CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — By now it's a familiar and hackneyed war story. A jarring event rouses a dormant people. Diplomacy fails. Conflict erupts. The modern, mechanized nation overpowers the atavistic, feudal regime. The victors send soldiers, consultants and contractors to free the oppressed, rebuild, secure vital resources and territory, and to put their stamp on the society that will emerge. In the midst of this benevolence, a loosely woven network of terror groups stages dogged acts of sabotage, kidnapping, assassination and graphic murder that demoralize the occupiers. The victors are gradually forced to compromise those principles in whose name they first fought, or to withdraw.
Sound like Iraq? It is. But it's also the United States of the Civil War.
Much like the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the April 1861 Confederate salvos at Fort Sumter forever changed the way Americans viewed their country. Like George W. Bush, President Abraham Lincoln dressed his military campaign in idealistic robes — as a noble crusade to free the slaves. Like Bush, Lincoln went to war without a viable plan for the aftermath.
"Mr. Lincoln gropes . . . like a traveller in an unknown country without a map," wrote one New York World columnist in early 1865.
Georges Clemenceau, a French diplomat and journalist who would later serve two terms as his country's prime minister, observed that the United States had "embarked on the abolitionist sea, without any clear idea of where their cause would lead."
As in Iraq, regime change left the South in social, economic and political disarray. Slaves had made up nearly 40 percent of the population in the prewar South, and had provided its largely agrarian economy with a stable — and of course cost-effective — work force. With emancipation, the nearly 3.5 million freedmen were — at least in theory — no longer tied to the land. Talks of enfranchisement for blacks were foreboding for Southern whites, conjuring visions of African-American majorities who could use the ballot to exact revenge on their former masters, or to further the programs of Republican activists and carpetbaggers from the North.
The division of political and economic resources is the primary and thorniest issue in postwar Iraq. Efforts at reconstruction generate resistance in a broad coalition of insurgents formed of Baath Party loyalists, former Army officers, Sunni potentates, Iraqi patriots, and foreign mercenaries. Some fight to preserve their prewar privilege and prominence; some, to curb the influence of the Shiite majority. Others fight to reject the political, economic, and social templates the Americans attempt to impose. Still others simply to drive the invaders from their soil. The violence is constant, savage, and above all visible, intended, like the March 2003 U.S. aerial campaign, to shock and awe.
The Confederate insurgency was just as brutal and immediate. Just days after Gen. Robert E. Lee consigned his sword at Appomatox, Confederate loyalists assassinated Lincoln and gravely wounded William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, in a separate attack on the same evening. As Northern teachers, preachers, lawyers, and businessmen flooded the defeated South, white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camilia, and the White Brotherhood committed atrocities against newly freed African-Americans, and against those white judges, legislators, clerics, and editors who sided with the freedmen.
In an 1866 episode that seems to presage one of the most horrific spectacles of the Iraqi conflict, insurgents near Pine Bluff, Ark., burnt a black settlement and left dozens of African-American men, women, and children hanging by their necks from nearby trees as admonition. In another eerie portent, a gang of 500 masked men assaulted a Union jail in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1871, destroying property, whipping hundreds of Republicans and their sympathizers, and lynching eight.
Reliable statistics for deaths during Reconstruction, like those of civilian casualties during Operation Iraqi Freedom, are unavailable. But the quantity of death and terror was sufficient to compel President Rutherford B. Hayes to withdraw all federal troops from the South in 1877. Even before this official end of Reconstruction, African-Americans had been coerced into de facto servitude with punitive labor contracts, dispossessed of property, prevented from voting, and victimized by marauding gangs.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled the triumph of the counterrevolution with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that effectively sanctioned segregation.
Masked and hooded men continued to terrorize and kill African-Americans in the South well into the 20th century. Between 1882 — the first year such statistics were tallied — and 1901, more than 2,000 people were lynched. In all, recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1951 number nearly 5,000. Hundreds of others perished in race riots that erupted in cities across the American South and Midwest.
While history is rich in similes, it is considerably poorer in homilies. It is relatively easy to mine history for parallels. But it is agonizingly difficult to learn from them. Those opposed to the current Iraqi campaign might cite the tragic example of American Reconstruction as yet another reason to have refrained from attack. Those in favor of the war could dismiss the insurrection as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of any military occupation, even the most benign and just.
Perhaps the only universal conclusion to be drawn is that people will fight to preserve their property and their way of life, simply because it is theirs, and that wars do not end at armistice, but only when hostilities cease.
In September 1957, this time on order from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, federal troops were back in Little Rock, Ark., to enforce federally mandated school desegregation. Nearly a century had passed since the first shots were fired in the war between the States.
Ken Shulman was the 2003-04 Freedman-Martin Fellow for Journalism at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.