In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, many people spent the weekend declaring, “We should never forget.” Of course, we never should forget the tragedies of that day and the lessons we’ve learned as a result.
But I can’t help but think, as passionately as people demand and promise remembrance, that we, as a nation, are doomed to forget.
How do I know? Because we’ve already forgotten a tragedy of even greater magnitude.
September 17th will mark the 149th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history. The Army of the Potomac clashed against the Army of Northern Virginia near Antietam Creek, just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Neither army had planned to battle there, but so it goes in war. By day’s end, 23,000 Americans were dead, wounded or missing.
While that number dwarfs the number of casualties from the 9/11 terrorist attacks—just under 3,000, by best estimates—it does not in any way devalue the loss of life a decade ago. Many of us were, and still remain, emotionally and geographically connected to the tragedy that unfolded in 2001.
Television and other mass media helped connect Americans to the story, too. Because of the media, the tragedies that unfolded on 9/11 had an immediacy to them that kept us riveted. Everyone felt a part of the story. Many people had personal connections to it.
In 1862, such mass media didn’t exist. In fact, the so-called “War Between the States” was an abstract concept to many people because it was all happening away—far away.
That all changed within days of Antietam. Two days after the battle, photographer Alexander Gardner and assistant James Gibson trekked out to Sharpsburg from their newly opened studio in Washington D.C. They photographed the horrors of the battlefield—capturing some ninety images in all—then exhibited those photos at Matthew Brady’s studio in New York City. Woodcuts of the images were reproduced widely in newspapers across the country.
The photos from Antietam impressed upon the public the horror of the war with an immediacy never before imagined. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it,” wrote The New York Times.
It’s hard for us today to imagine the impact just a few pictures could possibly have, but the photos were the 1862 equivalent of CNN broadcasting live with burning towers in the background.
The battle of Antietam was just one of many that made up the largest national tragedy we’ve ever experienced: civil war. To most people, though, the war is just another piece of dusty, boring history—and who cares about history? Who cares about names/dates/places? Who cares about the people involved? Who cares about the scope of human tragedy? Who cares about the lessons learned, or the ones that should have been learned?
And if we don’t care, then why will we bother to remember?
With 9/11 only ten years behind us, the event is still raw for many people, so it’s easy to remember. Our cultural fascination with picking our own scabs will probably keep it raw for a few more years to come.
But eventually, the shock will wear off, and regardless of how vehemently we promise to always remember, we will start to forget. 9/11, like 9/17—or 6/6 or 12/7 or, I shudder to think, 7/4—will become one more set of names/dates/places for schoolchildren to memorize.
Many of them will resent the fact that they have to memorize such things, just as many of us resented having to do it when we went through school. Or they’ll dread history because it’s so boring, just as so many of us did. After all, it’s history. It’s past. It’s over with. Who cares about that?
Our national uninterest in our own history has already, unfortunately, answered that question pretty loud and clear.
The silver lining is that there are still some people who care—and care passionately. It’s too bad they are such a small minority.
I realize some people might get indignant at the thought that we’ll eventually forget 9/11. However, I offer this bit of evidence: History says we will forget.
© 2011 Emerging Civil War