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Memorial Day Is A Reminder That War is Foolish

Arlington National Cemetery DoD Photo

Memorial Day offers an annual remembrance of courage and sacrifice.  As well as the all-too-frequent foolish and counterproductive effusion of American blood.

Few of the conflicts were as tragic or unnecessary as the American Civil War.  In 1861 mystic nationalism combined with practical politics to impel President Abraham Lincoln to call out northern troops to coerce southern residents to remain in the Union.  Abolition only became a war measure as the conflict proceeded.

While the conflict out west remained one of maneuver 150 years ago, in the east Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac battered their way past successive confederate defensive positions at huge cost.  For instance, the battle of the Wilderness, from May 5 to 7, caused almost 30,000 casualties.

Although Grant suffered much more heavily than Lee, he moved forward.  That resulted in the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which ran through May 21st.  Fighting was even more savage at times, with a similar 30,000 toll.

The armies moved again, ever closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond.  On May 23 Lee entrenched, creating an inverted V defensive line anchored to the North Anna River.  As a result, he could easily reinforce his own forces while Grant had to split his army, leaving both wings vulnerable to a concentrated strike by the Army of Northern Virginia.

However, Lee was sick with an intestinal illness, unable to command.  From his bed he murmured:  “we must strike them a blow,” but he could not order it done.

A victory for Lee might have forced Grant to retreat, giving the Confederacy some time to recover.  But no attack came and on May 26 Grant moved again, leading to one of his worst defeats, at Cold Harbor.

On June 3 Grant suffered around 7000 casualties in just a few minutes when assaulting Lee’s nearly impregnable position.  The night before the attack pessimistic northern soldiers pinned pieces of paper with their names to their jackets to identify their corpses after the attack.

The campaign then moved on toward Richmond and became a siege of Petersburg, to the capital’s south.  Lee finally surrendered in April 1865.  The war soon ended.

The country was again unified, but at the cost of 620,000 or more dead, tens of thousands maimed, vast wealth squandered, and much of the southern states devastated.  The federal government had been vastly and dangerously strengthened.

The one indisputable benefit was the end of slavery.  However, the satisfaction of having ended the horrid practice was tempered by the fact that only one other country uprooted slavery through violence:  Haiti.  Every other slave society peacefully abolished the practice.  War likely was not necessary to eliminate this great evil from America.

If not abolition, then for what was the war fought?  What justifies killing those seeking to leave a political community?

Many Americans who supported the Union opposed coercion.  For instance, Col. Robert E. Lee, offered command of the North’s armies, observed when his home state of Virginia chose to secede:  "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. ...  Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets … has no charm for me."

Moreover, while slavery impelled the seven inner-southern states to leave the union, the outer four, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, acted only after President Lincoln called on them to provide troops to invade their neighbors.  Most southern unionists then backed secession.

Unfortunately, many people in both sections gaily went off to war believing there would be little bloodshed.  After the carnage of the Wilderness campaign, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts observed that "If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said:  'The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace'."

Unfortunately, the Civil War was not America’s only unnecessary war.  In 1898 the U.S. charged into the Spanish-American War and then spent three years killing Filipinos seeking the very independence that early Americans had won in combat.  World War I was a foolish imperial slugfest with nothing at stake warranting U.S. intervention.

World War II grew out of the one-sided peace after WWI imposed through American arms.  Vietnam confused vital and peripheral interests.  More recent conflicts, such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have been almost frivolous, wasting thousands of American lives for infinitesimal geopolitical gains.

This Memorial Day offers an appropriate moment to insist that statesmen treat military intervention as a last resort, reducing the casualty toll to be commemorated on future holidays.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. Follow him on Twitter [@Doug_Bandow].

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War and corrected.

Quite right. WWII was the only necessary war. It would have been cheaper and without all the tragedy of the Civil War to just buy out the south. pay for the slaves.