Friday, May 30, 2014

Our sensitivity to disasters has been dulled by their 20th century magnitude

I am reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. I have already posted on the 29th and on the 28th on this book.

No one knows how many soldiers died in military service during the Civil War. They died in battle, they died while receiving medical treatment for their wounds after battles, they died of illnesses in camps and as prisoners of war. In total perhaps 620,000 died.

The toll of Americans killed individual battles was greater than the toll of Americans killed in all the previous wars. Antietam is still the largest number of casualties in single day's battle in American military history. The three days of battle at Gettysburg lives in American history because of the 50,000 casualties as well as because of Lincoln's address that defines the war in our memory.

The military deaths may have been especially deeply felt because the Civil War was the first American war that was photographed. The photographs were exhibited. Some were copied for newspapers. Lithographs of war related scenes were widely distributed.

There had been a revolution in communications in the 19th century. Steam powered rotary presses produced newspapers and magazines in large quantities at low cost. The postal service could carry letters, newspapers and magazines across long distances inexpensively, especially with the improving network of railroads, roads and canals. The telegraph could carry reporters stories from from near battlefields to the largest cities of the time.

We Have Seen So Much Worse Now

It occurs to me to put this in the context of modern death counts. For example, think of modern epidemics:

  • The Spanish Flu epidemic at the time of World War I killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people
  • 1.6 million people died from AIDS in 2012; since the epidemic began an estimated 21.8 million people have died from AIDS.
  • In the USA in 2011, 597,689 people died of heart disease and 574,743 died of cancer
  • An estimated 483,000 children die of malaria each year worldwide


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