The lack of a Historical perspective may well prove to be the undoing of our nation. Once a people are divorced from their past they live in the Eternal Now and those who set the agenda can always change now.
The nightly newsreel rolls and we watch in fascination as our friend and ally Japan struggles to regain its bearings after nature’s devastating one-two-punch seems to have set them up for a potential nuclear knock-out. Boosting the ratings of the wall-to-wall news channels we sit for hours glued to the scenes of devastation waiting to be amazed by the most recently discovered views of water overtaking land in a world where every phone is a video camera. The destruction of this latest mega-tragedy is reminiscent of World War II after America paid back Pearl Harbor in spades and today’s situation even has an atomic twist at the end. One major difference is that this time we are all praying that our partners in the land of the rising sun won’t have to surrender.
Today America faces an economic earthquake and a social tsunami. Our leaders have spent us into the poor house. Our melting pot has become a smelting pot. Our social glue consists of eating at the same fast food restaurants and watching the same game shows. Reality shows are more popular than reality. Our President fiddles while Rome burns more concerned about b-ball brackets then about a 14 trillion dollar debt, two wars, and a world aimed at meltdown. The only event able to hold the administration’s interest is the 2012 election and their obsession to maintain their grasp on power.
The lack of a Historical perspective may well prove to be the undoing of our nation. Once a people are divorced from their past they live in the Eternal Now and those who set the agenda can always change now. The study of History not only provides context it also provides an endless number of lessons, illustrations, and warnings.
The magnitude of the calamities currently assaulting Japan cannot help but bring to mind the terrors of total war. In all our wars only one ever visited such destruction on our homeland. In the Civil War the North adopted a policy of total war to destroy the South’s will and ability to fight. After the South under a string of brilliant generals culminating in Robert E. Lee handed the Union defeat after defeat Grant and Sherman were able to convince Lincoln of the necessity of wonton destruction of civilian as well as military targets.
Flush with victory Lee launched his first invasion of the North in 1862. He marched into Maryland, a slave state which stayed loyal to the Union more because of an occupying army then because of popular sentiment. Lee’s goal was to defeat the Union Army and lead Maryland into the Confederacy thus surrounding Washington DC, probably winning foreign recognition, and possibly winning the war.
The previously invincible Army of Northern Virginia led by arguably the greatest tactician America has ever produced met General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam for the bloodiest day in American combat history. More than twice as many Americans were killed or mortally wounded at Antietam on that one day than in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.
After twelve hours of savage combat more than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. The fighting ended in a stalemate with combat stopping due to the sheer exhaustion of the armies not because one side had triumphed over the other. However, Lee and his men were at the end of a precarious line of supply through enemy territory with no hope for reinforcement and more Union forces were arriving all the time. Therefore, even though the Union sustained more casualties than the South, Lee was forced to withdraw. This was a tactical victory for the South but a strategic victory for the North opening the door for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation thus seizing the moral high ground in the war and precluding any recognition of the South by the European powers.
One year later after fresh victories at Spotsylvania Courthouse, in the Wilderness, and Chancellorsville Lee once again sought to end the war with a second invasion of the North. This time he crossed the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and marched into the heart of Pennsylvania hoping to destroy the North’s will to fight by bringing the war to them.
This time he met the Union Army under General George Meade a career officer and civil engineer. In this pivotal battle of the war the great bold tactician met the plodding bureaucrat. On the first day of the battle General Lee moved uncharacteristically slow and Meade moved uncharacteristically fast allowing the North to gain the high ground. This set the stage for the battle as the South wasted itself attacking strong positions culminating in the fruitless slaughter of Pickett’s charge. Bled white and facing a Union army that was constantly growing Lee turned around and carried the Confederacy’s last hope of victory from the field of honor.
But it didn’t have to end that way. Instead of attacking against fortified positions either uphill or over open ground Lee could have turned to the east to march towards Washington. Meade and the Union army would have had to follow him doing their best to move around him to shield the capitol. Lee could then have chosen his ground and allowed the North to waste itself against a fixed position as they had so many times before. A victory here would have left Lee with an unopposed road to Washington and possible victory.
Hindsight is 20/20 and at this distance without the hazard of battle and the gamble of combat it’s easy for an armchair general to improve upon the real life experience of one of the greatest generals in history.
What we need now is not hindsight but foresight. Domestically, America is facing the perfect storm of crushing debt, dwindling industrial capacity, high unemployment, and creeping inflation. Internationally we’re engaged in two hot wars, a desultory campaign against international terrorists, pirates on the high seas, and collapsing prestige.
Are we boldly marching towards our Gettysburg? Are we blindly relying on our past glories expecting them to propel us to future triumphs? Will we waste ourselves assailing massive debt with paltry cuts? Are we marching over open ground against the fixed positions of free trade agreements that are free in only one direction? Are we hamstringing ourselves with an energy policy designed to keep the earth green by devastating our pockets for the benefit of our enemies?
Before it’s too late we should turn and march towards victory! Stop the over spending. Renegotiate all our trade deals, and make them equitable for all sides. Put the welfare genie back in its lamp before Ali Baba and his 535 thieves pass another budget, loot the treasury, and we end up sitting in the dirt eating leaves.