Sunday, August 19, 2012

The will of Union Soldiers to fight

From page 44 of McPherson's What they Fought for 1861-1865: " . . . in letters to his mother, an Irish-born sergeant in the 2d New Jersey Infantry declared that neither the 'horrors of the battlefield [nor] the blind acts of unqualified generals' had 'chilled my patriotism in the least.' 'We are still engaged in the same holy cause,' he wrote on the third anniversary of his enlistment, 'we have yet the same Country to fight for.'

"Not all Union soldiers felt this strongly, of course. For every one who did, there was a bounty jumper or draftee or substitute or straggler or beat who cared more for money or for his own skin than he did for the cause. Such is always true of armies -- but it seems to have been less true of Civil War armies. The iron resolve of genuinely dedicated Union veterans underlay the message conveyed by a dispatch from the American correspondent of the London Daily News to his paper in September 1864. 'I am astonished,' he wrote, by 'the extent and depth of the determination [of the northern people] to fight to the last. . . . They are in earnest in a way the like of which the world never saw before, silently, calmly, but desperately in earnest; and they will fight on, in my opinion, as long as they have men, muskets, powder . . ."

"This was chilling news to southerners who had counted on a waning of the northern will to fight. Those southerners might have experienced an even colder chill could they have read the letters of northern soldiers confirming the observation of the Daily News Correspondent. "We must succeed," wrote an intensely Unionist Missouri officer to his wife in August, 1864. 'If not this year, why then the next, or the next. And if it takes ten years, why then ten years it must be, for we can never give up, and have a country and Government left.' . . ."

Comment: I have been in debates with pacifists and argued that a nation that can not produce enough young men to defend itself cannot stand. Of course this didn't mean that everyone needs to be willing to join the military but "enough" need to. As big as our nation is we can afford backwaters of "beats" who want to drop out or hide or escape, but we can't afford for everyone to be like that.

I read quite a lot about the Vichy period in France and about what led up to it. Before the turn of the century (1900) many of the most influential intellectuals were attracted to anarchistic ideas. Pacifism was the quietistic version of anarchy for many, and the horrors of World War I seemed to validate their fears; such that there was a great turning away from war and consequently from a desire or willingness to defend France. Not everyone in France was a pacifist, but too many were and there weren't enough willing to fight. There weren't enough French leaders who knew how to intelligently command an army the way that Lincoln and Davis (more or less) did. There may come a day when spears are beaten into plow shares and swords into pruning hooks, but for a nation to unilaterally do that -- when that nation's enemies are not similarly employed is disastrous. The lesson of French degradation during the Vichy period is there for any modern-day pacifist to read, if he will read it.

I am encouraged, on the other hand, by the modern-day military man who seems as willing as the soldiers McPherson writes about to fight for our nation's interests. Osama bin Laden assumed that American and British fighting men wouldn't have the stomach to fight and bleed on the ground. He thought we couldn't do much more than drop a few bombs from high up in the sky. Few Islamists would say that today.

I think also of Hitler, declaring war on the U.S. after the Japanese did without the slightest fear that the U.S. might represent a serious threat to him. He thought something akin to the ideas of the Southern Aristocrat: they are a nation of shopkeepers and haven't the will or the ability to fight as we can. Winston Churchill said to someone, perhaps Roosevelt, something along the lines of "I knew you would fight. I read about your Civil War."

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