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This empire of suffering

By Mary L. Dudziak


On 6 June 2014 at Normandy, President Barack Obama spoke movingly of the day that “blood soaked the water, bombs broke the sky,” and “entire companies’ worth of men fell in minutes.” The 70th anniversary of D-Day was a moment to remember the heroes and commemorate the fallen. The nation’s claim “written in the blood on these beaches” was to liberty, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Honoring both the veterans of D-Day and a new generation of soldiers, Obama emphasized: “people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”

Death is seen as the price of liberty in war. But war deaths are more than a trade-off or a price, shaping soldiers, communities, and the state itself. Drew Gilpin Faust wrote that during the Civil War the “work of death” was the nation’s “most fundamental and enduring undertaking.” Proximity to the dead, dying and injured transformed the United States, creating “a veritable ‘republic of suffering’ in the words [of] Frederick Law Olmsted.”

President Lincoln stood on American soil when he remembered the losses at Gettysburg. Does it matter that the site of carnage in World War II commemorated by President Obama was a transcontinental flight away? Americans were deeply affected by that war’s losses, even though the “work of death” would not so deeply permeate the national experience simply because the dying happened far away.

President Barack Obama marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion with veterans Clyde Combs and Ben Franklin as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Prince Charles on 6 June 2009. Official White House photo by Pete Souza via The White House Flickr.
President Barack Obama marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion with veterans Clyde Combs and Ben Franklin as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Prince Charles on 6 June 2009. Official White House photo by Pete Souza via The White House Flickr.

Since World War II, war’s carnage has become more distant. The Korean War did not generate a republic of suffering in the United States. Instead, as Susan Brewer has shown, Americans had to be persuaded that Korea should matter to them. During the war in Vietnam, division and conflict were central to American culture and politics. A shared experience of death and dying was not.

If war and suffering played a role in constituting American identity during the Civil War, it has moved to the margins of American life in the 21st century. War losses are a defining experience for the families and communities of those deployed. Much effort is placed on minimizing even that direct experience with war deaths through the use of high-tech warfare, like drones piloted far from the battlefield.

Over time, the United States has exported its suffering, enabling the nation to kill with less risk of American casualties. Whatever the benefits of these developments, it is worth reflecting upon the opposite of Faust’s conception of Civil War culture: how American identity is constituted through isolation from the work of war death, through an export of suffering. With a protected “homeland” and exported violence, perhaps what was once a republic has become instead, in war, an empire of suffering.

Mary L. Dudziak is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law, Emory Law School. Her books include Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey and Cold War Civil Rights. Her most recent book is War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences. She will be on the panel “Scholars as Teachers: Authors Discuss Using Their Books in the Classroom” at the SHAFR 2014 Annual Meeting on Saturday, 21 June 2014. Follow her on Twitter @marydudziak.

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