Change is inevitable but, sometimes, should we accelerate that inevitability?

My book club met last night to discuss Robert Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. As the subtitle says, the book is about the way in which Polk, during his one term presidency, enabled America to stretch from sea to shining sea.  He promised he would only stay one term in office, a promise he kept, and he promised that he would bring into America the Texas territories, the Oregon territories and the California territories, another promise he kept.  It’s quite an amazing story, although Merry’s obsessive attention to less-than-interesting details made it a very difficult read.

One of the things we talked about at the book group was whether Polk needed to pursue all these territories quite as aggressively as he did.  His disputes were with Mexico and Britain, and he pushed both so hard that, with the former, we ended up in war, and with the latter (which held an interest in Oregon) we almost ended in war.  The fact was that Americans were flooding these territories in such numbers that they were becoming American by default.  Mexico was finding it impossible given its own dysfunctional infrastructure to hold the territories, and Britain, which was adept at managing far-off lands, could not stem the American tide.  The general feeling at our group was that war with Mexico was inevitable, and Polk just did it on his terms; but that there was no need to push the British crisis as he did.  He would have achieved the same ends more slowly, but with less belligerence.

This line of discussion opened an interesting question:  When are wars necessary?  Jimmy Carter, for example, long ago opined that the Revolutionary War was unnecessary because, given enough time, Britain would have lost her hold over the American colonies.  Many people say the Civil War was unnecessary because, over the long haul (as both Washington and Jefferson understood), it was economically unsustainable, not to mention the fact that increased mechanization took over a lot of the slave’s tasks.  Gandhi thought people, especially Jews, should have done nothing to stop the Nazi onslaught, which would have eventually burned itself out — leaving the dead with the moral high ground of having shown themselves to be peaceful people in the face of Nazi aggression.  I’ve commented here that the Islamists were foolish to get aggressive because, demographically, if they’d just sat quietly, they would have controlled Europe in a few decades.  It was their impatience that sounded the tocsin that, finally, seems to be waking Europe up to the threat within its borders.

All good — and bad — things come to an end.  Ancient Egypt took roughly 3000 years, ancient Israel roughly 1000 years, and the Huns had a heyday lasting a little more than 100 years.   Given that inevitability, when is it worth starting a war to speed a declining or evil system’s end?  That, of course, is a loaded question, because there is a huge difference between a declining and an evil system.  Slavery was evil.  It was morally wrong in the first place.  And it would have been morally wrong to condemn several more generations to servitude in the optimistic belief that it would have to die out some time.  Same for naziism, same for communism.

But what about Mexican control over California?  That would have ended much sooner than later regardless of American action.  In the meantime, though, while Mexico’s control over the territory waned, the state’s revenues would to Mexico City, not Washington, D.C., and the American population as a whole chafed at seeing their brothers and sisters subordinate to Mexican rule (never mind that these same brothers and sisters had voluntary headed to that nation’s territory).  Further, Americans believed (rightly) that this was a war they could win, so it wasn’t much of a gamble to hurry history along.  As it turned out, it was a smart gamble because, not only did the US gain the California territories, they got the enormous bounty of the California Gold Rush — both in terms of gold, and in terms of California’s settlement.

I’m not reaching any conclusions here.  I’m just ruminating.  I’d love to hear what you all think about the question of rushing history.

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  • Charles

    Sorry that I didn’t post my book suggestions for your group before Book.  But the list supplied by others has given ME so many additions to my “must read” list that my suggestions seemed insignificant,  Thanks for so many suggestions everyone!

    As for your ruminations on “rushing history,” while there are certainly other influences, I suspect that the further we are removed from that history the more likely we are to think that maybe it shouldn’t/needn’t have been rushed.  Deaths just become numbers at some point.  The closer we are to that history the more immediate the rushing seems to be in need.

    By closer and further removed I don’t just mean chronologically.  Since we are not directly affected by the horrors in Sudan we aren’t all that “concerned.”  But, given the Taliban’s part in the 9-11 attacks we rushed their downfall.  Ditto, the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  Lincoln is reported to have said, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”  That book, Uncle Tom’s cabin,” made the issue of slavery that much “closer” to most Americans and therefore much more in need of being rushed to an end.

