Iraq war = American Civil War? Election 2006 = election 1864? Bush = Lincoln? To some it’s all the same.

I was sitting in my office around 7:45 AM yesterday morning, going through my messages and mail in preparation for a long day of animal protocol and grant writing interspersed with meetings, the radio playing in the background. It was Curtis and Kuby, the usual talking heads show with a conservative paired with a liberal that I listen to when I get up, on the way to work, and even in my office if I’m not operating, in clinic, or otherwise out of my office in the morning. Bret Schundler, former candidate for Governor of New Jersey was being interviewed about the election results and the loss of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate to the Democrats, and he made a historical analogy that literally made me drop what I was doing and listen in amazement. Unfortunately, I can’t find a transcript of exactly what he said anywhere; so I’ll paraphrase it now, while I can still remember.

In his warmup, Schundler argued that because in his estimation the Democrats had every advantage this election, including the press endorsing so many Democrats and an unpopular war presided over by the incumbent President, coupled with the fact that this is the sixth year of a two-term Presidency, when the party in power usually loses seats, the observation that the Democrats “only” captured 27 Republican seats or so was to him an indication that they actually didn’t really do all that well at all compared to how well they should have done. This was just standard damage control and excuse-making, nothing more than a talking point already being parroted by Republican talking heads everywhere since election night. It didn’t even cause me to look up from my desk. His next point did.

Schundler went on to compare the war in Iraq to the American Civil War (I say “American Civil War” to avoid confusion with a situation that is rapidly degenerating into a civil war in Iraq) and the elections of 2006 to the election of 1864. His rationale? In essence, he argued that in 1864 the American Civil War was going poorly and that Lincoln was in danger of not being reelected because of it. After a string of Northern victories (which Schundler failed even to mention, making it seem as though the war had been going badly for the North since the very beginning), by 1864, the war had bogged down. Were it not for General Sherman’s march through the South and capture of Atlanta in September followed by Cavalry General Phillip Sheridan’s decisive victory in the Shenandoah Valley in October, Lincoln may well have lost the election. In Schundler’s mind, the 2006 election was an analogous situation, except that no victory has materialized to save the Republicans’ hide. Schundler then went on to say that, if the Democrats had won in 1864, they likely would have sued for peace (probably true, given that the Democratic platform of 1864 called for “compromise” with the South) and that today slavery would still exist (highly unlikely, although it may have continued for a while longer).

Yes, Schundler was seriously arguing that a vote for the Democrats in 2006 is akin to voting for defeat and the continuation of slavery 142 years ago, and implying that the Democratic victory on Tuesday might lead to the same disaster that might have occurred had Lincoln lost in 1864. He finished by stating that Lincoln was remembered because he steadfastly stayed the course and predicted that President Bush would be remembered similarly.

Yeah, right.

Can anyone point out the flaws in this historical analogy? I can, and the Civil War isn’t even the area of history that I’m most knowledgeable about (World War II is).

Boiling it down, to Schundler, Bush = Lincoln; American Civil War = Iraq War; and 1864 = 2006. This was one I hadn’t heard before. I later learned that this idiotic analogy has been around for a while , at least since the 2004 election (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). I even found an article from October 2004 that debunked at least one aspect (the military aspect) of this comparison:

That’s what somebody needs to say to the diehards yammering about the Civil War: this ain’t 1864, you ain’t Abraham Lincoln, and Iraq ain’t Northern Virginia.

Two vital differences that show you what nonsense these parallels are:

1. Conventional wars like the Civil War are decided on the battlefield; massacres of civilians are optional. In guerrilla war, massacring enemy civilians is the whole damn point.

2. Conventional wars end when one side’s army can’t stop the opposing army (Lee in 1865). Guerrilla wars BEGIN when the locals’ army is defeated in battle and occupied by the enemy (Baghdad 2003).

I realize this is all pretty basic for anybody who knows contemporary war, but jeez, nobody out there seems to know it. Most of all, people won’t face the fact that guerrilla war is dirty by design. That’s the whole idea: making the occupier so sick of you, so disgusted with what you do to him, and what he has to do to you, that he’ll just go home. That’s what happened to the French in Algeria, the Israelis in South Lebanon, and us in Nam. The idea of guerrilla war is as simple and horrible as eye-gouging: the locals care more about the place than the occupier, so they’ll outlast him, out-atrocity him.

