|Charleston, S.C., circa 1903|
At a cemetery somewhere in Charleston, several young women examine the graves of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, which had been over for quite some time, almost 40 years, when this picture was taken. By then every former rebel state was back in the Union, and Woodrow Wilson, who spent his childhood in Confederate Virginia, was a mere decade away from assuming the presidency. Yet as you can see from the above photo, the war was far from forgotten. At least not by these three women. The one kneeling on the left may be crying, but it's hard to tell. Indeed, maybe I shouldn't have used the word young to describe these three. The one on the right looks a bit older. Taller, anyway. Possibly she's the mother of the two on the left.
Now, I find the cause that the men buried in this cemetery gave their lives for to be morally repugnant. The Confederacy was about nothing more than the perpetuation of slavery. States rights, you say? I'm sorry but human rights trump states rights. Yet I don't begrudge the three women visiting, possibly grieving, over this place. All the men buried here had either wives, fiances, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends, and possibly more than friends that they dare not talk about. The three women look too young to have been wives. The one on the left could have been a daughter. Or they could have been complete strangers. The number of Confederate dead is said to have been around 258,000. The loss of so many young men may have still resonated 40 years later.
The Confederate soldiers for the most part weren't slaveholders. Indeed, poor whites may have been at something of a disadvantage in the Old South. How does one find a decent job when the blacks are doing all the work (albeit unwillingly) for free? So, then, why did so many poor whites fight and die to preserve slavery? They probably thought they were fighting for some other reason, like the aforementioned states rights. The politicians and the plantation owners propping them up told--warned!--all those poor whites that the damn Yankees wanted to come in and change their whole way of life. Given their destitution, you'd think they'd welcome such a change. But the damned that you know is better than the damned that you don't. The term wouldn't come into vogue until the 21st century, but these poor whites may have seen the Union army as an "existential threat."
Speaking of that Union army, though I find them to be on the acceptable side of the conflict, all the soldiers didn't necessarily find slavery to be morally repugnant. Historians will tell that Northerners were in fact divided about the issue. And even the ones against it were divided as whether to end it immediately (by force, I guess) or just keep it confined to the South, a kind of 19th century version of containment. Though he personally found slavery to be morally repugnant, Abraham Lincoln initially favored the latter. When he finally did issue the Emancipation Proclamation, it was as a tactical move, hoping that it would deprive the South of any international support it may have gotten by driving home the message the war was indeed about slavery (even if he previously had claimed it wasn't.)
So, if the Union soldiers weren't all fighting to end slavery, what else could have been motivating them? Well, the South was rebelling. That was treason. And they had attacked Fort Sumter, a artificial island run by the U.S. Army in Charleston Harbor, the same Charleston as in the above photo, though that was taken inland. In a way, you could say that the North was acting in self-defense. For different reasons you could say that about the South, too. Two sides fighting in self-defense. What a war.
It's also quite possible that the soldiers in the North and the South had no idea what they were fighting for or had any strong feelings about it. That's more common than you might think, as wars are fought on the ground by people unaware of how history will categorize them, pigeonhole them, at some future date. But if the soldiers had no strong feelings about it, why were they even there? Well, they could have gotten in trouble if they weren't. Both the North and the South had a draft (I myself probably would enlist in a war fought over bubble gum if I thought jail was the only alternative.)
Beyond that, however, I think the soldiers on both sides figured their respective leaders had their reasons. Good reasons, or they wouldn't have let such a terrible thing happen in the first place, right? We Americans like to bitch about government, yet nevertheless are quite willing to suspend our judgement, our skepticism, to give our politicians the benefit of a doubt, in matters of war and peace. We need to believe that they know what they're doing. If they don't, then that in itself could constitute an existential threat.
At any rate, until someone can convince me otherwise, I think the North was on the right side of that particular conflict, even if at the time everybody from Lincoln on down didn't always seem so sure themselves.
What about the various other wars the United States has gotten itself into? Were they worth it?
World War II. Worth it. Though it wasn't the precise reason the United States got involved, and the G.I.s doing the fighting didn't know about it until very late in the game, all it takes is a few minutes of film shot at Dachau to convince me of the rightness of that cause.
The Revolutionary War. True, King George III wasn't exactly Adolf Hitler, and modern-day Britain is more alike the United States than it is different (I'm told they even speak the same language as us) I still have to think it was worth it. Chalk it up to my dislike of royalty. The whole concept of royalty. I strongly feel that Arthur person should have run for office instead of pulling some stupid sword out of a stone. It also irks me when my fellow Americans show too much interest in royal affairs. Especially royal weddings. The fascination people here in the States showed for the nuptials of Charles and Diane, and then, a generation X later, William and Kate, makes me wonder if Benedict Arnold shouldn't replace George Washington on the dollar bill.
Besides, it's kind of hard to be against the Revolutionary War when I was born and raised in the very nation-state that resulted from it. To not give the Continental Congress the benefit of a doubt might yet invite another existential threat.
(A while back, I read about people who refuse to fill out 1040 tax forms on the grounds that the United States is an illegal country and that they're in fact citizens of Great Britain. If that's true, I think the U.K. equivalent of the IRS should get after them. They owe them some money.)
How about the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan? Look, I don't want to start any arguments here, especially not with those of you who seem to believe there's an invisible ray emanating from the U.S. Constitution that magically prevents our leaders from ever going to war unless it's absolutely necessary. Can we at least agree that the soldiers and sailors fighting those wars assumed some good would come out of them, whether it actually did or not?
This Memorial Day weekend, let's once again remember all those who gave their lives to ensure that the rest of us remain free.
But let's also remember those who gave their lives for less exalted reasons. Who gave their lives for no good reason at all.
If you think about it, they may have made an even bigger sacrifice.