Some ramblings on Veterans Day and Lincoln… what with the movie coming out and all.
I’ve seen a number of stats on how many soldiers died during the Civil War. Five hundred thousand. Six hundred thousand. And that’s not taking into account civilian casualties, property and wounds that still haven’t healed after 150 years.
If you’ve visited Gettysburg you don’t need to evoke Lincoln to break down in tears. You look across the cemetery and the graves reach out to the horizon, encompassing one’s entire field of vision in an endless matrix of white on green. It speaks to an awesome unity of purpose as well as a sense that each life on its own meant so little.
I can’t imagine anyone today questioning the wisdom and great mission of that war. It’s almost impossible to imagine America if you were to question the validity of the Civil War. And yet that war, unlike World War II—the other indisputably ‘necessary war’ did not start out with the great purpose for which it is remembered. It is perhaps one of the few cases in history where a situation spun totally out of control and yet wound up achieving something positive.
Half a million guys. With an ‘m’. Pow. Can you imagine any cause today, I mean any that a consensus of Americans would consider worth the lives of 500,000 soldiers? I can’t. Well… OK… if those Independence Day guys show up in their space ship. 😀 But other than that? I honestly don’t think that any large group of people, even the guys down at the VFW Hall, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice. Would a ‘secession’ of any group of states be worth those lives today? Nahhhh. We’d just tell whatever state was involved, ‘Good Luck, Pal!’ and carry on. Is there any ‘evil’ in the world today that is worth 500,000 Americans? I’m not even sure that if Hitler’s kid walked out of the jungles of Paraguay (remember that movie?) it would be enough.
And I’m not sure that’s necessarily all bad. On the one hand, by ‘professionalizing’ the military, we get involved in a lot more ‘minor’ wars—because, frankly, we don’t get our hands messy. On the other hand, we’re also far less willing to engage in the kind of deep sacrifices that were so routine before the mechanized horrors of the twentieth century. Perhaps we’re more humane. Or maybe, as Nietzche might’ve said, we’re just much more affluent and therefore a bit more decadent.
I heard a left wing commentator complaining today about how forgotten are so many innocents. And for some reason, instead of my eye-rolling reflex kicking in something hit me: the relative value of people based on their position in society.
Police and soldiers are supposed to give their lives for civilians. Rules of War going back thousands of years say so. And to that end, today we knock ourselves out (often unsuccessfully) to avoid ‘collateral damage’ and only hit the bad guys. So theoretically, we should be happy with our efforts in recent wars. I believe that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have sincerely tried to be far more noble warriors.
And yet, here’s a funny thing: have you noticed how there are meticulous statistic of lost combatants; not just ours but the enemy. However, with all our technology, just as in the Civil War, neither side tracks civilian casualties. It is as if they do not exist. (They certainly were not part of any history book I was ever forced to read as a child.) Something else: using the same standards, we never shoulda bombed Hiroshima. Or burned Atlanta 120 years earlier.
Both those atrocities were committed during wars that everyone would agree were noble. Which then begs the question: What purpose is great enough to break moral codes so basic to civilization? I believe this is the difference between a real war and a war of ‘principle’.
In other words: Ya know how you can tell it’s a real war? A real war is when that Geneva Convention shit goes out the window. A real war is where you’re all in. World War II was a real war. The Civil War was a real war. We were willing to do whatever it took to win. We were willing to kill 100,000 civilians on a single day; more than once. Collateral damage? Please.
Truthfully? America has never had a truly existential threat; unlike virtually every other country on earth. We did not have to fight the Civil War. We could’ve negotiated a secession and saved a zillion lives (in fact, if we’d had plebiscites back then, the war would’ve been over shortly after the first action-packed battles.) Similarly, as yellow-belly as it sounds? We did not have to fight the Germans and Japanese when and as we did. Another leader besides Roosevelt might reasonably have chosen any number of alternative strategies besides ‘total war’. Something close to a majority of very patriotic Americans felt that way in 1942.
Both Lincoln and Roosevelt were able to move the country towards a higher purpose. They made what was deeply unpopular not only necessary but part of our destiny. And to accomplish these goals they were consciously willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and millions of civilians. Even for the noblest of ends, that’s gotta give anyone pause. You tell anyone you’re selling something worth that kind of cost and it’s rubber room time. (It just occurred to me it may have been something of a small blessing that neither Roosevelt or Lincoln lived beyond their wars. Imagine twenty-thirty years of those kind of nightmares.)
As I said, you gotta be all in. I can’t even think about Lincoln, by all accounts a truly kind and gentle man, being willing to sacrifice so many people. The two images: deep humanity and utter ruthlessness, just don’t gibe.
I’m thinking any conflict, started by a moral people, that attempts to adhere to ‘rules of engagement’, may not be worth fighting. And any leader who kids himself into thinking he won’t have to sacrifice his very soul in order to win such a war, has no business starting one.