Civil War Guns

Los Angeles, CA - 3/24/2018

After several weeks of feeling remarkably positive about our country and its future, last week brought me back to a never-ending sad reality: another epidemic of mass shootings, including one at an LGBTQ nightclub and one at a Walmart breakroom, and possibly more by the time you read this. It wasn’t much to give thanks for this Thanksgiving and it’s no way to start a merry Christmas season. This humble spirit fears the country has come to accept the ever-present threat of violent death as an unavoidable part of our lives.  I’ve shared my artillerist’s view on American gun culture before, but maybe I can search my old soul for a few more pearls of wisdom on the subject, “few” perhaps being the operative word. 

Although Shakespeare died in 1616, his plays were immensely popular in the nineteenth century, and I like to think the Civil War (in which I was killed, you might recall) was the greatest Shakespearian drama of the age.  Even today, over 150 years later, a remarkable number of men enjoy reenacting its most famous battles—mostly middle-aged Southerners with beer-bellies who dress up in uniforms and run around in our national battlefield parks fantasizing they’re gallant young soldiers.  Maybe they’re a pretty sorry excuse for William Faulkner’s description of the moments before Pickett’s ill-fated charge at Gettysburg, but as long as they’re having fun. . .

Most of those guys probably don’t realize—or prefer not to acknowledge—that their ancestors fought to defend slavery on behalf of the Cotton Kingdom, a wealthy and powerful ruling elite who convinced an army of mostly yeoman farmers they needed to fight to protect their country from invasion.  But I suspect these Civil War enthusiasts don’t just long to resurrect a mythical “lost cause” that was never their own; I’m convinced part of their fascination with the war is that it was one of the last major conflicts fought by men whose primary weapons were guns. 

AR-15 Rifles are Weapons of Modern Warfare that Don’t Belong in the Civilian World.

Back in the day (my day, that is) artillery was the most powerful, destructive force we had.  But those cannons were just little toys compared to the weapons that came along in the twentieth century.  We didn’t have tanks, hand grenades, land mines, or poison gas.  We didn’t have planes of helicopters (“Black Hawk Down” would have meant a horse named Black Hawk had been shot out from under its rider).  We experimented with hot-air balloons for spying on the enemy, but we sure didn’t have drones or radar, or technology of any sort; we were just men with guns and cannons on a battlefield.  And maybe above all, “the bomb” didn’t yet hang over us, deeming all of humanity helpless to control its destiny.  We were just men fighting other men, using the only weapons available to us—guns we held and fired with our own hands.

I don’t mean to sound nostalgic for the hideous gore and destruction of which I myself fell victim, but as a combatant in that terrible war, please know that a part of me can’t help but empathize with men don’t want to give up their guns, one of the last vestiges of tangible power and control in an out-of-control world that feels crazier and scarier every day.  But no matter, we need to separate the valid need to protect ourselves and our families from the terrible death and destruction that results when assault rifles get into the wrong hands.  President Biden is correct: assault rifles have no social redeeming value . . . except profit for the gun manufacturers.

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