Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War that the real war would not get into books. In fact, many past events either don’t get into history books at all or are inserted without the necessary context to understand past events.
I just finished reading a short essay about Oliver Cromwell’s head. (See “Severance Package” by Frances Larson in the current Harper’s Magazine.) His head was separated from his embalmed body in 1661 after the monarchy regained control of the government of England. It was then stuck on a pike and put on display at Westminster for a number of years. It then came into the possession of various individuals who exhibited it in museums, shops, and their private residences. After three centuries, in 1960, the head was buried on the grounds of Sussex College in Cambridge, England. For more information, google “Oliver Cromwell’s Head”.
In the twenty-first century, how do we comprehend this treatment of a human head? Charles II may have been taking revenge on the body of the man responsible for the execution of Charles I. The government may have been threatening future rebels against its authority. As the events of the English Civil War receded into the more remote past, why continue to display the head? The head had become a mere curiosity, not a symbol of a historical individual.
This progression from human being to symbol to object is one we must continually guard against. We mourn the people killed in the crash of Malaysian Flight 17 and sympathize with children who flee poverty and violence to seek a better life in the United States. All too quickly, these individuals become symbols of a war in Ukraine, conflict between Obama and Putin, our immigration crisis, or conflict between Obama and a Republican Congress. They are no longer persons with hopes and dreams and families that love them. In months, if not weeks, they will merely be the catalysts that caused important conflicts and changes. Or worse, their deaths and the circumstances of their lives will make no difference to anyone else. Obama and Putin are in our headlines and our history books, but only family members will know the names of the people who died in Ukraine or crossed the Rio Grande.