    My last example of history being closer and therefore in need of being rushed, Book, will be one of your own from other postings – the need of using atom bombs on Hiroshima AND Nagasaki.  I suspect that many who claim that the US didn’t need to use the bombs on Japan are too far removed from that history; whether their being removed from history is personally, chronologially, or even intellectually. While others who see that history closer (in your case, personally, with your mother’s experiences) and therefore understanding all aspects of the situation are in favour of supporting that rushing of history.

  • suek

    Heh…this is sort of an irrelevant link, and maybe not so irrelevant.  I was directed to it by another blog – I’m not familiar with the blog generally, or its philosophy.  I wonder how the same artist would draw the same general theme today…

    By the way…somewhere, someone stated that there are now 150 _million_ blogs!  I have no idea how many of them are in English.  That’s kind of a “Holy Moses” kind of number to me!  Is it a good thing?  Makes me want to categorize and visit as many as possible – just to see what they have to say.  Then I resign myself to just staying in my own neighborhood – so to speak!  But one of the things I really _like_ about blogs are the links to others who link to others … etc.  Circles within circles within circles.

  • jj

    Before we get to “rushing” history, a moment on the contemplation thereof.
    I think you have to be a little careful about asserting the morality of your own time and place on every other time and place.  It would be nice to think that (what we see as) moral is absolute and universal – but it’s not.  It never has been, and the definition of what is moral changes.  (I would never bat the Iron Butterfly in the mouth.  If, however, we were living in Tehran and my name was Abdul, I would have any number of excuses/reasons available to do so, and absolutely no difficulty with morality about doing it.  I would in fact stand to gain morality points with the great god Lah for having done so.)
    Slavery was evil.  It  was morally wrong in the first place. I agree.  Everybody not engaged in the practice (plenty are) agrees – but through most of human history, in most corners of the world most people didn’t agree.  Slavery was routine, not exceptional.  In 1799 in this country it was routine too, and it’s historically absurd to look back and condemn everybody for that on the basis of your own moral compass in operation in 2011.  And I’m sorry Mark Twain used that magic word all the time, but it was in common usage – and not necessarily even a pejorative – when he wrote the book in 1885.  He didn’t write it in 1985, he wrote it in 1885, and used the language common to the time in which he lived – as just about everybody who has ever lived has done.  And whether Shelia Jackson Lee thinks it’s any good or not, over the last hundred years the world has decided the book is one of the greatest ever written and is a treasure of Planet Earth.  (Wait a minute – Shelia Jackson Lee thinks?  Did I just juxtapose “Sheila Jackson Lee” and “think?”)
    “Rushing” history is an interesting term, and expressive of an interesting viewpoint.  You can always do nothing and be assured that ultimately things will indeed change.  (We’d all have been better off if Jimmy Carter had strictly observed that belief of his.)  It’s the nature of the human race, and indeed the planet itself, to change.  Hang around long enough things will be different.  But again, you have to deal with the hand you’re dealt at the time it’s dealt – not a century later.  I have to laugh when I read, for example, all the liberal horses*** about how Ronald Reagan really didn’t do much to end the Soviet Union – it was old and sclerotic and about to fall over of its own weight anyway.  That’s splendid Monday-morning quarterbacking, and that’s the view from here and now, but it wasn’t the view from 1987.  The view from 1987 was that the Carter jackass had sat on his thumbs for four years, dominoes were falling all over the place, the Soviets were on the march and advancing in all four corners of the world, their military was huge and ours was hollow – and people in our own government didn’t want to confront them because they were terrified of them.  Carter’s response to the invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the Olympics.  Reagan’s was to supply the insurgents.  So to say the Soviet Union was an inch away from collapsing of its own weight is lovely hindsight – but it’s BS.  (Because – if true – apparently no one but the “amiable dunce” was bright enough to see it, and see that they were ripe for tossing on the ash-heap of history.
    So we didn’t go to war with them in terms of troops in the field, but we damn well did go to war with them in just about every other sense – economically, in terms  of R & D, in terms of “adding to the stockpile,” scientifically, with propaganda (VOA’s budget quadrupled in the snap of a finger), opposing them in covert operations all over the place – and they folded.  “Rushing” history?  I suppose so, but putting them out of business ASAP instead of waiting for them to sink into senescence and conk out on their own probably saved many a life.  And that may be the central tenet of whether or not to “rush:” if we do this now, how’s the body-count compared to doing nothing now and letting history take it’s (un-rushed) course?
    As far as removing Mexico from California and the benefits that has brought us all – don’t worry, we’re all going to have to contribute to paying for California coming up pretty soon here, and we’re not going to get it for a bargain price.  Maybe shoving Mexico out of California wasn’t such a good idea because it’s given them a good long time to work up so many complaints about how we stole their land that they figure trying to steal it back is completely legitimate, and will be complaining to the UN any day now.  (Though nobody ever has, or ever will, ask the real owners, the Modoc, the Hoopa et al what they think about anything.)
    And Jimmy Carter, as  as a good southern boy, seems to forget his history.  No self-respecting Englishman lived in the south, it was way too hot for decent folk.  Georgia, Alabama – these were penal colonies.  George Wallace’s great, great, great-grandfather was a thrice-convicted pig thief from Nottingham. He wasn’t vacationing in Alabama: he was working as a slave, doing time in a penal colony.  What were Carter’s ancestors doing?  The Revolutionary War (not, in fact, a revolution) probably saved a couple of generations of his family from wallowing in the mud with mattocks for not a living, and trying to get some tree bark to eat in what to a 17th century Englishman would the world capitol of sweat: Georgia.
    If going to war to bring some odious episode (again, from my perspective, my time, my place) to a close, then “rushing” history is fine.  You’re always in time to do nothing.

