A weary public…

Victor Davis Hanson, who is by no means immune to historical overreach, nevertheless hits it on the head here:

Dixie comparisons.

Furor arises about comparing Iraq to elements in the Civil War. I get irate letters when suggesting parallels to the terrible summer of 1864 before Sherman took Atlanta when the betting was that Lincoln would not be renominated, much less reelected. Apparently the outrage comes from even the hint that a George Bush’s perseverance in the face of declining support is anything comparable to a deified Lincoln.

But there are two other less remarked on parallels. First, the empowerment of the Iraqi Shiites, the perennially despised of the Arab world, through one-man/one vote, is as radical in the context of the contemporary Arab world as was emancipation to our own past. To receive an idea of the magnitude of the US-induced change, just image Britain, about 1855, landing in New Orleans, racing up the Mississippi and liberating slaves, and then staying on to jump start democratic suffrage in the South—all to be accomplished while Northerners, Southerners, and Westerners seethed at the foreign interloper, and turned on each other, as particular sectarians sought to ally with or oppose the British.

Another Reconstruction

We are in our fourth year of Reconstruction, and it is eerily similar to the Union efforts from 1865 to 1877. Militias like the Kuklux Klan proliferated. Marshal Law was declared in Tennessee. Judges were shot. Northern troops were too few and far between to protect Republican and black reformers. The public was exasperated that armies like Sherman’s that by late 1864 and 1865 had once sliced through the Confederacy in mere months could not even keep order in a conquered South, despite five military districts initially run by tough veteran Union generals.

Assassinations, kidnappings, and terrorism were committed against supposed “collaborators” such as Republican politicians and black elected officials. Reconstruction administrators were often themselves thoroughly corrupt. And after the scandalous deal of 1876, over a century later books are still being written, as they are of Vietnam and will be of Iraq, about how Reconstruction would have finally worked—despite its legion of terrible mistakes—had only a weary public not given up on it.

 (quoted in full to distinguish from other entries on same page)

I’ve just taught Reconstruction a bunch this year, and gotten classes into big debates about Sumner & Co.’s land redistribution plan, southern violence, etc., and I have to say that this is an incredibly apt comparison.

Leave a comment


  1. I think that is extremely accurate.

  2. Zathras

     /  January 24, 2007

    Very superficial. This analysis ignores 2 basic differences: orders of magnitude and history. To make this type of comparison, you have to look at the numbers, not vague, qualitative comparisons. In the South, you had a total of about 5,000 killed over a period of 65 years, from 1865-1930. In contrast, we have had about 50,000 in killed in about 3 years. The South had about a 1/3 the population of current Iraq, so all of this means that the percentage of people lynched in the South was about 1 percent the percent killed by sectarian violence in Iraq. No comparison is valid here.

    The other fallacy is the ignoring of prior history. The fact that the South had a century-old history of democracy before Reconstruction, while Iraq has no such history, cannot be ignored. The past history shows what the tendency of a people are. Despite the lynchings, the South was able to have some vague approximation to democracy because that was their tradition. No such tradition exists for the Iraqis.

  3. I’m not a historian, and I really rather detest Bush too, but the parallel occurred even to me. Doing the right thing while everyone including your supporters protests is exactly what Lincoln did, and it’s what Bush’s doing too. Sadly, much like the North likes to take moral credit for ending slavery, even though they had to be dragged the whole way, many in power now will croon over how we did the right thing when they’re retired 20 years from now.

  4. happycrow

     /  January 24, 2007

    Zathras: your objections are irrelevant to the thesis.

    1. No, there’s no tradition of democracy in Iraq. There was also no tradition of equal treatment under law of African Americans, either, their legal status prior to the Civil War being exactly equivalent to that of a ball-point pen.

    2. Orders of magnitude are irrelevant, because the numbers fit their *own* contexts. Tack on the numbers of people in the South who are starving to death, and the numbers of those Freedmen who are managing only subsistence nutrition as the Black Codes undermine the actual good sides to slavecropping, and the numbers actually killed in said violence become meaningless. It took only 300 deaths for the governor of Texas to utterly crush the Ku Klux Klan in this state. Do we need to put that number up against the number of known Al Quaeda or Iranian agents killed? Not at all: each is relevant to its own historical context.

    @JimDesu: and that’s why I like John Brown.

  5. Mike

     /  January 24, 2007

    Well, I like John Brown too. But comparing the Civil War to Iraq is a really bad idea. If you are going to do one, Northern Ireland is a really good example, including militias (supporting both sides), lots of clan type politics, outside support, and what some saw as an occupying army, others saw as a savior and protector.

    The only real difference is the intensity. Iraq is like Northern Ireland on meth.

    And one other thing about the Military Districts. They were under-staffed due to the huge drawdown after the Civil War despite the Union Generals saying they needed X amount of troops and got less than 8000 to do the job. Hell, the Reconstruction offically ended when the occupying troops withdrew from New Orleans, 1 600 man regiment who was responsible for Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. That’s a word game not an occupation.

