another continuing feature of the program. This involved a large screen set up halfway between stage and audience. On it were flashed, one by one, the individual pictures of each and every member of the scouts from this area who had fallen in one or another of Israel’s wars, beginning with 1948. As each picture was shown, over the loudspeaker came a voice announcing the individual’s name, his place and date of birth, and the date of his death. In other words, central to this memorial program was the steady reminder that each of these young and fallen scouts had his own name, his own face (to judge from the photographs, a face still smooth with innocence), and his own personal history, and was not merely going to be included in some statistic and then forgotten, even by those of us—probably most of the people present—who had never known him or even heard of him.
And strangely, or perhaps not strangely, as I stood that night in far-off Jerusalem, I found myself haunted by thoughts not about Israel’s dead but rather about a recent book that had nothing remotely to do with the subject of Israel. What kept going through my mind were images from April 1865: the Month that Saved America1 by Jay Winik, a vivid, almost tactile, account of the final bloody weeks of the American Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and, at long and sorrowing last, the surrender, one by one, of all the armies of the South.
There are books that a reader especially admires (“How did he do that?”), and there are books that a reader envies (“I could never in a million years have written anything like that”), and for me Winik’s book was both. While not offering any new revelation, April 1865 is at once both dense with detail and gripping—no mean feat for a subject that has already been gone over and over by so many distinguished, sometimes great, historians, biographers, autobiographers, poets, and diarists, not to speak of that ever active and learned army of Civil-War buffs, both Northern and Southern, who not only know the full history of the war but seem to know every blade of grass on every one of its battlefields.
What haunted my memory in particular as I stood there in Emek Hamatzleva were Winik’s accounts of a couple of battles—bloodlettings—that took place not during the fateful April of the book’s title but a year earlier, when anyone with the capacity to be the least bit dispassionate—not that there could have been many such just then—might already have realized that the South could not win and that from now on all the slaughter would be merely that, slaughter. And what slaughter: in the end, Winik tells us, over 620,000 were killed in the war, an almost unimaginably high proportion of the population of the time (20 million in the North, 9.5 million in the South). In any civil war, what adds immeasurably to the horror is the fact that troops are so often fighting men who had only yesterday been their neighbors, even in some cases their friends. In the American Civil War, the members of the opposing armies had been virtual brothers, and the bloodshed among them was on that account all the more dreadful.
The battles that came all unbidden to my mind were the ones in Virginia between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee from early May to early June 1864, in the course of a campaign that moved southward from a place aptly called Wilderness to a place called Cold Harbor just a few miles east of Richmond. Winik describes how in Wilderness—in virgin woods so thick that the soldiers could only now and then actually see the enemy—the men on both sides, shouting and firing, quickly fell into a chaos in which neither they nor their commanders were certain where they were, or who was fighting in which location. In the midst of all this, exploding shells set the forest underbrush on fire, and soon there came the stench of the burning flesh of the men who were dying to crawl forward. After two days of this, “the Union general hunched his shoulders, crawled into his tent, threw himself face down onto his cot—and wept.”
A couple of days later, in Spot-sylvania, where Lee’s men had constructed an elaborate network of trenches, artillery emplacements, and so on, Grant, hoping to break through the middle, sent his men into what would become prolonged hand-to-hand combat: as Winik characterizes it, “some of the most frightful combat ever fought on American soil.” “The results,” he writes, “were ghastly”:
Union flags intermingled with Confederate flags, Northern limbs with Southern limbs. Blood ran as thick and furious as the rain, turning the muddy trench floors red. And on this muck, the dead and wounded were crushed by the next wave of fighting men, surging forward, jabbing this way and that.
From the fighting at Wilderness to that at Cold Harbor, that is, from May 5 to June 3, Grant is said to have lost 50,000 men, roughly the number of Americans killed during more than ten years in Vietnam. In the nearly a year beyond Cold Harbor that it would take for him finally to vanquish Lee, and with Lee, essentially the Confederacy, he would never again be able to send his men into battle with quite the same determined brutality that had carried him that scanty distance southward in Virginia through the month of May 1864.
