Tuesday marks 150 years since the start of the U.S. Civil War. Newspapers everywhere are proclaiming it the deadliest war in U.S. history, the costliest U.S. war in terms of the loss of human life. That claim, like most things we say about the Civil War, is false.
Most humans, it will surprise our newspapers to learn, are not U.S. citizens. World War II killed 100 times as many people as the U.S. Civil War, with World War I not far behind. U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq are among those that have killed far more human beings than the Civil War killed.
The South, we’re told, merely wanted to be independent; slavery had nothing to do with it. Of course, this is nonsense. The South wanted to be independent in order to maintain slavery.
The North, we’re told, merely wanted to free the slaves; power, empire, profit, and politics had nothing to do with it. Of course, this too is nonsense. The war was well underway before Lincoln "freed the slaves." Actually he did not free those slaves whom he actually could free in the border states, but only those he could not free unless the North won the war. Freeing the slaves, like bringing democracy to Iraq or saving the Jews from Hitler, was a belated justification for a war that had other motivations. Adding that moral mission to the war helped keep European nations from backing the South and helped keep Northerners killing and dying in sufficient numbers.
Regardless of who said what when, the war did end slavery and was therefore justifiable. Or so we’re told. Yet, every other nation that ended slavery did so without a civil war. Similarly, we justify the American war for independence because it brought independence, even though Canada and countless other countries achieved independence without war. If we had used a war to create public schools, we would denounce critics of that war as opponents of education. To seriously justify a war, however, would require showing that anything it accomplished could not have been accomplished without all the killing, wounding, traumatizing, and destroying. What if the North had allowed the South to secede and repealed the fugitive slave law? What if an independent North had used trade, diplomacy, and morality to pressure the South to end slavery? Would slavery have lasted longer than the Civil War raged? If so, we are still talking, at best, about a war to hasten the end of slavery.
Even if the war was really launched for national power, to keep states together in a nation for the nation’s sake, we are all better off as a result. Or so we’re taught. But is it true? Most Americans believe that our system of representative government is badly broken, as of course it is. Our politicians are bought and sold, directed by corporate media outlets, and controlled by two political parties rather than the citizenry. One reason it’s difficult to bring public pressure to bear on elected officials is that our nation is too darn big. Most U.S. citizens can’t join a protest in their nation’s capital if they want to. A resistance movement in Wisconsin can’t very well spread to other key cities; they’re all hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the years that followed the "preservation of the union," the United States completed its conquest of the continent and began building an overseas empire, driven in large part by pressure from the same interests that had profited from the Civil War.
Secession has as bad a name as socialism, but Wisconsin could secede, ban foreign (U.S.) money from its elections and create a government of, by, and for the people by next year. A seceded California could be one of the most pleasant nations to live in on earth. Vermont would have a civilized healthcare system already if not for Washington, D.C. Yes, the North helped end Jim Crow in the South, but the South did most of that on its own, and we all helped end Apartheid in South Africa without being South Africa. In the absence of viable representative government, we won’t do much else on a national scale that we can be proud of. We now, in the United States, imprison more people of African descent than were enslaved here at the time of the Civil War, and it is national policies, completely out of the control of the American people, that produce that mass incarceration.
Those who fought in the Civil War, regardless of the politics or results, were heroes. Or so we are told. But most of the men who killed and died were not the generals whose names we are taught. They were soldiers, lined up like cogs in a machine, killing and dying on command. The vast majority of them, as with soldiers on both sides of all wars prior to late-20th century conditioning, avoided killing if at all possible. Many simply reloaded their guns over and over again, fetched supplies for others, or lay in the dirt. Killing human beings does not come easily to most human beings, and many will avoid it — unless properly conditioned to brainlessly kill — even at risk to their own lives. To be sure, many killed and many who did not kill died or lost their limbs. There was much bravery and sacrifice and even noble intention. But it was all for a tragically pointless exercise in collective stupidity, lunacy, and horror. Reassuring as it is to put a pretty gloss on a tragedy like this, we would be better served by facing the facts and avoiding the next one.
A century and a half after this madness burst forth, the United States has established a permanent military and permanent war time, with military bases in over 100 other countries, multiple major wars, and numerous small-scale secretive wars underway. Our weapons industry, born out of the Civil War, is our biggest industry, the world’s biggest arms supplier, and the source for the armaments used by many of the nations we fight our modern wars against. The civil liberties, the right to habeas corpus, everything that Lincoln temporarily stripped away for the War Between the States, also known — quite accurately — as the War of Northern Aggression, has now been stripped away for good by Justice Department lawyers and prostituted pundits pointing to Lincoln’s example. The legacy of the Civil War has been death, destruction, the erosion of democracy, and the propaganda that produces more of the same. Enough is enough. Let’s get our history right. Let’s glorify those years in our past during which we did not all try to kill each other.