Tag Archives: liberty

To Stand Up Against Zealots

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am not a fan of ideologues or the “fundamentalists” of any point in the political, ideological or religious spectrum. Their lack of courage, stunted intellectualism, and inability to see things from outside their limited field of view does not allow them to face really difficult questions that confront us today.  They claim to hold the keys to the universe but sadly are hold nothing more than the key to their high school gym locker.

The Iranian novelist Salman Rushdie who has been on the run from Iranian fundamentalist ideologues since he wrote the supposedly heretical Satanic Verses once noted:

“The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

I believe that we are at yet another crossroads in Western civilization. This time a crossroads where the classic liberalism that was the basis for democratic societies is being stampeded by zealots of various persuasions who guided by the supposed infallibility of their ideological belief systems, deliberately and without remorse seek to destroy the institutions that are the guardians of liberty.

In my honest opinion I think that the worst of these are the conservative Christian theocrats and their seemingly ideological enemies the Ayn Rand following Social Darwinist “conservative libertarians.” They have no shame, their respective ideologies blind them to truth and turn them into sociopaths that only give a damn about their power and profits and they latched on to President Trump, prostrating themselves and the Republican Party to him in order that they might triumph.

Of course I will be the first to admit that there are some leftists who would be the first to put a bullet in the head of Lady Liberty to further their own cause.  But they are not the danger. They control nothing that would allow them to succeed and most cannot even agree among themselves to work together, they have nothing on Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Iranian Mullahs, or even Hugo Chavez; may God give rest to his chubby cheeks.

Say what you want about him but President Trump is not an ideologue, he can’t be, he’s too much of a self-absorbed narcissist to be an ideologue. All he wants is the adulation of his audience and the power and wealth that come with it. He may be a sociopath but it is not for the sake of any ideology. If the issue was the President alone we could survive him; but his supporters of the Christian Right and the Ayn Rand Social Darwinists of the GOP are much more dangerous, because they are true believers who actually control many of the apparatuses of government at the local, state, and federal level.

We have seen the results of such movements in history before and each time they succeed in gaining power they have brought disaster to nations, and sometimes the world.

Proponents of ideological purity assume that their ideological bias is equivalent to sacred truth, be it a religious or secular truth. The promoters of such systems promote something more than their opinion, as Hannah Arendt noted: “For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”  

As such, ideology is not based on knowledge, but is distinct from it and the enemy of knowledge for it binds the mind in a straitjacket in which all thought must be submitted to the truth of the ideology. As Arendt noted such ideologies must be handled with caution as they “pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”  

An ideology protects the true believer from having to think for himself, it allows the insecure to grasp at the protection that it allegedly provides, and allows the believer to deny reality, and to by definition declare everything that contradicts the ideology to be heretical, and opponents to be aligned with the devil himself, allowing the believer to hate the opponent. As Eric Hoffer noted, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

As I have mentioned the past couple of days my favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing.

That is why knowledge and critical thought even when they are uncomfortable and take us out of our comfort zone are so much more powerful and important than ideologies that are followed blindly. My words to the ideologues of the Christian Right and the Ayn Rand followers of so many in the Republican Party is that of Samuel Adams who said:

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” 

It takes no courage to be an ideologue, and once a person surrenders to an ideology as his or her reason for existence, they sacrifice the ability to reason, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to acquire knowledge and in doing so they surrender to tyranny and servitude though they think they will end up on top.

That is the danger of the blind ideologies that are consuming our world today and why as long as anyone who cares about freedom has a breath in them they must be opposed.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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My Doctrine: “Give Every Other Human Being the Right You Claim for Yourself”


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another day and another adventure in Trumpland. 

Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican that modern Republicans love to hate said: “I am an American; free born and free bred, where I acknowledge no man as my superior, except for his own worth, or as my inferior, except for his own demerit.” 

After Trump’s announcement in which he said that he was going to bar transgender men and women from military service, including combat vets, I am fighting back in every legal way that I can as an active duty officer. Thankfully I am senior enough that I don’t have to deal with the threats that a number of junior Army chaplain friends are dealing with from their fundamentalist Christian supervisory chaplains. 

I cannot believe who quickly these people will throw fellow servicemen and women under the bus for a President who despises them and what they believe all because he hates LGBTQ people more than them. 