There are, of course, many other much better reasons why the two wars are not analogous and the 2006 election is not the same as 1864, which, oddly enough, the article above failed to mention. The most obvious difference that renders any comparisons between the Civil War and Iraq specious is that the American Civil War was clearly a war for national survival. The very fate of the Union itself depended upon the outcome, and the consequences for the U.S. would have been catastrophic if the North had lost. Indeed, in that case, the Union would almost certainly have remained sundered, probably irrevocably. If we pull out of Iraq, although Iraq may descend into chaos, our nation will not fall. We do not depend on victory in Iraq for the survival of our nation. Having to withdraw would be a black eye and a humiliation, for sure, and it would allow Iraq to descend into chaos and sectarian violence, but U.S. would go on. Consequently, opposing the war in Iraq now does not quite have anywhere near the same import as opposing the Civil War did then. Another critical difference between the Civil War and Iraq is that Lincoln did not preemptively attack the South to start the Civil War. Indeed, several Southern states had already seceded before Lincoln even took office, and the South struck first militarily at Fort Sumter. Bush, on the other hand, started the Iraq War. It was a war of choice, not necessity. Consequently, when things went wrong, the American public quite rightly started to wonder exactly what cause it is that we are fighting and sacrificing our best and bravest for, particularly when it no longer seems possible to keep Iraqis from killing each other in large numbers. Bush appropriately bears full responsibility for the morass that Iraq has become and has finally paid a political price for his incompetence in conducting the war and his hubris for launching the war in the first place; the only surprise is that it took three and a half years for the bill to come due. Finally, the Civil War, unlike the Iraq war, was fought on American soil. Not only that, but it literally pitted brother against brother and produced mass slaughter hitherto unknown, with hundreds of thousands of dead. In light of the continued carnage, it is not surprising that there would be a contingent that would question whether preserving the Union was worth the cost, and not all of these people were Copperheads, a faction of Democrats with southern sympathies now generally viewed by many as defeatists, if not outright traitors.

In reality, this whole 2006=1864 analogy is a rather transparent attempt to paint Democrats who oppose Bush’s conduct of the war as being akin to the Democrats in 1864 arguing for an end to the Civil War, fallaciously linking their lack of concern about the continuation of slavery or the sundering of the United States with the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before “the job is done.” Of course, what advocates of this analogy fail to mention is that another reason some Democrats wanted to sue for peace was because of the imperial powers that Lincoln had taken on in his quest to save the Union and because feared he would become a dictator if the war continued, as resolved in the Democratic Party platform of 1864:

Resolved, that the aim and object of the Democratic party are to preserve the federal Union and the rights of the States unimpaired ; and they hereby declare that they consider the administrative usurpation of extraordinary and dangerous powers not granted by the Constitution; the subversion of the civil by the military laws in States not in insurrection; the arbitrary military arrest, imprisonment, trial, and sentence of American citizens in States where civil law exists in full force; the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press; the denial of the right of asylum; the open and avowed disregard of State rights; the employment of unusual test oaths, and the interference with and denial of the right of the people to bear arms in their defense, as calculated to prevent a restoration of the Union and the perpetuation of a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

And it is true that Lincoln did suspend a number of civil liberties in his conduct of the war, including the right of habeus corpus, decisions that were incredibly controversial at the time and provoke a fair amount of argument about whether they were justified even today. The Constitution does allow the temporary suspension of habeus corpus in “cases of rebellion and when the public safety requires it,” but Lincoln’s decision was still not viewed favorably among many. In essence, Lincoln is viewed as a great President now because the North won and history for the most part has vindicated his decisions. If Lincoln had lost , ended up with a stalemate, or been forced into a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy, chances are that he would not be nearly so favorably viewed today. Also remember that, at the time he made these decisions, it was not as paranoid-sounding as it is now to fear Lincoln’s becoming a dictator. And, although it may seem wrong-headed now, it was not unreasonable for the Democrats to criticize Lincoln’s assumption of extraordinary powers, and, in the context of a war that had claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives with no end in sight, it was not entirely unreasonable to question whether the price of victory was worth the cost. It’s only with the hindsight of 141 years that we realize that pressing for the total defeat of the Confederacy was the right thing for Lincoln to do. We often forget, however, that people living while these events were actually occuring didn’t have the advantage of that hindsight and couldn’t foresee the outcome anymore than we living today can foresee the outcome of the Iraq war.

When you strip down these analogies to their core, they boil down to this: Lincoln held firm during the Civil War even at the potential cost of losing the 1864 election, and he’s remembered as a great president who saved the Union. Opponents of Bush and the Republicans are no more than the 21st century equivalent of the pro-South (and presumably therefore traitorous) Copperheads. Because Bush stands fast on Iraq and is defending the security of the country against all enemies, history will also judge him to be a great President, just like Lincoln. It’s a silly analogy that’s about as valid as comparing apples and oranges. They’re both similar in that they’re fruit, but beyond that the differences make such a comparison less than illuminating in most cases.

It’s a measure of the ignorance of the American public over history that such bad historical analogies sound plausible to so many.

Any historians out there who’d like to comment?