Updated: 5/16/2006; 3:24:50 PM.

Current events
Post-9-11 events and analyses

daily link  Monday, May 09, 2005

What the American Civil War can inform us about Iraq: An American Army conference draws parallels:  "The Civil War, like the invasion of Iraq, was a war of transformation where the victors hoped to reshape the political culture of the vanquished. But as McPherson tells the story, reconstruction posed severe and unexpected tests: The occupying Union army was harassed by an insurgency that fused die-hard remnants of the old plantation power structure with irregular guerrillas. The Union was as unprepared for this struggle as was the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003. The army of occupation was too small, and its local allies were often corrupt and disorganized.

Reconstruction suffered partly because of a mismatch between a transformational strategy and haphazard tactics. Northern radicals like Representative Thaddeus Stevens wanted to break the old slaveholding aristocracy and remake the South into a version of New England, with former slaves and poor whites dividing up the plantations. But only weeks after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson was moving to protect the privileges of the old regime. ..

For a time, it still seemed that reconstruction might work. "In 1870, things looked pretty good - if not rosy, at least optimistic," says McPherson, who won a Pulitzer for his 1988 narrative, "Battle Cry of Freedom." A black man was serving in the U.S. Senate and Northerners were investing in what they believed would be a new South.  But the insurgency was potent and took more than 1,000 lives. Along with the Ku Klux Klan, there were underground groups such as "The White Brotherhood" and "The Knights of the White Camellia," determined to preserve the old regime's power. White insurgents staged bloody riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. The rebels also drew support from the remnants of irregular Confederate units such as Quantrill's Raiders, which spawned the outlaws Frank and Jesse James. "It was a matrix of lawlessness," says Oregon law professor Garrett Epps, who chronicles the period in a forthcoming book, "Second Founding."

The poison that destroyed Reconstruction was racial hatred. The white elite managed to convince poor whites that newly freed blacks were their enemies, rather than potential allies. There's an obvious analogy to the Sunni-Shiite divide that has poisoned postwar Iraq. In the South, the die-hard whites began to believe that if they held tough, the North would eventually abandon the campaign to create a new, multiracial South. And it turned out they were right.  By 1877, says McPherson, the North essentially gave up. ..

What lessons does this dismal history convey for American forces in Iraq? First, what you do immediately after the end of hostilities is crucial, and mistakes made then may be impossible to undo. Don't attempt a wholesale transformation of another society unless you have the troops and political will to impose it. Above all, don't let racial or religious hatred destroy democratic political institutions as in the post-bellum South."

  9:20:51 AM  permalink  

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Copyright 2006 © Ken Novak.
Last update: 5/16/2006; 3:24:50 PM.