  • David Foster

    I’m not sure slavery was really economically unsustainable at the time of the Civil War. It did indeed seem on a track to unprofitability and extinction in Jefferson’s time, but the invention of the cotton gin and the power loom, and the resulting huge expansion of the cotton industry, changed things. Also, I don’t think there were any practical machines for automated picking of cotton for a long, long time.
    Reminds me of a story: GE’s great scientist Charles Steinmetz was once visited by a PR man betting a favor…the PR guy had gotten hired based on promises he had made about how much press coverage he could get the company. GE had just sold a large turbogenerator to some utility, and the PR guy was drawing a blank on how to create an angle that would make this seem sexy. Could Steinmetz help?
    Steinmetz pulled out his slide rule and calculated that this one machine would generate more power than the entire slave population of the US at the time of the Civil War.
    A stroke of marketing brilliance…but of course slaves contributed much more than sheer musclepower…even cotton picking required hand/eye skills beyond the machines of the time, and many slaves worked in pretty skilled jobs.
    So it’s not clear that slavery was economically unprofitable and would have gone away on its own for that reason, nor is it clear that slaveowners were totally motivated by economics any more than today’s radical Islamists are.

  • David Foster

    …that was supposed to be “a PR man BEGGING a favor”

  • Ymarsakar

    it was economically unsustainable, not to mention the fact that increased mechanization took over a lot of the slave’s tasks.

    There are still slaves in this world.

    Did people somehow think working in the fields was the only thing humans desired slaves for? Bunch of ignorant village idiots. Go back to the village and recuperate your intelligence, for once.
    Given that inevitability, when is it worth starting a war to speed a declining or evil system’s end?

    The question is never inevitability. It’s inevitable that all mortal beings will die. Does that mean it isn’t evil if I go off and nuke a few cities and their schoolyard full of elementary children? Evil and good exists, Book. You cannot make it go away by talking about “inevitabilities”. Nothing is inevitable, except entropy and death. Trying to apply such a universal phenomenon to human social affairs? Akin to playing God. Failure is in store for those.

    History is made by people that do things and get it done now. Not by those that sit around “waiting” for things to resolve themselves. They are called the passive faction. You know, the faction that has historically been known to simply tag along with both evil conquests as well as good Golden civilizations.

    If it is good, it is only good because people got fired up and made it good. If it is evil, it is because people ignored it for too long or because evil people invested in doing more evil. None of it just “happens”, Book. None of it just “grows” like a plant from a seed.

