- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2006

In May 2003, more than three years ago, President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, and declared that our military mission in Iraq had been accomplished. In the beginning of his remarks, he said: “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.”

Clearly, with those words, the president portrayed himself as a latter-day “emancipator” (in the spirit of the ship’s namesake), having liberated a nation that had been held in bondage by a maniacal and murderous dictator for several decades.

Upon reflection, there are many cogent comparisons that can be made between our current experience in Iraq and what transpired in our own country, nearly a century-and-a-half ago, during our Civil War and its immediate aftermath and beyond through today.

Although the Civil War was not fought — at least initially — to destroy slavery (one need only to consult the opening comments of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address to validate that fact), nonetheless, after the firing on Fort Sumter, the president invaded the South and after four years of horrendous and costly struggle (nearly 700,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives) the South was conquered and after Lincoln’s death, only five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the Era of Reconstruction began.

The Civil War transformed our country forever. Most significantly, as a direct consequence of the conflict three new amendments were added to the Constitution: the 13th (1865) abolished slavery forever, the 14th (1868) elevated African-Americans to citizenship (a status which was denied to them in 1857 via the reasoning of the infamous “Dred Scott Case” ruling), and the 15th (1870) which gave black males the right to vote. This was quite a remarkable achievement since the last time the Constitution was amended was 1804 and the next time after 1870 it would be amended was in 1913. And each one of the post-Civil War amendments were created for the purpose of protecting and promoting the well-being and advancement of people who were previously characterized as merely “property.”

One month to the day after his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln and his young son, Tad, visited the captured Confederate capital of Richmond where the president wanted to emphasize to the vanquished that he truly meant what he had said when he stated in that celebrated speech, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” In other words, he had come to Richmond to pardon, not to punish.

The radical Republicans in Congress did not share that sentiment and thus — from the Southern perspective — Reconstruction (administered by Congress) was a harsh humiliation, which fueled their desire for vengeance.

During Reconstruction there were many Southern “insurgents” who totally rejected the new social order (Gen. Robert E. Lee, along with many of his followers, not among them) that the war had brought about and consequently they formed al Qaeda-like terrorist groups known as the Ku Klux Klan and numerous other such organizations, all determined that the new racial reality would not be respected, much less sustained. Members of these insurgent groups permeated every level of state governments, economic and social organizations. They were “states” within their respective states and feared by nearly everyone. That fear translated into force, a force only a few were willing to resist.

Union troops were removed from the South after the 1876 presidential election. After that, blacks and their small number of sympathetic white supporters were the constant victims of unimaginable horrors (mass lynchings, church and home bombings, etc.) which most of the elected civic authorities pretended were not even occurring.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court was seduced by the insurgents’ will to power and rejection of Reconstruction when in 1896, by an 8-1 margin, it codified the apartheid Jim Crow separate-but-equal customs of the South in the “Plessy vs. Ferguson Case.”

This occurred a year after the death of Frederick Douglass, who, along with Lincoln, was a co-founding father of a whole new America, one the original Founders could not have imagined.

Thus, it can be argued that the American Civil War really did not effectively conclude until a century after the fighting had ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

As many of us wish for hopeful signs of progress and stability, the crisis in Iraq is highly lethal and seems to escalate daily and therefore engenders hopelessness among so many observers.

How all this will eventually be resolved no one can accurately predict. Certainly, let us hope we share with our Iraqi supporters some of the painful lessons we learned from our own, most tumultuous national experience, which not only redefined us, but helped to make us the meritocratic, self-critical, expansive and inclusive country we are today.

All this is very important and very personal to me because I have two sons serving in the U.S. Army. One is in Iraq now, while the other has returned from there and is being trained for deployment in Afghanistan in the near future. As a supportive parent, I pray and wish them well.

Edward C. Smith is the co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University.

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