America's Neo-Copperheads

The Iraq War has produced a new crop of defeatists as demonstrated by the recent "peace" rallies and the grandstanding of the new Democratic Congress. By defeatists I do not mean those in 2003 who could offer reasonable proposals for controlling Saddam Hussein other than war, or those who want victory but disagree with the military and diplomatic tactics. By defeatists I mean those who advocate action today that would ensure victory for our enemies in Iraq with all its negative consequences for this country.

Unfortunately, defeatism in the midst of a serious war is nothing new in US history.  Our Civil War threatened to destroy the free regime created by our Founders, and it threatened to create a regime in the South based explicitly on the tyranny of slavery.  The serious strategic, political, and moral implications of the defeat of Union forces were not enough to discourage the "Copperheads" or the "Peace Democrats" in the North.  They, like our contemporary "Peace Democrats," strongly advocated policies for the US government that would have made victory for this tyranny inevitable.

Jennifer L.Weber has recently published a valuable bookCopperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North.  Santayana's aphorism that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it is one that sounds much deeper than it really is.  History never truly repeats itself, and there are always different circumstances and personalities who must address the serious issues of a particular time.  However, one cannot read this book at this point in the Iraq war without noting strong similarities as well as differences that are both interesting and telling.  First and foremost, American has produced Neo-Copperheads whose tactics and goals are as damaging as the originals.

Copperheads (aptly named after the poisonous snake) demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities, and they reviled Lincoln for continuing the military campaign against the South. One mode of attack was to ridicule his intelligence and appearance. George McClellan, the Democratic nominee in 1864, referred to Lincoln as an idiot and "the original gorilla."  (p.183) (italics in the original).  The constant references of our Neo-Copperheads to President Bush's supposed lack of intelligence and his "chimp"-like characteristics are nothing original.  In the dark days of the summer of 1864, even the sitting Attorney General, Lincoln's version of Chuck Hagel or John Warner, stated that the country's greatest need was a "a competent leader." 

The very pretext for the war itself became an issue then as now.  Shortly after the South's secession and the shelling of Fort Sumter, maintenance of the Union was the primary reason for subduing the South.  However, by late 1862 and 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the moral issues of slavery and its abolition became the dominant theme of those who supported the war.  George H. Pendleton of Ohio, the Copperhead Vice-Presidential candidate in 1864, stated that:
"They have been deliberately deceived into this war ... under the pretense that the war was to be for the Union and the Constitution, when, in fact, it was to be an armed crusade for the abolition of slavery."  (p. 80)
The nefarious Lincoln, like President Bush, supposedly had ulterior motives for pursuing the war that were kept from the public.  One can imagine the stickers affixed to the Copperhead carriages:  "Lincoln Lied, People Died."

As Ms. Weber notes, the Copperheads could never articulate any serious plan for what they would do if successful in stopping the Civil War.  Would there be a Union?  Would states have nullification rights?  Would slavery be extended into new states?  Clement Vallandigham, a leading Copperhead, could never get much deeper than
"I am for peace, speedy, immediate honorable PEACE, with all its blessings.  (p. 33) (Italics and capitals in the original.)
This is little more than unadorned moral preening where mere attitude trumps any serious consideration of the issues. Compare Vallandigham's empty rhetoric to the equally empty "peace plan" of Democratic presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich, the little engine who couldn't.  Kucinich advocates "talks" and immediate US withdrawal from Iraq, to be followed by help from the United Nations.  This plan, like a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience.  Kucinich forgets, and I suspect willfully, that when UN troops are not raping the local population and providing cover for our enemies, they always disappear when the shooting starts.  What follows is never "peace," but such is the preening of our Neo-Copperheads.

There is a long history of comfort provided to the enemy by the "peace" advocates in their very public undermining of the war effort. Copperheads consistently worked against what they saw as Lincoln's war.  "Confederate confidence soared while Northern partisans bickered."      (p. 45), Ms. Weber tells us.  Robert E. Lee regarded the Copperheads as allies.  He told Jefferson Davis that the best way to weaken the enemy is to give all support "to the rising peace party of the North."  (p. 99).One can easily imagine similar encouragement today that is given to the Islamists by our Neo-Copperheads by calls for deadlines, the "peace" rallies, the constantly negative press, and the fatuous recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

Because history does not repeat itself in the way that Santayana suggests, there are interesting differences as well.  For instance no where does this book mention any Copperheads who tried explicitly to redefine "patriotism" as citizens undermining their own elected government's foreign policy. None in the North seemed to have had the nerve to call advocacy of Southern victory "patriotism."   It would take the twentieth century triumph of the Orwellian manipulation of language, and the victory of postmodernists in today's trendy colleges and universities to bring about this sort of degradation of language and meaning

There are some lessons about our Neo-Copperheads to be learned by examining these wars and their domestic opponents:

1) Both wars produced opportunists who are willing to sacrifice long-term American interests for short-term political gain. Thus, our Neo-Copperheads leak important classified information about US intelligence-gathering techniques to the press, who are in turn, only too happy to use its publication to score political points against the president whom they loathe.  They propose non-binding resolutions to stop the war in order to give themselves political cover for any disaster that they themselves help bring about. That this opportunism aids and emboldens our enemies is of no interest to them.

2) There always seems to be people who want peace at any price, even if it is the peace of a slave-owning society, the peace of the Gulag, or the peace of the graveyard. Our Neo-Copperheads argue, at least implicitly, that if only the US would not engage in military action, there would be peace.  There is the unspoken assumption here that the US is the cause of all conflict, and that if only the US would beat its swords into ploughshares, the world would live happily ever after. So, the mantra of "peace" performs a double duty here.  It generates enormous self-satisfaction among its advocates while it provides the stick with which to beat American policy.

3) Like deviancy, patriotism and its opposite have been defined down. Thanks to our Neo-Copperheads, short of joining the Taliban or actually setting off bombs, it is difficult to imagine any action today, no matter the benefits for our enemies, which cannot in some manner be rationalized as "patriotic."  The converse is also true. As John Walker Lindh has proven, there seems to be no action undertaken against American interests, policies, and soldiers that can actually result in a treason charge.  Thus, the corruption of language and meaning are not just academic exercises.  It has very real consequences to the detriment of American interests.

4)  These notions of peace as advocated by our Neo-Copperheads are symptoms of a  problem much deeper than mere naivete or opportunism. At the risk of being labeled "judgmental," allow me to suggest that the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians is evil. Our Neo-Copperheads have no capacity for processing in any meaningful way evil such as this. They deny its existence (killing the innocent is for a good cause).  They rationalize it (terror is the only tactic of the oppressed in a nuclear age).  They appease it (if Israel makes more concessions, we will have peace).  They mis-attribute it.  (It is the free and democratic America that is evil).  Recognize evil and make sacrifices to fight it---Never! 

As the military tide turned for the Union in late 1864, the Copperheads were routed.  With no such victories in Iraq in sight, the Neo-Copperheads are flourishing, and this does not bode well for either the Iraqi or American people.  Many of our American contemporaries are on the same moral plane as those Copperheads content to live with a fractured regime and slavery, and this fact itself is one of those evils that our Neo-Copperheads can never really acknowledge.
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