  • Ymarsakar

    By closer and further removed I don’t just mean chronologically.  Since we are not directly affected by the horrors in Sudan we aren’t all that “concerned.”

    Then let’s use a more recent, modern example for your club, Book.

    Since Obama is going to go away anyways in 2016, why get so fired up replacing him with a Republican, Book? Why not just wait for the inevitable. The US will still be here, don’t you know.

  • Spartacus

    Well, since it was mentioned, I do feel compelled to talk a bit about 1860-61.
    What you really don’t get out of most history books is what a tremendously confusing time it was.  In my case… heck, I’ve been giving almost knee-jerk support to almost every revolt, insurrection, rebellion and unprising for the past couple of millenia.  I think I’m the only guy who’s had an uninterrupted subscription to Insurrection Monthly since it was founded in 1517.  (And you’d think after all that time that they’d give me some sort of good customer discount, but you’d be wrong.  Cold-blooded bastards they are, but I suppose that’s why I love ’em.)  No matter what continent, no matter what century, no matter what ethnicity, if they were in revolt, I was probably rooting for them.  Self-determination just absolutely rocks.
    On the other hand, slavery just absolutely sucks.  I mean, it sucks, bites, and blows in a way that you can’t even imagine if you haven’t lived it.  You think you can, but you can’t.  Slavery sucks even more than self-determination rocks (although, yes, these are largely different sides of the same coin — did I mention this was confusing?)  So when this Lincoln guy showed up as an anti-slavery candidate, I was totally stoked.  But wait… he was campaigning not on abolition, but just to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories.  [&%#%]!  The purist in me argued for holding my nose in protest against this lukewarmist who thought he could split the difference like he used to split rails.  Bloody politicians… haven’t much liked them since the days of praetors and consuls.  Maybe having mellowed somewhat with age, I decided that the glass half-full is better than no glass at all.
    Well, historians can debate how much abolitionist fire Lincoln had in his belly, but he never really faced the most complete test he could have on the subject.  Just as the Japanese relieved the US president of the burden of convincing a reluctant electorate to declare war on them; and just as Hitler foolishly did the same three days later; so too did the southern aristocracy* relieve Lincoln of the burden of making the case for a war of emancipation — he had only to make the case for union.  (I kept having to remind myself that this was one revolt not to cheer for — a very weird feeling, indeed).  And that’s what it really came down to for Lincoln: Union.  He was obviously no fan of slavery, but it wasn’t until almost a year and a half into the war that he threatened to emancipate the slaves in the rebellious states.
    So, to the question of whether change was accelerated in spite of inevitability, it is appropriate to ask whether the change which actually occurred was in fact the change that was intended to be accelerated.
    * VDH makes an excellent case for where to properly place the blame for the war in The Soul of Battle, and provides a more nuanced, non-monolithic look at The South than we are often given.

  • Danny Lemieux

    This is one of the most thought-provoking posts you have ever made, Book, and I am still grappling with its multiple implications.
    Maybe this is part of the answer:
    Someone once said that “the Left loves humanity, it’s human beings they can’t stand”. I think that what they meant is right along the lines of “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. We need to look at history in terms of what it meant to individuals, not masses.

