The Civil War: Kind Of Tragic

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been doing a series of posts arguing that the American Civil War is not a tragedy. And I agree with the spirit of what I take him to be arguing. There’s a view out there — an entirely white-centric view — that regrets that the two sides were unable to find a peaceable way to settle their differences, ignoring the fact that this would have left the vast majority of the country’s black population to languish in slavery indefinitely. It is, however, worth noting that there’s a certain amount of tragedy lurking behind essentially every large war, even the most righteous one.

Consider Gerald Gunderson’s estimate of the market value of all the slaves in the South:

That’s a lot of money, and you can see why southern slaveowners were eager to safeguard their “investment” in human beings. But the Union spent $2.3 billion fighting the war and the South spent $1 billion fighting back. That right there is approximately the monetary cost of just buying all the slaves and freeing them. Except the war option was not only equally costly in narrowly fiscal terms, it also led to the deaths of 625,000 people and all kinds of other physical devastation. Which is just to say that the war, like most wars, was a monumentally negative sum use of human capabilities and economic resources. Expending vast resources in pursuit of human freedom was eminently justifiable, but it’s still the case that relative to other conceivable ways of wrenching slaves from the grips of their masters “fight a giant war” is a tragically wasteful way to do it.

Another, perhaps less loaded, way of putting this is that a war necessarily involves a serious miscalculation on someone’s part. Either you fight and fight and fight and return to the status quo ante, or else someone loses and in retrospect it’s clear that they shouldn’t have fought. In this case, in particular, the white south made a giant mistake. Not just the ethical mistake of founding a society around human bondage, but a practical mistake about where their own best interests lay. Tragedy may not correctly capture the sense of a situation in which there are clear bad guys. But there’s something to be said for the fact that the human tendency to want to settle things by resort to arms is an ongoing tragedy, and even the “good” wars illustrate it in some important ways.