Jim Stubenrauch is a CHMP senior fellow.
Tomorrow, Saturday, April 9, will be the 146th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. I happen to know this because I spent several hours this past week watching The Civil War, the 1990 documentary by Ken Burns. Like many millions of other viewers, I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years. PBS stations tend to haul it out during pledge drives, but even without the fundraising breaks, I find it’s hard enough to stay with a multipart television show spread over several nights. In any case, by now it’s been aired so many times and so many of the images it contains are so familiar that, I suspect, many people have the impression they’ve seen it all even if they really haven’t.
I found out this week that I hadn’t really seen much of this documentary.
Before I say a bit about the experience of watching the film this past week, I want to note that as I write this today, Friday, April 8, it is not yet clear whether, as of midnight tonight, the federal government will continue to be fully functional. Negotiations on the spending bill that must be passed to avert a partial government shutdown have stalled. Unexpectedly, The Civil War has given me a magnifying lens through which the current events become unusually clear.
Now, about the film. First, there are a number of odd tensions that become apparent over the course of the more than 10 hours of its entirety. Its sheer length and almost glacial pace, its symphonic breadth and scale, all dramatize the seeming endlessness of the war itself. A beautifully crafted opus, it depicts horrifying truths about our history. Many of the film’s stylistic elements—its lulling rhythms, sparse and melancholy musical score, the slowly drifting pan-and-zoom of the camera work, the eloquence of both the eyewitness accounts and the commentary of contemporary historians—all combine to hypnotic effect, and in this suggestible, porous state, the viewer’s mind effortlessly absorbs the interminable litany of carnage and slaughter: so many thousands killed in battle after battle, so many more grievously wounded or dead from disease or starvation. As the statistics relentlessly accumulate—more men lost in a single afternoon than in the entire course of some of our “smaller wars”; greater casualties overall than in all other American wars combined—we feel inundated. And yet these horrors, so appalling that the mind recoils, are not reduced to dry historical facts and figures—rather, the enormities we’ve known since primary school and to which we’ve grown numb become revived and magnified by the stories the film unspools, stories of deprivation, suffering, bravery, sacrifice, and grief, and as the human toll rises, all we thought we knew about the war dissolves, atomized. Nearly blinded by this bloody red blizzard of narrative detail, we cannot look away.
The point toward which the film inexorably drives—and which dawns on the viewer long before it is explicitly stated by several astute observers near the film’s conclusion—is perhaps more disturbing still. And it is this: the Civil War, in deep and far-reaching ways, created and shaped the country and the society in which we live and the political system by which we still govern ourselves. We are still experiencing the aftershocks and reverberations of this cataclysm. In a profound sense, the Civil War did not end; it is still going on. As the historian Barbara J. Fields says, “We have to fight it every day.”
And we are fighting it today. According to a story in today’s New York Times, despite numerous concessions from Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner said there is “only one reason we do not have an agreement yet, and that is spending.” However, the Times reported, “Senate Democrats repeatedly insisted that the dispute over women’s health programs was the only obstacle to a deal.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said Tea Party Republicans “are willing to throw women under the bus, even if it means they’ll shut down the government.”
In fact, it is about more than women’s health programs. It is also about health care reform (Republicans are intent upon derailing it), and it is about the environment (Republicans want no regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency). Oh, and it’s also about financial industry regulation (Republicans, despite the industry’s culpability in the economic meltdown of the past two years, are opposed to it.) So, while posing as deficit hawks concerned only about excessive spending, Republicans are really trying to advance an extreme ideological social agenda. (See this editorial for details.)
Toward the end of the film, historian and formidable raconteur Shelby Foote says, in his beguiling Southern drawl, (I’m paraphrasing here, but fairly closely) that we Americans like to think of ourselves as very special people, but if we really were as superior as we like to think we are, we wouldn’t have fought the war in the first place. But having fought it, we also like to think of our generals as the most brilliant and our soldiers as the bravest. I wish he hadn’t added that it seems to him that this is a very American trait.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a time since the Civil War—with the possible exception of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era—when the country has been more divided in its core political values. And when since the Gilded Age just after the War, has there been greater economic inequality?
And it is hard to imagine that anyone considers most of our leading politicians to be the most brilliant and the bravest. Considering the histories of our two “great” political parties in the light of the War, it is as if, for a century and a half, the ghosts of millions of dead combatants have been walking among the living, exchanging with each other blue uniforms for gray and gray uniforms for blue.