    We can look back on history and weigh the pros and cons as a numbers game, or we can look at it in terms of what it meant to the individual on the ground and at that time and place.
    Once, early in my career, I had a colleague (an ostensible pacifist of the Left) who in a discussion on pacifism told me , “it was pointless to go into WWII, as most of the Jews were already dead anyway”. Tell that to the survivor in the concentration camps. That was our last conversation.
    I’ve heard similar arguments from the Left about the Vietnam War, that it was pointless for us to have fought for  because, see, they are at peace today. Yes, but what about those individuals at that time and place who suffered under the brutality of the Viet Cong, died in Vietnamese prison camps and Cambodian killing fields, or drowned as boat people because they did not want to live in oppression? These were individuals, not statistics. Today Vietnam is a desperately poor and oppressed country. It could have been a South Korea. That makes a big difference to its citizens living in the here and now.
    As an individual here and now today, I could argue that there is no point in resisting tyranny with violence because it is less “risky” to endure than to face almost certain death by resisting and…time moves on.
    Quite clearly, though, many if not most individuals are not made of that stuff – witness what the North Korean defectors endure to escape their homeland or what the Tunisian fruit seller endures as he lights himself on fire….or even what goes through the granny pensioner’s mind as she takes on would-be robbers bearing sledge hammers in that video you linked above.
    We often fight wars because of what it means to us as individuals at that moment in time, the choices we make about right and wrong and the world in which we want ourselves and the children to live. As Gandalf responds to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, after Frodo laments “I wish that this had never happened”,
    “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
    Some people decide to accept and endure, others plant their feet in the ground and say “no”. It is hard to look back into history and try to understand how people struggled with such choices from their moral perspective and point in time.
    Were the wars against slavery and Mexico morally right? Based on what I know, I believe so. Were they necessary? We really can never know in hindsight how the alternatives would have turned out.
    Like I said, Book. A really thought-provoking question.

  • Bookworm

    Thanks, Danny.  I have a very interesting book club, if I do say so myself.

    I also happen to agree with you that the people on the ground count.  Reading a history book about the 100 million dead in China, is not the same as being one of the 100 million who is being beaten to death or starved to death or stood up against a wall to be shot.  People live these numbers, and there are times when a sense of humanity must compel us to act.

  • Ymarsakar

    The ethics of the matter is reversible.
    Ethics is normally something that says, If Mexico does it, it is right. If the US does it, it is right. It seeks not so much what is wrong, as what makes things right.
    If Mexico can’t govern or protect the territories, then whoever can, owns it. Ownership is 9/10ths of the law. Is that not familiar?
    If you can’t protect your nation, do you really have a nation any more? If your nation can’t protect you, does it really deserve your loyalty and dedication?
    These are the questions that make up the path called ethics. Fundamentally known by other words in other terms. Virtue, honor, duty, loyalty, etc. They gave name to a particular ethic by naming a particular trait of someone they admired.
    That is the framework you need to use to look at on the issue of “necessity”, Book. Ask whether it is necessary for land to belong to Mexico. Then ask the same of the US. If both say “yes”, then the decider is the one who has the capability to do something about it. People mouthing off that they are all powerful, who can’t back it up, is worth how much in this reality, Book? Are they looking for the GOVERNMENT to make them all powerful?
    Human association is based upon mutual interests, shared space, personal space, and boundaries (read good fences make good neighbors. People who recognize and respect each other’s personal space can live together. Those that don’t, end up dying one way or another). Freedom of association. What is it, do you think? Is it some legal document that says California belongs to Mexico? Is it some intellectual’s treatise that says war is peace, and peace is war? Is it making people cooperate because an external power can make them, like government utopia? No, I say freedom of association is the individual ability to make decisions as to whom they will work with for the mutual benefit of all parties. That is Freedom of Association. If Mexico thinks it has ‘interests’ somewhere, then it needs to protect those interests using real power, not just gas coming out their mouths. That means lives expended. Time and manpower expended. Real resources used up and made unrecoverable. War is the ultimate expression of what it means for a round of poker to be “called” and everyone must their cards or fold. If you don’t think it’s important enough to risk it, you can fold and avoid war. But if you think it is important enough, then you run a gamble.
    That is the ultimate test of what “humans value”. Not what they say they value. But what they are willing to sacrifice, fight, kill and die for. That is the ultimate test of what humans esteem the highest. If they aren’t willing, then they were lying about it being important to them. It wasn’t all that important. The olden rules said that God goeth with the side of the righteous. We say now that God is on the side with the more firepower. Both is true to an extent, indirectly so.
    To shrink it down to the micro level, a man and a woman are a couple. Why then do we say a man is not a man, who can’t protect his woman? What if he tries and fails? Is he half a man then for the attempt? What if he doesn’t try at all and just cuts his losses, is that still a man? A relationship has meaning because it is a mutual alliance. And a mutual alliance places duties upon both parties to come to the aide of another. The man has the disproportionate power to effect physical change, thus he is given most of the duties of protection, but not all. There have been cases where a girlfriend of a guy saw him being stabbed to death and about to die, then jumped on the back of the would be knife killer, and got slashed in the throat and died. Whereas the guy that got stabbed a few times, survived.
    Is that how it should end up? Is that the “ideal” you all think here should be the case? Hrm, obviously not by most conceptions. Yet it happened nonetheless. So what was the problem? Did the parties to the relationship, the couple, break their bond because they didn’t esteem each other too highly? Or was it simply the case that they each lacked power, yet not the will to use power to save each other.
    That is what war and conflict tests. Do you not only have the WILL and belief to stand your ground and maintain your relationships as they are but the strength to do so, or will you be destroyed and replaced with someone that can. There is no other test for it. People can talk about it all they want, but the real test is always the test of reality. The true form of war where every individual faction allies together and makes a throw of the dice for all of their sakes.
    Is it necessary? The only thing an individual needs to think about is what is necessary to preserve and protect their important people in their lives. The necessity requirements of a nation accumulates from the combined desires and urges of the people in that nation.
    In some senses, unnecessary wars result because of top down mismanagement. Meaning, somebody 500 miles away is trying to micromanage your fight, here and now, with a violent serial killer. You think they are going to be able to decide what is or isn’t necessary for your survival from 500 miles away? Obviously government, trying to decide what is right for other people, will make mistakes. That’s just reality. Like the reality that if you get defeated by evil people, you’ll be dead and dismembered. That’s just as much real as government mistakes are real.
    However, people trying to decide now a days whether it was necessary in the past, is attempting to do the same micromanagement as government. If they think nations went to wrong erroneously, what makes them think their judgment isn’t just as erroneous? At least the people in government at the time could claim to be living in the time of the problem. They had skin in the game. What skin do we have in the game of trying to decide what somebody dead for 200 years should have done?
    humility is a personal trait. Some people just don’t have it. Does that make them good or evil in your view?