Yet for those inclined to think harshly of Grant—at the time, that included not only the entire Confederacy but also many people in the Union who were outraged by the magnitude of the casualty count attributable to him—it would be well to remember that behind the Union general’s will to prevail there was a will even stronger than his and even more determined to vanquish: that of Abraham Lincoln. Through four long years Lincoln’s unswervable purpose had been that the Confederacy must be beaten, and the Union prevail, at all costs. After which, he believed, the South must be treated with great magnanimity and brought with brotherly embrace back into the Union. Indeed, when Lee and Joe Johnston surrendered, carrying the other Confederate generals with them, each was quite unprepared for the handsome treatment he was accorded by his formerly pitiless counterpart, Lee by Grant and Johnston by William Tecumseh Sherman.
By the end of those four years, Lincoln’s ambition was perhaps a mad one. How it would have fared had he himself survived to preside over the postwar settlement one cannot know. But the North could at least enjoy its victory as recompense for the losses it had taken, while the South was left with a well of bitterness that at certain moments and in certain places can be freshly tapped until this very day. In any case, Lincoln did not live, and few were the men in Washington who had had his grit to begin with or shared in his wisdom at the end.
Winik concludes his account of the blackest years in American history on a surprisingly fruity note:
The nation. For all the changes, the nation was now a powerful, compelling, enthralling idea, a symbol of a sturdy country, an embodiment of an enduring people, an arena for the peaceful resolution of difference, the stitch in the fabric that even the Founders missed.
In fact, it would take something like another 50 or 60 years, the settlement of the whole country, the establishment of all of the continental 48 states, the introduction of a variety of new populations from abroad, and the beginning of the long, slow industrialization of the South before it could truly be said that the Founders’ fabric had withstood the test.
But I do not mean to cavil. The main achievement of Winik’s book is the way it succeeds in so vividly reminding us that in the end the fate of this society—and no doubt of every democratic society—must sooner or later hang on the ability of brave men to call on others to be as brave as they. In the case of the South this was no simple thing. The South’s men were brave, certainly as brave as Grant’s and Sherman’s, but they came from, and were fighting for, a deeply flawed society. For all their courage, somewhere in their being they had to have been affected by an impediment beyond the admittedly critical fact that the South was an agrarian society fighting against an industrialized one. True, they were fighting for their very homes, while the Yankees were fighting for an abstraction called the Union. But they had to have been touched by the institution of slavery in the way that Thomas Jefferson had been touched by it when he said, “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”
Still, the men on both sides carried on bravely, as Winik describes their doing at Wilderness and Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, stepping over their comrades’ and enemies’ burned and blood-soaked corpses in order to advance, or at least to resist being pushed back. To this day, and despite the thousands of pages devoted to such battles by historians, the ghastliness of those days in America’s final coming-into-being does not fade.
But that war also happened long ago, and it bears no relation to the kind of sorrow that was being invoked at the Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem. Why, in the face of all the terrors that have since befallen the world, and particularly the Jews, should I have been reminded of it? I think it was those pictures being flashed on the screen.
There are, to be sure, Civil War memorials of some kind standing in parks or greens in virtually every city, town, and village in the Eastern and Central United States, North and South. These are usually monuments with plaques designating the regiment, or regiments, to which the young men from that town or city were attached. In certain private clubs and colleges there are also collections of plaques memorializing members or students who fell in the war. But monuments and brass plaques are inevitably abstractions; pictures of faces say and do something else.
In the United States, the closest we come to evoking the particular sense of war that was in the air that night at Emek Hamatzleva is at the Vietnam memorial in Washington, the low black wall on which is engraved the name of every soldier who fell in that godforsaken and ultimately useless conflict. The memorial was designed to be a kind of dark and forbidding abstraction—a symbol of the country’s putative attitude to Vietnam—but the thousands upon thousands of people who visit it, placing hands or kisses on individual names and leaving notes and flowers, have completely overcome the original intention of both the design and the committee of authorities who accepted it. They have made it private.
But names, too, are not photographs. I do not know how many soldiers have fallen in the combined wars of Israel and their aftermaths; proportionally speaking, the number, high as it must be, surely does not compare with the losses of the Civil War. But to memorialize them as the scouts did that night—reminding everyone that but for an accident of history, any of them could have been one’s own brother or child—is also to send a defiant message about Jewish fate: unlike in previous times, this time, in this place, no one is going to go nameless or faceless to his death. Sending such a message was almost certainly not the scouts’ conscious intention that night; even the oldest of them were too young to harbor thoughts sparked by long-term historical memories. Conscious or not, however, for me (and no doubt for others), the pledge in the night air was inescapable.
