Sunday, March 24, 2013


One morning in the late 1960s, my mother was sitting on the steps of a courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina. She was looking in the direction of the state capitol building, at the dome that rises above the pine trees, and noticed three flags flying on the pole. On top was the Stars and Stripes, then came the South Carolina state flag, all indigo except for a white palmetto tree and a crescent moon, and a flag she'd never seen before at the bottom. She asked a policeman standing nearby her what the flag was and what it stood for.

"That's the Stars and Bars, ma'am," the policeman told her. When he noticed that this wasn't enough of an explanation for my mother, he added: "It's the Confederate flag - the flag of the South from the War Between the States."

"You mean, the Civil War?" my mother asked. The policeman smiled and asked her if she was from the South.

"Oh, no," she assured him. "I'm from Ohio." She waited a moment and then, still puzzled by the presence of the flag atop the State House, said to the policeman, "But that was a hundred years ago. The South lost - the war's over."

The policeman shook his head and insisted, "No ma'am. It ain't!"

In his essay in The New Republic, “The Lost Cause and the Won Cause: Abraham Lincoln in politics and the movies.”(1) Sean Wilentz writes of how the American Civil War has been sentimentalized or downright distorted in American films by people who have tried to portray the conflict as a "war between the states," over nothing more than states' rights, and not a fight over the abolition of slavery, one of the original sins of the United States. For Wilentz, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a great film that is a direct rebuke to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, made nearly a century before it, and which introduced to the motion picture medium the calculatedly (and grotesquely) false picture of a Civil War between either morally equal parties or one industrially superior side over another whose failure was simply to have been economically disadvantaged (all that unskilled labor, you see).

I attacked The Birth of a Nation more than three years ago for its stubborn refusal to go away. The case for the movie as a motion picture landmark is secure, but its content is compromised by its distortions of both history and morality in the portrayal of a "heroic" antebellum South filled with cheerful slaves and save owners cavorting in a bucolic paradise, destroyed by the greed and envy of Yankees. The heroes of Griffith's movie are the Ku Klux Klan, riding to the rescue in the film's last reel. Like Leni Riefenstahl's hymn to Nazism, Triumph of the Will, no one would think of screening The Birth of a Nation without grave disclaimers.

The Greeks were the first to extend nobility to their enemies, not just in their poetry and drama, but in their histories. In The Iliad, Homer presents the Trojans as so noble in in their destruction that the Romans made one of them, Aeneas, their national founder. (Not to be outdone, Geoffrey of Monmouth named a descendant of Aeneas, Brutus, as the founder of Britain.) But the Trojan War wasn't fought over one side's right to buy and sell slaves.

In 2003, and otherwise misguided and mediocre movie, Gods and Generals, was released to almost universal disfavor. 219 minutes long in its theatrical release (a director's cut runs to 280), its attempts to tell the story of the Civil War largely from the perspective of two generals - Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, played by Stephen Lang, and Joshua Thomas Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels. In its attempt to represent the war in a "balanced" manner, it inadvertently reminded me of the German film Stalingrad, which concentrated on the Wehrmacht's decidedly unheroic fate in the battle. While it was somewhat interesting to see the battle from the German perspective, I was a little puzzled by the motives behind its making. Of course, those motives would've been far more questionable had the film been about a decisive German victory. But what it unintentionally accomplished was to romanticize the "lost cause" of Stalingrad.

If the cause for which any soldier gives up his life is wrong, as wrong as the South's insistence on preserving and expanding slavery, then is his sacrifice futile? I think we can accept the honor of an ordinary soldier dying in combat, even when the strategic goals of his commanders are dishonorable. But how much distance is there between a Wehrmacht soldier fighting in Stalingrad and an SS guard at Auschwitz?

Another problem with trying to represent a war as a conflict among equals, as Gods and Generals does so pointedly (even the colors of the uniforms - which one would expect to be blue - Union - or grey - Confederate - are mixed up) is that it wants us to accept the notion that it doesn't really matter who wins. This is actually the view of pacifists, that war itself is evil but that fighting requires taking sides when, in war, neither side is in sole possession of good or evil.

The purpose, I gather, behind Gods and Generals, was to portray the American Civil War as a bloody conflict among neighbors or even brothers - states, whole communities committing themselves to one another's destruction. What the approach tries to obscure is the reason for the war, and, crucially, the right side and the wrong side. (2)

This is not only historically muddled, since the winning or losing of a battle has immediate and far reaching consequences. It is morally muddled as well. Sure, history is written by the winners, but there is also something we must cling to called objective truth, which neither absolute victory or defeat in war can obliterate. It is despite - not because of - the North's victory over the South that makes it shockingly clear that the South was fighting for, not a "lost" cause, but an immoral cause. I think it's fairly safe to believe that the world is a better place because Nazi Germany and the Confederacy lost.

Gods and Generals might have been more favorably received, I think, if it hadn't tried to tell the whole story along parallel lines. Clint Eastwood actually accomplished what Gods and Generals intended to do: presenting a war (or, in this case, a significant battle) from the unbiased perspective of both sides. Eastwood's success was due to his surprising decision - for a director in his mid-70s - to tell both sides of the story separately, in two quite different films instead of using the tired technique, à la Tora! Tora! Tora!, of intercutting scenes of Americans and Japanese characters on either side of the battle. As Stanley Kauffmann observed, "To my knowledge no previous set of pictures [Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima] showed both sides of a conflict: war as the collision of two humanized groups, each group trained to kill the other group."(3)

A day may come, a few centuries hence, when the American Civil War can be looked at dispassionately, like Hastings or Agincourt. It is partly because, 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since the Civil Rights movement, we can still see the effects of the war's outcome all around us. Perhaps when we can finally agree about the real purpose of the war (once and for all, it was Lincoln's refusal to permit the expansion of slavery to new territories that provoked Southern secession), and get over its outcome (which was a "more perfect union"), these old wounds can finally begin to heal.

Postcript: In one scene from Gods and Monsters the action of a brilliant American short film called A Time Out of War (1954), directed by Denis Sanders, is "borrowed". To my knowledge, the borrowing went uncredited.

(1) The New Republic, December 31, 2012.
(2) If only Gods and Generals were a halfway decent movie, its questionable political agenda might've been more compelling, if not convincing.
(3) The New Republic, January 29, 2007.

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