Lord Acton, the great historian of freedom who died in 1902, said there were only two justified wars in American history: The American Revolution and the Second War for American Independence. Acton, who was a correspondent of Confederate general General Robert E. Lee, defended the right of the South to succeed from the union, which was not committed to ending slavery at the beginning of the war in 1861.
No matter how patriotic one is about one country’s, there’s no doubt that many of the wars fought by the United States, and many other nations in history, were superfluous. In many cases they were ill-moral. In other cases, the wars might be defensible, but some of the means used to achieve victory were evil.
By the way, before I begin to examine some of America’s wars, I want to stipulate two things.
Honoring the Veteran
I honor and revere the veterans who fought our wars, some of whom knew the wars were wrong, but these men and women were following their conscience that counselled them that they were honor bound to defend the homeland. Despite the doubts that some of them had, they still fulfilled what they believed was their obligation by serving their country or their state.
For example, General Robert E. Lee, interestingly, didn’t believe in succession, thought slavery was doomed and was offered the leadership of the Union forces in 1861. He reluctantly joined the Confederacy. That’s because he couldn’t “raise his sword” against his native Virginia. His ancestral home meant family, friends and neighbors. Acton admired Lee. I believe it is a great tragedy that Lee’s statues are today being taken down; that he is judged by the standards of another century and not of his time. Lee wasn’t a perfect man, but he was still a great man who followed his conscience.
Secondly, nothing in this series should be taken as a sole indictment of the United States. Other nations have also had bloody, at times, ignominious histories. They fought unnecessary, sometimes evil wars such as the three wars fought by Bismarck’s Prussia to unite Germany or the inane wars fought by Louis Napoleon II (Yes, I know his uncle was worst but that is no defense of starting a war with Austria in 1859 so Louis Napoleon II could grab the war booty of Nice and Savoy for France).
Indeed, when one includes blundering into the moral equation of judging wars, then many wars have been useless. They have caused untold misery that went on in one form for generations. Can anything have been more stupid than the Crimean War? This was a war that began, in part, over which nation should be in charge of the holy lands in the Near East. For instance, in a new book on World War I, “July 1914,” we again see a portrait of reckless European leaders who sleepwalk into a four-year orgy of senseless deaths that cost many of those leaders their post.
No Mobile Devices in 1914
Possibly, the most idiotic of European’s many stupid leaders in 1914 was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. When he was asked for support from ally Austria-Hungary in its pending war with Serbia, which was backed by Russia and France—this is when what became World War I might been localized or perhaps even avoided—-the Kaiser perfunctorily gave Vienna a blank check. Then, as he happily went sailing off for ten days, he was incommunicado as Europe headed for war.
The Kaiser seemed happily unaware that the assassination of a Hapsburg prince in Sarajevo, the liberal Franz Ferdinand, was pushing the war into the worst war in history. This was a war that would sweep away empires and, directly or indirectly, kill tens of millions of people across several continents. For instance, the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1919 killed millions of people. Many of them were weakened by the war. Maybe if Wilhelm II had a mobile device in 1914, maybe if he was a less flighty person, maybe if he had not been so intent on enjoying his summer vacation, the he might have headed off the war.
However, at the same time we could also spend time going into the blunders of Britain’s Foreign Minister Lord Grey, who quietly before the Great (sic) War hooked his country into an alliance with France without most of the cabinet understanding Britain’s military obligations! But let us begin with some of the wars of the United States.
The War of 1812
Britain, in a life and death struggle with France, passes the Orders in Council, forbidding most trade with the United States. The United States initially tries to stay out of war with either England or France. Various trade restrictions are hurting both United States and Britain. A crazed British trader, ruined by the Orders in Council, will actually shoot the British prime minister, Spencer Perceval. Britain, using its most powerful weapon, its navy, is stopping ships in international waters, often violating international law. It is sometimes taking American nationals off ships, claiming they are deserters from the British navy.
Many Americans, under president James Madison, are fuming. There’s talk in Congress that America shouldn’t take it anymore; that it should go to war and also take Canada, which is called British North America and is lightly defended. Britain is devoting the bulk of its military resources to a war with the Napoleonic empire. Congressional War Hawks, who want the country to expand north, are baying for war against the British. Finally, in a very narrow vote, the United States votes for war with Britain.
Meanwhile, at almost the same time, the British decided to revoke the Orders in Council, one of the causes of the war. News of the revocation comes too late to the United States. Britain and America go to war. It sends an expedition to Canada that meets with disastrous results. However, the Americans still do some damage by burning York (Toronto). This makes some Canadians homeless. The British have their own “fun” when they march up the Eastern seaboard, easily defeating badly led American troops. The British then burn the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
By the way, the war not only starts too soon, it ends too late. Possibly the biggest battle of the war—-the battle of New Orleans in which an army under the command of General Andrew Jackson kills thousands of attacking British soldiers and whose “glories” (sic) are eulogized in song about a century and a half later—is fought weeks after peace has been made in Ghent.
The war was unnecessary. Better communications could have prevented it. And, once it began, better communications could have ended it sooner. That would have saved thousands of lives and possibly saved cities from being destroyed or shelled. I would say both the British and the Americans—the War Hawks and unscrupulous British leaders who thought their country should rule the world through their navy with its high-handed methods—are at fault in a war that could have been avoided. However, the limitations of communications are also why this war should not have been fought.
The next American war is a land grab war. Its prosecution will lead to the bitter criticism of a president by a young congressman, Abraham Lincoln. He, in turn, will give questionable orders when he is later president during the bloodiest war in his nation’s history. But first we will discuss The Mexican War in the next segment.