Tuesday, July 30, 2013

World War II in the South Pacific

The next book I am going to read is Islands of Destiny:  The Solomon Islands Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Son, by John Prado.   My son is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed near the Solomon Islands, and while I have read some World War II history, I realized that most of what I know about the area where he is stationed comes from South Pacific and McHale's Navy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Slavery Wasn't Really So Bad After All

For the first time in many years, I am commuting to work by train again. This not only means that I get more opportunity to read books, but I finish more of the books I read. When I get bored or annoyed with a book at home, I put it down and pick up something else. While commuting, however, I'm stuck with a book at least for an hour or so. One book that I might not have otherwise finished is A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming.

Fleming's thesis is that the Civil War resulted from the fact that Northerners and Southerners hated each other and had since the founding of the republic. Fleming acknowledges that slavery was wrong, but not nearly as bad as it was made out to be by northern abolitionists. Had it not been for the unnecessarily confrontational tactics of the likes of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, Fleming thinks that southerners would have found it in their hearts to let slavery fade away as the founders eventually expected that it would.

The first point at which I was tempted to quit reading was in the introduction when Fleming started posing rhetorical questions. Noting that Britain, Brazil, and Cuba had eliminated slavery without going to war, he asked "Why were the Americans, with a government designed to respond to the voiceor voicesof the people, compelled to resort to such awful carnage?" Observing that only a small proportion of southerners owned slave, he queried "Why did the vast majority of the white population unite behind the slaveholders in this fratricidal war? Why did they sacrifice over 300,000 of their sons to preserve an institution in which they apparently had no stake?"

Interesting questions to be sure, but I found myself wanting to say "You know. I think there have might have been a book or two written on the topic.  Have you read any of them?" You might think that Fleming would compare his new understanding to some of the older understandings, but he never seems to acknowledge that any other historians have even thought about the issues. Nor does he devote much time to examining how other countries eliminated slavery peacefully. After the introduction, Cuba and Brazil are never mentioned again.

The book starts our with a chapter vilifying John Brown as a murderous crackpot, which is, I suppose, a tenable position. It made me wonder whether, if I had lived at the time, I wouldn't have found radical abolitionists to be as obnoxious as I find radical pro-lifers to be today. Like those pro-lifers who don't care what happens to a baby after it's born, many of the abolitionists seemed to have little interest in what would happen to the slaves after they were freed.

Where the book really started losing me though was when Fleming discussed the nasty accusations that abolitionists hurled at slave owners, such as the charge that slave owners routinely forced themselves on female slaves:
Did the campaign of slander about the South's sexual exploitation of its slaves have any basis in fact? The mulatto population of the South as recorded in the censuses of 1850 and 1860 suggests a rather low rate of miscegenation. In the nation as a whole, the census takers of 1850 counted 406,000 "visibly mulatto" people out of a black population of 3,639,000, which is 11.2 percent of the total. About 350,000 mulattoes lived south of the Mason-Dixon.

The figures make it clear that there was considerable amount of sexual activity between the two races, even if it was a long way from meriting the term "unrestrained lust."
Really? It's not clear to me at all that the lust was restrained. If the census counted the "visibly mulatto," that clearly implies that many were uncounted because their mixed racial heritage was not obvious. Why should I believe that the "visibly mulatto" provide an accurate measure of slave exploitation? When you consider that only 6% of whites owned slaves, you wind up with more mulattoes than owners even if you only count the "visible" ones. Moreover, when you look at the even smaller portion of whites who owned twenty or more slaves, you start getting ratios of two to three mulattoes per owner.

In trying to make some sense of the numbers, I found that between the 1850 census and the 1860 census, the number of visibly mulatto slaves increased from 247,000 to 412,000, a 67% increase. This might suggest a real frenzy of slaveholder debauchery. On the other hand, it might just mean that spotting mixed race heritage was not a precise science. Either way, it suggests that the raw number of visibly mulatto people in 1850 isn't particularly helpful in determining the extent to which slaves were sexually exploited. Fleming's tactic is basically the same one that Christian apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell use, i.e., cherry pick the statistic or anecdote that most favors your argument and present it as if it settles the question.

I think the point at which the book most wanted to make me puke was when Fleming described Robert E. Lee's decision to turn down command of the Union Army before resigning and going south to serve the Confederacy.
As Robert E. Lee sat there trying to absorb this astounding offer, what did he think and feel? What did he remember? Almost certainly his first thought was John Brown. That madman's rant about the sin of slavery and the blood that was required to wash it away, the pikes he had been prepared to put into the hands of slaves, weapons that might have been thrust into the bodies of Lee's daughters and wife, the letters in Brown's carpetbag linking him to northern backers. Could Lee invade Virginia or any southern state at the head of an army composed of men who believed John Brown was as divine as Jesus Christ? How would the orders of a southern-born general, a slave owner thanks to his wife, restrain such men?

Next perhaps came the memory of the way the abolitionists had smeared him in their newspapers in 1859accused him of stripping a young black woman and personally lashing her. Did he want to fight for a government that had been elected, in part at least, by these fanatics? What would prevent them from smearing him all over again if he lost a battle or even a skirmish? The thought of their righteous arrogance filled him with loathing.

Finally might have come the distant but still terrible memory of the way Nat Turner and his army of maddened black men had slaughtered men, women, and children only a few miles from Fortress Monroe. Would that happen again if his northern army routed the South's soldiers? Would there be timeseven for a few hourswhen slaves ran wild that way.

