Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reconstruction As A Failed SysAdmin Operation

First of all, anyone reading this blog should get off his or her ass and go to New Orleans. It is the most amazing place in America. I was down there last week. There is of course the food and the music. But the museums are also extremely good. The National World War II Museum is remarkable - one of the best historical museums I have ever been to. They have a film narrated by Tom Hanks (who seems to have staked out some kind of personal ownership interest in WWII) that goes a bit over the top in its special effects on occasion, but on the whole, is extremely moving. The collection of artifacts from the war is also fascinating, including a handwritten version of the statement that Eisenhower prepared apologizing to the American people in case D-Day turned into a fiasco.

The battlefield cite in nearby Chalmette (War of 1812) is also worth a visit. While I've never been much of a fan of Jackson, I must say that the Agincourt-like casualty numbers (over 2,000 British casualties and only 71 American casualties) are truly remarkable. Interesting that prior to the Civil War, January 8, the date of the battle, was a national holiday.

By the way, the reason why the WWII museum is located in New Orleans is in honor of Andrew Higgins, founder of Higgins Industries in New Orleans that had manufactured boats capable of operating in shallow waters in the bayous. Higgins designed the landing craft used at D-Day. Eisenhower once commented, "Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us." The design of the landing craft made it possible not only to land massive numbers of soldiers on the Normandy beaches, but also to land heavy equipment such as trucks and tanks directly on the beaches. D-Day was a first in this respect. In prior amphibious landings, it was necessary to capture a nearby port, where heavy equipment could be off-loaded. The design of the "Higgins Boats" enabled them to carry heavy loads in shallow water and thereby made it unnecessary for the Allies to capture a French port city in order to bring heavy equipment ashore.

Another museum that my son and I visited in NOLA was the African-American Museum located in the Treme section of the city. Treme is the historical center of African-American culture in New Orleans, and is generally considered to be the birthplace of jazz. Nearby Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park was the only place in the ante-bellum South where Africans were permitted to perform their traditional songs and dances. The neighborhood originally consisted of a series of plantations that were bought up by Claude Treme in the late 18th Century, who subdivided the land to provide homes for the many free persons of color living in New Orleans.

The museum is centered in a beautiful mansion that was part of one of the original Treme plantations. The exhibits at the museum are actually housed in three separate houses, all connected by a very pleasant courtyard. The collections are fascinating, including some rather grisly relics of slavery such as grotesque wrought-iron neck collars and advertisements for slave auctions that sound a bit too much like some sleazy advertising pitch for Ginzu knives or land in Arkansas that you will likely hear late at night on cable TV. It is always worth remembering that all of this was going on in America less than 150 years ago, without most white Americans having much of a problem about the whole thing.

The exhibit included some portraits of the African-American Senators and Congressmen who were elected in the South during Reconstruction. As I looked at the faces of these proud, confident men (unfortunately they were only men) I was struck by the incredible human devastation brought about by our legacy of racism. After the "compromise" (sell-out) of 1876 that resulted in the withdrawal of Union troops from the South, these men were all removed from office. They spent the rest of their lives terrorized by the Klan. Many ended up in jail on trumped-up charges. Others were killed.

I asked my son if he thought that there was any way that Reconstruction could have been carried out differently, so that African-Americans could have been integrated into American society then and there, making the outcome of the Civil War much more meaningful. My son said that he doubted it, since it would have required a Union military occupation of the South that probably would have had to go on for decades. Very few in the North had the kind of commitment to the rights of African-Americans to support such a long-term occupation. My son was of course right. But as soon as he said it, a very familiar bell went off in my head.

Dedicated readers of this blog (are there any?) are probably familiar with my fascination with the writings of military theorist Thomas P.M. Barnett. To recap the basics, Barnett's principal thesis is that military operations should viewed as having two distinct aspects. The first is what Barnett calls the "Leviathan" phase, which is essentially what we traditionally think of as "war." The second is what Barnett calls the "sysadmin" phase, which is essentially a "postwar" operation. Barnett's thesis is that in the 21st Century, the goal of most warfare will be to "shrink the gap", which means integrating more and more of the world into the global economy. Barnett's contention is that most conflict in today's world emanates from the "gap", namely the parts of the world that remain unconnected to the global economy, so strengthening connectivity must be the goal of America's global security strategy. This can only be accomplished through successful "sysadmin" operations. Most importantly, Barnett emphasizes that if a war is undertaken without due consideration of what will be required in order to carry out an effective postwar "sysadmin" operation - a process that is likely to be protracted, expensive and labor intensive - it is highly unlikely that the original goals that initiated the war can be achieved.

In thinking about the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction, it seems to me that Barnett's analysis applies. At one level, the North fought the Civil War for the narrow and specific goal of preserving the Union. However, if we dig down to a deeper level, we have to ask why it was necessary in the first place to pursue a very destructive and bloody civil war in order to preserve the Union? The answer is fairly obvious to me. The South had evolved into a society which was in virtually every aspect - social, economic, cultural - built upon the institution of race-based slavery.

Thus, the North could on a surface level obtain a military victory over the South, as it did, and thereby achieve the narrow objective of preserving the Union. However, if the North wanted to do anything about the underlying forces that had caused the Union to break apart so violently in the first place, it would have had to address the problem of re-making Southern society. And that would have meant dealing with the issue of race in a big way by fostering the full integration of African-Americans into the economic, political and cultural life of America. To do that, the North would have had to have been prepared to "shrink the gap", that is, carry out a real-live Barnettian "sysadmin" operation, including a long-term occupation of the South by Union troops, in order to fully connect the South, including the African-American population, to the economic, political and social life of America.

As it turned out, the North had no stomach for such a long-term occupation of the South. Instead, the North basically adopted what in some circles has been characterized as the "cut and run" strategy. Following the election of 1876, Northern politicians entered into a corrupt bargain with the traditional Southern elite, which only a few years earlier had been the leadership of the greatest act of treason in U.S. history. The North accepted Jim Crow laws that kept African-Americans in a legal status that was only a marginal improvement upon slavery; the North did nothing to foster the economic development of the African-American community; and the North agreed to tolerate the actions of terrorist organizations such as the Klan designed to oppress the African-American population and maintain a culture in the South grounded in the principle of white supremacy.

We have been living with the consequences of the corrupt bargain of 1876 ever since. If nothing else, the racist bleating that seems to have been emboldened by the election of President Obama should remind us that a belief in white supremacy remains strongly entrenched in too much of this country.

As we contemplate America's future course of action in Afghanistan, we have to wonder about the consequences of any kind of future "deal" that would leave the Taliban in power. Would we be repeating the events of 1876? Would we be leaving the door open to generations of oppression, genocide and terrorism? Perhaps we need not look beyond our own history for the answers.