Lincoln Worse Than Bush!
The piece manages to compliment Lincoln for being both heroically restrained and heroically aggressive when it came to the laws of war. It simultaneously honors him for enacting humane rules with regard to war and firing generals who wanted, by the author’s own admission, less stringent rules. People need to recognize that past presidents, like those today, are simply people. Often extremely contradictory and flawed people. They don’t have to be demigods. They were often very wrong, and very often, horribly brutal in ways that would shock modern sensibilities.
Anyone who has even glanced at the history of the Civil War is aware of how shockingly destructive the campaigns Sherman (and other Northern generals) were. It became the paradigm for modern warfare — scorched earth. One can’t be the leader who presided over this without inheriting some of the guilt. Slavery and terrorism are both terrible evils — but neither justifies what Lincoln did, or what Bush did. The article is trying to convince us that Lincoln was a hero because he tried to establish a code of conduct for war (while firing generals who tried the same) and also a hero for aggressively taking the war to the civilians of his enemy. This is not a tenable position. Nor is it particularly factual. As bad as the crimes of the Bush administration towards its prisoners, they pale when compared in volume or extremity to the “treatment” of inmates in Civil War prisoner of war camps on either side.
And finally, the article actually makes me wonder who was worse on this front: Bush or Lincoln? Even if we grant that Lincoln established an impeccable standard on torture or POW’s, the article has to admit that his military campaigns were not only extremely destructive to enemy civilians, but were intended to do so. Whereas even the greatest critics of Bush have to admit that he did not execute a scorched earth policy against Afghanistan or Iraq.
Both Lincoln and Bush claimed extreme authority and brushed aside the Constituion in order to do what they thought they needed to in their respective wars. Both were admirably humane in some ways and short-sightedly brutal in others in prosecuting said wars. Indeed, the same could be said of most, perhaps all, wartime presidents in American history.
To be sure, our values evolve over time and the panoptic nature of modern wars changes our perception. But the idea that Bush was uniquely bad or Lincoln uniquely good doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.