April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
–T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Scarcely has a winter departed since childhood that I haven’t journeyed in my soul to Shiloh, that military park along the Tennessee River where, on April sixth and seventh of 1862, roughly one hundred thousand soldiers engaged in a bloody conflict that claimed nearly a quarter of them as casualties. Each April I am again an eleven-year-old boy transfixed by the vernal landscape, transmuted by the history of great horror.
That year my Boy Scout troop made a spring camping trip to the enigmatic and grimly fascinating Civil War battlefield and cemetery. The experience still haunts me with the remembrance of beauty and sadness, the lingering mystery of life in the presence of death. I recall chilly nights and mornings tenting amid the barely leafing trees, taking welcome warmth and food from burning logs. We hiked through thousands of acres of fields and forests, monuments and cannons, burial mounds and gravestones. As we learned what happened at each place, I tried to put myself in the boots of those who had died and suffered there. Even in the company of others, I felt achingly alone as I beheld, dim and distant, a vision of peace beyond the battle.
Shiloh evokes a strange feeling in me each spring. I stand again at the small, tranquil Bloody Pond and see in my mind the wounded and dying soldiers crawling on the ground, stretching out their hands for water. I feel the cold and steady rain coming down upon me as I trudge through heavy mud. I lag behind in the fog at a churchyard and dwell on my own brief life and eventual death.
How hard it is to know the harrowing hell of war. To really feel with those who fight and kill, who carry lasting scars and live from day to month, from year to decade, in the midst of fear, death, and rubble. Our American battlefields are from more than a century ago. They look so serene and bear no brutal witness. Since all successive conflicts have been fought on foreign soil, we cannot imagine the devastation that is wrought, let alone begin to empathize with those who struggle to live under the steady barrage of bursting bombs and in the dismal aftermath. September Eleventh was but a taste.
I think on the years that have passed since the war in Iraq began with spring’s arrival, as well as the years of conflict in Afghanistan. What sad and bitter irony that wars should rage at springtime – that the hope of life in any breathing body should be leveled so unmercifully to the ground. Wars are always being fought in springtime, yet hope is not diminished by that fact. Even though the bold optimism rippling through the Arab world at the start of this decade began in winter and ended in fall, it bore the name of spring. Spring always emerges, even in the tatters of a war-torn earth. George Orwell lauded this great tenacity:
I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship…. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened, or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it. (“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” The New Republic, May 20, 1946.)
When I return in my mind’s eye to Shiloh, I think what a bitter contradiction it is that a place whose name derives from the Hebrew word for peace should become synonymous with slaughter. In Israel’s ancient history, Shiloh was a place pointing back – and forward – to the Promised One who would bring “the gathering of the people” (Genesis 49:10). After the sanctuary which for three centuries housed the ark of God’s presence was destroyed, Shiloh became a barren waste longing for the reversal of spring. Surveying this Shiloh and our own, like Ezekiel I can see, however faintly, the stirring of bones rising up, flesh being graciously restored, and God’s own breath animating life once more.