Is the F-35 a dogfighter or just a dog?

Those of you who've read Red Cell know that the book ends with an aerial dogfight between US Navy F-35s and the Chinese Air Force over the Taiwan Strait. When I started writing that novel more than 10 years ago, stories about performance issues with the F-35 were already starting to crop up. At the time, I had faith that Lockheed Martin would be able to fix the problems and turn the F-35 into a first-rate fighter.

It looks increasingly like my faith was unjustified.

"Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement," the F-35 pilot reported. That means the F-35 constantly found itself flying slower and more sluggishly, unable to effectively maneuver to get the F-16 in its sights.

If this report is true, I'm not sure "debacle" is a strong enough word to describe this.

Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

In the wake of white supremacist Dylan Roof's murder of nine parishioners in a historic South Carolina Church, there have been a lot of calls recently to abolish any display or sale of Confederate flags. There is no question that, for many people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of intolerance, slavery, and hatred, which has led to call for the Confederate flag to be abolished from our popular culture.

Let me state up front that I unequivocally condemn Roof's actions. He's a murderer who deserves to have the full weight of the law come down on him.

That said, here are my thoughts on the Confederate flag.


Seventy miles west of Richmond, Virginia on US Rt. 60 sits Buckingham Courthouse, an edifice designed by Thomas Jefferson. Across the street from that building sits a Confederate war memorial, flanked by a pair of Napoleon guns (still pointing north, I must add).

 

As a young boy growing up, I saw that monument almost daily, as I had to pass by it on the way to church or school; but I never thought much of it. Finally, one day in my mid-teens, I wandered over to it and read the inscription. It reads, in all caps:

"To commemorate the
devotion and heroism
of the
Confederate Soldiers
of
Buckingham Country
who valued principle
more than life
and fought for a cause
they knew to be just."

That was perplexing. "...a cause they knew to be just"? How, in Heaven's name, I wondered, could anyone think that defending slavery was a just cause? It boggled the mind. It wasn't until I became a military analyst years later that I finally understood--slavery wasn't the primary cause that most of them thought they were defending--and learned that history is always much more complicated than it appears in hindsight.


Most modern Americans would probably be surprised to learn that if you asked a Northerner in 1861 why he was going to war against the South, his answer would not have been any variation of "to eliminate slavery." His answer would have been "to preserve the Union." Don't believe me?

In August 1862, newspaper editor Horace Greeley published an open letter to President Abraham Lincoln in the New York Tribune, in which he questioned Lincoln's commitment (in scolding terms) to ending slavery and demanded to know just what policy the president was pursuing. Lincoln replied, saying:

"As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing' as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Lincoln had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer when he wrote his reply to Greeley. He'd been sitting on that draft for a month and he would sit on it for almost another month before announcing it. Lincoln thought slavery was a moral evil, but he also viewed eliminating it as a political means to the end of preserving the Union. So he waited to release the Proclamation until the opportune moment when it would hurt the Confederate cause the most--after the Union Army had won a significant battlefield victory (Antietam), when he could act from a position of political strength to inexorably intertwine the abolition of slavery with the war and erase all Confederate hopes of European assistance (the European nations had all abolished slavery and weren't going to help save a slave-holding nation win a war to preserve the institution).

But even after Lincoln released the Proclamation, many Northerners didn't consider abolition to be a paramount goal of the war. George McClellan--an insubordinate general who Lincoln fired twice--ran for president in 1864 as a Democrat. The Democrats that year promoted a platform of ending the war immediately and making peace with the South, which would have let both the Confederate States of America and the institution of slavery survive. McClellan undermined his own campaign by calling for the war to continue but not abolishing slavery, putting him at odds with his own party. McClellan lost to Lincoln but he won 45% of the popular vote.

In November 1864, almost half of all voting Northerners effectively cast a ballot that would have let slavery survive. It was the price they were willing to pay to end the war, one way or the other.


Most modern Americans would probably also be surprised to learn that if you asked a Southerner in 1861 why he was going to war against the North, his answer would not have been "to preserve slavery." His answer would have been "to defend my home" or "to defend my state's rights." Don't believe me?

Before the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee himself was asked by one of his lieutenants whether he would take up arms against the Union. Lee replied, saying, "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty." Later, when he was offered command of the Union Army by Lincoln adviser Francis P. Blair, Lee replied, "Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves at the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?" I've never read a verifiable quote by Lee where he said that he was fighting to preserve the institution of slavery (if anyone knows of one, I'd love to see it).

