Devil and Angel

The perceptions of good and evil can be reversed if we can rationalize a cause as moral and righteous.

We’ve had it pretty good in this country. We’ve never had a military coup or any usurping of executive functions by the legislature or the military. There was that unfortunate storming of the capitol in a misguided attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, but we can write that off a lesson learned. It’s just that we all didn’t learn the same lessons, and that’s part of the problem. Anyway, it fell short of a coup. It had all the components of sedition, even an act of treason, that its apologists have downgraded as, at most, nonviolent protest, and, at least, a gathering of curious citizens touring the seat of our democratic government. But, so far, no overthrows or coups.

We’ve had good presidents and bad presidents, in terms of competency, and we’ve had presidents with questionable morals. But we’ve never had an evil president or a despot with visions of taking over the world. Well, not one with the minions to get that accomplished anyway. Minions are like apostles of the chosen, and it always seems to turn out bad for their anointed ones in the end.

What does it take to convince millions of people to follow a cause that is clearly immoral? History tells us there are two ways. One is essentially generational peer pressure, sustaining our way of life. Several generations grow up believing something is right and moral which ultimately proves to be false. The other requires an ambitious, dynamic leader who can convince an entire country that the ends justify the means regardless of morality. This is the antichrist approach, a supremely evil person convincing the masses that he or she is the truth and the light.

I pondered this topic some six years ago in a newspaper column under the headline, “History’s Lessons Still Need to Be Revisited.” Donald Trump had recently announced his candidacy for President, and I must say, at the time, I didn’t think he had much of a chance of winning the Republican nomination, let alone advancing to the White House.

The reason I chose this topic at the time was I had recently returned from a getaway weekend. Mary and I had stayed in an historic downtown hotel in a Pennsylvania town that was, for a few days a least, overrun and under the control of Confederate soldiers in the summer of 1863. It didn’t take a whole lot of shots to conquer Shippensburg since there were few troops to defend it. It consisted mostly of the 1st New York Calvary being chased through the town by a Confederate Calvary Unit under the command of General Albert Jenkins and required barely an hour of hostilities on the afternoon of June 24. They just took over the place. However, the Rebels would, within a matter of days, join in the carnage at Gettysburg between the 1st and 3rd of July.

Being as close as we were to Gettysburg, we spent Sunday morning there in February 2016— staying off the battlefield because of two feet of snow and my ailing knees, both of which would be replaced in a matter of days. We revisited the museum with its impressive Cyclorama and exhibits. It reminded me just how the course of U.S. history might have changed had this battle turned out differently.

Our Greatest Threats Come from Within

Almost as many American soldiers died in the Civil War (620,000) as in all our other wars since combined (644,000), and the chief reason behind it was slavery, not state’s rights, as is the nobler and more disingenuous excuse. The biggest difference between that war and either of the World Wars, Korea or Vietnam, is that all the blood was shed on our own soil. The toll of civilian deaths has been estimated at 50,000, which according to the National Park Service, exceeded the deaths of civilians in any country in WW I or II. We worry about defending our land against foreign invaders, but Civil War history tells us we were more a threat to ourselves than from enemies abroad. It seems the greatest threats to our democracy are still internal.

My fascination with the Civil War is trying to put myself in the shoes of those who were involved in this wholesale butchery of their countrymen. If I were born and raised in Georgia, for example, perhaps on a plantation where slaves provided most of the labor, would I have condoned slavery, regarding it as something worth dying for?

I like to think that I would have stood up and raised my fist in protest, but few did and we are, after all, products of our environments. It would have been a matter of sustaining my way of life. More than 9 million people in seven states were willing to fight for a cause that centered on their right to enslave other human beings for economic gain. Many were poor and unable to hold slaves, but though they may have been regarded as “poor white trash” their station was at least higher than a slave.

The toll of war is even more horrific on a global scale in the 20th Century alone. An estimated 60 million combatants and civilians died in just a handful of years, including the still unfathomable mass extermination of 1.75 million European Jews in a carefully planned process. One man instigated much of this, and the toll in his extermination camps alone was more than four times the number of Americans killed in the European and Pacific zones of that war.

Adolf Hitler, of course, was an antichrist figure able to convince most Germans that their inherent superiority, birthright or ordination by a higher authority gave them the moral authority to behave immorally. It is the Nazi phenomenon that fascinates me, because so many Germans were fooled into being complicit in starting and executing a world war, as well as attempting to kill off an entire religion and culture— their scapegoat for losing the first world war and the economic penalties that ensued.

There were mitigating factors that allowed Hitler to take power and gain control over the populace, but the bottom line is this: a lot of good people did a lot of bad things, and many times that number stood by and allowed wholesale evil to flourish.

If we, as a country, are capable of supporting any evil cause, it is unlikely to be due to generational peer pressure, though sustaining our way of life is a powerful tool in American politics. The one positive impact of the Civil War is that it essentially cleansed us, via the blood shed in so many fields of battle, of the urge to quickly join lock-step in a cause of questionable morality.

Or so we like to believe.

If we stray from the path of righteousness, so to speak, it will most likely be due to an antichrist scenario. This is not necessarily the antichrist of the Book of Revelations, but someone with the power, like a Hitler, to move great numbers of people.  It is likely he or she would have to convince us that our way of life is threatened, perhaps by people with contrary political or religious beliefs. Then there the reliable tool of hatred festered by racism or antisemitism. History tells us it has happened before, and we, as a people, have a proclivity for repeating our mistakes.

Most Americans didn’t even want to join in stopping Hitler from fulfilling his dream of world domination until quite late in the war—and then it was because the Japanese took it too far at Pearl Harbor.

Now we’re seeing another tyrant thumbing his nose at the United States and the so-called free world by invading Ukraine and slaughtering soldiers and civilians— mostly from long-range with missiles. It’s almost as cowardly as a man with an AR-15 slaughtering children in their classrooms. Their assault, replete with war crimes, has resulted in 9,000 civilian casualties alone, according to the Human Rights Office of the United Nations— almost half of them killed. At least 262 of the confirmed killed have been children. A typical response by Nazi officers and guards when asked how they justified killing hundreds of thousands of children, including babies, as morally the right thing to do in Hitler’s extermination camps was simple: Jewish children grow up to be Jewish adults and they are our enemy. Therefore, we kill them now instead of later.

How they came to be the enemy was mostly due to unsubstantiated propaganda, sustained by conspiracy theories, which is another oft-repeated mistake that history should have taught us to circumvent.

Then again, what would be the rationale for mowing down eight- and nine-year-old boys and girls on a blackboard-enclosed killing floor?