Is it to be Lincoln or Sisyphus?
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
By May 1864, Abraham Lincoln was in real trouble. The spectacular victories of the past year at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were mostly forgotten — in the manner that we no longer talk much about the amazing campaign in Afghanistan or the historic three-week drive on Baghdad.
If we think the present snipings and car bombings in Iraq are disheartening, imagine a spring and summer of discontent after Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. Add the gloom of the stalemate at Petersburg — and the very capital in danger from the raiding of Jubal Early.
By the dog days of August, Grant was no longer the hero of Forts Henry and Donelson or Vicksburg, but had become the “butcher” whose purported obstinacy and brutality had nearly ruined the Army of the Potomac — going through men and capital at an unsustainable rate. “We had not bargained for this” was the general feeling among the ranks as the daily fatalities mounted.
If the news from the battlefield was not depressing enough, Lincoln wrestled with recalcitrant border states, draft rioting, simmering resentment against emancipation, budget shortfalls — and, of course, an upcoming election replete with an array of often really vicious opponents. Most prominently, radicals like John C. Frémont damned him for a failure of nerve. Copperheads turned to the diminutive, dapper, and glib failed general, George McClellan, who was willing to throw in the towel and accept a brokered stalemate. Lincoln, who had done so much to prevent war, was castigated as a warmonger with the blood of thousands of his hands. And this was in his fourth, not his first, summer of bloody fighting.
Few in the heat of summer 1864 saw that the war had, in fact, been fought rather brilliantly — and the tide had already almost imperceptibly shifted for good. Grant had worn Lee down in Virginia. Sheridan was loose in the Shenandoah Valley. Uncle Billy Sherman was grinding his way to Atlanta — and aiming at larger things still.
Then suddenly Sherman took Atlanta on September 2. Frémont withdrew from the race. Public opinion turned against McClellan. And in little more than two months Lincoln was reelected with 55 percent of the vote. Sherman cut through Georgia. Grant tightened the vise around Richmond. The primate of the editorial cartoonists was now Uncle Abe. The rest was history.
We are near the end of such a pivotal summer ourselves, the type that defines not just a presidency, but an entire nation for generations to come. After the spectacular victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, public ardor for the conflict is temporarily cooling. Because of the past recession, the effects of 9/11, the tax cuts, and the cost of the war, we are running up billions in projected annual budget deficits. Our own McClellans and contemporary Copperheads deride the president as a miserable failure cheek by jowl with major newspapers.
Few stop to appreciate that 50 million are now liberated with the first chance of real democracy in the history of the Middle East. We almost take for granted that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein are gone and that 90 percent of Iraq is functioning under local democratic councils — in an irreversible process that is taking on a culture and logic of its own. We are angry not that the situation in the occupied countries is stabilizing — so far at a cost of less than 300 — not 300,000 — American dead, but that they are not yet normal societies. Few Americans ask why and how Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran are suddenly whining privately rather than shouting defiance.
So beneath the hysterical headlines of quagmire, Vietnam, and stalemate, we have sorely hurt our enemies. We have driven the remnants of the Taliban into the Pakistani coffeehouses, the terrorists into caves, Saddam Hussein into a low-rent apartment, his sons into the Inferno — and replaced them all not with dictators, but real opportunities for freedom and consensual government. Instead of more skyscrapers exploding in American cities, 7,000 miles away jihadists and Islamic terrorists are being hunted down in their own once sacred enclaves.
Like Sisyphus, we have pushed our terrible rock nearly to the top of the hill. We need only a few dramatic final and critically symbolic shoves — either the capture of Saddam Hussein, proof of bin Laden’s demise, textual or material evidence of WMDs, or the finalization of a legitimate government in Baghdad — to go over the top, showing the discontented at home how far we have come. But just as Sisyphus was forever doomed to start pushing his rock anew — once it cascaded back just as he reached the apex — so shall we too have to start all over again should we lose our nerve with the summit now within sight. And such large boulders roll faster and in deadlier fashion downhill than during the slow and arduous push up.
Expecting the U.N. to curb the chaos in Iraq is understandable, but I think delusional. It has no real record of nation-building — but a long history of watching millions die and rot from the Balkans to Rwanda. True, if a Western country finally takes a strong stance, then the U.N. tags along well enough and can provide cosmetic legitimacy so dear to influential elites in Europe and America; but it never by itself really solves the problem.
Instead, U.N. bureaucrats in New York will haggle over a postbellum socialist constitution in Iraq and to whom to apportion oil concessions, while they pull out aid-workers with each bombing in anger at American inability to protect them. They will talk ad nauseam about humane rules of engagement, while their poorly trained soldiers either shoot too soon or too late. For years, such peacekeepers, whether in Srebenica or Mogadishu, wielded no power and commanded less respect as women and children were shot down in their presence. The Europeans under U.N. auspices will send sizable contingents of bureaucrats and profiteers, not soldiers, to Baghdad. The Iraqis distrust Indian, Pakistani, or Turkish peacekeepers more than they do us. The Baathists also would prefer the United Nations to us — easier targets, more readily intimidated, less auditory of their own clandestine mischief.