Although I don’t need to I am going to start doing all the preparatory actions that I will need to do to retire from the military on my own terms with 36 or more years of service in peace and war so I don’t have to serve under what if left unchecked will become a fascist dictatorship, in large part due to fundamentalist Christians. I am not going to drop my retirement papers yet, just get things in place so that I can retire at any point that I chose. I will never surrender my honor to willingly prostitute myself to a regime that rejects the rule of law, the Constitution, and the principles of the Declaration of Independence that so many people have fought to preserve. 

Since I posted two articles yesterday this will,suffice for now. But for me the issue is liberty for all. As Robert Ingersoll, a Civil War hero and prominent atheist said: “This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself.”  If you can’t do then don’t claim to support the Constitution or revere the Declaration of Independence, because you are simply a liar. Enough said. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Freedom Dies When Men Ignore Justice and then No Longer Recognize It

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short thought today. Yesterday was very tiring, we were dealing with a veterinary emergency with our older Papillon Minnie, and also had Judy’s follow-up appointment for the Endometrial Cancer she was operated on for in 2015. It looks like Minnie will be okay, she is spending the night in a fully staffed veterinary hospital where she will be monitored, medicated, and given IV’s after scaring the hell out of us with what our vet diagnosed as Hemorrhagic Gastroenteritis, and the hospital vet things might have been Pancreatitis. She had showed no signs of being sick when we went to bed last night but when we got up she had vomited multiple times and was crapping bright red blood. As soon as I saw it I scooped her up, called the vet and drove her there. We finally got home after transferring her to the overnight emergency vet about nine-thirty last night. She’s doing better and hopefully she will be home tomorrow.  Of course in the middle of everything we learned that Carrie Fisher had died and as much as I want to reflect on her life I cannot now, other than to say that I admired her greatly, especially for her openness in speaking about her own mental health issues. When I suffered my own PTSD crisis and decided to speak out and be transparent about my struggles, she was a role model.

But, anyway, as a follow-up to what I wrote yesterday I wanted to share this thought, from the late Charles Morgan Jr. I wrote about his comments in regard to what he said after the bombing to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama some 52 years ago before and think that they are as pertinent in the age of Trump than they were when he wrote them about the Jim Crow South.

Morgan was a well off young Southern gentleman, a lawyer, and a man with a conscience. He was a defender of the civil liberties of many people during his life, most of which were incredibly unpopular when he made his strand.

Morgan made a comment that really stuck in my brain because it is so true. He said,

“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”

The truth is that it those small failures; first to turn our backs on justice and to ignore it, and then finally, to fail to even recognize it when justice is being trampled. That is how freedom dies. Sadly, those who most often trample freedoms, usually in the name of God or religion are the last to recognize their complicity in that loss of freedom. Judge Learned Hand spoke these words; “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.”

Sadly, there are too many who will do just that, all to often in the name of their God, or their religion. If we ration justice so that only a few; the rich, and the well off are able to afford it, then we will succeed in standing idly by as injustice becomes the norm. I fear that in the coming months and years that justice itself will become a scarce commodity.

As always I admit that I hope that I am wrong, but from all I read from Trump’s supporters in the so-called Christian Right, the Neo-Nazis of the self-proclaimed Alt Right, and the most radical talking heads on radio, the internet, and heads of  right wing political action groups, I fear that we are in for very rough times unless the President-Elect himself makes a stand, because the Republican Congress has shown time after time that they will not do so.

Have a good day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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We Hold These Truths… A Proposition of Liberty and Equality


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Indpendence. For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others. 

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interr native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion. 

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and othe demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well. 

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the  American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at heir candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party. 

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Seig Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important. 

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American. 

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us. 

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Peace

Padre

Steve+

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Can We All do Better? We Will be Remembered in Spite of Ourselves

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am a bit late posting today. I was out late last night and attended a funeral this afternoon. But anyway, over the past few days, amid all the political mayhem going on I have been thinking a lot about the responsibility that all of us have as citizens, not to our political parties or ideology, but to the country and the whole idea of liberty. That may sound like an old fashioned and quaint proposition to people whose life is devoted to ideology, no matter if that is a conservative, liberal, progressive, or even religious one, but it is still something that I think is important.

