Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Rumsfeld's faulty grasp of history

Today, Donald Rumsfeld said something that was very interesting. He was asked whether Iraq is "closer than ever to the brink of civil war" and he answered:
(I)t seems to me that it is not a classic civil war at this stage.

It certainly isn't like our Civil War.
This isn't an argument but another Rumsfeldian ahistorical dodge. No two wars are alike, ever--especially civil wars. To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.

But he's right in one respect. The American Civil War involved the dissolution of established democratic ties in a country which had been functioning as a relatively cohesive whole for nearly 80 years. The Union had a trained, functioning army and the Confederacy drew many from that same army. If the Iraqi civil war breaks out into all-out conflict, there will be few professional military attitudes on display. Instead, Iraq will resemble the fighting in Sri Lanka, for example--an endless cycle of hit-and-run attacks that will last for years and years.

Yes, there will be no Iraqi Antietam or Gettysburg, so, in that respect, Rumsfeld's right.

However, it is likely that we are only on the cusp of Iraq's worst days and one would have to say that Rumsfeld is very wrong. Iraq, in one sense, is an exact replay of the American Civil War if you go back far enough.

In Iraq today, you see a government struggling for legitimacy, clerics and radicals running their own militias, people dragged from their beds to their deaths, terrorist attacks, hooligans in uniform and an impartial military force stuck in the middle of it all.

This is exactly how our Civil War began.

In 1854, a compromise was reached. Like Iraqi parliamentary machinations, it was supposed to bring about peace between rival factions--abolitionists and slave owners. The upshot of this compromise, known as the Kansas-Nebraska act, was citizens of a territory or state could choose whether their state would be a free state or a slave state. Not for the first time, it was proven, as Churchill put it, democracy really is "the worst form except for all the others." Congress had assumed, foolishly, that Nebraska would be a free state and Kansas would become a slave state.

Instead, the opportunity of choice drove people from all over the nation to the state in order to influence the vote. New Englanders formed the Emigrant Aid Society, moved west and became Kansans to vote against slavery, while pro-slavery Missourians simply came across the border, voted and went back home. Both claimed a true vision of God's will. As Whittier wrote in "Song of the Kansas Emigrant":
We go to rear a wall of men
On Freedom's southern line,
And plant beside the cotton-tree
The rugged Northern pine!...

Upbearing, like the Ark of old,
The Bible in our van,
We go to test the truth of God
Against the fraud of man.
Terroristic groups became common on both sides of the conflict. In one of the most famous of attacks, abolitionist John Brown led a small band of men to Pottawatomie, to the house of the pro-slavery James Doyle and killed him in retaliation for an attack on Lawrence, Kansas, the freestaters' capital. James Townsley was an eyewitness to the event and his account is remembered in William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas.
The old man Doyle and his sons were ordered to come out. This order they did not immediately obey, the old man being heard instead to call for his gun. At this moment, Henry Thompson threw into the house some rolls or balls of hay in which during the day wet gunpowder had been mixed, setting fire to them as he threw them in. This stratagem had the desired effect. The old man and his sons came out, and were marched one-quarter of a mile in the road toward Dutch Henry's crossing, where a halt was made. Here old John Brown drew his revolver and shot old man Doyle in the forehead, killing him instantly; and Brown's two youngest sons immediately fell upon the younger Doyles with their short two-edged swords.
Jayhawkers, Bushwackers, Border Ruffians and others fought it out in Kansas for five years (or seven, depending on whom you listen to), with Union troops stuck in the middle in order to try to keep the peace. The time was called "Bleeding Kansas."

In the end, Kansans--9,000 Free State Democrats; 8,000 Republicans; 6,500 Proslavery Democrats; 500 Pro-Slavery Know-Nothings by one rough reckoning--declared the state free. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that this political humiliation, and not simply the election of Abraham Lincoln, led directly the Southern secession.

(And, lest we forget, even losing the Civil War didn't end the terrorist attacks by pro-slavery fanatics, who continued to kill blacks and those who would help them for many years after the war's official end.)

Again, it's true Iraq will never look like what is commonly known as the American Civil War, but if the people of Iraq really wanted to copy our bloodiest conflict, they're on the right track.

Update: A friend of mine who has studied the conflict in-depth wrote in e-mail...
Don't forget the bureaucratic side of how the Bleeding Kansas mess ended. All the losses caused by the poor planning and the resultant terrorist attacks were supposed to have been reimbursed by Congress. Affidavits were taken and losses totaling more than $250,000 (in 1855 dollars) were spelled out in hundreds of pages, published in 1859. Yet when it came time to appropriate the money, Congress never did, because it appeared that some people with unclean hands could conceivably be reimbursed. As far as I know, NOBODY got restitution.


Blogger Jim said...

Nice summary of "bleeding Kansas" -- I had not looked for the parallels to Iraq.

And, of course, back in Washington, in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks (of South Carolina) attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate chamber in 1856, clubbing the senator senseless. Why did Sumner "deserve" this assault? He gave an inflammatory speech against the power of the slave-holding south entitled "The Crime against Kansas," which, according to Brooks, "offer[ed] a gross insult to my State [South Carolina], and to a venerable friend [Andrew Butler]."

I once thought we were beyond such acts, but, given the efforts of Coulter, Limbaugh, et al. to demonize their political opponents, to invoke images of violence against "liberals", and to minimize the significance of their words, I fear, at times, for our nation's internal peace. ??

7:33 AM  
Blogger George said...

Civil war is a strange phrase. The first problem with the term is there is nothing really civil about it. The second problem is the nomenclature is only reliably applied when the outcome is known. For example, America's War for Independence was a "civil war" (British subjects fighting British subjects) until we won our independence. 90 years later the South's War for Independence (as they saw it) is widely known as The Civil War. It appears that what a war is named mostly depends on what the victors call it. Rumsfeld's incompetence is not going to afford him that luxury.

5:43 AM  

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