A Visit to Gettysburg

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E are everywhere, it seems, in the midst of war.

Not only are there the contemporary conflicts -- fighting in Croatia intensifying just as the cease-fire ends; the horrors of Chechnya; and others.

But this is also a season of remembrance of wars past: We are marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, in its many stages, and have just observed the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.

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And recent travels brought me the other day to a key site in another war that, like Vietnam, was concluded in the spring. The visit afforded another opportunity to ponder the issues of war and peace and reconciliation.

The three days of fighting at Gettysburg, Pennslyvania., constituted the biggest battle in the American Civil War, the largest military event on North American soil in history. Although the Union achieved no specific military objective in beating back the Confederates at Gettysburg, it was the turning point of the war, the ''high-water mark'' of the Confederacy. And America lost almost as many of her sons in those first three days of July 1863 as in all the years of Vietnam.

One's first observation of the battlefield has to be, Oh, they had a lovely place to fight, this rolling countryside, with its militarily but also aesthetically significant ridges.

The whole Gettysburg National Military Park is so thick with monuments and statues it is in effect a sculpture garden. The bronze and marble soldiers along the avenues brought to mind the silent saints along the famous Charles Bridge in Prague.

The whole place is vast but not that vast -- certainly nothing like the enormous battlefields today's Pentagon planners talk about, hundreds of miles long by hundreds of miles deep. Especially on a misty spring day, it is easy to imagine the ''fog of war'' at work at Gettysburg, in a time before night-vision goggles or even field telephones. And yet there is also a keenness of memory attached to the place: Here is where this one fell; there is where that brigade pushed through.

And it takes only a few hours' touring the field to get caught up in the drama and its characters: General Pickett, leading his doomed charge into the Union artillery; Maine's Colonel Chamberlain, the college professor on leave, leading his men, out of ammunition, to charge the rebels with bayonets. He is credited with saving Little Round Top, and hence the battle -- and hence the Union. It was also Chamberlain, who, many battles, wounds, and promotions later, would be the Union officer in charge of the surrender at Appomattox. It would be he who gave the remarkable order for his troops to salute their defeated counterparts. This gesture of respect represented the best of efforts toward reconciliation at the war's end.

It is lamented by some that the National Park Service has been insufficiently assertive of its authority in restricting commercial development near the battlefield site. Some complain that the route Lincoln traveled on horseback from the town center to the cemetery to deliver the Gettysburg Address is now lined with eateries and other shops catering to the tourist trade.

And yet the great sites of a nation's history must be accessible to all, even the golden arches crowd. (The people, yes! one can imagine Carl Sandburg affirming.)

It has probably been remarked before that all wars are civil wars, rupturing the brotherhood of man. If we could see that we are all one family, we wouldn't fight, it is hopefully suggested. In the American Civil War, it was often very literally one family fighting itself, and yet the fighting continued.

The armies of blue and gray have been succeeded by armies of tourists from all the states once represented on the battlefield, and many more. A place of war has become a place of coming together for healing.

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