As usual that thought took me back to Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. I as reminded of some remarks that Lincoln made less than two weeks before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time it was still a controversial proposition, even for many people in the North, as is almost any proposition to expand the boundaries of liberty. I was reminded of that today when an old friend, a man who was my mentor as I was preparing to be ordained as a priest went on a rant and told all of his friends that he was leaving Facebook. His reasons, the supposed moral decay of the country, especially in regard to allowing Gays to marry. His tone was so despondent, so bitter, and so negative that I chose not to engage it. Instead I simply wished him well because he is not a bad person, in fact he is incredibly wonderful, and he has suffered much. At the same time I wonder about all the propaganda that he had to ingest to get to this point, but I digress…

Lincoln spoke these words, words which are as pertinent today as when he spoke them. He said,

“I do not forget the gravity which should characterize a paper addressed to the Congress of the nation by the Chief Magistrate of the nation. Nor do I forget that some of you are my seniors, nor that many of you have more experience than I, in the conduct of public affairs. Yet I trust that in view of the great responsibility resting upon me, you will perceive no want of respect yourselves, in any undue earnestness I may seem to display.

Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity, and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here–Congress and Executive–can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united, and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means, so certainly, or so speedily, assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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War What is it Good For? Sometimes Something: The Context of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today something different. Yesterday I did a post about the Gettysburg Address and the importance of the proposition that of democracy that all men are created equal. It is a radical proposition that since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well as Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Obergfell v. Hodges, has grown in or country to encompass civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities, Women, and Gays. But those liberties had to be fought for, and would most likely never happened had not Abraham Lincoln and others in the North understood that neither liberty or Union could survive if the South succeeded. In fact, all of us owe our continued freedom to that understanding and the necessity of total war to achieve it.

However, yesterday I had a Twitter troll snipe at me, this time a left-wing troll who claimed to be a “liberal progressive.” However, his remarks were so ignorant of history and reality that I am sure the the had no clue how his words betrayed his alleged beliefs. So in a few words I told him that he was basically ignorant and blocked him. Most of the time when this happens to me it comes from supposed “conservatives,” or “white nationalists” of various flavors, to include the KKK and Neo-Nazi types. But the fact that this came from a self-proclaimed “liberal and progressive” proves that ignorance is not confined to any ideology. That is a sad commentary on our time.

So what I am posting today is an updated and slightly edited portion of the first chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. The entire chapter is close to 150 pages and is probably going to become a book in its own right, but I think it is important for my readers to understand, that sometimes liberty only comes with great sacrifice and the complete defeat of those who want to deny it. That does not matter if it was the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, or even the so-called Islamic State.

As a man who came back changed by war I can only say that I hate it. That being said, though I am a progressive and liberal, I am a realist and understand that as evil as war is, that surrendering liberty to those who believe in “liberty for the few, and slavery for all others.” 

The section of the book may seem a bit wonkish, but it is important. I understand that some of my readers will disagree, but one cannot escape reality.

So anyway, that being said I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” [1] Thus while this work is an examination of the Gettysburg campaign it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle. One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive, the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, what brought John Buford to McPherson’s Ridge, what motivated Daniel Sickles to move Third Corps to the Peach Orchard, and what motivated the men of Pickett’s division to advance to their death on Cemetery Ridge, without understanding the broader perspective of culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, and ideology that shaped these men.

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was a watershed event in an era, which introduced changes in new types of weapons, more lethal versions of older weapons, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications. Though the war did not change the essential nature of war, which Clausewitz says is “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” [2] it expanded the parameters of war and re-introduced the concept of “total war” to the world and “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character.” [3] In a sense it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs. The war changed the character of war, as it had been known for centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War. In the American Civil War, the character of war changed from a limited war waged between opposing armies into a war that at times bordered on Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute or total war. This conflict was waged between two people who shared much in common but were divided by an ideology which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion.

The war was revolutionary in other ways, and brought about a host of social, philosophical, economic, and political changes which continue to impact the lives of people in the United States and around the world even today. Some of these, especially those regarding the abolition of slavery and emancipation, as well as the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement have had a ripple effect in matters of political and social equality for other previously disenfranchised groups of citizens. One writer noted in regard to the social impacts that “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [4] Mark Twain wrote in 1873 that the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people …and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” [5]

In a sense, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address it served as a watershed moment in American history because it brought to the forefront the understanding of Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That statement, flowing from the Declaration was key to Lincoln’s understanding of human rights and dignity, and from it came the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Those would be followed by the Republican Congresses’ passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which denied all citizenship to blacks across the country, and by Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African American men to right to vote. That is the human and political context by which we have to understand the American Civil War.

