Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Redrawing the battle lines to fit modern sensibilities, and thereby doing violence to history.

I suppose I'm over-publishing on this topic, due to the recent controversy over South Carolina's continued flying of one of the Confederate battle flags (there were a variety of them).  I've already posted on that immediately below.

On that topic, tonight on the national news I saw a man yelling at the reporter interviewing him when that reporter associated the Stars and Bars with the cause of slavery.  He yelled back something to the effect that Southern solders "were never fighting for slavery".

Oh, yes they were.

Oh sure, a person can put any number of nuances on this.  Drafted men, for example, fight (sometimes) because they were drafted. But at the end of the day, the argument that Southern soldiers didn't know that the war was about slavery are fooling themselves and dishonoring history. No matter what else the motives of individuals solders were, and no matter how hard, and even valiantly, they fought, they knew that if they one, slavery as an institution was going to be preserved, and that's what had taken their states into rebellion.  Individual motives may have been, and likely often were, much more complicated than that, but that's the simple fact.

What's also the fact, however, is that there's a tremendous desire on the part of people to make combatants of the past, even the near past, fit their sensibilities.  People don't like to think that people who fought really hard, and who had some admirable qualities, let alone people who are related them, fought for a bad cause, and knew it.

So, let's see how some examples of this work.

"The lost cause" has been a romantic Southern perception since some point during Reconstruction, when Southerners ceased confronting what they'd fought for and reimagined it.  As they did so, something the opposite of what Americans did to their returning servicemen during the late 60s and early 70s occurred, as they began to imagine the cause as noble and every Southern soldier a hero.  This stayed largely a Southern thing up until film entered the scene, and Birth of a Nation spread the concept everywhere.  It's likely best expressed in Gone With the Wind, which no matter what else a person thinks of it, has a very racist and rosy view of the old South.  It well expressed the concept that every slave was like Pork, Mammy or Prissy, and ever Southern soldier was Ashley.  The slave holding South is presented as a romantic dream, and effectively. Heck, I like the film. But it doesn't express reality.

The reality of Southern secession was that the Southern slave holding states had such a hair trigger about slavery the election of Abraham Lincoln was too much for it to endure, simply because he expressed the intent not to let slavery spread.  Southern legislatures went out of the Union, or tried to, on that point.  

That doesn't mean every Union soldier was enlightened.  But it should be noted that Union soldiers fought for the more philosophical point of preserving the Union.  At one time, their service was hugely admired, but in recent years, somehow, the romance that surrounds the Southern cause is the one that tends to be remembered.  That skews history.  Sure, the individual motivations of Southern troops may be more complicated, but that's still a fact that can't 'be ignored.

It probably also shouldn't be ignored that a huge percentage of the Southern fighting force had deserted by the end of the war either, or that regions of the South were hostile to the Confederacy.  

Which brings me to Italians during World War Two, truly.

For some reason, Italians, who actually did fight pretty hard in North Africa and in the Soviet Union (you didn't know that they fought with the Germans in the USSR, they did) are regarded as cowardly as they gave up when it became obvious that Mussolini wasn't worth fighting for.

Now, exactly what's wrong with that?  That doesn't make them cowards, that makes them smart.

I don't know what that says about the German fighting man in World War Two, but whatever it is, it isn't admirable.  But here too there are apologist who would excuse the German soldier.

German troops fought hard everywhere right to the bitter end, and they did so for an inescapably evil cause.  That's not admirable, and I don't care if most of them were drafted.  Most Italian soldiers were drafted too, and by 1943 they were giving up where they could, including their officers.  Some German officers did rebel, but mot didn't, and most German troops fought on until late war.  They shouldn't have.  They shouldn't have fought for Hitler at all.

The Japanese have gotten more of a pass about World War Two than the Germans have on every level, and I do suppose that the fact that Japanese soldiers were largely ignorant of things elsewhere may provide a bit of an excuse for the barbarity that they engaged in, but only barely.  And the occasional confusion of Japanese Medieval chivalry for later day Japanese "honor" is bunk.  The Japanese were brutal during World War Two and the fact that they claimed to liberate other Asians and then acted brutally shows that they should have known better.

Speaking of chivalry, however, the recent trend to show the enemies of Medieval Christendom as primitive nobles and the forces of Medieval Christendom as baddies is also revisionism in need of a dope slap.  Crusaders who went off to the Middle East weren't on a confused mission, they were repelling an invasion, and the Vikings weren't admirable in their pagan state.

Speaking of mounted troops (chivalry) another odd one has been the modern tendency to view all native combatants as committed against the United States in the 18th and 19th Century, or even against all European Americans.  Many Indians view things this way themselves, but it doesn't reflect the complicated reality.  Many tribes allied themselves with European Americans in various instances, sometime temporarily and sometimes not so.  In the West an interesting example of this is the Shoshone, who were allies of the United States and who contributed combatants to campaigns of the 1870s.  In recent years I've occasionally seen it claimed that the Shoshone were amongst the tribes that fought at Little Big Horn, in the Sioux camp.  It's not impossible that some were there, but by and large the big Shoshone story for the 1876 campaign was the detail contributed to Crook's command against the Sioux.  I'll note I'm not criticizing them for this, only noting it.

Regarding the main point, the fact of the matter is that we admire those who fight for us bravely, and bravery is admirable.  It's hard to accept that bravery for a bad cause is admirable, however. That doesn't mean that all bravery serves honor.  Quite the opposite can be true.  Redrawing the motives of combatants doesn't do history any favors, and it doesn't do justice of any kind to the combatants on any side in former wars either.

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