The Erstwhile Conservative, Anson Burlingame, and I have been debating the moral aspects of the Civil War in response to one of the E.C.’s posts, “The Romance of Rebellion”. We have beaten the topic up pretty well, but the issue of morality for leaders such as Robert E. Lee remains unresolved. Anson appropriately raised the case of Erwin Rommel in the same context, but in WWII.
At some point in time we all come to decision-forks in the road of life, sometimes apparent at the time and sometimes only apparent in the rearview mirror of our memories. I can list some of my no-going-back decisions, just off the top of my head:
- When I asked my first girlfriend out on a date.
- When I signed up to take Latin in high school.
- When I resolved to apply to various service academies for scholarships.
- When I ended my relationship with my first girlfriend.
- When I proposed to my wife.
- When I applied for submarine duty.
Yogi Berra said it best. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” That’s
what we do. We make a choice and go on from there. It would be counter-productive to constantly review such decisions because they are mostly irrevocable and because doing so would lead to cognitive dissonance and indecision. So, we decide and then proceed. And one of the stronger memes characterized by what we deem “good leaders” is decisiveness. Significantly, it was indecisiveness that was the flaw in General McClellan’s character, a flaw for which Lincoln rightly sacked him.
The judgement on the rightness of critical decisions comes later, sometimes much later. In Rommel’s case I recognize that he finally did the right thing, and did so courageously. For Lee I submit that he did not do the right thing. Slavery was wrong, but he chose to embrace it. However, he did do many other things right, including fighting bravely, but ending the struggle when the inevitable was apparent.
How mitigating for Lee is the fact that slavery was thoroughly woven into the fabric of his youth, his Virginian culture and the South’s economy? That is admittedly powerful. There was a tipping point there, where Lee’s decision could have gone either way. Why did it go the way it did? Factors must include his upbringing, education, religion and tendency to introspection. Looking at the history of the Civil War I think the closeness of this call, this tipping point, is apparent in how the country was split. The state of Virginia was split. Even families were split. And public opinion is still split across the country.
Some may say it is unfair to criticize people for making the wrong, the immoral, decision at those forks in the road because those moments are brief and the decisions not easily revised. But then, isn’t that the essence of high responsibility? Great leaders must be held to a higher standard in my opinion.
I believe discussions like the one that Duane started are healthy. It is mainly in the medium of writing and reflection on history that we humans have hope of making better decisions when we come to those inevitable forks in the road still ahead of us. In this regard, in this context, I can think of no more-important quality in a national leader than a thorough and thoughtful grasp of history. That’s a lesson we all should take to the voting booth. IMHO.