HICKS: Remembering those who fought, and why

May 28, 2011

The 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is being well commemorated in Indiana, from solemn laying of wreaths to battle re-enactments. It is right that we do so.

Hoosiers bore a heavy price in the Civil War; more than one in 10 combatants died in the war. Three times as many Hoosiers perished in the Civil War than the nation as a whole has lost to battle since Vietnam.

The causes of conflicts like our Civil War are complex. It has become fashionable in recent decades to attribute economic considerations as primary reasons for nations to go to war. This view has animated much of the knee-jerk reaction against American military engagements of the past several decades. To the Michael Moore-types in the world and the “no blood for oil” gang, there can be no casus belli beyond enriching multinational corporations. This is vile malarkey. Our experience in the Civil War, as much as our experience in Afghanistan or Iraq, proves otherwise.

In the early days of the Civil War, both sides claimed to fight for freedom. The South fought against control of a central government. The federal army fought first to protect the Union and later to end slavery. The Confederacy’s view of freedom was monumentally flawed for one reason—slavery. Nothing else could bring us to war or sustain such a conflict. The promise of freedom announced itself on the battlefield in a way nothing else ever could. Throughout the war, the home front wavered; the armies did not.

What truly indicted slavery was not economic exploitation, but the absence of liberty. The living conditions of most slaves were no worse than the average New York immigrant of the time. The Northern armies knew this. They knew about war as well. By the fall of 1864, there was no mystery to the conflict or its accompanying sacrifice. Yet, it was the armies of the Republic whose vote re-elected Lincoln that November and continued the war. It was not economic considerations that pulled these men onto the battlefield in those final, terrible months of the war. It was, in Lincoln’s words, for a new birth of freedom.

Today, our nation has been at war for nearly a decade. We are engaged in a dozen countries and half our army has spent more time in battle than any veteran of any other American war. Yet, they return, again and again. They are not the dupes. Our warriors of today know full well why they fight. It is not for cheap gas. They know what battle looks, feels and tastes likes. Yet, they volunteer to go, for much the same reasons the federal army of 1864 voted to return to battle: to make others free. As in 1864, it might not be so clear to us at home, but it is clear to those who fight.

On this Memorial Day, we would do well to not simply remember the sacrifice of our volunteer warriors. We must also remember why they fought.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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