The scene is one of the most iconic in film history. The Battle of Atlanta near the middle of Gone With The Wind depicts the carnage of war. As Scarlett O’Hara searches for Dr. Meade among several wounded and dying Confederate soldiers, the camera pulls back to reveal dozens more, then hundreds of bodies, 1,600 in all. It was at this point of watching the film when my daughter asked if Joshua Chamberlain (her namesake) was there.
“No,” I told her. “He was a Union officer. But remember earlier, when they were reading the dispatches from Gettysburg? He was in that battle.”
The nine-year-old absorbed this, then followed up her question. “So these are the bad guys?”
“It’s complex,” I said.
And it is.
The civil war was fought for many reasons by many different kinds of people. Poor and working-class white Southerners typically cared nothing for the slave-owning plantation class; they fought from other motivations. Several of the Confederacy’s best generals argued for emancipation on tactical grounds, and sometimes moral ones, too.
Were Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or James Longstreet bad guys? Certainly not. Nonetheless, they fought to preserve the newly formed Confederate States of America, whose foundational purpose was to maintain a society based on slavery. None of them owned slaves, there’s no evidence they agreed with slavery, but they enabled it all the same.
I love history. I come at the Civil War from a Yankee perspective. One of my fondest childhood memories was of the morning my dad and uncle liberated me from my third-grade classroom to take a jaunt up to Gettysburg. I always got a souvenir plastic saber with which to make war on the shrubbery. I wore a Union cap.
But the Confederates weren’t my bad guys; Russians, stormtroopers, or Cobra Command held that distinction. The Confederate soldiers, I was raised to respect.
After the Confederates, the villain du jour was the American Indian. They were the bad guys for an entire genre of movies. But I was taught to respect them too, because their story is also complex. For a while, Germans were the bad guys, but there were plenty of good, honorable German soldiers serving frustrated under history’s most notorious madman, and of all the people American GI’s encountered as they liberated Europe, it was the Germans they most related with.
Again, we see, it’s complex.
There is a major difference between a plantation overseer and a Confederate soldier, or a Sioux raiding party and their entire nation, or an SS platoon and German regulars, or the Taliban and an Afghan. History teaches there are vast motivations. The good guys aren’t always evident, and there’s rarely a clear formula about who the bad guys are. Sometimes they’re within the same ranks.
A better question is this: What are they fighting for?
People fight for many reasons, but mostly out of a desire to preserve something: a way of life, their homes, lives. If they’re not fighting to preserve something, they’re probably fighting to attain something, like freedom, resources, or a personal right. All of these are good reasons to fight. The problem lies in the reality that any of these motivations can be rooted in evil. Slavery is evil; so is Sharia Law, segregation, and a variety of personal “rights” we’ve come to condemn over the centuries.
There are good people who fight for horrible things. I don’t automatically condemn them unless they know full well what they are supporting. I believe the majority of them usually don’t.
A peasant farmer may take up arms with an evil regime out of a desire to protect his village. A child may be conscripted into an army he knows nothing about. A person may take up a passionate defense of an abstract right they have no first-hand experience with, but sounds important.
It takes time to understand the complexities of certain issues. Who has time to carefully weigh both sides of a conflict to determine which is right, and which is wrong? I contend most people take their most immediate impression, and in the absence of firm moral principles, run with whatever seems right at the time.
And this leads us to the real problem when ascribing the moniker of bad guys. Many people defend evil practices because they don’t understand them. The true bad guys choose evil things because they embrace them. Discerning the difference takes moral clarity, which is hard to achieve if one doesn’t accept moral absolutes.
Some of us are slow learners, and some of us aren’t interested in learning at all. That’s fine, but if we’re going to take a stand on an issue, we’d better know it inside and out. History will not be kind to those who choose sides arbitrarily.
I love history, because history knows there is such a thing as right and wrong. And it isn’t shy about showing the difference.
And innocent lives are always on the line.