Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln movie -- see it!

I'll be honest. My interest in military history tends to be of the old-school variety -- battles, weapons and such. I know that Von Clausewitz said, "War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace."

That said, it's vast subject and one has to focus ones gaze at least a bit, even when as eclectic as me, so I do tend to study the "how" of war more so than the "why." Despite that, there's still room to remember that there always IS a "why" and in that vein I'd like to recommend Steven Spielberg's new movie Lincoln for illuminating the "why" better than nearly any other film i can think of.

I've always been convinced that the U.S. Civil War was about slavery, fundamentally, despite arguments floated about "States' Rights" and "Tariffs" and other distractions. Everything I've read from contemporary sources seems to dispel any notion that the people involved were confused about what was at stake. Lincoln's Second Inaugural sums it up best: "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war."

I'm not a movie reviewer, so I won't attempt to judge Spielberg or Daniel Day-Lewis as craftsmen. Go to Rotten Tomatoes for that. But as a wargamer, and one with a particular interest in the Civil War, it was valuable to be reminded of the greater context of the war and what was at stake in a way that paid an extraordinary fidelity to history for a Hollywood product. This is not to imply that Lincoln was flawless, it is a movie after all. Even 2.5 hours is far too little time to depict the complexities thoroughly. But that's always true of any piece of art. No painting -- or wargame -- can capture 100% of the truth of any incident, but we still recognize the skill of someone like Don Troiani when he paints a battle scene or Mark Herman when he designs a game like For the People because they focus our eyes on the essence of the event.

So, likewise, does this movie. In a conversation with the local city historian I remarked the other day that this movie depicted the reality of political deal-making better than anything I have ever scene on film. As Americans we claim to love Democracy -- and yet we tend to take a rather moralistic and purist take on political issues. Many will speak with derision about "playing politics" and being a "politician" is rarely ,meant as a compliment.  And yet, no one who has any experience with actual political activities, whether as a participant or a close observer, can escape noticing how messy it is -- and how morally compromising it can be. Lincoln, I think, performs a valuable lesson by illustrating how things really work. To modern eyes, there can be no doubt as to the worthiness of the goal -- and yet the movie lays out in explicit terms the sort of compromises necessary to make that worthy goal a reality.

Many reviews have noted the activities of the three lobbyists working for Secretary of State William Seward and their efforts to woo the handful of Democratic votes needed to get the measure passed. Those efforts involved a lot of tactics that were of doubtful legality even in that more free-wheeling age, let alone by today's sensibilities.

But I think the bigger lesson revolves around Thaddeus Stevens, the firebrand Radical Republican abolitionist leader. There was no doubt he favored the goal, but he questioned whether it went far enough. To the modern ear he's the closest thing to a real, principled hero in the entire story. He comes off as much more principled  than the "saintly" Lincoln. Of Stevens' commitment to racial equality there can be no doubt. It's Lincoln who equivocates about the relationship between blacks and whites, when asked. 

And yet, as the movie makes clear, Stevens had to compromise his principles, publicly, in order to reach the goal. That is a valuable lesson for the Internet purity troll and the backyard BBQ blowhard who rails about "politics" and "politicians" and opines that "compromise" is a dirty word. What Lincoln and Stevens understood was that principles and compromise are not opposing concepts. Lincoln and Stevens clearly had their principles. Hundreds of thousands died for those principles. But they had the wisdom to understand that compromise on inessential points could be in service of those principles -- not a violation of them.

See the movie. More than once if you can.

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