Large swaths of Americans fundamentally approach the risk of death differently.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
s ongoing debates over whether to hold the 2020 fall sports season make evident, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered a stark cultural divide in the United States. On one side are those who see the virus as a threat so great that it requires highly restrictive and prolonged measures for its eradication, including the cancellation of sports. On the other side are those who feel they have a measure of the threat, and are willing to accept the risks associated with a wider opening of society, including letting athletes play. The former see the latter as foolish and reckless. The latter see the former as cowardly and weak. Neither side sees much room for agreement, because neither side understands the other.
There is a history to this disagreement that transcends sports. Like the current moment, this history has its roots in crisis. Then, as now, the crisis resulted from death and suffering.
The Civil War looms large over American history for many reasons, not least of which was the scale of death it visited on the nation. The raw numbers are galling enough: Current research has upped the old figure of 620,000 deaths that resulted from the war by 132,000, to a whopping total of 752,000.
In This Republic of Suffering, historian Drew Faust argued that all of this death transformed America. Widespread suffering disrupted Victorian notions of the “Good Death.” Dying well meant making a firm profession of faith in God and, surrounded by loved ones, going on to the eternal reward. But the Civil War killed the nation’s sons in grizzly and unthinkable ways on faraway battlefields. Old cultural norms that offered existential and theological explanations of death seemed out of place in a modern world. After the war, there could be no going back to life as it had been before.
Not everyone is convinced. In “The Great Exaggeration” (Journal of the Civil War Era) historian Nicholas Marshall argues that death and suffering did not overturn the worldviews of many Americans, and in fact probably strengthened their belief systems. While they no doubt suffered, they suffered for a greater purpose. Though death was horrific, it was a cost worth paying to win the war and secure the promise of a better America. No less than Abraham Lincoln said so, but so too did countless diarists, leaving them with a stoicism concerning death that would have struck Faust’s broken souls as coldhearted.
What accounts for this disparity in Americans’ reactions to death? Marshall sees it as a problem of presentism, the sin of historians who measure the past by the standards of the moment in which they write, and not from the point of view of their subjects. Marshall describes a Civil War-era society “constantly coping with large-scale mortality” in peace as much as war. In 1850, Americans had a 77 percent chance of surviving one year beyond birth, and a 62 percent chance to reach the age of 24. One-third of Americans died as preadolescent children in 1850. The average American had a mere 47-percent chance of reaching the age of 49. Americans lived in unclean cities. They lacked purified water. Industrial workplaces were dangerous. Transportation was unsafe. Americans faced infectious diseases, but without antibiotics and knowledge of germ theory. To put it bluntly, Americans of the Civil War era were accustomed to death. The comparatively small uptick in deaths during the war, and the uniquely awful nature of battlefield suffering, upset them, but not enough to compel them to abandon hope.
But this explanation is also unsatisfying. While Faust exaggerated the scale of disruption caused by death in the Civil War, she did not make it up whole cloth. Plenty of Americans viewed the war as earth-shattering and wondered aloud how any God could allow such suffering. The result for many, as Louis Menand argued in The Metaphysical Club, was not merely a loss in belief, but in belief in any beliefs. The prevalence of death in peacetime did not save many Americans from being crushed by the war, to the point of concluding that the best humanity could do was react to situations as they arose, unmoored from so-called eternal principles that had failed to prevent the slaughter.
Something else, something deeper, divided Americans, then as now. For reasons too complex to explain here — but no doubt related to a constellation of personal traits and experiences with adversity, education, religion, and community — large swaths of Americans fundamentally approach the risk of death differently. If this long history is any indicator, that division is not going away. Attempts to bully one side or the other into compliance will beget greater resentment and hostility.
What is required instead is empathy. Neither side is indifferent to suffering; they just have different responses. Those arguing vigorously for mandatory masks, curtailing social activities, and canceling sports honestly believe that the COVID-19 threat of death and disability is epochal. Much like Faust’s subjects who endured the Civil War, they think this threat requires an acceptance that things will never be the same, and that Americans must seek out a “new normal.” Those who want a return to life as it was have acknowledged the devastation wrought by the disease, but have made the calculation that the personal risk is worth suffering through, because the rewards are worth it. For them, it is not about sports, but what sports represent: the life of struggle they know themselves to be living, risks and all.
The compromise, and we will compromise, is somewhere in the middle, and no one will be perfectly happy. Hopefully, even in this polarized time, we can compromise sooner rather than later. That means accepting, for once, that even our deepest held views about life and death are not shared by all. That reality is more than okay, it is what this crazy American experiment is all about in the first place.
Thomas Bruscino and Mitchell G. Klingenberg are military historians at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are theirs, and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Department of Defense.