I’m going to be the heretic and not name the Civil War as #1. Not that I’m minimizing the importance of the war or its lasting effects in any way. I just want to raise a point that always seems to get lost because 99% of the history concentrates on the fighting. The North didn’t fight a war. Yes, technically there were two major battles, Antietam in Maryland and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, but both were counterproductive because Lee’s incursions created hysterics in the North and made a disproportional response inevitable, just like Pearl Harbor.
Just like every succeeding war, the Civil War was fought somewhere else, on alien territory. The North was vastly larger in population than the South, with a wholly different economy and culture. Only by the end was the North fully emotionally involved. By then, strange things happened, for a war. The North grew in population. About a million immigrants arrived in the North during the war, many of them young Irish men who would gladly accept the $300 bounty (about a year’s salary) for taking the place of someone being drafted. No old men and young boys saw service unless they wanted to, unlike the desperate South. And the economy boomed because all the devastation occurred in somewhere far away. See WWI, WWII, and Viet Nam. Other people and other countries paid the price; America prospered.
By contrast, the Depression era was far worse everywhere. It slammed New York City and the tiniest rural hamlets. Every profession was harmed, every class sank, every region of country hurt. There was no place to go that was better. Conditions were indescribably bad; the more one reads about the era the more sickening it becomes. Not to mention that blacks were harmed even more because no white wanted them to get help while a white person needed a job or money.
WWII reversed that by giving the US the greatest economy the world had ever seen, and all the harm took place safely out of sight. I don’t minimize the war as a whole - it may be humanity’s greatest disaster. But Americans again prospered and came out of it on top, better off than the rest of the world combined.
The human toll of wars must always be considered. But the human toll of everything needs to be considered. Far more workers lost their lives to unsafe mines and factories than died in all American wars combined. Far more children died of food-borne illnesses than all American war losses. The Spanish Flu killed more than WWI and WWII combined. Unnecessary deaths are just as important as deaths in war, even though people spread a thousand times as much glory on those.
Are we in interesting times today? Global climate change will be affecting every American sooner rather than later. It is an existential crisis that will outdo the Depression. Everything else, though much of it is extremely urgent, is secondary. How interesting is that?