It seems that people go to war in a manner almost entirely dictated by the accident of the timing and geography of their birth. If I were a young Afghan man in 1979, the odds that I would end up fighting against the Soviet invasion would be near total if I were in all other ways normally fit for Afghan military service. Conversely, were I a young Soviet man in 1979, I would have fought against the Afghans. Exceptions to this rule certainly exist, and they are interesting as hell, but they are not statistically significant.
Think of the young man coming into manhood in Germany in the late 1930’s. This incredibly unfortunate circumstance would have placed him in the German Army during World War II. And he would have been marching in a German uniform almost no matter who he was prior to 1939–and that’s the scary part. The fact that he was there, then, was dispositive. It almost never matters significantly to the building of an Army that any given Soldier was a nice guy, or a bad guy, a hawk, or a dove. The forces of culture, peer pressure, and generally innate local loyalty ensured that Napoleon, Hitler, and Westmoreland had all the Soldiers they needed to conduct war on a massive scale.
There is not much evidence that this will change; as recently as today Americans went to Afghanistan and/or Iraq because of where and when they were born. The guy who grows up on a farm in Iowa doesn’t decide that there is an African Civil War he’d feel better about being involved in versus America’s engagements unless he’s a mercenary. Mercenaries are few and far between. Instead, Austin Farmboy goes and fights in Afghanistan because he graduated High School in some nice little town in Iowa in 2018.
Let’s first distinguish between whether someone goes to war at all versus whose team they end up on. Lots of people don’t go to war at all for various reasons: unfit medically or mentally, too old or too young, ineligible due to gender, or just never conscripted and therefore preferred to do, and did, other things with their lives. Of course, faced with conscription, some get out of going to war due to corrupt reasons: with the help of connections, or fraud, or financial status. But these evasion of service cases added up don’t materially affect any war. (Someone is sent in their place, someone whose accident of birth is appropriate for the war.)
Focusing now on those who do go to war, let’s picture how it typically goes down. Let’s take an Australian guy in World War I. In Australia, 38.7 % of the male population aged 18-44 enlisted for service in support of the British Empire and against the Germans. Why? Because their uncle at the dinner table was blustering triumphantly that the Germans would finally get what they deserved. Because Grandpa fought with the British in the Boer War at the turn of the century and was wounded! (There’s his service rifle still over the fireplace right there; he let me hold it once.) Because all the young men have been walking about town looking importantly at each other and discussing which Regiment to join. Because, especially because, his Ma and little sister are terrified; and that makes you know that you are suddenly important. Because Regiments and uniforms and guns and ‘doing your part’ suddenly crystallize colorfully in the air over the drab landscape of crops being harvested and sent on newfangled coal-fired ships elsewhere. Because Australia pledged support to the British Empire and By God, the Australians won’t let them down. Because Governor-General Thomas Denman, 3rd Baron Denman Ronald Munro Ferguson is making an important radio announcement tonight and everyone in town will be gathered in groups near the radio. That’s why they went to war, and not because of any protracted thoughtful analysis of the morals, ethics and values involved. They simply went with the home team and reaped the respect of their peers and communities.
Substitute the time and place and we’ve seen this drama play out similarly for centuries. So, why point out this embarrassing fact? Because it’s time to talk about the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. Alabama, April, 1862: Fort Sumter has just fallen. Jedediah Farmboy from Alabama is going to wear a Confederate uniform for all the same reasons: His uncle, his grandfather, what Regiment should I join, Ma is worried but I’ll make her proud. Arguments over slavery, state’s rights, economics, and all manner of indignation over politics dominated the discussions at the General Stores, North and South, but these issues didn’t materially affect the makeup of the Regiments. A Georgian Regiment was made up of Georgia boys and a Maine Regiment was comprised of Maine boys.
So, if we accept all this, how can we tear down statues of Confederate Generals, and the states they represented, when we know that they did what they did by accident of birth and then generally tried to carry out their mission with all the honor and bravery they could muster? Especially when we know that Joshua Chamberlain himself would have fought for the Confederacy were he born in Mississippi instead of Maine? People usually give two reasons: Well, the Confederates were all traitors. But, our founding fathers were traitors to their country and we can’t get enough statues of them. Well, the Confederates lost. But, we lost in Vietnam and we haven’t torn down our memorials to the Vietnam War in every town.
Sure, slavery was so bad that we shouldn’t endorse it in any form. But, how far down that chain do we go? Do we abolish every knicknack, song, or favorite southern food that is reminiscent of the Confederacy? Trust me, the Civil War is barely over and insulting the history, honor and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of people who went to war by accident of birth will probably backfire, and soon.
People who revere the statues and flags of the Confederacy due to their racial bigotry against blacks won’t convert because some of their favorite symbols are attacked. To the contrary.
And people who revere the statues and flags of the Confederacy due to southern military honor and family history will feel the caprice and hypocrisy of the moment and won’t forget it.