Whether this pledge is a source of strength or a weakness is something I do not know. Thinking about Lincoln and Grant and Lee, I suspect that an impulse like the one I have described can sometimes, if not indeed always, interfere with what may need to be done.
Many years ago, almost at the end of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when the Israelis were still occupying a piece of Egypt and Henry Kissinger was pressing them to release the entrapped Egyptian Third Army, I was taken on a tour down through the Sinai and across the Suez Canal on a pontoon bridge to Israel-occupied Egypt. My host and guide was the Israeli author, sometime diplomat, and soon to become beloved friend Hanoch Bartov. All through the Sinai we saw dead tanks lying in the sand like so many giant squashed insects, and at one moment we watched in horror as an Israeli fighter plane high above us was hit and began its spiral descent to earth, landing we could not tell where.
In Egypt we drove around for a while and came on an Israeli encampment. The soldiers there were identified by Hanoch as “Shmuelik’s boys,” the Shmuel in question being their commanding officer. They were all young, wearing the sloppy uniforms that are—or anyway used to be—the pride of the Israeli army, and they clearly had nothing to do but sit around waiting. They had just made some coffee and offered it to us. Hanoch asked them, “Are you anxious to get home?” They answered that they were content to remain in Egypt for as long as they were needed. As we made our way back over the pontoon bridge, I knew that I would never set foot in Egypt again and was sad, but I also wondered if Israeli troops would ever be required to turn up there again.
I said to Hanoch, thinking of the recent ugly conduct of the so-called radical young in America’s elite universities, “You certainly know how to raise wonderful boys.”
“Yes,” said Hanoch, “and we certainly know how to kill them.”
I have not in more than 25 years forgotten this conversation, because I wanted to remonstrate with him and yet, secure American that I was, I dared not. I wanted to say, “That way leads to thoughts of peace instead of thoughts of invincible power, which are the thoughts Israel needs to concentrate on right now. To hold yourselves rather than your enemies responsible for the deaths of your boys will make it increasingly difficult for you to do what will need to be done.”
I did not, of course, know the half of it then: did not know that fantasies of peace would one day psychologically disarm many Israelis to the point where they could actually contemplate bartering away their brothers in order to placate their enemies. How Abraham Lincoln, determined (and much vilified) savior of a strong and united country, would have frowned upon them.
Around the time of the Yom Kippur War, Americans, too, began to beguile themselves afresh with the signing of treaties and agreements to insure that they could be secure without keeping themselves prepared for trouble. But Americans live with two great oceans on their eastern and western borders, and with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south; they might perhaps be forgiven a little (but not much) for imagining that paper could protect them from the unpleasant duty of having to remain militarily strong.
Not that the Israelis have failed to keep themselves strong; nor have they gone very far to keep the younger brothers and sons of “Shmuelik’s boys” (one of them my own grandson) out of harm’s way. But only recently they had to step back, or rather were pushed back, from the brink of a truly dangerous delusion: that an understanding could be reached with their enemy by taking upon themselves the full weight of guilt for the conflict between them. For as we know, it is the smell of blood that truly rouses the tiger.
But no such delusion was to be felt among the scouts that night. They were offering solemn homage to those who had died, and there was not a single hint of the idea that they might have died in vain or for a less than justified cause. True, this was the observance of a solemn annual holiday; tomorrow, Independence Day, there would be picnics and fireworks. But something more than routine piety seemed to me on display that night.
Nor, in this, did the scouts seem in any way unique. Something had happened to Jerusalem since my last visit there less than two years earlier. Never had I seen so many flags flying: from cars, from the city’s ubiquitous apartment terraces, down the sides of buildings. Those flags seemed to carry an air not so much of celebration as of sobriety. More than anything else, they appeared to signify a bursting of the bubble of illusion, a return to mean reality.
No one knows what will be the fate of the boys and girls gathered in Emek Hamatzleva that night. Their country is now in a cold, cold war, one for which not even the greatest generals in history—not even Ulysses S. Grant himself—have ever devised a successful counter-strategy Moreover, the world of the safe and comfortable, the world that Lincoln and Grant with so much bloodshed and cruel determination helped bring into being, is growing dangerously weary of their troubles. May they never, even 136 years from now, need someone with the eye and ear of a Jay Winik to remind their descendants of the terrible things they were once obliged to do to save their people.
1 Harper Collins, 448 pp. $32.50.