The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, And The Slow ‘Disintegration’

In his revisionist history of the Reconstruction A Short History of Reconstruction (Harper and Row, New York, 1990, pp.2) Eric Foner writes:

[T]the [Emancipation] Proclamation  only confirmed what was  happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the  heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South’s “peculiar institution.” The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters’ wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of “demoralized” and “insubordinate” behavior multiplied throughout the South.

The transformation among the South’s slaves that Foner makes note of is a fascinating one. It is a process during and through which the formerly enslaved, oppressed, and controlled comes to realize the older shackles do not hold any more–and begin to act, drawing upon and utilizing, the new-found freedom that is now dramatically visible and manifest. For long after the shackles have been removed, after the overseer has left, after the whip has been put down, the enslaved continues to fear the older control, the always exercised restraint. He has come to internalize these controls, to enact them for himself with great efficiency. He has, as it were, become his own slave master. He anticipates the lashing even when the lash can no longer be raised and lowered.

But one day, the slave realizes the physical acts and tools that have restrained his freedom and punished him when he resisted their controls can no longer act.  In their place are only idle threats, puppets who seek to dominate by borrowing the power of others. Power is gone; only its pale shadow remains. The slave cowers under this shadow for a while, but its insubstantiality is all too easily realized; it can be thrown off, shrugged off. The spell is broken. There is disbelief, a reluctance to admit the nightmare is over. Realization and awakening can take their own time to crystallize, to make real former fantasies. But become real they do.

Sometimes the formerly subjugated rise up suddenly and violently. Sometimes their frustrated energies and ambitions, so long repressed, can only seek, and find, explosive release. Those they turn on can find this anger terrifying and pitiless; they, used to cowering and timidity, find the new insubordination and insolence frightening in its lack of regard for older niceties and norms.

As the Union’s Armies approached then, two fronts advanced: one from the ‘outside,’ one from within. The military front promised defeat of one kind, the crumbling domestic one yet another. The verities it uprooted, the older securities it made fantastic, made it a more threatening and ultimately frightening one.  Even if those realizing it took their time about it.

Note: The book excerpted above is an abridgement of Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper Perennial, New York, 2014).

#SderotCinema: War, the Oldest Spectator Sport

News of Israelis watching the bombardment of Gaza–lounging on chairs, perhaps after dinner, smoking hookahs, chatting among themselves–has set many fingers racing on keyboards the world over, pointing to what may seem like a particularly bizarre and novel voyeuristic exploration of the suffering of others.

Imagine, people gathering to watch acts of violence. Safely, from a distance.

Dunno about you, but this seems vaguely familiar to me. War as spectator sport is as old as the hills. Whenever it has been possible to do so, non-combatants watch war–well out of harm’s way. During the Battle of Britain, the good citizens of London would stand around in large groups, staring up at the sky, while Spitfires and Messerschmitts tangled thousands of feet above them; Civil War battles were often observed by families–men, women, and children–curious to get a closer look at the guts and glory the papers wrote about; in our book on the air war component of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, in making note of an epic air battle between jets of the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces in India’s north-east, staged in the sky above the campus of an engineering college  in the town of Kharagpur, my co-author and I noted:

The citizens of Kharagpur had a grandstand view of the roaring air battle from the top of their homes. The students cheered loudly every time the Sabres – or the Hunters, it didn’t seem to matter – seemed to be on the receiving end.

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatants can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN–perhaps MAN, the Military Action Network–and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay. (You can find versions of the MAN on YouTube on channels dedicated to clips showing military action from the world over.) They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.