Anniversaries and Milestones

The fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War is upon us, and the liberal pieties are flying fast and furious. The anniversary coincides with the 4000th American combat death- an opportunity for the pacifists, that is, the post-1972 Democratic Party, to become even more platitudinous than usual.

The other day, Barack Obama noted that the Iraq War has lasted longer than the American Civil War. What he didn’t mention is that more than 4000 Americans died in just 2 hours of the 3 day Battle of Gettysburg and more than 600,000 Americans died in the war, which in terms of today’s population, according to Drew Gilpin Faust – the the current president of Harvard ( in her book The Republic of Suffering), would be 6 million!

Yet, few today would question the righteousness of “Lincoln’s War” and his place in American history as our greatest president (followed by FDR, another “war president”). In all the innumerable hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War, not one expert questioned the justness of Lincoln’s war.

But if one had the courage to do so, a good argument could be made that Lincoln’s war was not worth the cost and even unnecessary. It must have been clear to many in Lincoln’s time that the continuation of slavery into the 20th century was highly unlikely. All of the other Christian, Western nations had outlawed slavery; how much longer could the South withstand the moral pressure to allow its “peculiar institution” to die a natural death?

Why couldn’t Lincoln have used, in today’s parlance, the “soft power” of friendly persuasion, the criticism of other civilized nations, and the passage of time to allow the South to make a graceful retreat from its insistence on slavery. After all, many Southerners were less wedded to the immortality of their “way of life” than they were to the idea that their ancestors didn’t flee European monarchies only to have their descendents buckle under to a distant (in those days) authoritarian (in their view) government in Washington.

And besides death, destruction and bitterness , what did the nation reap from the war, except for the more or less unchallenged supremacy of the federal government? Many black writers have noted that life for black people in the Jim Crow South was, in many ways, more insecure and more terrifying than life under slavery. How much better was life as a sharecropper than life as a slave?

After all, the Union Army was not going to occupy the South forever. It must have been clear to most intelligent Northerners that once white Southerners gained control, they would direct their resentment over the humiliation of defeat toward the “freed” former slaves. So the result of the war was that blacks remained dependent on (and terrified of) white Southerners for another century until the passage of the civil rights bills gave them equal rights under the law and a measure of political power.

Is it beyond the pale to argue that equality and reconciliation could have been achieved sooner and with a lot less pain and death if Lincoln had not insisted on his war?

Of course, few of today’s pacifists are willing to hold Lincoln’s war to the standards they apply to Bush’s war. We are in Iraq to fight Arab and Islamic fascism, which we ignored for more than 30 years, and then paid an awful price when “the chickens came home to roost” on 9/11/2001. Will the war, in the end, turn out to be viewed as painful but necessary as we today view wars like the Civil War and World War II? Or will it be seen as a blunder as many, at this point in history, see the Vietnam War?

It’s hard to say, but one could argue that Arab and Islamic fascism is a greater threat to us than the Southern “way of life” was to the North before the Civil War. Still, some historical perspective and context would be helpful as we commemorate and discuss the meaning of the Iraq War’s anniversaries and milestones.

An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal adds some moving context and perspective.

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