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May 04, 2005

History Lite

In the WaPo, David Ignatius attempts to draw parallels between the battle of Gettysburg and the war in Iraq.

While I'm not an expert on the Civil War, I do know a little about the fateful three days at Gettysburg. Enough to know, for instance, that events there have little to do with the theme of Ignatius' article. Reading the title, I half-expected his "lesson" to be the standard one: we should not have fought there. From my point of view, the historical parallels are less than startling.

It was hoped that Gettysburg would be the decisive battle in an already overlong war that was taking its toll on both sides. That is why Lee risked all on what proved to be a disastrous gamble. And though Ignatius quickly moves to a discussion of rebuilding war-torn societies, the Civil War raged on for quite some time after the battle of Gettysburg. This makes it very different from the Iraq war, which concluded with blinding speed in a mere three weeks leaving everyone almost dizzy, with no time to implement detailed reconstruction plans, even had there been any designed to meet such un-hoped for success.

Ignatius compares the challenges of reconstructing the post-war South and post-war Iraq:

The Civil War, like the invasion of Iraq, was a war of transformation in which the victors hoped to reshape the political culture of the vanquished. But as McPherson tells the story, reconstruction posed severe and unexpected tests: The occupying Union army was harassed by an insurgency that fused die-hard remnants of the old plantation power structure with irregular guerrillas. The Union was as unprepared for this struggle as the Coalition Provisional Authority was in Baghdad in 2003. The army of occupation was too small, and its local allies were often corrupt and disorganized.

Now this is interesting, because the Civil War had gone on, literally, for years. Presumably there was ample time for planning and given the relative size of the two armies, the eventual outcome was never in doubt. Sounds like a 'miserable failure' to me. I wonder where Ted Kennedy was?

Reconstruction suffered partly because of a mismatch between a transformational strategy and haphazard tactics. Northern radicals such as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens wanted to break the old slaveholding aristocracy and remake the South into a version of New England, with former slaves and poor whites dividing up the plantations. But within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson was moving to protect the privileges of the old regime. Even after Johnson was impeached, the government balked at enforcing the tough land-reform strategy evoked by the slogan "Forty Acres and a Mule."

Could it be that "the government balked" because property rights were protected under the Constitution? Ignatius seems to forget the abuses suffered by Southerners during the Reconstruction as carpetbaggers migrated down from the North and literally stole their property and goods. Lawlessness and injustice were all too often a part of Reconstruction policy. The unpalatable truth is that it was not only racial hatred, but anger at real abuses that gave rise to some of the vigilanteeism that rose in the South after the 'late unpleasantness'.

The North did get Reconstruction wrong, but they did it by trying to redistribute land and property in a manner contrary to the law of the land, and by bringing in a corrupt administration that did not represent the people who lived in the region. They set up a police state for a brief period, from which native Southerners did not believe they could obtain justice.

That is not what we're doing in Iraq. The Iraqis are setting up their own government of democratically-elected representatives. They are training up their own police and army. We are deferring to them whenever possible. All the factors that caused insurrection in the post-war South are not present in Iraq, including the race issue.

And we are not trying to impose democracy on them. They are designing it for themselves. The polls indicate this is what the Iraqi people want, not something being forced on them by an outside power.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I think Mr. Ignatius needs to hit the history books again.

Posted by Cassandra at May 4, 2005 08:14 AM

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