Why do men fight for their country? What occasions justify the use of force, the unleashing of all the dangerous passions that arise in time of war, the disruption of civil society, the vast waste of lives and treasure that follow in its wake, and the massive political changes that result with the peace? As our nation exercises its muscles of self-government, and debates the wisdom and prudence of removing a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, from power for his reckless flouting of the peace agreement which ended the first Gulf War, it’s especially fitting that Hollywood is releasing a film that looks at such questions soberly. Most refreshingly, this movie arises from a perspective of profound, reflective patriotism.
Gods & Generals opens nationally today, and it promises to be a blockbuster hit. More importantly, it’s a deeply honest piece of film-making. It follows the outbreak and first decisive battles of the American Civil War. Written with the aid of prominent historians North and South, black and white, it was directed with meticulous realism and lyrical skill by the maker of the epic, Gettysburg (1994), Ronald F. Maxwell. (Maxwell is a friend and sometime collaborator; I once climbed in his car and had to remove Edmund Burke’s Letters from the passenger seat—just your typical Hollywood film-maker….)
What’s amazing about the film is its truthfulness and historical sensibility: Unlike too many Hollywood productions, it doesn’t import into the past the prejudices and values of the present, or demonize the losing side. Instead, Gods & Generals depicts with equal sensitivity the motivations that drove men of each region to enlist and fight in our country’s bloodiest war—which claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans. (By way of comparison, we lost fewer than 60,000 dead in Vietnam.)
The acting is uniformly superb: Robert Duvall plays General Robert E. Lee with the grave dignity that made Lee a figure of honor even among his enemies. Jeff Daniels portrays Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the humane and idealistic Union officer who would later save the day for the North at Gettysburg, and in his quiet fervor evokes all that was noblest in the motives of the men who volunteered to fight to preserve the Union. His gradual awakening to the profound evil of slavery mirrors accurately the shift in Northern opinion over the course of the war, as it evolved into a struggle that explicitly centered on slavery and race relations. The character who dominates the film, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, is played by Stephen Lang as a study in paradoxes—a fiery warrior, implacable on the battlefield, whose tenderness and devout Christian faith emerge when the guns are silent, and he cradles his infant daughter in his arms, or talks intimately with God as he watches the sun climb the sky over the Shenandoah mountains.
What the film makes clear is that, at least at the war’s outbreak, few men believed they were fighting about slavery. It’s true that the political leaders of the South saw the election of Lincoln as spelling the death-knell of their region’s economic system, which was predicated on slave labor. They also noted, with horror, that Lincoln became president without a single Southern electoral vote—which suggested that their region was now politically impotent, soon to become a colony of the North.
Most Southerners didn’t own slaves, nor did Southern men enlist to fight for the preservation of that wicked institution—any more than Northern men volunteered to fight for sweatshops, cheap immigrant labor, or the liquidation of the Indians (although this is what multiculturalists would like us to believe.) It’s easy to imagine that one’s opponents are fighting for the very worst of causes, and to pretend that the enemy is unambiguously evil. (One thing that makes The Lord of the Rings so satisfying is that the dark forces are purely evil—a race of monsters crafted by a Dark Lord to serve his explicitly malicious purposes.) It may even help battlefield morale.
But it usually isn’t true. The American South was not Mordor, nor the Confederate soldiers a legion of slavering Orcs. Nor were Union soldiers bent primarily on conquest, pillage, and the subjugation of their Southern neighbors—as Confederate nationalists pretended. Instead, the men of two regions, which had for 85 years been united in a single, loosely-knit federation, treasured loyalties to different entities. As their letters, abundantly preserved, make clear, the men of the South believed that they owed their patriotism to their state, to Virginia or Louisiana or Texas. For them this was the locus of sovereignty. They believed that the United States was more like a loose alliance of governments—like NATO or the European Union—than a centrally governed nation-state. If you wish to understand Confederate nationalism, imagine Irishmen or Spaniards or Swedes rebelling against a too-intrusive European Union—which may well happen someday. It was Lincoln’s decision to use force to prevent secession by several Southern states that inspired other states of the region to call home their senators, peel away their state militias, and embark on the deadly gamble of forming the Confederacy.
Conversely, the men of the North believed that the Constitution was a binding, irrevocable contract which had dissolved the sovereignty of states, and transferred ultimate authority to Washington—and that the leaders of Southern states were engaged in open treason and rebellion.
Each interpretation of the American Founding had its merits. Historians have speculated that the U.S. Supreme Court might well have sided with the seceding states, had they pursued a peaceful legal challenge.
Tragically, they didn’t. The counsels of reason and peace were swallowed by an upsurge of 19th century romantic nationalism, and men of the South attempted to break the founding compact of America. After an epic four year struggle, they were utterly defeated, their cause thrown on the dustbin of history, and their motives forgotten or distorted. The symbols under which they fought—the Confederate flag for instance—are now abused by hate groups, and banned from historical displays depicting the war. Schoolchildren are taught to believe that half of America was once subject to a spell of almost pure evil, which could only be purged in blood. (It is only a short step, which some Afro-centrists have taken, to condemn the nation as a whole.) If we are to understand our nation’s history, and foster a real patriotic love for the place, it’s essential that real information replace the myths, and empathy arise for all those involved in this tragic struggle—the soldier, the civilian, the slave, and the statesman alike. This exciting and moving film goes a long way towards fostering all those valuable things. Go see it, and tell your friends.