Rejoicing in War
“Many Northerners…rejoiced that the United States could prove its power in war. War showed that the American nation had strength equal or superior to all others.” [The Destructive War, 155]
But the rejoicing was about more than the United States’ power: it was also and more importantly about the United States’ virtue, a virtue that constituted the United States’ greatness. Northerners were rejoicing in the war because the war established and proved the greatness of the United States, proved its magnanimity.
This is why human beings rejoice in war. For example, in the US, post-9/11: Bush, with his megaphone at “Ground Zero,” was anticipating, rejoicing in the coming worldwide war on terror that he would proudly and self-righteously proclaim. And, of course, the people cheered. They too were rejoicing in anticipation of that war because it would establish and demonstrate America’s greatness. It is in the shedding of blood that nations and people demonstrate their virtue, their magnanimity, their greatness.
Nathanial P. Banks, former governor of Massachusetts, claimed during the Civil War: “It [the nation] has been sanctified by the sacrifice of the best blood of the people and that sacrifice has made it a nation, indissoluble and eternal.” [ibid. 150] Shedding blood, yours or others, giving it or taking it, is sanctifying, sanctifies the nation, confirming its greatness. And so, the sanctified nation must be honored by its members. God blessed America. Defying America is beyond treason; it is defying God; it is sacrilegious or unholy. And, of course, Lincoln, at Gettysburg, said the blood that was shed there sanctified that ground and would give the nation “a new birth of freedom.” Like other births, this one was accompanied by bloodshed.
Rejoicing in war underlines the ambiguity of moral virtue, of the quest for and attainment of political greatness. Those pursuing moral virtue and those pursuing political greatness embrace war, willingly, even eagerly. Perhaps this is why Plato said that “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”