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June 21, 2004

Mr. Lincoln and Iraq

Joe Volz

My Worman's Mill friend, Harvey Alter, a distinguished Frederick scholar who among other things leads vigorous neighborhood discussions on Great Issues, has weighed in on the Iraq war in an intriguing letter in The Frederick News-Post (June 7).

Harvey compares our Civil War with Iraq's Civil War. Of course, in our case back in the 1860s, there was no foreign occupying force in the U.S. as there now is in Iraq.

Harvey notes, thankfully, that Abe Lincoln did not abandon his adamant insistence on the Confederacy's unconditional surrender. Horace Greeley, the famed New York Herald editor, and later a Democratic candidate for President, wanted Mr. Lincoln to negotiate.

If Mr. Lincoln had weakened, Harvey could very well imagine that slavery would have continued for years and the Union would have dissolved, possibly into many countries.

So we fought on.

What a terrible price the young men of the nation paid to preserve that Union. More than 140,000 Union soldiers and 84,000 Confederate troops died on the battlefields in that four-year war. Right down the road at Antietam, more soldiers died in one day in 1862 than in any other day of fighting on American soil. Antietam Creek ran red with the blood of the dying.

Harvey tries to compare then with now, noting Santanya's favorite line that "we must remember the lessons of history or we will be doomed to repeat them."

Yet, Harvey then issues a disclaimer that "our hindsight of 1864 is of little value for foresight 140 years later." I agree with him.

But since Harvey ignores his own disclaimer and then attempts to make comparisons to the past, I will, too.

Harvey says that if we withdraw from Iraq it would be a sign of weakness and could lead to more terrorist attacks in the United States. Civil war would wrack Iraq and the U.S. would be called back by the U.N. to quell the fratricide.

Sort of like what might have happened here if President Lincoln had negotiated with the South. Of course, there was no U.N. to worry about then or an international terrorist movement.

Harvey contends "We must learn from (Mr.) Lincoln in keeping the course."

Well, there are other things we can learn from Mr. Lincoln, too.

For one thing, Mr. Lincoln was not always for staying the course in war. Not at all. As a Republican congressman, he adamantly opposed the Mexican War under the leadership of a Democrat, President James Knox Polk. Congressman Lincoln insisted that President Polk had violated the Constitution.

In the Civil War, Democrats said that Mr. Lincoln, himself, acted unconstitutionally when he suspended the writ of habeas corpus and the Lincoln Administration made over 13,000 arbitrary arrests.

Perhaps, history is prologue here, though. Sounds a bit like Mr. Bush's Patriot Act, doesn't it?

But is our Civil War really a good way to understand Iraq's Civil War?

I doubt it.

We are attempting to impose our democratic way of government on a country which doesn't seem to have that much of a lust for it. Three distinct groups, the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites have been battling each other long before we arrived on our crusade for freedom and democracy and will continue fighting long after we leave.

It would be nice to think that the Iraqis will embrace our brand of secular democracy, but it is more likely that Iraq's next permanent government will be a theocracy, modeled on the Iranian government. We may not like it but what do we do about it? Invade Iran next?

In the meantime, we have probably been the greatest recruiting tool the terrorists could have. By most accounts, the number of young terrorists in the Mideast, and perhaps around the world, has risen markedly since our invasion of Iraq.

The Iraqis, who have no experience with democratic institutions, can be excused if they are confused about how our brand of freedom works. We have installed what Ralph Nader calls a "puppet government," backed by our troops, shut down a newspaper or two, and raided or attacked Iraqi leaders who oppose us. Now, that is not even considering the still burgeoning scandal of what we have done, in the name of freedom, to prisoners.

In fact, if we want to invoke the lessons of American history, you might say we are acting worse than British troops did when they occupied our country 225 years ago.

What would Mr. Lincoln have done is this war?

He would have made better speeches, for sure, than Mr. Bush does. I doubt that "Honest Abe" would have foisted the "weapons of mass destruction" argument on us as a reason for invading.

However, he certainly would have emphasized the cruelty of Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime.

My guess is that he would not have gotten us into this foreign conflict to begin with. He might even have declared it was unconstitutional for a President to run a war without Congress voting on a declaration of war.

But once in it, he might have done the same thing that another great Republican, Sen. George Aiken of Vermont, suggested during the Vietnam War.

"Let's declare victory and go home," said Senator Aiken.

Richard Nixon eventually did send the troops home but not before many more Americans - and Vietnamese -- died. We lost 50,000 in Vietnam, many more than in Iraq but far less than in the Civil War.

Is it not time to completely turn Iraq over to the Iraqis and go home? Perhaps Iraq will break up into several countries after a Civil War. Perhaps it should break up. How much do the Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites have in common?

After all, it was a British cartographer who created an artificial Iraq to begin with.

Yes, there are many lessons to be learned from history and from Mr. Lincoln.

But any conclusion that we should stay the course in Iraq is not one of them. At least that is the way it looks to me as I sit on my back porch in Frederick and listen to the ghosts of Antietam and Monocacy - and Gettysburg.

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