No Comment — February 12, 2009, 1:16 pm

Remembering the Real War President

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and it deserves to be commemorated in a fashion other than a shopping trip. He was America’s real war president, and he was also a giver of laws for war. Indeed, the notion of humanitarian law, as it emerged from the American Civil War and developed over the following 150 years, can hardly be imagined without the guiding hand of Lincoln. But that effort was part of Lincoln’s resolve to wage an aggressive and ultimately successful war to reinstate the Union, and it was driven by acceptance of the Kantian notion that war can bring about good, but that it requires rules and discipline, and a guiding vision of the just to do so. My Columbia colleague John Faber Witt offers a short essay on Lincoln, the giver of laws of war, at Slate. It’s a salve for difficult times. Here’s a snippet:

The code reduced the international laws of war into a simple pamphlet for wide distribution to the amateur soldiers of the Union army. It prohibited torture, poisons, wanton destruction, and cruelty. It protected prisoners and forbade assassinations. It announced a sharp distinction between soldiers and noncombatants. And it forbade attacks motivated by revenge and the infliction of suffering for its own sake. Most significantly, the code sought to protect channels of communication between warring armies. And it elevated the truce flag to a level of sacred honor.

In the spring of 1863, Lincoln’s code was given not just to the armies of the Union but to the armies of the Confederacy. The code set out the rules the Union would follow—and that the Union would expect the South to follow, too. For the next two years, prisoner-exchange negotiations relied on the code to set the rules for identifying those who were entitled to prisoner-of-war status. Trials of Southern guerilla fighters and other violators of the laws of war leaned on the code’s rules for support. The Union war effort became far more aggressive than it had been under McClellan’s rules. As the Union’s fierce Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman put it, Lincoln brought the “hard hand of war” to the population of the South. But this more aggressive posture was not at odds with Lincoln’s new code. It was the code’s fulfillment.

I firmly believe that Lincoln’s experience has much to offer our nation at this time. Here’s what Witt has to say on that score:

For the past seven years, America has repeated the journey Lincoln completed in 24 grueling months. Strong majorities of Americans now call for the dismantling of detention facilities at Guantanamo. Even stronger majorities oppose the use of torture in interrogations. As a nation, we have walked in Lincoln’s footsteps, down an uncertain path from skepticism about the laws of war to a rediscovery of their pragmatic mix of toughness and humanity. President Obama, in his inaugural address, pledged to reconcile our interests and our ideals. This is precisely what Lincoln’s laws of war sought to accomplish, rejecting lawlessness while relentlessly pursuing threats to our way of life.

Well said. The current administration is right to summon Lincoln’s image, his words, and his resolve. They can be an essential part of the elixir to cure our current woes. They give us a nation that stood as a beacon for democracy when it was all but eclipsed from the earth. We would be dishonest with ourselves if we did not recognize that our nation has strayed from that beacon.

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