Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Civil War Thoughts

”If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas out and live in hell.”

Those are the words of Philip H. Sheridan, a prominent Union general in the Civil War. After the war he was in command of Army forces in Texas. That’s when he made the remark, which got around and led to his transfer. I thought I would share it, given that Texas seems to be the fount of the runaway corruption that now dominates our national politics.

I ran across that quotation in With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War. If you’re a Civil War buff, I recommend it.

I read a lot of military history. It fascinates me, though I don’t really know why. Though I’m not a pacifist, I’m pretty damn close. I don’t think there are many wars that need to be fought and, even when a country fights a so-called just war, it invariably turns into an imperial venture. For example, one could make the argument that World War Two had to be fought to stop Hitler. However, the American ruling class entered that war to secure a position as the world’s dominant economic and political power. In that they succeeded.

Perhaps my fascination with military history comes from the fact that I pretty much grew up on Air Force bases, but there is more to it than that. War is the one activity in which everything is on the line. You live or you die. You win or you lose. That said, I would be only too happy if we humans were to pass into a future free of war. If the Christians want their Armageddon, let’s build them a theme park where they can go and live the experience. I’ll bet the Disney folks could do a great simulation of Jesus descending on a cloud in his second coming.

The American Civil War is one of the more intriguing conflicts. One thing I find interesting is the number of prominent generals who were, in one way or another failures, only to emerge as successful officers. There was, of course, Grant, who was reputedly a drunk and a failure at every business enterprise he attempted. Sherman had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the war only to bounce back and play what was possibly the most critical leadership role in the war. On the Confederate side, there was Stonewall Jackson, a promising young officer in the Mexican war, who ended up teaching tactics and natural philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute. He was a horrible professor who would memorize the texts and then parrot them back in his classes. If a student interrupted with a question, he would back up to the beginning of the previous paragraph and continue.

One thing all of these generals had in common was that their uncompromising individualism. Each spoke the truth as he saw it, and did things his own way. In spite of the supposed American individualism, that’s a prescription for failure. Kissing butt and telling your superiors what they want to hear is the way you move up in the world. It’s unfortunate but true, and it is only when everything is on the line, and things just might fall apart, that the truly talented individuals come to the fore, because they’re the ones who can get things done.


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