WINCHESTER NATIVE Glen Doherty, 42, died with three other Americans in last week’s attacks on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It was the man he was protecting – Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens – who has consumed the headlines. But Doherty’s family wants us to know him.
He was born on July 10, 1970, the second of three children to Bernard and Barbara. He spent his young days having fun, any way you look at it; his family mentions that he was an “after-party expert.” He was a ski instructor in Utah who later joined the Navy Seals and became a decorated member of the military. He continued to serve this nation, even as a private contractor sent to Libya to help a career diplomat make his way through the terrain of a newly free nation. We now know Doherty, even if just by his death.
The desire to personalize those who have given their service to the nation, to honor a man who, as his sister Kate Quigley remembered, was a brother of two but “there’s probably 15 guys who would call him their brother,” dates directly from the Civil War. It is the legacy of the trauma that pitted one brother against another.
On Tuesday night, PBS’s American Experience will air “Death and the Civil War,” a documentary by director Ric Burns based on the work of Harvard President Drew Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering.” The images of neglected corpses that creep across the screen are still traumatic: death was everywhere. There is a blood-laced letter by a dying soldier who writes to his father, “This is my last letter to you,” well aware that it was. Death became us.
But it is not a movie about just the past. It is a reminder of what we owe those who serve this country today.
The Civil War changed America, not simply because of slavery and states’ rights but because of how death — massive death, deaths so plentiful that if they happened today would equate to 7 million — changed the relationship of government to its citizens.
Before the Civil War, the United States did not know its dead.
Maybe it was simply the magnitude of the Civil War or that it was fought on American soil, where the unidentified thousands of bodies that laid on the fields of Gettysburg created an unimaginable stench throughout the town. Citizens organized themselves to provide what the government did not: closure for the family members who could not know what happened to their loved ones. Those private crusades turned into public demands.
And in response, as “Death and the Civil War” makes clear, the government took on new responsibilities. The United States had never conceived of any duty to those who had served. During and after the Civil War, the obligation to create processes to identify the fallen (through the use of dogtags), notify the kin, bury the dead, and assist the families become a part of our government structures.
As the film unfolds, it is clear that bureaucracy — that maligned word — was not conceived by the New Deal or the Great Society. It was given life first, in the words of Faust, as a “bureaucracy of death.”
The new responsibilities of government were not always applied consistently. The soldiers of the Confederacy did not benefit from the government’s focus on retrieving and burying the dead. The same was true for most African-American soldiers.
Today, war has changed and missions are murkier. We can sometimes fail in remembering those who have and continue to serve. And while Doherty was no longer a service member, the skills he perfected as a Navy Seal were needed for the new Libya. He surely died while serving.
Over the last few days, we have gotten to know this native son, Glen Doherty. In a solemn event performed by the government he served, he returned home Friday.
At some stage, there will be a memorial service for him at Arlington, Va., in one of the scores of national cemetaries created during our Civil War.