Lessons of another Reconstruction

I ask you to look at the current effort in Iraq from the perspective of my country's experience. Although the US government conquered and attempted to reconstruct my country over a century ago, scars still remain, and to this day the experience still colors relations between citizens here and the US government.

Most pundits and officials have compared the situation in Iraq to Germany, Japan, or even France after World War II. However, a better analogy lies closer to home. Reconstruction of the Confederate states in the South was America's largest and longest such operation, and its most spectacular failure.

As in Iraq, the original standing army was abolished and the leaders and officers of the old regime were disenfranchised. About 200,000 troops were stationed in the conquered territory, which had a population far smaller than modern Iraq's, and a provisional military authority was established. Despite, or because of, the large military presence of the victors and their militias, terrorist insurgents soon emerged who killed an inestimable number of liberated black Southerners in the first year of occupation alone. Terrorists and paramilitaries intimidated all those who wanted to exercise their franchise or work with the occupying power. These terrorists, and the constituency they represented, ultimately broke the will of the US government.

I teach at one of the few surviving legacies of the Reconstruction Acts - Howard University. It and a handful of similar institutions are the only remnants of once ambitious plans to liberate an enslaved people and create a country that respects democracy and fundamental human rights.

This reconstruction and attempt at redrawing the mental map of the South was such a colossal failure that US troops were again deployed to the South 100 years later on essentially the same mission: to protect the lives and rights of disenfranchised African-Americans.

Nonetheless, when this long-delayed liberation came, it did not come at the end of a sword but at the hands of the oppressed people themselves, with the help of a free press and a global concern for human rights. This liberation came despite the impassioned conservative opposition of Strom Thurmond and other racists welcomed into the Republican Party's big tent since the 1960s, including the racist element appealed to in 2002 by Trent Lott, then the Senate majority leader. His widely publicized remarks about "all these problems," at a party honoring Senator Thurmond, referred of course to civil-rights era protests, not to the lynchings and terror that preceded them.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has publicly defended the "Southern patriots" of the Civil War, and the Confederate flag has elected more than one Republican governor over the past five years. These men are unreconstructed, a full seven score years after Atlanta and Savannah were brutally shocked and awed. Such is the state of the party of Abraham Lincoln, a man whose statue is still too controversial to be erected in the capital of my home state of Virginia.

The experience of the American South gives us some idea of the long-term suffering and hatreds caused by invasion, war, and occupation, even when guided by benign and noble presidents who wanted to help the defeated, as Lincoln and Johnson undeniably did.

In a May 23 Washington Post article, Republican Lewis Lehrman and neoconservative editor William Kristol advocated staying the course in Iraq, and their central analogy was Lincoln's determination to win the American Civil War and the subsequent reconstruction of the defeated South.

Apparently the story of Reconstruction in America's South gives Mr. Lehrman and Mr. Kristol hope for Iraq. It is not surprising that they gloss over this ugly history and the recent ugly nature of their chosen political party and administration. Here is their glowing assessment of the lessons from the Civil War: "Shortly thereafter came the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery, the surrender of the Confederacy and the beginning of a long process of Reconstruction. Lincoln's war aims were ultimately realized. What of the war aims of President Bush?"

What, indeed? If the analogy holds, four score and seven billion dollars and over 4,000 killed or wounded troops are only the first payment for a goal that will be almost fully realized in 2144.

Kenneth Mayer teaches in the classics department at Howard University.

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