When it comes to war, everything old is new again

Danny Lemieux alerted me to a Jerusalem Post article that uses the Civil War as a prism through which to examine the upcoming elections. Max Singer, who wrote the article, points out that Lincoln was losing big time in the lead-up to the 1864 elections (with daily death tolls sometimes equal to or exceeding all the lives lost in four years in Iraq) and that Democrats were then, as they are now, insisting that all was lost and the President and his party should go:

But on September 1 the news reached Washington that Atlanta had fallen to the Union army, and on election day it appeared as if the North was on the way to victory. Lincoln was decisively reelected. And, according to historian Allan Nevins, “The damage done to the Democratic Party by the platform could not be undone. Its … stigmatization of the heroic war effort as worthless gave the Northern millions an image of the Democratic Party they could never forget….and would cost the party votes for a generation.”

FOR WELL over a year now most prominent Democrats have insisted that the Iraq war had been lost and that the US should get its troops home as quickly as possible. It was true that the US was losing the war in 2006. Two responses were possible. The Democrats response was, in effect, “the war is hopeless, we should give up.” The administration response was, “we have to do something different so that we can win.”

Most voters prefer the second response – especially when it is successful.

In November 2008 it is likely to be clear that if the US had followed the Democrats’ advice the US would have suffered an unnecessary defeat. Those voters who believe that the US is facing dangerous threats from jihadis may well feel that it is not safe to bring to power the party that would have brought defeat in Iraq.

It certainly would be nice if Singer was right. I’m not always sure that we Americans are the same people, though, as Americans of yore. I first had this feeling in a barren, hot, rock strewn, windswept canyon in the middle of nowhere Utah. What distinguished it from other, similar canyons is that it was a highway for the pioneers. The walls were filled with hundred year old graffiti from those who passed through: messages to loved ones, boasts of survival and, so often, death notices. It was quite moving because it was such a testament to the spirit of endurance that characterized that American generation.

As I stood there in the blistering heat, with no water to be seen, I couldn’t help contrasting those pioneers with modern Americans. We’re a people who drive a block to pick up a gallon of milk, who freely spill our sordid secrets on Talk TV, and who have raised a generation of children that has never heard a discouraging word, no matter how well-deserved it might be. I wonder, therefore, whether we as a nation still have the drive, the commitment, the stamina and the integrity to take on any long fight. I worry that, as with the Romans at the end of their Empire, we’ve become so effete we can no longer defend ourselves. It took the Romans 500 years or so to reach that pass. Have we, in the modern, accelerated age, managed to do the same in half that time?

UPDATE: Turns out that Rudy Giuliani has the same sense of modern American malaise as I have, but he’s much more optimistic. Over at BotW, I read this excerpt from a recent Giuliani speech:

I get very, very frustrated when I . . . hear certain Americans talk about how difficult the problems we face are, how overwhelming they are, what a dangerous era we live in. I think we’ve lost perspective. We’ve always had difficult problems, we’ve always had great challenges, and we’ve always lived in danger.

Do we think our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents didn’t live in danger and didn’t have difficult problems? Do we think the Second World War was less difficult that our struggle with Islamic terrorism? Do we think that the Great Depression was a less difficult economic struggle for people to face than the struggles we’re facing now? Have we entirely lost perspective of the great challenges America has faced in the past and has been able to overcome and overcome brilliantly? I think sometimes we have lost that perspective.

Do you know what leadership is all about? Leadership is all about restoring that perspective that this country is truly an exceptional country that has great things that it is going to accomplish in the future that will be as great and maybe even greater than the ones we’ve accomplished in the past. If we can’t do that, shame on us.

And to this, James Taranto adds a little more:

This is exactly right, and we hope Giuliani keeps hammering home the point. In the conservative circles in which we usually travel, we hear far too much depressive, alarmist talk.

And the left is much worse. They are so scared of terrorism that they have constructed an elaborate system of denial. They lash out at anyone who takes the terror threat seriously (see Glenn Greenwald‘s silly attack on the Giuliani speech for an example), but their complacency is obviously phony, as evidenced by their lurid and obsessive fantasies about torture, tyranny, global warming and all other manner of unreal horrors.

In the same vein, as I wrote to a friend a week or so back, I think that Conservatives have one advantage in the upcoming election:  As is Giuliani, they’re all fundamentally optimistic.  I know that they recognize we’re engaged in a Titanic struggle between civilizations, a struggle that is depressing to think about, but their underlying optimism emerges in the fact that they believe America is a pretty great place.  Democrats, on the other hand, deny the struggle, but are happy to tell us how rotten with are, and how much we could be if we could just allow them to change everything about ourselves.  People don’t like hearing that kind of stuff in personal relationships, and may well dislike hearing it in political relationships too.