No. No. No. That was the word that whispered in Robert E. Lee's soul. He could never undertake such a task.
What unadulterated crap.  The eighty-five year old Fleming clearly watched too many movies like Santa Fe Trail in his youth where Errol Flynn plays a young Lieutenant Jeb Stuart encountering John Brown in Kansas.  Naturally, the southern-born slave-owning Stuart is the only one who really understands and cares about the black people that Raymond Massey's Brown is cynically exploiting, and the blacks are grateful for his attentions. Throw in Ronald Reagan as Stuart's West Point classmate George Armstrong Custer (despite the fact that Custer was actually seven years behind Stuart) and you have the typical Hollywood version of history, i.e., never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Perhaps Fleming doesn't know that one of the most successful and most respected generals of the Civil War was George Thomas. Thomas's memories of Nat Turner's slave rebellion would have been even more vivid than Lee's as he, his sisters, and his widowed mother had been forced to flee from their home and hide in the woods in 1831. Nevertheless, the Virginian Thomas remained loyal to the Union and was universally respected by the officers and men who served under him.

I was not familiar with Fleming's work before I picked up this book at the library, but he has apparently written a number of books like this that challenge conventional interpretations of American history with the upshot usually being that the problems were the fault of liberals. While I think it is important for me to read books written from a conservative perspective in order to test and challenge my views, Fleming's sloppy methodology gives me little confidence in anything he has to say. His concepts of noble southerners and crazed abolitionists are more reactionary than revisionist.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mystic Chords of Memory

Having recently had my comments blocked by a Christian who took exception to my characterization of one of his sources as a hack apologist rather than a real historian, it was interesting to read a book that illustrates just how difficult the practice of history can be.  In Misplaced Massacre:  Struggling with the Memory of Sand Creek, Ari Kelman explores the November 1864 encounter between  a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahos in eastern Colorado and 650 troops led by Colonel John Chivington, as well as the varying interpretations of the event offered up until the present.

Most of the book deals with efforts of the National Park Service to balance competing interests and viewpoints as it sought to establish the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2005.  There were many to deal with, including representatives of four tribes, the first native American U.S. Senator, land owners, the local populace, state officials, historians, archeologists, and cranks who viewed the memorial as political correctness run amok.

The first major issue to be resolved was whether the encounter was a battle or a massacre.   Military experts and historians agreed fairly early on that "massacre" best described the attack on peaceful Indians who had been promised protection by Colonel Chivington if they camped near Fort Lyons.   However, the State of Colorado never quite gave up on the notion that it was a fair fight.  Towns and buildings were named after the white participants and memorials were erected commemorating the Battle of Sand Creek.  Coloradans liked to think of their ancestors as fearlessly conquering the wilderness, not wantonly slaughtering its inhabitants.

The second major issue was the exact location where the encounter took place.  This might seem to be a straight forward question of fact, but it turned out not to be.  The spot where the massacre was always thought to have taken place was supported my a map drawn by one of the Cheyenne survivors several decades after the battle.  Contemporary Cheyenne had treated it as a sacred place.   Unfortunately, the ground at that site did not contain the kind of artifacts of battle that it could have been expected to have contained.

Having been burned in the past for misplacing a historic site, the National Park Service was reluctant to move forward without confirming where the massacre had taken place.  As it turned out, the artifacts of battle were found about a mile north of the traditional site.  Although finding the right spot made the NPS happy, many of the tribal representatives took the rejection of the traditional site as an insult to their cultural memory and history (not all though--the representatives of the Northern Arapahoes seemed to accept the empirical evidence).  This led to a lot of cultural friction. My main takeaway from the book is the confirmation that politics has a huge influence over how history gets told.

I think that this is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in how history really gets written.  It was a little difficult to keep the cast of characters straight and I wish the maps had been a little clearer about the property lines so I could tell which parts of the massacre took part on which of the modern ranches.  Those quibbles aside, it was an interesting read.

There was one ironic point which the author never mentioned but which amused me to no end.  In consideration of his conservative Republican constituents who distrusted the federal government, the Colorado senator who proposed the legislation establishing the site insisted that no land would be acquired by eminent domain.  The National Park Service could only buy land from willing sellers. After all, the last thing that any Coloradan would want to be a part of would be the federal government forcibly dispossessing people of their land.  It's not like the only reason Colonel Chivington had ridden in the first place was that the governor of the territory begged the federal government to take care of an Indian problem that the settlers couldn't handle themselves.  I'm always amused by anti-government libertarians who don't see the role that the government played in their acquisition of property.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th?

I must confess that I am not feeling terribly patriotic today having just finished Nick Turse's Kill Anything that Moves:  The Real American War in Vietnam.  The book makes a persuasive case that the My Lai Massacre was not an aberration, but simply one egregious example of the kind of atrocity that occurred with regularity in a war where American commanders made "body count" the only performance standard.  Consider for example Operation Speedy Express which ran from December 1968 through May 1969, where the 9th Infantry Division reported killing 10,899 enemy troops, but only recovered 748 weapons.  During one week in April 1969, the division reported killing 699 guerrillas while losing only one man and capturing only nine weapons.  The book is well sourced and well written, but hard to get through.

For someone who would like to understand the Vietnam War better, but is not eager to slog through 260 pages of America's war crimes, I would recommend Fredrik Logeval's Pulitzer Prize winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam.  The book deals with France's ill-fated attempt to reestablish its empire in Indochina after World War II, which America backed in order to assure French support in the developing Cold War in Europe.  The book makes clear just how fucked up the situation in Vietnam was long before the United States decided to put troops on the ground and why it was so unlikely that things would ever turn out any better than they did.

Whenever I go to the library, I browse through the new non-fiction section and grab whatever I think might be interesting.  By coincidence, the other book I grabbed last week also concerned the U.S. Army behaving badly; this time in Colorado in 1864.  In A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, Ari Kelman examines the various ways that America and Americans have coped with the memory of one particularly troubling incident from the time it occurred through the dedication of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.  I'm just getting started on that one though.