Photo by Arycan. License: CC BY-NC 2.0.
The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, recently caused an uproar over his comments about the Civil War, including a statement that “men and women of good faith [fought] on both sides.” While many are angered by what they reasonably see as the moral equivocation of the Union and Confederate causes, I think there is real benefit to considering the predicament I see contained in Kelly’s quote.
Namely, that decent men and women can do absolutely terrible things, and even justify their behavior to themselves.
Any reasonable reading of history shows us that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Half the country allowed it, half the country didn’t, and the half that did seceded from the Union in order to make sure they could keep on allowing it. It’s not wrong to argue that the Civil War was about states’ rights or freedom from the federal government—it’s just that first and foremost among the rights and freedoms the Confederacy fought to preserve was the ability to keep black Americans in bondage.
This is the truth of what happened, and our country grapples with the repercussions to this day.
However, over the century and a half since the war, a counter-narrative has emerged that has attempted to cast the Confederacy in a more noble light. What is called the Civil War in most parts of the country is often referred to in southern states as the War of Northern Aggression. The Confederacy itself is remembered as a valiant lost cause—one that was championed by brave, honorable men. General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate army, is held up as as a man of dignity and integrity who painfully, agonizingly chose loyalty to his beloved Virginia over his allegiance to the United States.
This narrative glosses over the hundreds of thousands of people who died in a war where the Confederacy fired the first shot. It ignores the many millions of people who spent their lives being tortured and abused as slaves in the centuries between the first settlement of America and the abolition of slavery. It does not pause to consider exactly what it was the valiant men of the Confederacy were really fighting to defend. It does not account for the suffering that America's legacy of racism continues to cause.
But that’s the point. Tens of millions of people live in states that used to be part of the Confederacy. Indeed, the majority of Americans, white and black, probably have at least a little Confederate blood in their veins. In other words, a familial connection to the Confederacy is something that people live with, today as much as in centuries past.
Black Americans have gotten a raw deal time and time again. But one area in which they have historically had an advantage over white Americans, particularly white southerners, is that they can live knowing that their hands are clean of the sins of slavery. I think much of the appeal of recasting the Confederates as freedom fighters is that it gives white southerners a way of honoring and appreciating their ancestors, rather than having to define them by the terrible harm that so many caused. Creating an alternate historical narrative in which the Confederates were the good guys lets white southerners take pride in their heritage, while pushing away guilt and shame over slavery and the agony of defeat.
Fair or not, I certainly see the appeal in that. No one wants to think of their ancestors as monsters, and of their heritage as stained with tears and blood. After all, we ourselves are inextricably linked to those that came before us. If they’re bad, what does that make us?
Which brings me back to Mr. Kelly, and his “men and women of good faith on both sides.” The people who were angry at his words were not wrong to feel that way. But I think there is real benefit to acknowledging the ordinary humanity of even those who commit atrocities. It helps us to better understand ourselves, to live with greater humility, and to forgive, which is the path to healing.
I think there is real benefit to acknowledging that all of the following facts are true.
First, that the men and women of the Confederacy were people like any other. That means they loved their families, they wanted to feel good about themselves and they did the best they could with what they knew.
Second, the men and women of the Confederacy fought and died to keep millions of their fellow human beings in chains. Perhaps no cause has ever been more wrong.
Third, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds continue to live with the consequences of slavery and the Civil War to this day. Black, white, brown—no one gets away unscathed. The ripples permeate our politics, our culture, our very lives. It is in all of our interests to do what we can to let those ripples pass, and heal.
It seems contradictory to describe those who fought for the Confederacy both as regular people and as the perpetrators of one of the great wrongs of history. But I see that as key, both to healing the still-festering wounds of racism and cultural division, and to helping us grow and evolve to a point where we need not repeat their same mistakes.
Writing off the Confederates as villains makes it easy for us to say, “we’re not like that.” But if we acknowledge that they were just as human as we are, with the same intentions and desires we have, well, then we have to admit that in a lot of ways, we’re actually a lot like them. We might look different, be better educated and raised in a different time, but that’s all a matter of circumstance. Strip that away and we face a difficult question: who among us can honestly say they might not have made the same choices a Confederate soldier did, if placed into his shoes?
My point is not to excuse the inexcusable, but to say that we’re all capable of it. If it could happen to them, it can happen to us. If ordinary, normal human beings could find themselves willing to charge into cannon fire so that they could continue to torment and abuse their darker brothers, that tells us the depths to which any of us can sink. If they could convince themselves that choice was a noble one, that tells us the degree to which any of us are capable of justifying our behavior. If such men (and women) can be loved and admired by some of their descendants, that tells us the extent to which all of us are worthy of love—and all of us want to feel worthy of love.
In other words, if we can see the humanity in the people behind the Confederacy, perhaps we can see ourselves more clearly and with greater humility. I think those of us who see that racism is still a terrible force even today would do well to understand that it isn't just something bad people do—it's something people do.
Why is that in our interest? It can help keep all of us from going down the path of division and de-humanization. A big part of avoiding the mistakes of our ancestors is to cultivate a willingness to examine ourselves and our actions; to consider the ways in which our actions affect ourselves and other people. Developing a basic mindful awareness of what’s going on inside ourselves and how that translates to the world around us can make a big difference.
I also think we would all do well to stop thinking of ourselves as the good guys. That’s a very appealing thought, of course. Most of us want to think of ourselves that way—and we all have do have a sense of right and wrong that is very much worth paying attention to. But we can get too caught up in that; make it too personal. If we go beyond doing what we think is right into seeing ourselves as righteous, we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. After all, if we’re the good guys, then those other people must be the bad guys, and we don’t owe them respect and human dignity.
If we're the good guys, we don't need to reflect on our own actions and choices either, only judge others.
We don’t start out this way, of course, but that’s where such thinking can eventually lead. If that’s how we start seeing things, our righteous actions will quickly turn sour. Of course it doesn’t do us any good to think of ourselves as the bad guys either, because that's not true either.
I think what we want to work toward is a middle path, letting go of seeing each other as good and bad but as humans; beings inextricably linked to one another. As Ram Dass puts it, we're all just walking each other home. If we see things that way, it leaves more room for love to come in, and we could all use more of that.
For me, part of that middle path is acknowledging that the men and women of the Confederacy are both worthy of their descendants' love and respect, and that they did monstrous things that still hurt all of us today. One doesn’t cancel out the other.
If we can make room in our hearts for both truths at once, I think that opens us to the forgiveness that is the only way we can ever really heal the wounds of slavery and the Civil War.
Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.