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  • Allen L.

    This past August I crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains on horseback. From the high desert in the east to the western frontage of the Sierras. Though it’s farther to the south it is very similar to the Donner Pass route. As I was riding along it struck me that people crossed this type of terrain 160 years ago with wagons. It left me dumbfounded, that someone would even have the nerve to try. I was left with a profound respect and admiration for the pioneers.

    I then started to wonder, exactly like Bookworm, could America even produce that spirit today? Yes we can and do. They are the entreperneurs, the inventors, the volunteers for the military. We just have to have the wit to support them.

  • Gray

    We’re a people who drive a block to pick up a gallon of milk, who freely spill our sordid secrets on Talk TV, and who have raised a generation of children that has never heard a discouraging word, no matter how well-deserved it might be.

    No we’re not. That’s the weird ‘post-honor’ urbanized America that guys like Orchie live in.

    Out here, we also have the highest number of hunters per capita, are wild for ‘X-treme Sports'; it seems everybody works out or does Pilates; and we go to church in amazing numbers; kids get spanked and everyone spends the weekend at Home Depot to work on stuff….

    There’s a lot of restless energy out here that would be well spent on a frontier–if we had one….

  • http://benningswritingpad.blogspot.com benning

    “…we’re engaged in a Titanic struggle between civilizations,…” I’d say we’re in a struggle between Civilization and bloody Chaos. And the Dems are playing political games while the house is being undermined.

    Nice to know Giuliani can say the right thing, but I still think he is the wrong choice for Republicans.

  • jj

    The Republicans are always fundamentally optimistic, the Democrats are always moaning and whining. Jimmy Carter’s solution was to turn down the thermostat, put on a sweater, and get sunk in malaise – while accusing all the rest of us of being in a “national malaise.”

    Ronald Reagan said, in essence: “Nuts to that – America’s best days are yet to come; let’s get out there and function” – and we did.

    We generally do. And I do think the Democrats are sowing the seeds of a smashing repudiation for themselves, particularly now that Iraq is in fact going rather well – which they have put themselves in a position of never ever being able to admit.

    I suspect a great many people will find themselves fed up with this constant whining and downgrading of our efforts by next November – or if not then, perhaps it’ll take until November of 2010 – but it’s coming.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    Rome’s citizens numbered somewhere around 250,000. Soon after Rome lost about 100,000 soldiers in the 2nd Punic War. They never considered surrendering even when Hannibal Barca was uncontested on the Italian Peninsula.

    The reason, I think, is rather simple. People on the precipice of defeat and annihilation naturally either fall or they stand. They don’t vacillate like Americans of 2003 and 2006 do. They can’t, because they do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence or of ignoring the problem. They either fight and fall or fight and win.

    It is sitting on the fence that demoralizes people, Book, not just Americans. It is the inability to fight or copnduct flight that tortures people’s psyche. Fighting relieves tension and so does fleeing, but going from one to the other with indecision made worse by enemy propaganda, both foreign and domestic, is another thing entirely.

    The other lesson from the Civil War, apart from the one Book wrote about, is how the Democrat party was able to plaster over their support of slavery to modern times. So don’t be assured that just because they promote defeat, that others can defeat them and their goals. There is absolutely no assurance in wars of survival. Of anything.

  • http://www.dhchaos.blogspot.com El Jefe Maximo

    Ymarsakar touched on the point…the reason people seem different is because they are not as convinced that as much as at stake as, say, in the War Between the States and in the 2nd Punic War. Maybe they’re wrong, maybe not — but the threat of annihilation or catastrophic defeat does tend to concentrate the mind somewhat.

    By contrast, a slow dribbling decline and defeat caused by nibbling around the edges does not. The Fall of Rome, for example, took hundreds of years, and because it took that long, it was all the more conclusive and complete when it finally happened.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    Also Neo Neo Con had a link back to WWII times in which intellectuals and other upper crust folk also talked about how it was a waste to lose husbands to that war. So socialism and the value of nihilism was present in WWII. There were people who, because of free will, will always choose surrender over fighting. Human nature doesn’t change after all.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    There was a pretty good pdf explanation of “will” that I found at blackfive.

    Link

    The funny part is that I just recently gave the links to On War and The Art of War on Book’s Book thread.