  • Ymarsakar

    That was our last conversation.

    From my experience Danny, a lot of people on the Left suffer from a “lack of empathy” problem. They are heavily socialized, like effete British ton socialites that know how to “cut” each other up with social put downs with every seemingly harmless remark. But “empathy”? No.

    Empathy is a tool used by both compassionate saints and vicious killer/assassins. It is a human tool designed to make us understand, truly understand, what someone else’s situation is. At least enough to know how much we don’t know about them. Which is extremely important. Knowing what you don’t know, allows you to learn the rest.

    The sadist feels the pain of his victims and derives pleasure from it. Thus using this knowledge, he is able to craft harsher, crueler, and more sadistic methods.

    The compassionate saint feels the pain of the downtrodden and converts it into their own personal strength or hope of salvation.

    Hunter killer-assassins use empathy to “read” a target and become that target, in order to predict the moves of the target to end the target. Spy-assassins do much of the same thing, except they also adopt a different persona ontop of the target’s profile.

    All of them require a critical ingredient. Empathy. Whether used for good or evil. But the Left, Danny? Their members have almost lobotomized their empathic abilities somehow. Don’t you find that weird?

  • Mike Devx

    War is hell on Earth.  War is chaos.  Things rarely go according to the battle plan.  People are killed or greivously harmed who just happened to get in the way, or when bombs, artillery shells, bullets, etc go astray.  There’s a reason most people in the path of a war get the hell out of Dodge.  They flee because they know there is no safety to be found in a war zone.
    So for me the question is, is the War worth the price in suffering that it will cost?  Both of Polk’s decisions were debatable but, to me, at least justifiable.  I’ve got no qualms with either.
    The interesting question to me is Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’ve *never* understood the arguments against dropping the bombs.  You can look at the firebombings of Japan in WWII in 1942-43 – the firebombing of Tokyo alone burned more than 100,000 alive, and THAT is likely an underestimate.  The scale of death and suffering was worse in the firebombings than in the nuclear bombings.  The alternative to the nuclear bombings was a sea to ground invasion of Japan, and all estimates of casualties agreed that more than one million would have died due to the traditional assault.  I have always been convinced that the nuclear bombings were the high moral ground, due to these factors.