What causes a war

A few weeks, maybe even a few months ago, I found a link to this essay on the American Civil War (quite possibly via or ), and printed it out. I am of course fascinated by the Civil War, even though it wasn’t my country; at one point I was completely addicted to the GDW version of classic boardgame A House Divided, and since then I’ve come to appreciate the political sentiments of a war which to a certain extent was fought on a moral issue.

So I was looking forward to reading the Stephen Z Starr essay, and eventually did so last night. What I hadn’t expected was that certain parts of it would be of more general application. After a long introduction on the historiography of the war, he offers his own analysis, starting with the evils of slavery, and concluding (and I’ve added emphasis to the phrases I found particularly compelling):

Granted that the abolitionists saw only the evils of slavery, and that they refused to see that emancipation alone would not solve the underlying race problem. They were, in fact, single-minded fanatics. But for every antislavery fanatic in the North, there were dozens of proslavery fanatics in the South. And if we must make the choice between fanatics for freedom and fanatics for slavery, the choice, I think, is simple. The abolitionist fanatics, never more than a tiny minority, did not control the politics or even the public opinion of the North. The proslavery fanatics, on the other hand, did control both public opinion and politics in the South, and went to war for the sake of an institution condemned not merely by the abolitionists but by the moral judgment of the entire civilized world. The South attempted to secede for the sake of slavery not just from the United States, but also from the nineteenth century, and one of the object lessons of the Civil War, with a special significance for our own day, is that you cannot escape from your own place and time in the stream of history by taking refuge in the past or in some romantic world of make-believe.

I’ll repeat that last phrase again: you cannot escape from your own place and time in the stream of history by taking refuge in the past or in some romantic world of make-believe. And of course, the more lengths you have to go to to invent your past, the more tempting it is to found it on a escape from reality.

Starr goes on to discuss the internal polics of South vs North in the immediate prewar years, concluding:

…in 1860… the Cotton State delegates walked out [of the Democratic Convention] and thereby wrecked the Democratic Party. Thus, the South practically assured the election of a minority, sectional president, the very thing that caused it to announce a few months later that it was no longer safe in the Union. Is it any wonder that Northern historians saw in this a deeply laid plot to make secession inevitable? Their only alternative would have been to assume the Southern leadership had taken leave of its senses. To a great degree, the latter is the explanation I favor.

Here, I think, is a crucial point. Often we tend to over-analyse grand historical events which lead to awesome consequences. But the simple fact is that sometimes people – especially politicians of only average intelligence, thrust into positions of important political leadership by circumstances almost completely outside their control – sometimes they do make very stupid decisions. My one serious point of difference with Starr is that to say, as he does, that they had taken leave of their senses begs the question of whether they were up to the job in the first place.

His final section is even more powerful, dealing with the cultural gap between the South and the North. Having pointed out how little rooted in fact Southern mythology about their own origins, and asked “Where are the Southern Bancrofts, Motleys, Prescotts, Emersons, Bryants, Hawthornes, Lowells?”, he goes on to say:

Granting the existence of cultural differences between the North and South, can we assume that they would necessarily lead to a Civil War? Obviously not. Such differences lead to animosity and war only if one side develops a national inferiority complex, begins to blame all its shortcomings on the other side, enforces a rigid conformity on its own people, and tries to make up for its own sins of omission and commission by name-calling, by nursing an exaggerated pride and sensitiveness, and by cultivating a reckless aggressiveness as a substitute for reason.

There’s no need to put special emphasis on any parts of this last quotation; apart from the words “North and South”, they could apply to almost any of the conflict situations that occupy my working hours.

One thought on “What causes a war

  1. As a child, my opinions of these stories were very diferent from my opinions of them now.

    I remember reading and rereading and enormously enjoying the novelisation of Nightmare of Eden, which I nowadays interpret as meaning that the actual story (and probably script but it’s been too long since I’ve seen it) are fine, and it’s the reaslisation of it that’s problematic.

    Destiny is a story I loved as a child (in large part, I suspect, because I was too young to remember the previous dalek story, though of course I was aware of them) but found very unimpressive indeed as an adult. Disco robots? Weird discontinuity with all other dalek stories? Silly humour sometimes undermining the drama? All this makes it one of the poorest dalek stories IMO.

    I always liked City of Death but it certainly stood out more as an adult. Not my favourite Tom Baker story (I’m with you on Deadly Assassin) but close. Definitely my favourite Williams-era story.

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