Lincoln Worse Than Bush!

Brian Moore shreds a Slate piece by John Fabian that praises Abraham Lincoln’s efforts on the laws of war that “built the code that Bush attempted to destroy.”

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.

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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.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Nor, in the end, do the politrically calculated allusions to Lincoln by Obama.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    Lincoln had thousands arrested for not supporting the civil war. How many did Bush have arrested? Did Bush ignore the courts or merely have his policies tested in the courts? Did Bush create internment camps for Muslims and force them from their homes and businesses? Was the Emancipation Proclamation legislated by congress and signed by Lincoln?

    We need to stop this nonsense about Bush brushing aside the Constitution. Establishing legal limits within the court system is not brushing it aside. We should also stop comparing Presidents whose terms are more than 130 years apart. That would include both Bush and Obama.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Anybody interested in Lincoln’s record should read Mark Neely’s Pulitzer-prize winning book: The Fate of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. He was just on C-Span a few nights ago, introducing his comment by stating that Lincoln’s conduct of the war led directly to John Ashcroft. An odd, hyperbolic introduction and I didn’t get to listen to the rest of his talk, but from having read the book, I understand where he was going. My wife listened to the end, and said that Neely gave Lincoln either a B or B plus on civil liberties. And since Neely appears to be one of the only people to attempt to review the military detention records, that’s significant.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    A few added comments:

    The rules of war put together by Lincoln were largely framed around the notion that as between combatant and non-combatant, the burdens of war should fall on the combatant and as between the regular combatant and irregular combatant, the burdens of war should fall on the irregular. Bush generally gets beat up for his treatment of these irregular combatants that Lincoln’s code would have simply seen shot.

    I also don’t believe that any mainstream evaluation of Lincoln would blame him for some atrocity committed by soldiers in the field outside his knowledge. Bush similarly shouldn’t be blamed for Abu Ghraib.

    Also Lincoln’s suspension of habeas was within the mainstream of accepted legal positions prior to the war, many written in examining Andrew Jackson’s suspension in New Orleans. Subsequent court decisions adopted a different interpretation. Again, the cases the Bush administration lost in the SCOTUS were based upon legitimate legal positions and he similarly should not be judged by the subsequent rulings.

  5. tom p says:

    But the idea that Bush was uniquely bad or Lincoln uniquely good doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

    Agreed James, history is never so clear to the astute observer.

    Bush similarly shouldn’t be blamed for Abu Ghraib.

    PD: the link between Bush (or at least Rummy) and Abu Ghraib is very clear, as shown by Jane Mayer in “The Dark Side”. Even if one is inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt that “he didn’t know what was going on” he still put certain people in a place to know.

    Thanx for the recommendation on the Neely book, it is on my list now.

  6. odograph says:

    The pivotal difference between the war is that one was within the country, and one was on the other side of the world. To think that decisions about individual freedom are independent of that is laughable.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    Even if one is inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt that “he didn’t know what was going on” he still put certain people in a place to know.

    But if we use that standard, Lincoln is to blame for the water torture used systemically by people under his chain of command. Also, numerous atrocities committed by Sherman’s troops in Georgia are his fault because he should have known that moving across the country freed from supply lines was going to create a lot of friction with the civilian communities. Lincoln doesn’t usually get blamed for these remote events, except for people who have pre-existing issues with Lincoln.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    The pivotal difference between the war is that one was within the country, and one was on the other side of the world. To think that decisions about individual freedom are independent of that is laughable.

    I think that’s true, but the other big difference is the draft. Probably the nadir of Lincoln on civil liberties was his defense of his general’s arrest of ex-Congressman Vallandigham. As Lincoln asked, was he to shoot the young, ignorant deserter, while not harming a hair on the head of the wily agitator encouraging him to desert? OTOH, at what point does political opposition to the draft become an inducment to violate the draft laws? Bush didn’t have these issues.

    But Bush did detain a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant outside of the domestic courts, which is probably the nadir of Bush’s conduct. But that decision was upheld by the SCOTUS.

  9. tom p says:

    But if we use that standard, Lincoln is to blame for the water torture used systemically by people under his chain of command.

    PD, your point is taken, mine was badly made. My point is this: Lincoln was days, weeks, months, away from news from the “front”. Bush was minutes, hours, days away… and always seperated by no more than his people. Decisions made at the “highest” levels led to abuses at the “lowest” levels, for both. But who made efforts to make it right? Who had true oppurtunity to make it right?

    A straight Lincoln/Bush comparison is not fair… to Lincoln. I would like to think that some things have improved.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Nor, in the end, do the politrically calculated allusions to Lincoln by Obama.

    Poor bitsy. A lifetime spent being jealous of the cool kids…