Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sorta Political: An Honourable War

During the second Iraq war, I was visiting a house in the country. My host and hostess were an Anglican clergyman and a school teacher. It was a setting right of of a traditional British cozy novel. My host and hostess were, and are, as liberal as liberal can get and I spent a lot of my time dreading the inevitable moment when the war would come up. I knew they would not only condemn it but that they would do so in a fashion that implied that anyone who supported the war was a moron and a monster.

I spent the weekend preparing myself for it. My plan was to politely and quietly say that I supported the war when the moment came but that I would not enter into any argument about. In the end, I as spared. Not because the comment was not made but because the comment that was made was so outrageous all I could do was stare in silent wonder.

My host and I were watching TV when it happened. The History Channel was on and a teaser played for a show about the American Civil War and my host said, "What a stupid waste of time that war was."

He was serious. I realized, with a jolt, that I was in the presence of someone who genuinely believed that no good had ever come of war. Even the ending of slavery was not enough to justify it. There was no need for him to say what he thought of Iraq or for me to respond to it.

I didn't argue with him but I suspect I can guess how it would have gone. He would have insisted that slavery was outmoded and would have disappeared anyway. He would have argued that even if the war had brought about the end sooner than any other means that it wasn't worth the huge loss of life that was involved.

 I say all that by way of a preface to something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the other day:
And from the moment the first shots were fired, the black imagination conceived of the Civil War differently than the rest of the country. That difference continues up to the present day. Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war, perhaps I'd write differently.
That difference continues up to the present day! It does. Coates sees the Civil War as an honourable war. He believes he owes "the invention of my modern self" to war. That is the way an ancient Greek would talk about the war with Persia, the way an ancient Roman would talk about their wars of conquest. It is the way the English used to talk about defeating the Spanish Armada or Waterloo. And it is the way Americans used to talk about the Revolution and, ahem, the Civil War.

But to believe in honour is to believe in shame and we are much less inclined to do that anymore. We no longer believe in a public virtue that you can and should be shamed for.

The funny thing (funny as in tragic) is that if the Civil War had to be fought again, I'm pretty sure most liberals and even some conservatives would oppose it. Liberals mostly don't believe in shame. The only shameful thing, in the modern liberal view, is to be intolerant and unaccepting of others or to be a hypocrite. They'd condemn the racism inherent in slavery but they wouldn't go to war over it.


  1. Sometimes I think you're more American than I am :)

    Anyway, you can definitely find a whole weird subset of conservative opinion which says that the civil war was bad because the south should have been able to secede, Lincoln was a tyrant who suspended constitutional protections & militarized the country etc...

    1. Yes, you're right. I think I suppress the memory of those types. Some of their arguments may even have some merit for all I know but I get bad feelings about what their real motives might be whenever I read them.

    2. That's a good way to put it.