Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pre-Gettysburg Post

As we work up to Gettysburg - a few links, and a bit of an essay.

Charles Pierce is running an Anniversary Series, written by Robert Bateman, covering a bunch of things in the run up to the battle - well worth checking out.

This piece by Tony Horwitz, discussing the cost of the war, and the shifts in our assessment of it, is getting some attention. I found it through Ta-Nehisi Coates; I've seen other comments, such as P. Z. Myers'.

Myers takes the anti-war position, the uselessness of war in general, the waste of this one in particular, and the refusal to try to romanticize it. There's a lot to be said for that position - war is hell, and this one was an extremely nasty one. Even wars fought against unambiguous evil, wars that lead to better things, carry mind-boggling costs; and the Civil War's horror was compounded by the fact that, whatever good came out of it, much of it was lost in the aftermath. Slaves were freed, but it took barely a decade for Blacks to be disenfranchised again, for apartheid to be reestablished, for the people who led the rebellion to return to positions of respect and leadership. It's hard to look at the next century without wondering if the war was worth it.

But Coates, as always, keeps bringing us back to the broader context of the war. Reminds us - "we" did not go to war: the South seceded and started the war, attacking the United States. Talking about whether it was worth it is somewhat beside the point when someone else attacks you. He reminds us where it came from - the war did not start for Africans and their descendants in the Americas in 1860 - it started in 1660, and went on from there. He reminds us what the war actually accomplished: that it was legal (for instance) to sell your own children in 1860; not in 1866. And those things - it is true, the North did not fight the war to end slavery at first - but the South certainly fought the war to preserve - and really, to expand - slavery. Fighting for the union at some point probably inevitably would mean fighting for emancipation, because fighting against the union certainly meant fighting for more slavery. And - to speak of the costs of the war, they are appalling, but again - the USA did not choose those costs, the CSA did. And - Coates repeats - the costs of the war represent the shifting of the cost of slavery from African Americans to all Americans. What else could have been done? Coates also puts paid to the idea that we could have ended slavery without the war: the costs would have been prohibitive, and the South wasn't going to do it that way anyway.

And - Coates and Horwitz both point out that the notion of asking if the Civil War was worth the cost was never free of politics - a question originating partly in the aftermath of WWI (which made everyone question the costs of war, but didn't actually seem to stop anyone from starting new ones), but also from the Southern perspective. There's no getting around the fact that the South won the peace - stopping Reconstruction, rolling back what rights were won by African Americans, and even rewriting the story of the war, to make it less about slavery, more about different interpretations of the 10th amendment - and all a terrible misunderstanding.

And so it goes. Coming up on this, the largest battle of the Civil War, it is fitting to ask about the costs, about what was gained and lost. And to do that, and do it fairly, we probably need to learn to hold more than one thing in our minds. The horrors of the war, the evils of warfare, are not something we should ever let out of sight. But we should also not let out of sight the horrors of slavery and the direct connection between that and the war. And we should not forget that the war did accomplish that one great thing, or two great things - preserving the union, and freeing the slaves. Though that too - doesn't undo the fact that the country backed off from the implications of what it did in 1865, it reimposed a harsh form of racism that lasted another century in its open and virulent form, and continues to poison the country today.

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