Work with the U.N.; heap lavish praise on the U.N.; protect the U.N. in Iraq; show it deference and respect. Invite it in for humanitarian help. But, by God, don’t allow it to take over operations in Iraq. Of course, it would be nice to join more closely with the French and Germans — if only to deflect their formidable cultural criticism that resonates so well in the Arab world. But, alas, they will never come in friendship, or offer real help, to Iraq. Such countries that so profited from Saddam Hussein, and so opposed our removal of him, for matters of pride alone cannot now help, even if they wished to.
Begging them to do so will only add insult to hypocrisy, inasmuch as they staked their prestige — their very honor — at stopping the United States at the U.N. Miraculously, for the first time since the 1930s they therein found a power in international fora that they lacked in the real material world. And such power and notoriety on the cheap are heady draughts and not so easily put away. Before the great televised debate at the U.N., Mr. de Villepin was known most recently only in amused fashion by a few academics for his lunatic book on the murderous Napoleon, while Mr. Schroeder appeared abroad mostly via tabloid stories about his dyed hair.
Neither country has real power or moral authority, but both find influence on the world stage largely through calculated criticism of the United States. Indeed, in their own fashion the Franco-Germans are parasitic on America — emulating its culture, counting on its military protection, while explaining to anti-Americanists of the world why Europeans understand best what is so pathological with the United States.
Yet sophistication is not morality. Neither is nihilism. More people, remember, fried in France this August while its social utopians snoozed at the beach than all those lost in Kabul and Baghdad together. I think an American pilot who flew over the peaks of Afghanistan or a Marine colonel now patrolling in Iraq was far more likely to ensure that his aged mother back home lives under humane conditions than was a Frenchman this summer on his month-long vacation on the Mediterranean coast. So remember, this August Americans lost 100 brave soldiers fighting selflessly for the liberty of others while thousands of Frenchmen perished through their children’s neglect and self-absorption.
Modern Germany is at heart an ally, but, alas, currently a very mixed-up place that we should all be wary about. It is a nation that was created by American arms, rebuilt by American money, protected for a half-century by American tanks and planes, and unified only through American encouragement and support — and with the danger past reelected its present government by virtue of its public anti-Americanism. That complex mélange of appreciation, resentment, and lingering guilt should preface all discussions about its present politics. If we are to deal with Germans at all, I suggest that we either ask them, and for that matter the South Koreans too, to deploy to Iraq half the number of troops that we have inside their own borders, or simply start transferring 20,000 or so U.S. soldiers out of both countries to serve as either replacement or additional contingents in Iraq.
As in the case with the U.N., we should seek mutual cooperation with Europe, we should avoid gratuitous insults and incidents, and whenever possible we should allow them to gain honor and prestige in the world. But never should we imagine that they would — or could — in any real material way help the United States.
Our real challenge is not the conduct of the war, not the money, not even the occasionally depressing news from Iraq. After all, if the problem is manpower, there are tens of thousands of idle Iraqis. If the problem is money, Iraq will shortly be a very wealthy oil-exporting country. If the problem is know-how, no one better than the United States understands how to establish a free market, democratic society.
No, it is more a psychosocial malaise, a crisis of confidence that is beginning to creep back into the national mood a mere two years after September 11, fueled by election politics. Too many of us have forgotten that we are in a global war, and that victory demands tenacity, sacrifice, and adherence to unpopular beliefs and values.
In a newspaper this week, I scanned news on Iraq and then flipped to a column written for the American homeowner. It really was a humane and thoughtful piece about saving toads — and why pool owners must leave floating objects in their chlorinated water to ensure that any unfortunate toad that scrambled in for a late-night drink might find a life raft and thus not drown in such an antiseptic soup. Such concern at a time of war for garden amphibians perhaps reflects well on our morality, but right now primordial and vicious al Qaedists, Baathists, and Islamic-fascists are not worrying about the drowning of toads in their suburban swimming pools
We are fighting with tremendous skill, at a minimum loss of lives — and in the middle of an economic slump and a raucous campaign. But the paradox remains that the very rapidity of our victories abroad and the absence of another 9/11 at home have lulled far too many into thinking that Islamic fascism and Middle East totalitarianism can be eradicated in a few months, or that a complex society like postbellum Iraq should resemble a New England township five months after a war.
Ponder instead that in a summer long ago a similarly beleaguered Abraham Lincoln did not remove Grant. Nor did he lecture Sherman about the niceties of taking Atlanta or later veto his bold ideas about cutting loose through Georgia. He did not broker a deal with Mr. Frémont on his right nor did he listen to gabby George McClellan — or consider the Copperheads anything other than defeatists whose enticing policy of appeasement would only postpone but not end the killing. And he most certainly did not ask Canada or England to broker an honest peace, or to send peacekeepers along the Mason-Dixon line.
Instead, with a treasury that was almost broke, and an electorate that was exhausted, he pushed on through the gloom of summer and found his reward in autumn.
So will we — if we do the same and push our rock over the top.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson