Watching the Ken Burns masterpiece The Civil War fills the curious mind with questions. Brave men, pawning their own lives in the cause of bravery, charging against superior numbers in hopes of taking a hill. Is this the greatest use of courage? We are told it is, over and over, the ultimate sacrifice under inhuman conditions. They may have been fighting for a despicable cause, people on both sides concluded, but you have to admire their courage. You follow the details of one futile slaughter after another and, horrible as each detail is, you actually do have to admire their courage.
Once black soldiers were allowed into the Union Army, after, midway through, the war was rebranded into a war to end slavery, the tide of the war began slowly, inexorably turning toward the Union. Black soldiers fought for freedom, literally. Eventually the Confederate side offered blacks freedom in exchange for military service.
The Confederate army never stopped slaughtering the black troops at the end of a battle when the Union men who were not black were allowed to surrender. Picture the bravery of a black soldier, facing death in battle and then certain death if the battle was lost. Other Americans, captured as prisoners of war, were subjected to an American Auschwitz. In the starving South the care and feeding of Yankee prisoners, men the Union stubbornly refused to exchange for Rebel prisoners as long as surrendering black soldiers were butchered, was an afterthought.
After the war Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville prison, became the first American (though Wirz was born in Zurich) tried and executed by America for war crimes. Almost a third of the 32,000 prisoners of war in the unsanitary open air prison died in a little over a year of the prison’s operation. Wirz reportedly complained about the deadly conditions at the camp, but then did his duty. Ken Burns’s narrator adds this after a shot of Wirz hanging by the neck until dead: he pleaded he had only followed orders.
Wirz was tried and executed, Wikipedia informs us, at the federal prison that later was demolished to build the present day Supreme Court.
We look at history with some hope of learning from its tragedies. One pretty good working definition of insanity, after all, is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome.
I read this just now, on the second page of an introduction entitled Roots of Empire: “War is a Racket”, and it speaks as well for me as it did for the authors of The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. The most obvious questions remain unasked much of the time. I will now practice my transcribing skills:
Why do such a tiny number of people– whether the figure is currently 300 or 500, or 2,000– control more wealth than the world’s poorest 3 billion? Why are a tiny minority of wealthy Americans allowed to exert so much control of U.S. domestic politics, foreign policy and media while the great masses see a diminution of their real power and standards of living? Why have Americans submitted to levels of surveillance, government intrusion, abuse of civil liberties and loss of privacy that would have appalled the Founding Fathers and earlier generations? Why does the United States have a lower percentage of unionized workers than any other advanced industrial democracy? Why, in our country, are those who are driven by personal greed and narrow self-interest empowered over those who extol social values like kindness, generosity, compassion, sharing, empathy and community building? And why has it become so hard for the great majority of Americans to imagine a different, we would say a better, future than the one defined by current policy initiatives and social values? These are only a few of the questions we will address in these pages. Although we can’t hope to answer all of them, we hope to present the historical background that will enable readers to explore these topics more deeply on their own.
Let us briefly tickle, if not tackle, just these last two.
Why, in our country, are those who are driven by personal greed and narrow self-interest empowered over those who extol social values like kindness, generosity, compassion, sharing, empathy and community building?
This is a fairly easy one, our country defines people in the first category, if they, or their ancestors, have succeeded in acquiring enough wealth, as winners. The second category, very nice people though they well might be, are mostly losers who did not inherit and cannot amass great fortunes and therefore often engage in dewy-eyed class warfare against the winners. The American Dream is about winning, not losing, asshole. Check out the giant winner we have in the White House now, if you doubt that.
Now we come to their thorniest question, and one that underlies many of the others:
And why has it become so hard for the great majority of Americans to imagine a different, we would say a better, future than the one defined by current policy initiatives and social values?
I think this great failure of collective imagination is the direct result of the other values and practices cited above. American society is organized to put winners on pedestals and to keep the tens of millions of losers invisible, or, if they insist on trying to make themselves visible, vilified. After all, the real problem is not that we can spend trillions to prosecute faraway wars that fly in the face of evolving international law while so many in our country are in want, but that we have a savage class of human predators stalking the streets of our impoverished ‘inner cities’ and making things unsafe for the rest of us. You see how easy that sleight of hand is?
History, it is said, is written by the winners. It is hard to imagine the alternative to the official story and what we cannot imagine we cannot aspire to. We are sold the crippling myth that there are but two ideologies in the world — Free Market Capitalism and Communism. Communism, it was proved over and over, does not work, particularly if the Free World declares unending war against it. The Commies who flourished were as corrupt and ruthless as the Captains of Industry here, men who sometimes became great philanthropists at the end of lifetimes of ruthlessness. The fucking Koch brothers are patrons of the arts and science, in addition to shrewdly buying political influence coast to coast to increase their already beyond obscene wealth.
By creating this false dichotomy of Freedom vs. Totalitarianism our elites have been able to convince us of our exceptionalism in a way that forecloses the bigger argument: is this really how we want to be exceptional? For having the most people on earth in prison for nonviolent crimes? For having more children in poverty than any comparably wealthy nation? For electing a man who is making America a laughing stock, if also a terrifying one?
The oversimplification of reality presented in the consolidated, corporate mass media would make a very stupid person blush, but we are exceptional that way too.
Saddam Hussein was Hitler, we had a moral duty to liberate his people from him, even if it cost millions of Iraqis homelessness and forced migration, and countless thousands of Iraqis their limbs and lives. We are just that kind of exceptional nation. Don’t forget to tip your veteran on the way out.