Opinion Forum

Robert Simpson: The lingering effects of old beliefs

I recently began watching again the Ken Burns documentary, "The Civil War." That conflict provides exceptionally clear examples of pitfalls to avoid, if only we will. I have been fascinated by the Civil War for most of my life, learning new lessons from it as the years go by. It offers, from both sides of the conflict, clear examples of heroism, honor, military genius, political incompetence and military ineptitude of amazing proportions. And is, in its entirety, a ghastly example of blindness to facts and the inability to distinguish between daydreams and reality. Some of the same resistance to facts, and a tendency to accept falsehoods easily if they track with our preferred beliefs, can be seen around us today.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, it seems incredible that Americans, proclaiming themselves the premier exemplar of freedom and democracy, could have enslaved other humans for more than two centuries. And then propelled the country into a bloody war to prevent interference with either the practice or with the opportunity to spread it to other parts of the continent. This took a massive amount of self-deception and an unwillingness to face facts.

While many in the South, even some slave-holders, saw the evil in slavery, relaxing their grip on the tiger they were holding seemed impossible to do. The Baptist denomination in the South broke away from their brethren in the North because the Southern group insisted that their pastors and missionaries be allowed to own slaves. Down through the years, Southerners of the stature of Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee had understood the evil of the practice but had seemed helpless to conceive of a method to end it. So eventually the country slid into the most bloody fratricide imaginable. And, yes, modern deniers to the contrary, slavery was the central cause. Other factors were involved in the South's determination to secede -- an insistence upon state's rights that would eventually help to destroy the Confederacy itself, regional imbalance and unfairness in commerce, and the hint of an inferiority complex and resulting resentment that persists to this day -- but the underlying cause was slavery.

Refusing to face facts, both North and South initially believed that the war would be very short. Both believed they could quickly overcome their opponents. The South, relying upon its militaristic traditions, believed with some justification that it held an advantage in military leadership and basic soldiering, but refused to recognize the reality that much greater resources in personnel, manufacturing, and materiel could eventually outweigh the advantage of better generals and very tough soldiers.

Remnants of the Southern mindset have somehow survived to this day. Whiffs of the old resentment and belligerence are readily detected. Subconscious longing for good old days that never actually existed except for a small handful of people and in books and movies seems to drive conversations in the press, on talk shows, and in social media. Just as in the years leading up to the Civil War, truth that runs counter to wishes seems to carry no weight. Outright lies by politicians are accepted if they fit one's dreams, and proof that they are lies changes nothing.

In the years leading up to the horror of the war, some tried to point out the facts. But zealots and dreamers alike will accept no facts that run counter to their rock-hard positions. If you read and listen today, you will see evidence of a similar inflexibility. Politicians sometimes tell outright lies, and those who prefer to believe them will. Showing facts that reveal the lie changes remarkably few minds, if any.

This kind of refusal to budge, no matter the evidence, can lead to disaster. Disasters can come in many ways. The lingering effects of the disaster of 1861-1865 suggests we ought to seek truth instead of daydreams while we try to capitalize on our shared membership in a great nation instead of on our differences.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."