Was the Civil War a just war? a review of Harry S. Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War,
.....The religious language of the war, in particular, was nearly always the language of the jeremiad, in which God guarantees victory to the righteous and ruin to their enemies, and battlefield success is linked to piety and failure to apostasy. The preachers of the Civil War era, North and South, were light-years removed from the presumption toward pacifism that dominates contemporary religious discourse, and nearly every pulpit — as Stout demonstrates in often-exhaustive detail — rang with appeals to heaven for victory and with assurances that God smiled on the preservation of the Union or its dissolution, the abolition of slavery or its extension to the Pacific.
Stout calls this the “cultural captivity of the churches,” and it’s one of the major themes of the book, returned to repeatedly as the war — and his account of it, which recapitulates at unnecessary length the work of previous historians — drags on and the North’s jeremiads grow more confident, the South’s more desperate and apocalyptic. A second theme is the brutal reality that these jeremiads ignored, both the specific war crimes — rapine and murder, the inhumane conditions in both Confederate and Union prisons, the criminal stupidity of the commanders who sent men to die at Marye’s Heights and Gettysburg and Cold Harbor — and the general policies that made them possible. In particular, Stout trains his fire on Lincoln’s decision to abandon the old West Point code of military conduct in favor of a more latitudinarian policy, one that countenanced seizing civilian property and destroying civilian homes. This willingness to expand the war beyond the battlefield, he argues, and the Confederate willingness to respond in kind, marked the beginning of the modern concept of total war. The Lincolnian policy stopped short of allowing assaults on civilians themselves, but its logic led in a darker direction, and in the wreckage of Georgia lay the seeds of the twentieth century’s wartime horrors.
It’s not that this analysis is wrong, precisely, but it feels incomplete and at times obtuse. Stout judges the Civil War’s actors, but he doesn’t work hard enough to understand them — and in particular, by deliberately tabling the question of jus ad bello, he fails to grapple with the underlying realities that made once-unthinkable slaughter and savagery seem not only necessary but just. The bloodiness of the conflict, the bellicosity of the preachers, the suffering that the Northern armies eventually wreaked on the crumbling South — none of these is explicable without a consideration of how high the stakes seemed to be on both sides, how firmly each believed that not only their own nation’s survival but civilization itself depended on the outcome.
This paradox extends beyond the battlefields of the Civil War to any conflict that seeks a kind of cosmic justice or takes on the flavor of a crusade. The ends don’t justify the means, but if your ends seem important enough — the end of slavery in the nineteenth century, the defeat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the twentieth — well, which leader is prepared to sacrifice jus ad bello for the sake of jus in bello and lose a greater justice for a smaller one? If you’re fighting to “end all wars” or to “end evil” — to borrow one of the more sweeping definitions of our present conflict — then doesn’t every weapon need to be considered, every measure allowed?
These are the questions that American policymakers have been wrestling with for more than a century, from TR and Wilson to LBJ and George W. Bush. The debates over Hiroshima and Dresden are the extreme cases, of course, but the paradox is visible as well in the daily compromises and contradictions of our occupation of Iraq, where our sweeping, idealistic goals have dirtied our hands more than, say, the more cold-blooded First Gulf War ever did. On a case-by-case basis, the abuses on display in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were of course avoidable — but in the aggregate, tactics that violate “the highest principles of Christian civilization” are an almost-inevitable part of any occupation, any counterinsurgency, any serious attempt to reshape a dysfunctional society.
Our occupations of Japan and Germany 50 years earlier were cleaner, but we had done to those countries what Sherman did to Georgia, only more so — destroying not only armies but entire societies, which once flattened were easier to rebuild. It’s this reality that led Max Boot to remark recently that we might have been better off in Iraq had the initial invasion been more brutal. Instead, he noted, “the U.S. was so sparing in its use of force that many Baathists never understood they were beaten. The butcher’s bill we dodged early on is now being paid with compound interest.”
This point of view feels unacceptable and even odious, since accepting its implications would mean abandoning the idea of jus in bello entirely and enthroning in its place a kind of bloody-minded consequentialism. Yet the seeming alternatives — an unblinking realpolitik, a sweeping pacifism, or the kind of purer-than-thou idealism that Stout offers, with its lack of realism about the costs and necessities of war — are hardly more palatable.
A decade after Appomattox, faced with a situation similar to ours in Iraq — a society half-reshaped and restive, a low-level insurgency, a mounting financial cost — the North elected to abandon Reconstruction, return power to the defeated slaveholders, and forsake the people it had fought a war to free. For a long time they were praised for it by pro-Southern historiographers who saw Reconstruction the way the Left sees the Iraqi occupation, as an overzealous attempt to impose a way of life by force on an unwilling culture. Later it was pointed out that Reconstruction was hardly worse than the apartheid that came after and that perhaps the North should have stayed longer and done more to root out the pathologies of the conquered South.
The choice is no easier in hindsight than it was in 1876.