Saturday, February 11, 2006

Ross Douthat reviews Harry S. Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War

I strongly recommend Ross Douthat's review (via RCP) in Policy Review of Yale historian Harry S. Stout's new book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War.

I tend to read a lot of Civil War and Lincoln books, because I am slowly preparing to do a short book manuscript on the ethics of war in the Second Inaugural Address (based in part around a review essay I did a couple of years ago, in 2003, in the Times Literary Supplement, here). Stout's book is particularly interesting to me, because it is one of the few books to take up the questions of jus in bello, the conduct of war, rather than jus ad bellum, the justification of the resort to force, in the Civil War. And his is the very rare account indeed of the conduct of the war at the micro-level of jus in bello - at the level of individual atrocity, murder, (apparently) pointless sacrifice of soldiers in useless battles, prisoner of war camps, etc.

I agree with Douthat's basic point that Stout's book founders on the contradiction between his denunciation of the expansion of the North's strategy to one of total war, the demolishing of the South's way of life, the infrastructure of civilian life that supported the military, precisely as its war aims expanded. It makes sense, if you think that the restraint of methods of war is the most important moral consideration, for Stout to praise so highly Lincoln's highly restrained, but also highly incompetent commander, George McClellan. But perhaps incompetent is not the word - McClellan did not share Lincoln's war aims at all; he was perfectly comfortable with the preservation of slavery and the finally the dissolution of the Union, as his run as a Copperhead, Peace-now Democrat in the second presidential election showed.

Stout has plenty of company in the global view that the worst feature of war is its conduct, and that the issues that divide people by war are less important morally than the question of conduct. Inevitably, a genuinely neutral organization like the International Committee of the Red Cross tends to cross from silent neutrality on the issues of why people fight to a neutrality that moves from a refusal publicly to address the issue to a pox-on-both-your-houses. This is not finally the right moral stance - neutrality is absolutely vital for those who play the very special, very morally particular role of ministering to the needy and suffering of both sides. But it is finally a residual moral category - a world of moral neutrals is a world in which evil, not good, triumphs. There are indeed wars in which the causes on either side are equally unjust and equally not worth the use of force - but there are also many wars in which the issues at stake are urgent and vital.

Neutrality as a permanent moral stance is thus both residual and artificial. It is not right, in the face of aggression either against oneself or against others, to be silent, be neutral, or stand aside - and if one does, one needs a special justification. The standpoint of the neutral is one of publicly suspending public judgment of right and wrong, in order to serve an urgent cause of humanitarian relief. But that is always a suspension of moral disbelief, a residual and artificial category with respect to justice. (I discuss this question of the morality of neutrality, toward the end of this article, here.)

Nor does Stout, as Douthat ably points, want to adopt at all points and across his book an entirely above-the-fray neutrality in the manner of a humanitarian organization. Being an American, he also want to endorse the grandest goals of the Civil War, the elimination of slavery and, inevitably, the elimination of a way of life. Of course he is right to do so. And of course he is right to argue that one should do so consistent with the most restrictive jus in bello methods that will accomplish that purpose and win the war.

The problem with Stout's book is that he wants to have his cake and eat it, too - he wants to end slavery, end the 'peculiar institution' and the Southern way of life that depends upon it, while wanting nothing in the way of the methods of war that will actually accomplish it. This is not an endorsement of atrocity; it is a recognition that you can be Lincoln's man, or you can be McClellan's man. The latter will kill far fewer people, fight with far greater circumspection when he fights at all - but, unlike the former, McClellan is willing to settle for the end of the Union and the continuation of slavery.

Put another way, everyone always wants to remember the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural who called upon us to be "with malice toward none." We are far less desirous of being what Lincoln was, the most ruthless and stubborn war leader this country has ever known, the president who called upon the nation, prior to a reconstruction of the Union with malice toward none, to go forward and "finish the work we are in." It was a work inevitably of Grant and Sherman, not McClellan - something that Lincoln knew, but which Stout, at crucial points in his narrative, seems to know not.

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