Caravaggio: There was a result to what you did… thousands of people could have died!
Almásy: Thousands of people did die. Just different people.
-Exchange from the film The English Patient.
There has been an interesting discussion among Ta-Nehisi Coates, Matthew Yglesias and Freddie deBoer this week over the question “was the Civil War tragic”. If I may summarize briefly: Coates says no, for it freed the slaves. Yglesias says kind of, for it could have been done more cheaply.And deBoer says yes; indeed, it is the very picture of a tragedy.
Well, certainly if for the people who was killed in it, it was very tragic. But, then again, for those freed from slavery because of it, it was not the least bit tragic.
We can go further. The Confederates lost, and hence many southerners lost much of their wealth as a result of the war—I’m sure they thought it tragic. If you were one of men sent to march across a field and get shot you probably thought it was tragic.
But so what? Those people either owned slaves or fought to defend the slave system. They got exactly what they deserved. Then again, to make a point sort of related to deBoer’s, Macbeth got exactly what he deserved for murdering the King, and everybody thinks his story is a tragedy.
We must dig deeper. What if you were a Union soldier who died because Ambrose Burnside blew a hole in the ground and ordered you to run into it and get shot? Was that tragic?
On the other hand, General Grant went from being a nobody to being a hero and President because of the war. It wasn’t tragic for him. And what if you were one of the people who died enslaved at the year of 1859 or 1862? It was tragic there hadn’t been a war sooner, if war was the only solution.
I remember watching a program on PBS about the bombing of Dresden in World War II. I can’t remember the title, but it ended with some historian—I can’t recall who either, unfortunately—saying something to the effect that “the most immoral thing would have been for the allies to lose World War II.” He justified the bombing on these grounds. So maybe it’s not tragic if innocent lives are lost for a good cause. Then again, lots of evil people said the same thing.
(Incidentally, Coates says “no one mourns the first American Revolution”. I bet Britain mourned it. It seems reasonable to mourn losing a chance at hugely increasing the power of your empire in order to maintain the principle that you can tax people’s tea.)
And again, perhaps it was all fated. There was no choice, things had to be so. And in the event, logic dictated things had to be as they were. An un-falsifiable theory, I think. If it is all Destined, can there even be tragedy of any kind? And anyway, if there’d been no Civil War, we wouldn’t be here. Different people would be here—possibly better people, but not us, at any rate.
What’s my point, you ask? Well, I don’t know that I have one. Should we be happy or sad there was a Civil War? Damned if I know. I’m happy the slaves were freed, but that’s all I know for sure. Who knows what could have happened had things played out otherwise? Alternate futures—or should I say alternate presents—are difficult for a human mind to predict. In the end, who can say the truth? In my view, deBoer is closest to being right: the Civil War is as tragic as you want it to be.