To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

Despite a recent American cultural penchant towards mistaking force for strength and resorting to violence throughout the world without a full examination of the consequences, Americans have always been more divided than is commonly assumed over the use of violence in the name of grand ideals like “freedom,” “liberty,” “peace,” and, I should add, “Union.” Echoing my earlier post on how violence begets violence, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania served as justification for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even though no connection existed between that country and the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, when thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in cities like New York and Washington D.C. to protest then President George W. Bush’s proposal to go to war with Iraq, they were continuing a long tradition in which some Americans, rightly or wrongly (but in this case, rightly), vehemently resisted what they considered dubious reasons for American use of violence.

These protesters had strange kindred spirits among the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” During the American Civil War, the Copperheads adamantly opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Confederacy and generally supported the South’s right to own slaves. The Copperheads were strongest in mid-western states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Republicans gave them their nickname, likening peace Democrats to the venomous snake because they supposedly represented a sinister internal threat to the Union war effort. The most famous Copperhead was Ohio congressman  Clement L. Vallandigham, whom Abraham Lincoln had arrested in May of 1863 on charges of aiding enemies of the United States via his outspoken anti-war and pro-slavery views.

The Copperheads, then, acted as more than mere political opponents of the Republican Party. As historian Keith Altavilla observes in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Ohio Valley History (sorry, membership only through the Filson Historical Society, so take my word for it), the Copperheads served as a sort of internal “fifth column”— to use a phrase lobbed by conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan at anti-Iraq War protesters — that Union soldiers in the field saw as a domestic uprising against the necessary war against the Confederacy. Copperheads disrupted pro-war rallies and meetings, fielded anti-war, pro-Confederate political candidates, and inspired fears among some Union soldiers of secret Copperhead societies infiltrating all aspects of northern society. For northern soldiers in the field, Copperheads represented such a dire threat because they were neighbors, friends — even family members. As Michael Corleone once observed, nothing is more sinister than enemies who are as close as your friends.

Now, lest I get accused of (very) latent Copperhead support, let me be clear: the Copperheads were wrong. They were wrong about supporting Southern secession and they were wrong about supporting slavery. But the Copperheads do demonstrate that those who (misguidedly) spoke out against American war in the past found themselves both justly and unjustly vilified for refusing to immediately support more violence as a solution to a problem that began with violence in the first place.

During the 2002-2003 build up to the Iraq War, for example, right-wing commentators lobbed a series of nasty epithets at war protesters, accusing them of treason, cowardice, emasculation, and, worst of all, of being FRENCH. And why were anti-war protesters accused of liking baguettes and Gérard Depardieu? Because they didn’t support an equally violent response to the violent 9/11 attacks. Never mind that links between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks were fabricated; these loathsome, treasonous, granola-scarfing, patchouli-dipping, unwashed hippies needed a lesson in patriotic duty, a duty defined in large part by violence.

Unlike the Copperheads, however, who were wrong about the futility of the Union war effort, the Iraq War protesters were right: not only was the connection between Iraq and 9/11 non-existent, but the entire military operation against Iraq turned into a quagmire of untenable nation-building for the U.S. and tribal sectarianism for Iraq itself. Heck, opposing the Iraq War even got another lawyer from Illinois elected president. So in the right were the Iraq protesters that even Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan issued a pleading mea culpa for his misguided support for pre-emptive war.

The point is not that Copperheads and Iraq War protesters are quite the same. They aren’t. The Copperheads were wrong-headed supporters of secession and slavery who often employed anti-war rhetoric as an anti-Republican partisan cudgel. The Iraq War protesters, though some were unquestionably guilty of dirty hippie-ness, nonetheless recognized that going to war is not an act to be taken lightly or under shady pretences, even when calls for vengeance were loud and influential. But the Copperheads and the Iraq War demonstrators are part of a distinct tradition in American history in which some group, usually the minority, has been willing to question U.S. decisions to rectify damage done through violence  with yet more violence. This is the great legacy of September 11, 2001. For all of the post-attack calls for unity, what 9/11 really did was reawaken American divisions over violence that had largely been dormant since the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, as President Obama half-heartedly tries to convince a justifiably skeptical American public on the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria, he simply cannot escape the shadow of 9/11 and the disastrous Iraq War that it spawned. So when remembering 9/11 today, also try to remember that the question of “to kill or not to kill” probably shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Just ask this guy:

Mission Accomplished

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