Duty, honor, country, God...aren’t these sacred nouns of what dreamed ideals are made?
What every good human seeks or should quest after?
How could such great exemplars possibly be the source of tragic, unmitigated evil?
In my childhood and youth, duty, honor, country, and God meant nearly everything to me. I still remember standing tall to receive my God and Country Award in Boy Scouts--months after many hours of preparation and achievement to earn the medal--then wearing it, proudly, on the green khaki of my Boy Scout uniform on important days.
The award hung there next to my merit badge sash emphasizing exactly those virtues of duty, honor, country and God. And hard work, reverence, etc., all those ethical characteristics of the Boy Scout Oath and Law: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
But then all hell broke loose…
But before I explain what happened, wind back to one section of the past in U.S. history to get a more generic overview of these vaunted words—duty, honor, country, and God.
Consider the complicated, convoluted, tragic American Civil War in which two dutiful heroes stand out--Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
Take the latter first. Grant joined the war effort to keep Southerners from leaving the Union. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Grant didn’t think Americans have a right to leave a government they oppose. Strangely though, he had previously violently supported Americans taking land from another country, Mexico, helping kill many for that right!
Oddly, also, Grant's family owned slaves and he worked them. From 1854 to 1858, Grant used the slaves of his wife’s father on the family farm. And Grant bought a slave in 1858, only three years before the Civil War but sold her in 1859.
His view of slavery may have been changing. However, his family didn’t free their slaves until after the Civil War ended and Missouri abolished slavery. So ironic that Grant was killing many Southerners when his own family back in Missouri still owned slaves!
While Grant gave partial support slavery, he seems to have been committed to an almost mystical vision of country, the United States. Like Lincoln, he didn’t think states had a right to democratically leave. “There are but two parties now, Traitors & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter…”
So, like Lincoln, he was willing to abandon slavery if it would stop states from seceding. Grant said, “If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the Republic may continue its existence, let slavery go.”
Previously, Grant had served in the U.S. Army invasion of Mexico. New American immigrants to the area had wanted to bring slavery into its portion of Mexico, but slavery was outlawed in Mexico. Isn’t that the beginning of irony—that this Union which Grant so valued, was actually born of land theft, and that the U.S. had supported the importation of slavery into Mexico by Americans who had recently immigrated into Mexico!
Already, 15 years before Secession, duty is again shown to be morally twisted.
Isn’t it strange that Grant warred to support rebels who supported slavery against the Mexican Government, but opposed democratically elected states, who supported slavery from leaving the United States? What a moral tongue twister!
And Grant, himself, later recognized the wrong nature of the Mexican War. He called the latter war “unholy.” And said, the “Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment..”
But as always with so many well-meaning humans, duty calls: According to Grant, “Experience proves that the man who obstructs a war in which his nation is engaged, no matter whether right or wrong, occupies no enviable place in life and history.”
I suppose some people will say, ‘At least in the Mexican War, U.S. soldiers fought dutifully against people in another country, who believed differently, and even looked different. But when duty called in 1861, it called for brother to take up arms against brother. Like the story in the Jewish and Christian Bible-- the senseless murder of Abel by his brother!
But, in the case of the Civil War, both sides were Cain, though, as the defender against invasion, the Confederacy less so, since they only wanted to go their own way, not invade the North. In fact, technically, the Civil War wasn’t a war about who controlled the nation, but about the North refusing to let Southern states leave after they had voted to do so.
Striking ironies. The Confederate general protecting Vicksburg from the invasion and assault by Grant’s troops from the North, General John Pemberton, was himself actually a Northerner. Two of his brothers, in contrast, joined the Union army, supporting the Northern invasion of the South! How tragic!
The rector at Vicksburg’s Christ Episcopal Church, the Reverend W.W. Lord, had also moved from New York 10 years before. He and his wife, also, supported the Confederacy!
So, hopefully, it is clear, that while a small group of Southerners, the ruling class of plantation planters, owned slaves, most didn't. Furthermore, most Southerners fought against the Union, not mainly because of slavery but because the Yankee army had invaded their homeland, their country.
This was exactly the case of Robert E. Lee. Known as the soldier’s soldier, Lee was admired even by his enemies. As a Christian and a Southern he followed duty and honor and country and God, enlisting in the Confederate Army even though he himself opposed Secession.
During his time at West Point, he got NOT one demerit, a very unusual achievement. For him, duty, honor, God and country were most important.
Lee had, at first, been offered command of the Union forces set to invade the South, but he said he wouldn’t attack his own state of Virginia. No, he would instead go back to defend his home.
Like Grant, Lee and his family owned and used slaves. Like his opponent Abraham Lincoln, Lee supported the freeing of slaves and having them emigrate to Africa. He did recognize slavery as a social evil that, hopefully, would eventually be ended.
Lee wrote to his wife in 1856, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any Country.”
Lee chose to obey the state government of Virginia (and other Southern states, rather than the northern states who had a monopoly in the U.S. government) He stated, “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character." But weren’t he and his state rebelling against lawful authority?
Wasn’t Lee one of the “traitors” that Grant railed against? Not according to Lee and millions of other Southerners. They weren’t rebelling but withdrawing from a democratic voluntary association, just as Thomas Jefferson, also a Southerner, had said everyone has a human right to do.
Unlike many a human when violently attacked, Robert E. Lee didn’t hold to revenge. He even emphasized forgiveness. “We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them.” Not the usual image of the battle-hardened soldier in either historical tomes or popular media is his famous statement?
Yet here is the tragedy, the moral evil: Lee ordered hundreds of thousands of Americans into battle to kill other Americans, Christians to kill other Christians.
By following duty, honor, country, and God, Lee was directly responsible for multi-thousands of deaths. Of what use is it to pray for your enemies, and to forgive them, if you order them killed?
Keep in mind that some of his opponents in the Union Army were also Christians who believed in prayer, forgiveness, duty, honor, country, and God! Yet they invaded and killed countless numbers of Southerners, stole their produce and animals, confiscated and burned their homes and factories, causing untold suffering and anguish that lasted for many years!
Furthermore, many Northerners were racists, even in the Union army, and opposed Black equality. After the Civil War, racist Black Codes came into being in the South.
But racist codes were also evident in places in the North. And there were"Sundown towns" such as Hawthorne, California which had a sign outside its city limits in the 1930's which read, "Nigger, Don't Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne."
So much for honor and that God loves everyone, "red and yellow black and white..."
What came of all this high-sounding moral code of duty, honor, country and God? Over 800,000 needless deaths, millions of wounded, the ravaging of half of America, untold suffering to civilians, unjust and immoral laws for over 100 years against Negroes, and die-hard racism.
One major secular philosopher, Immanuel Kant, emphasizes how duty shines above all, how duty is the highest call of humankind—the one true ethical act.
But not in the case of the very unCivil War.
The one good side effect of the war was the emancipation of the slaves, though when Lincoln emancipated slaves, he did so only for states in the Confederacy. Most historians say that Lincoln did this primarily as a war measure.
Slaves in the North continued to be enslaved until the end of the war! Lincoln's Emancipation didn't apply to them. So strangely, Lincoln freed slaves where he didn't rule, but enslaved Negroes where he did rule!
Then Lincoln also advocated that freed slaves should leave the United States. In March 1861, Lincoln said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
He further stated, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it…”
“I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Etc.
Of what strange things are duty made, and the slaughter of others, and the hypocrisy of religion.
To be continued…
In the Light,