Ghosts of Old War Mistakes

We watch a lot of international news in our house, and every day gets more and more alarming. So many horrible things are happening, you don’t need me to list them for you. And why do we keep cycling through the same types of outrage? My response is that it’s because the US public doesn’t understand the patterns of engagement our country keeps choosing between.

I. Copperheads

The first pattern came up during the US Civil War, and it’s the part of the war that has gotten the least attention, even on C-Span, where usually nothing is too obscure for a book tour. Well, meet the Copperheads. Lots of folks know that General George McClellan ran for President in 1864 as a peace candidate, but don’t understand the iceberg of which he was the tip. Copperheads were Democrats in the North, a tiny minority in the party that dominated the South and mostly seceded when Lincoln won in 1860. Some of them had business interests in the South — meaning supplying or buying from the slavocracy — but many others were the first of the laboring classes displaced by rural changes but not secure in urban factory jobs. Or they were immigrants — many Irish — fearing job competition from freed slaves. While many were supporters of the racist economic regime, many others were just willing to tolerate slavery as their own best economic or personal calculation. The Copperhead movement had nothing to do with pacifism.

Northerners seem to believe that Copperheadism ended at Appomattox, but for Southerners they were part of the Scourge of Reconstruction. Decimated landscapes always attract rapacious investors ready to buy up your debts for less than they’re worth but more than you’ve got. That form of Copperheadism deserves more attention, but it’s not what matters in foreign policy, my topic for today. Northern Copperheadism — “peace at any price because war has no benefit to me” — has not only never died out, it has spread like a vicious weed. When negotiations begin, the focus is on appeasement — give the aggressor whatever will get them to stop — but the prime goal stems back to Whiggism, the policy of compromising to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The two primary goals are to “maintain business as usual” and to prevent a breakdown of known political structures. It’s worth noting that this was the party of classical New England Unitarianism.

Most of my friends and family are a contemporary cleaned-up version of Copperhead: by idealizing human nature as “inherently good” they persuade themselves that restoring equality to human transactions — economic, cultural, political — will cause both war and poverty to simply wither away. Everyone will discover the good in everyone else and be satisfied with that knowledge as life’s highest and finest reward.

Idealists are people who have not had the experience of interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, as I did in 1981-82. A week ago, I would have told you what is happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa resembles the kind of low-grade outrage that characterizes governance in Pakistan. This week, though, it looks like violence has passed a horrible tipping point. Sustained campaigns of bombing and other military violence foster society-wide PTSD, and the worst of those victims can be exploited by individuals who are either themselves completely deranged by abuse, or carrying around an evil they were born with. It might help to read “The Plague” again, by Albert Camus, but you’d do better to look at mass murderers who washed out of the military, who got fired from Postal Service jobs, who underwent years of ridicule and humiliation. These are folks who want revenge, but whose grievance has no bottom and no top.

II. Great War Syndrome

Commentator David Brooks gets a lot of things wrong, but sometimes he’s very right. Tonight on The PBS News Hour, he said that our mistake in Syria was forgetting that “It’s easier to do the little things early than to do the big things later.” The US experience in World War I led to a delusion that we are the exception to this inconvenient truism. Europeans have spent this past week commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities of which we care nothing, because we entered so much later. And when we went in, the primary reason appears to have been that attacks on shipping were starting to hurt our economic elite. And what were they shipping? Why, munitions, to be sold at shameful profit, and apparently in some cases to both sides. So this was really a variation on Copperheadism — not that one would stay out of war to maintain business and politics as usual, but that one would enter it for the same reason. Sort of like the Confederates, and their apologists remain proud of it.

For Europe, 1914-1918 was “The Great War” because of its casualties and social upheavals, but we called it that because it had elements of excitement and adventure. Remember “The World War One Flying Ace”? Remember “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm [After They’ve Seen Paree]?” Josephine Baker, and the African American discovery that the French had other prejudices, and loved American jazz? Let me be the first to say that for far too many Americans, 1918 was also a year of unprecedented death, much of which occurred because global war made our troops into victims and carriers of the lethal Spanish Influenza.

But for those U.S. troops who marched into Paris, who came home relatively unscathed, The Great War message was that our military could anticipate a fairly safe and profitable future assisting good guys who were trying hard but didn’t have our advantages. This is what led directly to Iraq in March 2003. “They’ll welcome us with open arms.” “We’ll be done in no time, once we help them establish the democracy they know in their hearts is what they want.” That might have been true in 1918 and 1945, but it has nothing to do with the way things are in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

So there we went, deluding ourselves into believing that people everywhere just want to do what we do here (which, might I point out, we are less and less sure we want to continue doing). Some folks say we have to give them guns and pocket-sized constitutions, other folks encourage more economic and educational empowerment. But today’s wars aren’t happening in Paree, they’re  not even in Weimar Berlin. This week tells me we might be looking at Kampuchea, in the hellish years before the Vietnamese finally rejected international norms and invaded their neighbor. That invasion, with its puppet government, released the Kampuchean people from agonizing suffering, but Vietnam’s primary goal was to stabilize and rationalize a neighboring country whose psychological injuries were starting to threaten the region. For this the Vietnamese suffered tons of excoriating condemnation in, of all places, the United Nations, for having invaded a country whose government had not invited them.

So if I’m right, and the Boka Haram/Islamic State of Iraq type of army really does represent a new form of Khmer Rouge frenzy for annihilation, we on the left need to look at the shadowy ghost of Copperheadism. We do the right thing by confronting conservatives with their own sad Great War Syndrome. Unfortunately, for too much of the planet, these two models have meshed into a foreign policy that lays bare the worst of both of them.

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