|R.E. Lee statue (WTOP image)|
Had there been a grand vision for a new nation, Southern interests would have promoted a more powerful central government to make it happen. Decentralized government was what the South articulated. But that sure won't win you a war. It's hard enough to win a war with a coordinated central effort. Did the Confederacy ever have a real sense of its borders? The Mason-Dixon line was just a straight horizontal line.
Literary minds have speculated on the South "winning." Articles and books have fallen into the "alternate history" vein which is the sort of thing that appeals to sci-fi buffs. It endlessly taps the imagination. What if Napoleon conquered Russia?
I would suggest that the genre could also apply to Hollywood. What if Shirley Temple and not Judy Garland had been cast in "The Wizard of Oz?" What if Rod Steiger and not George C. Scott had been cast in "Patton?" Steiger was offered the role. His stock had risen in the classic "In the Heat of the Night" with Sidney Poitier. Steiger declined, based on the political tenor of the times. The Viet Nam war had left a big chunk of America vigorously opposed to war. Steiger decided the movie "Patton" would glorify war.
So how did "Patton" turn out? Aside from being artistically and commercially successful, it was a movie that didn't really make a statement about war in general. Patton in reality was a controversial figure. His surviving family was poised to take action against the movie because of a suspicion that it would promote contentiousness with the general's memory. But the family was pleased. The movie was about America and a love of simply winning, two things that are quite intertwined. The war was long over as of 1970. It would have been beating a dead horse to resurrect any controversies. And there were definite bitter controversies. "Ike" Eisenhower was so incensed about the movie "The Battle of the Bulge" (with Henry Fonda), he called a press conference.
Taking Iwo Jima, specifically the steep price paid, was controversial. "Island-hopping" in general was a sore spot in the American psyche. The taking of Tarawa, again with such a huge price paid, brought demands to fire an admiral. Many parents across America were embittered permanently about losing their sons in World War II, even though the meme grew that this war was grand and glorious, a triumph over tyranny. Those parents weren't much inclined to attend Memorial Day programs and hear sanctimonious speeches by guys wearing funny hats.
Even "the good war" like WWII was nothing but hell. Think of the hand-to-hand combat scenes in "Saving Private Ryan." The Ryan movie has become a definitive one about WWII. Cable TV channels run it a lot. Didn't the young Ryan defy an order by not agreeing to be taken away by the Tom Hanks character and his comrades? Had he agreed to that, would the endearing Hanks character have survived and been able to go home to his family? There'd be no need for that scene at the end where the older Ryan weeps at graveside.
History is full of wars with blood and death. It's ironic we seek entertainment at the movie theater about them.
We don't see movies with Civil War combat in them much anymore. Interesting. Is it because Hollywood is stepping lightly with its relationship with the Deep South states? The movie "Gettysburg" (with Jeff Daniels) had a sequel that seemed to back off from the assumption that the Union was on the morally higher ground. "Gods and Generals" wanted us to understand where the South was coming from. A black woman answers the door in Fredericksburg. The Union soldier at the door says "is this your master's house?" There's a pause and then she says "this is my house." General Jackson gives a lecture where he talks about Northern leaders being able to fall back on their profiteering interests after the war. Hint: the Southern people were more noble.
The "alt right" demonstrators in Charlottesville VA would like the movie "Gods and Generals." Maybe that movie killed off the Civil War genre of movies. Viewing the South as being morally equivalent to the North is a lie and people can see that.
Alternate history books can be fascinating. I read one once that had the Army of the Potomac wiping out the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the end of the battle of Gettysburg. Such a story seems plausible. But one problem: it didn't happen. Why? It's so easy to apply hindsight. Maybe General Meade felt that the three days of fighting were so horrific and bloody, restraint was needed or else the morale of the army might suffer irreparably. The soldiers on the battlefield were not like pawns on a chessboard. They are human beings.
Think of the most depressing Viet Nam war movie you have ever seen. Such a movie may well have not gone far enough. Has any movie really gotten into the phenomenon of "fragging?" This is where soldiers would kill their own superiors, often with a fragmentation grenade. Sometimes a grenade would be left on a bed as a threat. We are learning that the U.S. had no choice but to leave Viet Nam when it did, precisely because "fragging" was happening often and could not be accepted.
I wonder if any veterans who committed fragging actually show up at Memorial Day programs. Why not? Veterans get treated as heroes at such events. Just wear that little hat.
War is simply hell. The battles do not follow the logical lines that are presented in movies. Andy Rooney once made this point. He was there in the mess of World War II. And that's what it was, he said: a mess. Books written by generals make battles seem more organized than they were. The reason battles seem a mess is that both sides employ deception. Both sides are good at it. What a depressing science.
Could the South have won the Civil War? My answer is an absolute "no." George Will wrote that it's simple to understand why the Union won. It simply killed all the Confederates.
Addendum: Here's a little more follow-up on "Saving Private Ryan." Did the American side really make the best decisions in that confrontation with Germans in that little town? We see the "tank buster" airplanes arriving like cavalry at the end. Did the U.S. troops know those planes were on the way? Maybe they should have re-deployed away from that bombed-out town and given some time for the planes to arrive. The planes could have taken out the German tanks and perhaps done even more damage. But instead we got those scenes that were right out of the old "Combat!" TV show with Vic Morrow. Or, right out of the "Sergeant Rock" comic book series where the machine guns made "rat-tat-tat" sounds.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - email@example.com