The first major battle of the American Civil War, on July 21, 1861, earned the nickname “picnic battle” because spectators showed up with sandwiches and opera glasses.
These onlookers, who included several U.S. congressmen, came to the countryside near Manassas, Va., to watch what they expected to be a victory for the Union and a swift end to the war that had begun three months before. What was to be a glorious moment of triumph resulted instead in a bloody defeat for the Union that sent the picnickers scrambling for safety.
After the war, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said to a group of cadets: “War is hell.”
I was born in April 1941, just eight months before the U.S. entered what became known as World War II. One of my earliest memories is of being with my father in downtown San Francisco on Aug. 14, 1945, in what I learned later was a wild, out-of-control celebration reacting to the news of Japan’s surrender following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the war, news from the battlefields focused mostly on Allied victories — in newspaper headlines and theater newsreels — censored sufficiently to protect the troops and maintain high morale at home.
My awareness of the Korean “conflict” really did not hit me until years later while watching episodes of “M*A*S*H.” I remember only one contact with that war: My favorite junior high teacher left one of his arms in Korea.
Vietnam is called “the first television war.” Advances in video and audio recording and transmission made news coverage easier, and more immediate and extensive, while the percentage of Americans owning a television soared to nearly 100 percent. To gain and maintain audience share, the networks for the first time brought vivid, chilling news from the front lines straight into our living rooms — increasingly on color TV sets. Any remaining glory of warfare was lost in the massive protests that divided our country and did not end until after the war ended.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I were on vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with “Good Morning America” on the television while we finished breakfast and prepared to leave our hotel room. We saw Charlie Gibson looking at Diane Sawyer when she said, “We just got a report that there has been some sort of explosion at the World Trade Center in New York City. One report said — and we can’t confirm any of this — a plane may have hit one of the two towers ...” Jan and I never made it to the beach that day as a new era of warfare began, forever changing life in America.
Fast-forward to Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine after denying that its military buildup on Ukraine’s border was preparing for a full-scale attack on its sovereign neighbor. Now, technological advances and courageous reporting bring the world deep inside the bloody action to witness the immense destruction of schools, hospitals, industrial plants, businesses, homes and the murder of thousands of innocent citizens. How much can we bear to watch?
Today, there is more: We and our children watch on our high-definition, large-screen televisions and visit the aftermath of a bloody, murderous assault by Hamas on an Israeli music festival, leaving hundreds of bodies to mourn. We go into private homes with uneaten breakfast still on the table, see blood splashed on the walls and enter nurseries with blood-soaked bedding; we look inside bullet-ridden, burned-out automobiles with dead bodies lying around. Shouldn’t these news reports be PG rated?
How much of this do we have to witness before we pack up our lunch and flee the battle scene? Let’s “lay down our sword and shield” and join Pete Seeger “down by the riverside and study war no more.”
This is what I want to do. The sickening reality is that our big screen TVs will carry these horrifying scenes of warfare for a long time to come.
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” — Matthew 24:6.
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