Thus it is important to study the Gettysburg campaign in the context of the Civil War because the campaign of 1863 in the east cannot be divorced from what was happening in the west at Vicksburg, nor the Union blockade, nor the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war. Likewise the Gettysburg campaign cannot be separated from its relationship to the broader understanding of the nature and character of war. To do this one must examine the connection between them and policies made by political leaders; to include the relationship of political to military leaders, diplomats, the leaders of business and industry and not to be forgotten, the press and the people. Likewise we must understand the various contexts of war, to include the social, political, ideological and even the religious components of war, how they impacted Civil War leaders and why civilian policy makers and military leaders must understand them today.

While the essential nature of war remains constant, wars and the manner in which they are fought have changed in their character throughout history, and this distinction matters not only for military professionals, but also policy makers. The changing character of war was something that military leaders as well as policy makers struggled with during the American Civil War much as today’s military leaders and policy makers seek to understand the character of warfare today. British military theorist Colin Gray writes “Since the character of every war is unique in the details of its contexts (political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical), the policymaker most probably will struggle of the warfare that is unleashed.” [6] That was not just an issue for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom struggled with the nature of the war which had been unleashed, but it is one for our present political leaders, who as civilian politicians are “likely to be challenged by a deficient grasp of both the nature of war as well as its contemporary context-specific character.” [7]

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War prefigured the idea of total war written about by Clausewitz that occurred in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The war combined a massive number of technological advances, which both preceded and occurred during it, in which the philosophical nature of the Industrial Revolution came to the fore.

Likewise, the enmity of the two sides for one another had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda that ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit brought the element of hatred to the fore of the conflict. A Confederate Captain wrote his wife to teach his children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred of the Yankee race” that had “invaded our country and devastated it…[and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I will give him lead.” A soldier from a Wisconsin regiment wrote to his fiancée after the assault on Resaca, Georgia that his unit had captured twenty-three Confederates and “or boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed them all. Where there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners…. We want revenge for our brother soldiers and will have it…. Some of the [rebels] say they will fight as long as there is one of them left. We tell them that is what we want. We want to kill them all off and cleanse the country.” [8]

As such there were many times the American Civil War came close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century. J.F.C. Fuller noted “for the first time in modern history the aim of war became not only the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but also of their foundations- his entire political, social and economic order.” [9] It was the first war where at least some of the commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were men of the Industrial Age, in their thought and in the way that they waged war, in strategy, tactics even more importantly, psychologically. Fuller wrote:

“Spiritually and morally they belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution. Their guiding principle was that of the machine which was fashioning them, namely, efficiency. And as efficiency is governed by a single end- that every means is justified- no moral or spiritual conceptions of traditional behavior must stand in its way.” [10]

Both men realized in early 1864 that “the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engaged each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle.” [11] Though neither man was a student of Clausewitz, their method of waging war was in agreement with the Prussian who wrote that “the fighting forces must be destroyed; that is, they must be put in such a position that they can no longer carry on the fight” but also that “the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.” [12]

William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” [13] Sherman was one of the first American military leaders to understand that a civil war could not be waged according to the limited war doctrines most American officers had been taught. He not only “carried on war against the enemy’s resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy’s minds.” [14] While some might find this troubling, the fact remains that it was Sherman’s Southern sweep of all that lay before him that broke the back of the Confederacy.

vincent

Strong Vincent

But Sherman and Grant were not alone in understanding the problem of fighting a limited war against the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862 a twenty-five year volunteer Colonel serving with McClellan’s army in Virginia who would be instrumental in throwing back Hood’s assault on Little Round Top, and die leading the defense of that edifice, by the name of Strong Vincent, understood what had to happen if the Union were to overcome the rebellion of the Confederacy.

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [15]

To most modern Americans who have no experience of war other than seeing it as a video spectator, the words of Vincent and Sherman seem monstrous and even inhuman. However, those who persist in such thinking fail to understand the nature and context of war. While some wars may be fought in a limited manner, others, especially ones driven by militant and uncompromising ideologies, often backed by fanatical religious beliefs cannot be limited, and those that fight such wars must, to paraphrase the words of Strong Vincent, “must fight them more vindictively, or be foiled at every step.” It would have been interesting to see what Vincent might have achieved had he not been cut down by Confederate bullets on Little Round Top.

Abraham Lincoln came to embrace the eternal nature of war as well as the change in the character of the war over time. Lincoln had gone to war for the preservation of the Union, and initially pursued the war in a limited way, seeking to defeat Confederate armies in the field while sparing the people of the Confederacy from total destruction.

