Jewish World Review Jan 16, 2012/ 21Teves, 5772
The use of heroes: Lee's birthday, 2012
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Let's hear it for The Usable Past. That phrase was much in vogue among historians not long ago, and may still be. Historians, too wanted to be part of the practical arts. History, we were told, isn't something to be studied for its own sake, but as a guide to current politics. A useful collection of talking points. A great warehouse of stick figures we can choose from to make our case.
The uses to which
The revisionists in their turn cannot resist using Lee, too. As a foil. As the symbol and personification of all Southern sins and hypocrisies. An icon always invites inconoclasts. The hero becomes the anti-hero, and history one of the plastic arts. For once the past becomes usable, anybody can use it for any purpose. It's the modern, flexible, pragmatic way.
Call it instrumental history; we go to the past not as students but scavengers, on the lookout for what we can find there and, sure enough, finding just what we expected. Even if we have to plant it there ourselves. It's a campaign year, and the demand for such salvage increases accordingly. "History shows ..." just what we want it to show.
The idea of the past as something complete of itself, whole and almost holy, not to be profaned for our own partisan purposes ... how quaint all that seems now. Like the laws of war in an age of terror.
The American Civil War is often hailed as the first modern war. It saw the introduction not only of new technologies -- automatic weapons, ironclad ships, submarines -- but new strategies that did away with old qualms.
William Tecumseh Sherman's total war, an innovation in 1864, became the standard of the next century. His march to the sea, destroying whatever stood in his way, also destroyed the distinction between military and civilian targets. "War is cruelty," he warned the people of
What began with the burning of
But if the American Civil War was the first modern war, it was also the last of the old, formal wars fought by a certain code of honor.
Far from a modern nationalist.
The most celebrated and dissected battle of that war remains
"The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. ... It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain."
Like all the works of man, what Lee did -- his victories and defeats -- will fade with time. Each generation is further and further removed from them. But what he was, the code he followed and embodied, that will last as long as conscience does. As long as the ever fecund past shapes us. As long as we can remember that it is not we who use the past, but it that nurtures and sustains us. Like the memory of Lee himself.
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