Slavery. There, that was easy.
States’ Rights? OK, sure… state’s rights to do what? Oh yeah, own and keep slaves. Economics? I’ll agree that was a reason as well, due to the economics of chattel slavery. The entire way of life among the Southern elites was dependent upon the exploitation of chattel slaves from African peoples. The economic and social pressures from the North threatened slavery as an institution and, by association, the power of the rich white landowners. The Northern elites were pressing their advantage in Congress to turn the South into an internal colony of the United States, and the South objected to their dwindling numbers and the inability to spread the institution of slavery to the West.
They could not spread westward because, in their way of putting it, exploiting cheap Mexican agricultural labor was cheaper than owning slaves. With secession, slavery did not have to spread to maintain political power. It also meant less political and economic power for the North, so the Civil War became an extension of USA’s imperialism. The Civil War was a war over the nature of American slavery: chattel or wage/debt?
The banks of the North made the Union victory possible by lending money to the USA in the form of a perpetual debt. We are still paying interest on that debt. Therefore, I can conclude that the banks won the Civil War, making the institution of chattel slavery a thing of the past and wage and debt slavery the law of the land.
Americans have a disturbing trait in that they do not wish to examine their history objectively. Historians are anomalies among a people that prefers hagiographers and mythologists when dealing with its past. Southerners want their historical forbears to have fought for States’ Rights. Northerners want to have their forefathers to have fought to free the slaves. This in spite of the fact that poor Southern whites themselves seceded from their own states so they would not be poor men dying in a rich man’s war and how Lincoln only freed the slaves in the areas of the nation in which he had no power to do so.
This romantic approach to the past extends to all American wars. We have to claim victory in every one of them, no matter what the reality indicates. The War of 1812 was a pointless war, fought to a draw against a distracted Britain. The Mexican War was a theft perpetrated against a weaker opponent, born of a baldfaced lie to Congress: how can we “win” in that situation? The USA lost the Civil War: I told you that the banks won that conflict. The Spanish-American war was another mugging, this time of Spain. World War One was fought to make sure France and England could pay back the massive loans they took out from US banks to buy US-made weapons, so the banks won that one, too. There’s so much mythology around World War Two that I’ll concede to anyone that the USA won it, even though I have some strong, well-formed opinions about that one.
Oh, I can’t resist. FDR was trying to get the US involved from the get-go. US escorts tried to draw the foul from German U-boats. The navy posted its fleets forward to Hawaii and the Philippines, provoking a Japan already angered over a US oil embargo. Once in, the USA demanded unconditional surrender, which hastened the Holocaust: the Nazis realized they couldn’t negotiate their way out of things, so they’d have to kill Jews and Gypsies and Poles and Russians and others that much faster, before they ran out of time. FDR didn’t even use US bombers to take out the rail lines bringing victims to those murder camps, even though they could and they knew exactly what was going on. Germany and Japan both eventually surrendered after US bombers firebombed their cities, but the Cold War began as an extension of WW2-era rivalries. I can’t say that the US won WW2, since we didn’t defeat our other main rival, the USSR.
After WW2, the USA simply didn’t bother declaring wars, so any reason behind the use of military force became a fiction. The USA did not win the Korean War: China won that one, since it secured the existence of the buffer state of North Korea. The Chinese armies succeeded in driving the US-led forces back to the 38th parallel and held their ground against US and ROK counterattacks. The Communists also won the Chinese Civil War, in spite of US backing for the Nationalist side. The USA lost Vietnam: we exited the war before the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam occurred, but not before we invaded Cambodia and caused that nation to plunge into the clutches of the Khmer Rouges. We did not achieve our goals in that war, so we lost it.
I can’t say the US won the war to liberate Kuwait since we precipitated that war by encouraging the Kuwaitis to slant-drill into Iraq and then letting Iraq know we’d not interfere if they sought punitive measures against Kuwait. That war resumed in 2003, with the goal of making Iraq into a US client state: that adventure has failed miserably and US forces remain in a nation they failed to remake in our image. There’s Afghanistan, too: nobody wins in Afghanistan, not even the Afghans. It’s not the “graveyard of empires” for nothing.
Our soldiers can fight valiantly: I do not question that at all. What I question is why they were fighting in the first place. The USA has never had a truly defensive war in its history. We rationalize and claim this just cause or that semblance of victory, but there’s really no way our nation can win in such actions. Until we are honest about our history, we cannot hope to be more sober in our use of force.
I recently saw an excellent war movie from South Korea, Tae Guk Gi. I say it is excellent because it shows all of the war and does not let any side escape scrutiny. Both sides fight bravely. Both sides commit atrocities. Both sides become confused and paranoid and, finally, reckless in their bloodshed. The victory in the film comes from the main characters’ ability to rediscover their humanity in the midst of the revolutions of blood. There is a strong honesty in that film that I find absent in American treatments of war that tend to focus more on the main characters’ struggles against a larger enemy. There are exceptions in US war movies: Saints and Soldiers, Pork Chop Hill, and Black Hawk Down, but even in those I detect some latent cheering for one side over another. While we’re ready to be honest on a personal level about the lives of the soldiers, we are not yet ready to be honest about the way in which we fight wars or in the ways in which wars have been lost in a national sense.
Which brings me back to the Civil War: both sides were pushed forward by their rich men, and it is the rich men who always seem to win wars, for they are the ones that lend the money to fight those wars. They are the ones that own the arms factories. They are the ones that sacrifice nothing and gain everything there is to gain from a war.