Monday, November 06, 2017

"Confederate honor"

My own ancestors were Confederates — on both sides of my family...I was taught the names of the battles from childhood: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Franklin, and Nashville. My uncle’s house in Nashville sits on a spot not far from where a member of our family fought for his life in one of the last and most futile battles of the war. Earlier this week, Donald Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, reignited a controversy that never truly dies. In the middle of discussing whether historical monuments should still stand, he echoed a common view of the Civil War that critics are calling “white nationalist.” He said three things of real note, that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” and that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” 

The southern states seceded to preserve slavery. That’s plain from their articles of secession. 

In 1861, the invading northern army was not seeking to free the slaves. It was attempting to restore the union by sheer force of arms.

He can choose to fight against an invader to defend hearth and home.

Every American should know the name of General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas had compelling reasons to join the Confederacy. Born into the planter class in Virginia, his family — including his mother — narrowly escaped death in Nat Turner’s rebellion. Yet when war came, he wore blue. His sister disowned him, calling him “false to his family, his state, and to his friends.” Southern officers who joined the Confederacy labeled him a traitor.

1. The Civil War is America's morality play. Mind you, the culture wars are another morality play, and that's about the present. I suppose perennial debates about the Civil War may be baffling to some immigrants. They mainly resonant with Americans whose family history goes back to the Civil War. My ancestors fought on both sides of the Civl War. However, other countries have equivalent debates. What would/should you have done if you were a WWII-generation Frenchman, German, Italian, Japanese? 

There are, moreover, immigrants or immigrant kids who join the American armed forces and thereby become a continuation of American military history. Some of them probably take a personal interest in these debates. That's a part of military ethics. 

2. Of course, these hypotheticals are academic debates. Still, we enjoy alternate history conjectures, and the capacity to entertain counterfactual scenarios is intrinsic to what makes us moral agents. That's an aspect of moral deliberation. 

If I'd been a Southerner on the eve of the Civil War, what would be the right thing for me to do in that situation? Although the answer has no immediate relevance, reflecting on the past can sometimes prepare us for analogous situations in the future. 

Before proceeding, I need to resister two caveats:

3. One way in which these counterfactuals scenarios are artificial is that I'm viewing the past from the standpoint of the present. I wasn't born at that time and place. Had I been subject to antebellum social conditioning, in the north or south, I might make very different choices than looking back on that event, some 150 years later, with the benefit of hindsight and historical detachment. 

In that respect, these counterfactual scenarios are psychologically like time-travel scenarios in which someone from the future travels back into the past, then finds himself having to take sides in a historical conflict. But he takes his beliefs with him as he goes back in time. His formative influences happened at a different time and place. 

4. In addition, it depends on freedom of opportunity. If, say, there was a draft in place, that severely limits your viable options. Mind you, even if you're conscripted, if you don't believe in the cause, you can practice passive resistance by doing as little as you can get away with.

5. I'm not a Civil War historian, so I could be mistaken, but from what I've read, I'd say the political establishments of the North and South alike had ignoble motives for waging war. The Northern rationale was preserving the union while the Southern rationale was preserving slavery. Neither official rationale is justification for killing people. Nationalism isn't worth killing people over, and defending the economic system of slavery isn't worth killing people over (indeed, that's an understatement). So at that level, I don't think either side deserved to win. 

6. Now someone might object that while the official rationale of the North was ignoble, the Civil War had the effect of liberating the slaves, so the outcome warranted the action, regardless of the impure motives of the Northern political leadership. And there's certainly something to be said for that.

7. Conversely, someone might object that while the official rationale of the South was ignoble, the average Southerner wasn't fighting to preserve slavery. He wasn't inspired by ideology. Rather, his incentive was self-defense: to protect hearth and home, kith and kin, from destructive invaders. And there's something to be said for that. 

8. Robert E. Lee was originally offered command of the Union army. But he was first and foremost a Virginian, so he sided with the South. 

Suppose, though, he had accepted command of the Union army, but used that strategic position to limit damage to the South. By "collaborating" with the "enemy", he'd be in a position to exert far more control over the outcome. Ironically, by fighting with the "enemy" rather than fighting against the "enemy," he might have been able to mitigate the destruction. An extreme example of this principle is a double agent who sabotages the enemy from within (e.g. Kim Philby). Although his fellow Southerners might consider him a traitor, Lee would not in fact be betraying his kinsmen, but just the opposite–using his position as commander of the "enemy" forces to minimize the damage. 

9. Whether we view someone as a traitor depends not only on which side he takes, but which side we take. For instance, Hitler offered to make Marlene Dietrich the queen of the Nazi cinema, but she refused. Instead, she entertained Allied troops on the front lines, at great risk to herself. Some Germans viewed her as a traitor, but she probably felt the Nazis were the real traitors, by destroying Germany. 

10. I wouldn't willingly fight to protect the plantation class. Why would I hazard life and limb to defend their lifestyle? 

11. Another possible option would be to move my family to a state or territory outside the war zone. Not fight on either side. That might seem cowardly, but as a rule, protecting our dependents takes priority. 

12. In addition, there are guerrilla resistance movements, like the underground railroad. These operate behind enemy lines, and are distinct from what armies on either side are doing. 

13. Suppose a Christian volunteered to be a prison guard at one of the hellacious POW camps like Camp Sumter, Camp Douglass, or Elmira Prison to do what he could to ameliorate the dire conditions? 

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