Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The High Costs of Generous Terms

So apparently the issue of the day is whether or not Ulysses S. Grant was simply a great American, or the Greatest American. Nathan Newman begins the nomination process here, and is seconded by Barbara at Mahablog here. So I decided to do a bit of reading on the Civil War, and I am once again struck by something that leaves me conflicted.

At the end of the war, when accepting Lee's surrender at Appomatox, Grant was magnanimous in victory, allowing Officers to keep their sidearms and their horses. This was seen at the time as a way of trying to heal the wounds of the war, a sentiment that would later be advocated by the Democrats in Congress (back when the Dems were the bad guys.)

"Radical" Republicans who tried to impose punitive measures on the South, or even enforce the equality of black voters, were effectively blocked by Southerners in Congress and most especially on the Supreme Court. If you want to look at it generously, this was an attempt to try and heal the wounds of war. More pessimistically, it was a way for the South to try and avoid the consequences of their political, military, and moral inferiority. (If we can't all agree at this point on the moral case, something is very, very wrong.)

So here's the question: Would the US have been better off if the Radicals had prevailed, punitive measures imposed, and federally-enforced equality been the rule since the 1870s or so? I'm tempted to say yes, given that the South seems to never have conceded a) that they lost because they were inferior, and b) it was a good thing they lost. Germany and Japan (though less so Japan) have come to terms with their defeat. And here the example is instructive: At the end of WWII, Germany and Japan weren't simply defeated in the battlefield - they ceased to exist as sovereign states for a substantial period after the war. Large portions of their countries had been levelled, and in short it was impossible for anyone but the clinically psychopathic to maintain that the war could have been won, "if only..."

Meanwhile, if you want a further counter-example, Germany's experience of WWI, where German armies were soundly defeated but retreated in order left common Germans with the illusion that Germany hadn't been defeated, but rather had been betrayed by Jews, Communists, etc. Crucially, the German High Command (whose incompetence and idolatry of offensive war had caused so much ruin) explicitly blamed the civilian democratic government shortly after the war. This, arguably more than the Versailles Treaty, led directly to the mythology that Hitler fed on in his rise.

So does this mean that, in victory, it's better to leave no illusion about the virtue of your opponent? That crushing victory is better than a negotiated settlement? That anything less than total victory just paves the way for more war in the future? For reasons that I suspect are obvious, I fervently hope this isn't true.

2 comments:

Cyrus said...

So does this mean that, in victory, it's better to leave no illusion about the virtue of your opponent? That crushing victory is better than a negotiated settlement? That anything less than total victory just paves the way for more war in the future? For reasons that I suspect are obvious, I fervently hope this isn't true.

I'd be more careful with your terms here. Intentionally or not, you seem to be using moral, political, and military virtue interchangeably. It might or might not be accurate depending on the case, but it only really jumped out at me in the above quote — "leaving no illusion about the virtue of your opponent." And this isn't the first time I've heard the suggestion that relations with and reconstruction of Japan and Germany went (relatively) well after WWII because their defeats were so crushing. But I think we should differentiate between rubbing their nose in their humiliation and just leaving no room for doubt that they were defeated.

Defeating Germany in WWII seems instructive in more ways than one. Militarily, yes, we were merciless. But while there were a few times the allies hit civilian targets, like the firebombing of Dresden, from what I gather that was the exception rather than the rule. What's that anecdote everyone keeps bringing up in the torture discussion, that German troops ran to surrender to our guys rather than the Russians because they knew they would be treated better? And in postwar reconstruction, but it's not like we were colonizing them or subjugating them. (Certainly not compared to how Russia handled East Germany. Heh, maybe the only real moral of the story is to set up a good cop/bad cop situation.)

Another problem is that it comes down to weighing the odds in a balance between realism and idealism. The only certain way to prevent a future war against the same nation or people is genocide, which mercifully few people are bloodthirsty enough to openly advocate. At the other extreme is not doing anything at all. Somewhere in between, we have to decide how much brutality (brutality in certain ways, correctly applied to those who are your actual enemies, or else it probably IS futile) is acceptable before your principles are compromised completely, which is both undesirable for ethical reasons and could be a PR disaster with effects just as bad as not doing enough.

So to answer your questions, I guess I'd say "sort of, but I don't think it changes things too much."

Battlepanda said...

At the end of the second world war, the emperor of Japan was not dethroned. Instead, he was stripped of his powers and continued to lead Japan as a figurehead. I believe this is a part of why Japan never came to terms with its history as honestly as Germany.

As for the south, I don't know what the North could have done to avert it from the evil course of racism and denial it has taken in the face of defeat. The ironic thing, of course, is that despite Grant's attempts to seem magnanimous in victory, he's seen as the cruel, merciless spawn of the devil in the South anyhow.