Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Risk of War

The Week re-ran an essay that ran in a recent issue of The Atlantic regarding the Civil War. It explored a provocative question: was that conflict a war worth fighting.

Perhaps that best point Horowitz makes in the essay concerns how close the Confederacy came to winning its sovereignty and how that outcome would have entrenched slavery:

Imagining these and other scenarios isn't simply an exercise in "what if" history, or the fulfillment of Confederate fantasy fiction. It raises the very real possibility that many thousands of Americans might have died only to entrench secession and slavery. Given this risk, and the fact that Americans at the time couldn't see the future, Andrew Delbanco wonders if we ourselves would have regarded the defeat of the South as worth pursuing at any price. 

By the way, I must concur with Horowitz on how close the Confederacy came to winning the war. James MacPherson, in Ordeal by Fire, cannot narrow down the war to just one turning point. He can only narrow it down to three turning points: Antietam, Gettysburg/Vicksburg, and Atlanta. I've often thought on how the election of 1864 was a legitimate last gasp chance for the rebels to compel the north to consent to peace.

The political leaders who lead us into war and the soldiers who fight it take great risks, which seems so obvious it doesn't need to be said. I speak not only of the risk of life, but the risk of history's judgment. So often today we hear the cliche "wrong side of history" (which, I think, comes from a Supreme Court Justice in Brown v. Board deliberations). The servicemen and women (a volunteer force) who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq took the same risks of life as did the soldiers of the Civil War. But little more than a decade has passed and already the majority of the American public looks at those conflicts as mistaken in whole or in part.

I still remember, with great humility, the browbeating a friend and I took when an Air Force colonel overheard us debating the merits of the Iraq occupation in the summer of 2004 at Mount Rushmore. Though we live in a land of free speech, I can't help but think how insensitive he and I were to question his sacrifice.

Political leaders and members of the armed services don't have the luxury of knowing whether or not, generations from the present, their cause will be judged as just. They act in their present, and in the fog of war. They act in response to perceived threats to the nation, without the information that would confirm the reality of those threats.

I want to revisit that portion of Horowitz's essay that talks about the consequences of possibly losing that war. Are not the stakes of wars worth fighting so high? Just as the Confederacy came within a whisker of winning the war, did not Nazi Germany come perilously close to ushering in "a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science" in late 1940? In 2013, it's somewhat easy to appreciate the sacrifices necessary to prevent Nazi victory then, moreso than to appreciate the incomplete destruction of slavery (Jim Crow persisted for a century after Appomattox). Perhaps it is those brushes with disaster that make it easier to cast the wars as so nobly fought.

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