Short version of the Coates piece: many people discussing the Civil War consider the war itself a tragedy because of the loss of life; Mr. Coates wonders whether we shouldn't be celebrating it along the same lines of the Revolutionary War or World War II: a lot of suffering that was necessary for some greater good. As Dan frames it in the title of his post, "Should We Celebrate The Civil War With Hot Dogs and Fireworks?"
I feel quite strongly that we shouldn't. Of course, I've always felt pretty strongly that we shouldn't be celebrating any war (and, as Dan's commenter James Sweet rightly points out, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence rather than the Revolutionary War). But I think there's a deeper point to be made here, too. Even if the Civil War was necessary for a greater good, we should still not be celebratory. The thought of thousands dying beneath Antietam's sun should invoke a kind of horror.
Over the holidays I saw a Law and Order: SVU episode, "Harm," for the first time. The reviews online are pretty low, and I'll grant that it has almost nothing to do with sex and at times came off as being propagandish. But the plot did make me think. In it, there's this medical doctor who was engaged as a scientist to devise "torture light" - pressure poses, psychological tactics, and other things that would make people easier to break during interrogation. An ex-detainee had been murdered by a military contractor gone rogue, but said contractor had fled the jurisdiction. The doctor he worked with was left behind, and they wanted to try the doctor for setting in motion the torture that led to a detainee's death.
The doctor was more than a bit mystified by how what she had done could be considered murder, or even immoral. She was saving lives, she wasn't torturing them or even aiding anything as extreme as what the Taliban was probably doing to Americans. And she wasn't the detainees' doctor, she was a consulting scientist. But she was using her knowledge of the human body - gained so she could alleviate suffering - to cause pain and bodily harm. She knew just how much stress a person could go through in a certain position so they wouldn't be able to choose what to say any more, and she taught men with guns how to do it.
By the end of the episode, I was a bit horrified at the good doctor. Not because of what she had done but because she had no remorse. I'm thinking about something David Hume wrote - that reasons guide our emotions but that our emotions are what actually drives us to act or not to act in a certain way. We should be horrified when we have to kill someone or harm them in other ways. Even if that harm ends up being for the greater good. Because without the revulsion we won't think things through and we'll do evil too easily. War should be hard.
I have no problem with people celebrating the Declaration of Independence, or for that matter the emancipation of slavery. But there's something repugnant about thinking someone would want to celebrate Antietam. When that kind of thing happens, I think we've really started lose perspective.