"Well I'm as much agin killin' as ever sir. But it was this way Colonel: When I started out I felt just like you said, but when I hear them machine guns a goin' and all them fellas are droppin' around me, I figured them guns was killin' hundreds maybe thousands and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done." [Alvin York (Gary Cooper) in "Sgt. York"]
I've spent a considerable amount of time, and made no little amount of money, writing about the American Civil War. As time goes by I am more amazed and moved by the heroics of average men at Spotsylvania and Kennesaw. The closer you get, in imagination, to where they stood and what they did, the more astonished I am by their devotion -- Lincoln's well-chosen word. Every summer, if I can, I walk the mile or so from the woods of Seminary Ridge in the steps of Pickett's men to the angle in the low stone wall where the 72nd Pennsylvania stood its ground.

I have a huge pile of research on two communities, one north one south, homefront and in service, that someday could be distilled into yet another book.

And the more I studied it, the more I realized it was an awful tragedy, a horrible mistake. Not just for the dead and maimed. Not least because of this: We watch American government career this way and that, now a swollen presidential head, now a renegade Supreme Court, now a meddling Congress, and yet we still foolishly revere the men who stripped the brakes off the thing back in 1861, the better to subjugate the South.

Saying the war was a mistake, a tragedy, a horror that should have been avoided, means saying American blacks should have remained in slavery, and in some cases suffered unspeakably, until 1900 or 1920 or who knows when. Saying "no" to war doesn't keep your hands above the stain.

I wish Gettysburg was just another run-to-seed central Pennsylvania county town, as obscure in the world's eyes as Carlisle or Hanover or Chambersburg. That field I cross every summer would have gone for a Target store years ago. No one would be any the wiser.

There are no good wars; people who have been in them know that. Studs Terkel titled his book of collected American World War II reminiscences "The Good War," and the phrase turns up many times in the talk, but almost never with an absolute and universal sense of good: "This neighbor told me that what we needed was a damn good war, and we'd solve our agricultural problems ...." ... "I'm not talking about the poor souls who lost sons and daughters. But for the rest of us, the war was a hell of a good time." ... "It was one war that many who would have resisted 'your other wars' supported enthusiastically."

I have no doubt that few if any of the people who saw the war up close would have called it an absolute good. Instead, much of what is admirable to us about that generation is their willingness to do what they saw needed to be done, knowing it wasn't good at all.

Crushing and burning the ancient nations and peoples of Germany and Japan may have been a necessary thing, but that did not make it good. Good was something else. At the end of August 1944, Ernie Pyle sat down in France in a break in the fighting and typed:

I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, "If only we could have created all this energy for something good."
I think part of that sentiment they brought home with them, and infused it into our post-war role. Pyle's comment on this remark was, "But we rise above our normal powers only in times of destruction." Yet the post-war American military, while always ready to fight, proudly takes on disaster-relief missions for friend and foe. That wouldn't have been something envisioned in the Constitution.

World War II was good, for us, also because it didn't last too long. And until then the United States was blessed in fighting wars that did not last longer than about one presidential administration. The wars were short enough that our governments never become too skilled at wielding the temporary powers they acquired.

The threat is not the brazen fascism that the anti-war left loves to believe is right around the corner. Those excesses are the government's blunders: The wholesale internment of minorities, the malicious muzzling of media, the arrest of mere opposition politicians as opposed to traitors. All that is the work of a doubtful week in the White House or an overzealous subordinate in the field. The excesses spark popular revulsion, and in time the legislature or the courts correct the excess.

Given time, however, the powers of the national executive can weed out such blunders and learn to run the process smoothly, keeping outrage at a minimum. A firebrand party leader won't be imprisoned without warrant or charge, but some worthless trash from the streets might be. Nobody will much care. Domestic surveillance won't target the party out of power. But it will grow.

Among the pictures in my uncle's packet of photos that he traded cigarettes for on the beaches of D-Day are a few like this one above.

If you start at Omaha Beach in Normandy and walk straight inland, you soon come to the town of Saint-Lô.

Which is pretty much what the U.S. Army did in 1944.

But before it could do that, it had to disable Saint-Lô as a German command and supply center and as a key transport junction. Which meant it had to bomb the hell out of it at the moment the invasion began. With only the most cryptic prior warning to the resistance, and none to the general population.

Now, imagine what al-Jazeera or BBC or CNN would do with this:

Mr. Leclerc was called by a young boy, whose brother and sister were buried under their house. "We dig through stones, bricks, earth, clothes, things. We throw mementos at the feet of the mother, who collects them in a neat little pile. It goes on for hours, and night falls. Some men leave, to go across the street, there are six victims under the ruins, a whole family. We find the remains of a bed, the boy's bed, empty. We keep looking ... What for? There can only be squashed bodies in there, under such a mass of burnt beams, collapsed walls and plaster dust. Then, suddenly, a hand touches something soft. It is tiny, and warm. We dig deeper, faster, half an hour more, and now, a muted yell. We find the foot, the leg, blood. At last, we retrieve the little mass of living flesh, covered with dust. Now, the only light comes from the fires. The little boy is still in there. We go back to work. A new miracle, a cry :"Mommy". He wants to cry, he does not understand. "What happened?" A priest, his black habit covered with white dust passes by on his way to the hospital, we give him the little girl, he takes her in his arms. She is dead."


