Good Life

Off-field battles are toughest to beat

Sometimes things we already know sink in at a deeper level.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Gettysburg for a baseball tournament (our State College lads won it, thus becoming Pennsylvania’s 13-year-old Babe Ruth champions). It was my first visit. I decided to wander around the battlefield just after sunrise, while the air was cool. This was a good decision. I had the place to myself. Or rather I was alone with the woodpeckers and the rabbits.

I learned first of all that the battle took place in July. This meant that I was seeing the same vegetation, smelling the same smells, feeling the same air as the soldiers did in 1863. It was green, it was peaceful and it was almost silent. In such a setting, the stone memorials to the fallen soldiers stood forth as monuments to madness. I thought of it this way: On this site, guys from Pennsylvania shot at guys from Virginia.

How did it come to that? How do men get to the point where they give up on negotiation and say, in effect, oh well, I guess we have to tell our young men to start killing each other?

The literature of Gettysburg makes clear that the town and hills the soldiers fought for had no strategic importance. They fought for Gettysburg simply because the two armies happened to meet at Gettysburg. One side fought to take this or that hill simply because the other side occupied it. It wasn’t hills you wanted; it was corpses. Both sides got plenty: about 8,000. That’s twice as many as have died in Iraq in the past five years.

Driving home from Philadelphia the other day, I heard an interview with Victor Mair, who recently published a new translation of “The Art of War.” From Mair I learned that this little book, written in China more than 2,000 years ago, is less of a guide to waging war than to avoiding it. Further proof, if any were needed, of how little we’ve learned during the past two millennia.

My visit to Philly was also baseball-related. The Babe Ruth Mid-Atlantic Regional tournament was being played in south Jersey. Much as I marvel at the Garden State’s strip-mall density, which has to be the highest in the nation, staying with friends in Center City sounded more appealing.

My friends live on a sweet little alley of brick buildings with cheerily painted front doors and window boxes overflowing with flowers. At this season, the neighborhood cafes set tables on the sidewalks. If that’s all you see of Philadelphia, the city feels cozy and convivial.

But I had the occasion to drive through some other parts of town that looked as blasted and blighted as trees after gypsy moths have feasted on them. It’s easy to forget about such places. The presidential contenders aim their appeals at people who worry about losing their homes and filling their gas tanks and paying their tuition bills. The people in these neighborhoods don’t own homes or cars. Their kids are doing well if they finish high school and avoid prison. We glimpsed at them during news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Then we went back to ignoring them.

The State College lads made it to the Final Four, then lost a heartbreaker to a team from New York.

We say “heartbreaker.” Sending your child off to war is heartbreaking. Living in poverty is heartbreaking. The lads seem to know this. There were some tears, but very little moping.

Russell Frank, resting between baseball and football seasons, may be reached at rfrank@psu.edu. h

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