Attempts to harness the moral dynamics of America's racial past to support new conservative ventures continue. The hot new thing is to compare the ongoing war in Iraq to the post-Civil War South, usually to argue that "we" shouldn't "cut and run," like those Northerners did when they gave up on Reconstruction.

For example, David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, reports on a Pentagon discussion led by Civil War historian James McPherson about parallels between reconstruction in Iraq and in the American South. Ignatius (following McPherson) draws straightforward analogies between the unrepentant white South and the Iraqi insurgency, on the one hand, and the freed slaves of the South and Iraq's Shi'a majority, on the other. The lesson, according to Ignatius, is that to withdraw from Iraq now would be the moral equivalent of the failure of Reconstruction, which condemned Southern blacks to the depradations of Jim Crow and lynching.

Ignatius's analogies are at least amusing, because of their potential to make neo-Confederates sputter; but the historian Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia provides a lengthier, more thoughtful take on the same subject in the latest New York Times Magazine. Ayers's argument, in the end, is perhaps less different from Ignatius's than I might have hoped, though he does refrain from drawing simplistic parallels or taking explicit positions on Iraq. This is how he concludes:
A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation's history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge -- and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.
I think it's fair to say that the U.S. has passed the "risk" stage in "appearing" to be a "carpetbagger nation."

One difficulty with the comparison, of course, is the vast difference between the two wars. Here's a stab at a few of the major contrasts:

1) Unlike the Confederacy, Iraq was a sovereign country before the war started, with languages, cultures, and predominant religions that differed significantly from those of the United States.

2) The invasion of Iraq was very much a war of choice, engaged in despite the opposition of most of the world; attempts to paint it as a defensive or preemptive war of necessity turned out to be based on lies.

3) White Southerners and Northerners shared strong familial and cultural ties, and were almost immediately able to reconcile on the basis of their common whiteness.

4) The social and cultural differences between Iraq and its occupier are far greater than differences between North and South during the U.S. Reconstruction (no matter what Southerners or Yankees might say).

5) Unlike Saddam Hussein, who possessed virtually no ability to project his power beyond Iraq's borders (or even into northern and, in some cases, southern Iraq), the slaveocracy was in fact a malignant and growing force, attempting to spread into the west, upper Midwest, and even the Caribbean; the slave states maintained disproportionate power in Congress, and extended their system into the free states via the Fugitive Slave Act.

6) As oppressive as the Baathist regime was, there was no real equivalent in Iraq to the human exploitation, degradation, and suffering caused by American slavery, though one could argue that American moral culpability was similar to that of the North for slavery, due to U.S. support for Iraq in the 1980s.

Let me quote another passage from Ayers's essay, which is instructive for anybody interested in Southern myths of white victimhood and the "Lost Cause," and how these have seeped into the national consciousness at large:

As Americans try to understand our role in the world, we seldom turn for instruction to our own history of Reconstruction of the South in the 1860s and 1870s. That is partly because the South is hardly a foreign country and partly because "Gone With the Wind" and other popular stories have told us that Reconstruction was a horrible mistake, a misguided, hypocritical and deluded effort by zealots to force an unnatural order on a helpless South. Modern historians have exploded that story but agree that Reconstruction failed to deliver on its promises, abandoning African-Americans to poverty, lynching and segregation.


White Southerners, unrepentant after their military defeat, treated their conquerors with contempt. They unleashed riots in Memphis and New Orleans, created the Ku Klux Klan and enacted legal codes that reinscribed as much slavery as possible. White Southern resistance, in turn, provided the fuel and the rationale for Radical Reconstruction, which began in the spring of 1867 and sought to recast the political and social order of the defeated South through direct military control, free elections and state-sponsored economic development. Those who cooperated with the Republicans found themselves denounced in the South as "scalawags"; those who came from the North to help rebuild the South were sneered at as greedy "carpetbaggers."

Most white Southerners never accepted the legitimacy of Reconstruction. They crushed black voting and other freedoms through violence, terrorism and fraud. When Reconstruction was driven from the South 12 years after it began, the white Southern majority rejoiced that true law, true justice, had returned. Confederate soldiers were lionized and a culture of defiance flourished. Over the next half-century the white South waged, and won, a propaganda war over the meaning of Reconstruction.