But in his quest to preserve the Union, something that for him was almost spiritual in nature, as is evidenced by the language he used in both of his inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address, he found that Confederacy would only return to the Union if conquered, and he became convinced that the South’s peculiar institution, that of slavery, must be destroyed in the process. Thus, instead of a war to simply re-unite the Union and let bygones be bygones, Lincoln changed the narrative of the war when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When this happened the war not only became a war to restore the Union, but the a war for the liberation of enslaved African Americans, After January 1st 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln “told an official of the Interior Department, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation…The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” [16] That too was a modern understanding of war.

Of course, the revolution in military affairs that characterized the Civil War took time, but it was the political and military leaders of the North who better adapted themselves and their nation to the kind of war that was being fought. “Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the determination to make it succeed.” [17]

At the beginning of the war the leaders and populace of both sides still held a misguided and unrealistic romantic idea of war. Most people in the North and the South held on to the belief that the war would be over in a few months and that would be settled by a few decisive battles and that casualties would be comparatively light. This included most politicians as well as many military officers on both sides. There were some naysayers who believed that the war would be long and costly, like the venerable and rather corpulent General Winfield Scott, but politicians and the press mocked Scott and other doubters who even suggested that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Of course those who predicted a short, easy, and relatively bloodless war were the ones proven wrong, though it would take the leaders and the people of both sides over a year to understand. When it was done the American Civil War became the bloodiest war ever waged by Americans, and it was against other Americans.

Notes

[1] Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in History and Memory Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.ix

[2] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.75

[3] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.99

[4] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[5] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.48

[6] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.36

[7] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[8] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation pp.49-50

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three: From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944 Minerva Press 1956 p.88

[10] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.88

[11] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the War, Harper Perennial, New York 2005 p.238

[12] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.809

[14] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.149

[15] Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.57

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.558

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.857

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Dedicated to a Proposition: Super Tuesday & the New Birth of Freedom 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have returned from my time teaching at Gettysburgt and today is Super Tuesday, a day that will most likely establish who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees for President. Thus it is an important day and like any Election Day one that we should approach with a matter of solemn responsibility.

When I go to Gettysburg I always learn more than I teach. Part of this is because I am always reading, researching, writing, and exploring the subject so when I get there I look for things that I might have missed in previous visits. I enjoy the time with my students, not just on the battlefield staff ride, but in our table talk at ouch, dinner, and at the bar. But I think most importantly I am touched with the sense that what happened on that hallowed ground still matters today. At least I think that it should matter today if we honestly believe the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Those words, spoken on the site were Federal soldiers turned back the invading Confederate Army just a few months before were as revolutionary as when Thomas Jefferson penned the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men….” 

Of course when Jefferson wrote them they were revolutionary, but they only guaranteed the rights of white men, primarily those who owned property, which in many cases in those early days included the human property of African American slaves. But just a year prior to speaking at Gettysburg, Lincoln issued the provisional Emancipation Proclamation, giving the Confederacy a last chance to end the war and free their slaves. This was followed by the issuance of the proclamation on January 1st 1863. Lincoln’s action was even more revolutionary than that of Jefferson, for he began the process of univerasalizing the understanding that “all men are created equal.” He followed this with the passage of the 13th Amendment. His allies in Congress passed the 14th Amendment after his assassination over the strident objections of President Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant followed this by ensuring that the 15th Amendment was passed.

  
Of course it took many years of struggle to see the “proposition that all men are created equal” was extended to Native Americans, Women, and most recently Gays and Lesbians. Even so many people according to one recent survey said that they thought that some 13% of Americans disagreed with the Emanicaption Proclamation while 17% weren’t sure. Many others despise the 14th Amendment that provided citizenship rights to African Americans, the 15th Amendment which gave Blacks the right to vote, as well as the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote, and most recently the Oberfell v. Hodges decision which gave Gays the right to marry. Of course the precedent for most of the after decisions was found in the 14th Amendment.

emancipation

Today our country is nearly as divided as it was before and during the Civil War, Lincoln said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” There are politicians, pundits and preachers who are intent on rolling back or eliminating the rights of others in order to preserve their privilege, and to crush the rights of others in doing so for the flimsiest of reasons. That my friends frightens me, but I do believe that the wrong will fail. Even so I do get concerned, but then I remember Lincoln’s words:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


When I walked among the graves the men men who fought and died to ensure those rights over the weekend I again felt that call, the call to embrace and fight for the new birth of freedom that Abraham Lincoln so eloquently spoke. Yes my friends, it is for us the living to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. If we do not do so what good are we?

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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