From the shelter of his barn, Mr. Herpin saw the "bombed out" arrive at the farm, "absolute ghosts barely able to stand on their broken limbs; their faces pale and scarred, their eyes staring into space, their hair plastered with dust. Their clothes, when they have any left, are torn, they are covered with bloody wounds. And above all, I remember that awful impression of seeing fellow human beings, acquaintances, friends, so deprived of everything, so humiliated, so broken, from whom all dignity had been stolen, brought down to the level of exhausted beasts .... And yet we are seeing only the lucky ones, those who, against all hope, were able to escape being crushed or burnt to death. There are nearly no complete families: here, it is a mother with her child, there a grandmother and her grandson, or a father alone. Some speak with their eyes down, and, listening to them, one can guess at the tragedy of that night: the race to the shelter, the awful [con]flagration, the screams of the wounded and of the dying, the exits buried, the holes one digs with bare hands, and then, the escape amongst the ruins and the corpses, and the profound joy of being alive, even though everything is lost. Most, though, are silent, vanquished by the pain and the memory of the terror they just lived through. They lie on the ground, in the dirt, and they beg for water."

Surely, today, they would have been there, cameras at the ready. They would have been broadcasting all along, and been able to show the peaceful life in the sleepy French town under German occupation, and how Allied bombs shattered it. They would not have been allowed to broadcast locals being shipped off to slave labor camps, but they wouldn't have minded that and no one would have much complained. How can you complain about what you don't see?

When we were looking through the shoebox of photos and that one at the top of the post came out, my uncle explained the story of the bombing of Saint-Lô and its strategic importance. If it wasn't for the slaughter of that town, they might never have got off that beach. If life is often a choice between bad and worse options, war always is.

A nation that goes to war with the primary goal of not killing or hurting people is setting itself up for a mistake: If you don't want people to get killed or hurt, don't go to war. If you want a tidy, clean war, you have to first invent tidy, clean warfare. I won't be holding my breath waiting.

I suspect the anti-Iraq War people are shocked by what they see in the news because their only frame of reference for war is Vietnam -- by definition, to them, a "bad war." So their calculus looks like this: X happened in Vietnam. Vietnam was bad. X is happening in Iraq. Therefore Iraq is bad.

Which is a fallacy unless you also know enough to answer the question, "Did X also happen in World War II and the Civil War and every other war in American history and perhaps human history?" (Bombing people to death in the process of liberating them, for instance.) Until you can answer that, you can't draw any conclusion about the current case.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we spend too much time reading the heroic version of history -- the "Greatest Generation" stuff -- which is true, but only part of the truth. Books like Max Hastings' "Armageddon," or John Dower's "War Without Mercy" or Stephen Fritz's "Endkampf" (or Hans Erich Nossack's "Der Untergang") ought to put America's World War II experience into perspective, but is anybody reading those?

Can any nation enter into a prolonged and dirty war without losing its soul, without strangling its own virtues for the sake of victory? A national character check ought to be a regular feature of a nation at war.

In this war, it's going to be particularly difficult. The enemy's tactics include the most brutal intimidation of civilian populations, combined with religious appeals to the Islamic community. They also make extensive use of cities as battlefields and civilians as human shields -- precisely because they know we have a moral repugnance for "collateral damage" and they don't.

If that fact isn't completely obvious to European media, etc., as something that sets America apart from the jihadis, if they insist on writing that "we" are no better than "them," nothing we do is going to convince them.

People who saw the heads off little old lady aid workers from Ireland are not going to be impressed by our virtues if we stop taking naked pictures in Abu Ghraib.

Arthur Miller wrote that Ernie Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting." Today? No civilized people can stand a war for long, in the age of the television camera. No civilized people who can see it will stay in a war.

But uncivilized people certainly will.

A common criticism of the Iraq War is that the explanation for it started out being about one thing and ended up having goals we never signed on to. In fact, browsing through history books convinces me that the Bush Administration's publicly stated goals at the beginning of the Iraq War remain much more consistent with the post-war reality than typically is the case.

A quibble with the Mother Country over a petty tax of three pence a pound on tea becomes the birth of a nation. A boundary dispute with Mexico over a few square miles of Texas scrub becomes a land-grab of a third of a continent and keeps the valuable port of San Francisco from defaulting to British hands. A dispute with Germany over unrestricted submarine warfare becomes "making the world safe for democracy."

The reverse also is true. What seems, after the fact, to be the great justification for a war turns out to be something that did not figure among the stated reasons for starting it. Study World War II today and you'll get a big unit on the Holocaust. How odd, then, to discover it played no part in the justification for the war at the time. Lincoln freed the slaves. But the American Civil War began as an constitutional chess match and an attempt to enforce U.S. authority in certain forts and arsenals, and to collect the tariff in Southern ports. Lincoln publicly disavowed any intention to free a single slave.

By comparison, this was one of our more "honest" wars.

Now of course, all these ultimate outcomes were in the minds of somebody somewhere in a place of power at the time the wars began. Certainly the more radical American revolutionaries were angling for independence from the first bullet. But to draw the bulk of the country they needed to hold John Dickinson and the other moderates on the platform by making a general appeal to the rights of British citizens (as most Americans still felt themselves to be). I have no doubt Lincoln desired to see slavery ended (and the free blacks shipped off to Santo Domingo), but he knew the average Northerner never would fight in that crusade, and in fact the Southern secession presented an immediate economic and political crisis that forced his hand in spite of his personal philosophy.

All wars are so much alike that to compare them in detail sheds but little light. Still, a little familiarity with history does disabuse one of the sort of sham shock some people seem to feel on entering a war down one hole and coming out another.


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© 2008 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"