  6. Oh, I didn’t mean comparing the whole darn thing to the civil war, just, and particular, the presidents’ positions.

  7. It is definitely one of the lessons of history: representative govts can generally wipe the walls with their opponents (but not always: VDH is conveniently quiet about the Ionian states getting smashed by the Persians/Medes, for example, and the Flemish city-states did eventually lose out to monarchs and aristocrats in the middle ages)… but the degree to which that occurs is directly related to the degree that the political structure supports the *actions of the troops.*

  8. I think it is not so much the magnitude of casualties, but of introducing ideas that are alien to the people that are being ‘reconstructed.’ Many times just the presence of troops enforcing these alien ideas create resentment just by being there. I think that if you take the resentment in historical context, there really is a basis for a comparison here.

    Case in point: Within my lifetime I can remember when there were not so many immigrants to Texas from the North. My mother once informed me that we were not going to see the new doctor in our local hospital because he was a “damned yankee.” That is funny now because I married a yankee, and my Mom loves her and her family. My best friend all through high school was from Connecticut and my Dad had told me at one point that I could not trust them because they came from “up North.” My family was no minority in these opinions. Things have since changed for them, but the point is that this was occuring almost 120 years after the war concluded. Most southerners are now ashamed of things like the KKK, but it took a long time to get over the carpetbaggers and the carpetbagger governments that were in place during reconstruction, never mind the indignity of being a country that had been defeated.

    Further, the indignity of reconstruction came at the hands of ‘former’ countrymen that shared something of a common history. Lincoln understood this mentality and tried to forstall it. I cannot imagine what the results would have been if a forein country like the UK had been the invading army and the instrument of reconstruction. The fact is that these muslims of both factions may not be able to handle the ideal of representative government any more than I can teach my dog to whistle ‘Dixie.’ If I try, I am going to frustrated and my dog is going to be angry.

  9. Mike

     /  January 25, 2007

    I agree, “Marching through Georgia” is a much better song.

  10. And then you have the Kurds, whose attitude can be summed up with “what took you so long?”

  11. “Marching Through Georgia” ……..LOL.

    (spits)…..I reckon not.

  12. Mike

     /  January 26, 2007

    How about “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” then?

  13. Mike

     /  January 26, 2007

    And you are spot on with the Kurdish attitude. I really wish Turkey wasn’t so important an ally, otherwise I would say we set up the Kurds as their own state and watch them work.

  14. IF we can massage the whole “let’s wipe out the PKK and let you two be friends” angle, then just MAY-be, as the Turks slowly regain influence in inner Asia, we’ll come up like roses and everybody will be happy.

    We can hope, anyway.

  15. Alex

     /  January 26, 2007

    Speaking of history….
    I think we should tell Turkey to get it’s act together and accept a Kurdish state as is. Why? Because I see far too close an analogy between the PKK/Peshmerga and our relationship with the Vietminh in WWII.
    In WWII Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were on our side – fighting against the Japanese and we got along just fine. After WWII ended the French wanted their colony back, we turned our back on Ho Chi Minh and they decided to go communist because it was the only organization willing to give them support for their independence. They were disciplined, ready to fight, and they REALLY wanted their independence.
    So now we have the PKK and Peshmerga, who by all accounts are our best allies in the region and probably the only group of former Iraqis who are disciplined, ready to fight, and REALLY want their independence. If we abandon them or piss them off, they will become our modern day “NVA/Vietcong” that we’ll have to fight later and I don’t think it will be pretty. I got a little worried when Peshmerga units got upset about the whole raid on the supposed Iranian embassy and surrounded US troops at gunpoint until cooler heads prevailed. I hope that someone in charge does right by the PKK and helps the Kurds out properly.

  16. Mike

     /  January 26, 2007

    I don’t think they are going to turn on us. And there isn’t anyway the will hook up with AQ or Hezbolla or any of them. The simple reason is that the Kurds already know that any help they give the Arabs or Persians won’t be paid back with anything other that a fuck job. Hundreds of years worth of it actually. That and they despise Arab military “might” (the more frequent comment about that was “Saladin was a Kurd and he was the one who retook Jeruslam, these idiots have a much bigger army, better equipment and they can’t even work together. WE have no grief with the Israelis (they have never screwed us), so YOU morons do the fighting, we don’t care about Jerusalem”). That and the fact that they are hedging their bets and making sure the Pesh is ready just in case.

  17. Alex

     /  January 26, 2007

    So Peshmerga vs. everyone….I guess that would indeed be their history wouldn’t it?
    I hope you’re right and they stay on our side, because if they did decide to go after us, it would hurt.

  18. Well, I won’t be singing the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ any time either, but I can agree with the Kurds being a little bit pissed with us and Bush, Sr. We screwed those people royally. The thing that made me the most angry about the first ‘Saddam War’ was the fact that we urged them to rebel and then left them alone to fend for themselves. Then we were supposed to feel good about it because we flew some helicopters over them and kicked some food out the back of them? Not good.

    Of all the peoples in that country, they are the ones that could actually run an independent country abd get away with it, if it were not for our close friends and allies the Turks………yea right. Good friends.

  19. Mike

     /  January 27, 2007

    I don’t envy the Turks. THey are also high on the list of “have a great chance, but could easily blow it” countries around there. Secular, more or less stable, close to joining the EU (if the EU would realize that they have to be assholes in order to keep order and cut them some slack), and the only real Muslim country with a military worth something. They can be freinds, but they have to balance it. Russia isn’t the monster it used to be so our unconditional support is no longer there and they know it. And they also know they don’t need it (right now anyway) so they can flex a bit. THey have the Kurds and that’s a shit sandwich for everyone.

  20. Good points.


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