Friday, May 14, 2004

Magnolias by the Euphrates

There's a great post at Pathetic Earthlings which describes what happens when societies clash in their entirety.

One of Catton’s themes is how complex the North’s motivations and objectives in the Civil War really were. According to the standard narrative, while Southerners were getting increasingly exercised about Federal power intruding on their states’ sovereignty (particularly regarding slavery), Northerners (including both small farmers and a growing mercantilist middle class) were becoming increasingly impatient with the South’s land-based aristocracy and bound labor. This is basically true, but the mix also included radical abolitionists, hard-core Unionists, those with secessionist sympathies, Copperheads of various degree, and lots of folks willing to back any cause for short-term political gain. In more than a few states, it was unclear which side of the battle lines they’d end up on.

Once the war actually began, it was perhaps inevitable that the North (with gigantic advantages in everything, save perhaps talent) would prevail in a head-to-head military campaign. But it was far from inevitable that the Union forces would get that definitive clash. Lee quickly recognized (particularly after the failure at Gettysburg) that the Confederacy’s best chance of victory was to drag the conflict out into a painful stalemate that would sap the North’s will to fight. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fell back into guerrilla mode: stick to known terrain, harass the supply lines, attack where the opportunity arises, and never let the enemy engage in strength. Farther south, Joe Johnston had a like strategy.

... But on one point at least, the comparison is sobering: the long, slow aftermath. Lots of commentators have pointed to the post-WWII occupations of Germany and Japan as examples of the commitment of time and money necessary to rebuild a defeated enemy, and these are apt comparisons. But in the former Confederacy, it was a full century before the region’s institutions (at least with regard to civil rights) were even close to the standards of the civilized world.

Comparisons are never exact and they are sometimes odious. Yet they can be informative in the same way that past personal experience guides future decisions. One of the tragedies of modern celebrity media coverage is that it neither learned, nor wise, nor informed. But it is never shy.