Civil War Battle, Image of Climate Denial

Matthew Brady photo

Matthew Brady photo


Of all my concerns about a Donald Trump presidency, foremost is that he will reverse the world’s advances in fighting climate change. While he declares climate change to be a Chinese hoax and promises to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Accords, the North Pole is reporting temperatures of 36 degrees above normal. In the words of Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, “We are so screwed.”

I’ve addressed this issue time and again and will continue doing so. Today I apply a disturbing Ambrose Bierce short story to the crisis facing the world.

No one who reads “Chickamauga” forgets it. A young deaf mute in 1863 is playing with his toy sword in the woods bordering the site of the famous Civil War battle that saw almost 35,000 casualties. He naps and, when he awakes, he sees hundreds of wounded men crawling through the forest in search of water:

They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

As a child, he doesn’t understand why grown men would be on their hands and knees and laughs at the sight. Their shattered jaws and blasted intestines don’t register with him. At one moment he imagines that they are an army that he is leading into battle. At another, he tries to climb on one of the men, only to be violently shaken off.

Seeing burning in the distance, he goes to check it out and dances in the excitement of the conflagration.

[T]he spectacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames. He ran about, collecting fuel, but every object that he found was too heavy for him to cast in from the distance to which the heat limited his approach. In despair he flung in his sword–a surrender to the superior forces of nature.

Only gradually does he realize that he is witnessing the destruction of his home. The story ends him discovering his mother with her brains blown out.

The story is already a powerful indictment of people who play with the idea of war while overlooking war’s horrific reality. Trump’s bombastic threats to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and his backseat driving of the Mosul invasion suggests that he would like to play at war. But set that possibility aside for a moment and apply the story to climate change.

Trump and other climate denialists can shake their toy swords all they want at the mounting evidence of climate change—several of the hottest years on record, flooding in Miami, increasingly intense hurricanes in the Caribbean, historic droughts in California. They can choose to remain deaf and mute as humanity crawls towards its death. Sooner or later, however, they will discover that it is their own planet that is burning. It is their own mother who lies dead on the ground:

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries–something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey–a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil…Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

I fantasize that, on this issue at least, Trump and the Republicans will wake up to the danger now that they run the government and have our fate in their hands. This is not a child’s game.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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