That slavery was the flashpoint over which the states' rights argument ignited is inarguable; several Southern legislatures made it pretty clear that they considered preserving slavery an existential issue. But it really was the trigger for the larger question--do states have the right to secede from the Union when they believe the US Government isn't being sufficiently deferential to the states? Remember that that was an open question in 1861 and had been since the days of the Founding Fathers.

Another anecdote to support that point: During the Republican Convention of 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower revealed that he kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the Oval Office. Dr. Leon Scott, a New York dentist, wrote to Eisenhower saying, "I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me...Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?" Eisenhower's replied with a letter worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote just this section:

Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted. 

General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America...

As Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian, put it, "Before the war, it was said 'the United States are.' Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always 'the United States is,' as we say to day without being self-conscious at all. And that’s sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'" That was the big question that the war settled. The abolition of slavery--possibly the greatest historical moment of the 19th century--really was a morally righteous byproduct of finally answering that question.


I believe that was the "just cause" to which the Buckingham Courthouse monument refers--not the preservation of slavery, but the defense of one's home from an overly intrusive federal government. That's what the Confederate flag meant to them and it's a cause with which many Americans still sympathize. (Note: what most people call the "Confederate flag" was actually the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia; the Confederate States of America never settled on a single flag during that country's brief existence.)

But in a sense, what they thought is irrelevant. The relevant question is: what does the Confederate flag mean to us now? Without question, for most Americans it's become equated with the institution of slavery. It shouldn't be that simplistic, but it is (I blame the education system for doing a lousy job teaching history) and seeing it flown offends large swaths of our countrymen.

So what's the right thing to do? Here's my answer--I'm frustrated that the whole debate is taking place in a climate of ignorance. I would much prefer to see all Americans dive into Civil War history and educate themselves on the nuances of the flag's history and its connection to states' rights, slavery, and the other causes behind the war--but that's not going to happen. So I think there should be compromise. Let's take what our society perceives as symbols of hatred and use them to educate people about why past generations believed their "cause to be just" so we can avoid their mistakes. Just don't confuse education and veneration. Individuals are free to do what they will, but as a society, we should agree to keep those flags in museums, classrooms, and any other educational, governmental, or even commercial setting where they would be useful for teaching that part of our history.

But let's not fly them from flagpoles.

Addendum: Some have asked me whether I think South Carolina should be allowed to fly the Confederate flag over the state capitol, etc since it's "part of their heritage." I say no. Setting aside the cultural and emotional questions about whether it represent slavery, etc, it is, if nothing else, the flag of a foreign power (albeit a dead one). Flying the flag of a foreign power is a demonstration of allegiance to that power. South Carolina's sole allegiance should be to the United State of America, so it has no more business flying a Confederate flag over its capitol than it does a British, French, or Russian flag.

A Little Eye Candy

Well, as is often the case, there's good news and there's bad news.

The good news is that Novel #3 is basically finished and even has a title: The Fall of Moscow Station. Here's the blurb for it that recently ran in Publisher's Marketplace—

Mark Henshaw's THE FALL OF MOSCOW STATION, the third book in the Red Cell series, brings the trilogy to a head as CIA field agent Kyra Stryker and analyst Jonathan Burke chase a CIA traitor to an abandoned Soviet nuclear base outside Berlin, where they find themselves facing off against a Russian spymaster who's been selling advanced technologies to US enemies.

The bad news is that Simon & Schuster has decided not to publish it until May 2016...11 months from now. Terribly sorry about that. It's quite a wait, I know, but unfortunately, I don't have any control over the publication schedule.

As a consolation prize, here's the nifty cover that S&S came up with for the mass market paperback of Cold Shot, due out later this year. The S&S graphic designers are working the Fall of Moscow Station cover art as we speak and I'll post it as soon as it's finished.

I like this better than the Cold Shot hardback cover.

I like this better than the Cold Shot hardback cover.

Apple vs DOJ: This is why people hate lawyers

The Apple antitrust saga continues. From MacNN News:

"The Second US Circuit Court of Appeals handed Apple a minor defeat on Thursday in its fight to both get rid of the antitrust 'watchdog' a biased lower court had appointed for it, as well as overturn the earlier court ruling entirely. In a decision on the fate of Michael Bromwich—a personal friend of the original trial judge Denise Cote who Apple has argued is not qualified in antitrust and who has attempted to conduct investigations outside his remit—the court decided that while there was evidence of abuse, Bromwich can stay in place until the court decides on Apple's overall appeal.

The court did take note of the evidence of overreach by Bromwich, noting that his actions have given the court 'pause' and appearing to agree with a number of outside observers which have complained about both his qualifications and exorbitant fees, but said that Apple lacked sufficient reasons to throw out Cote's original appointment — leaving some to wonder what exactly it would take to replace a monitor."

Well, good grief—if incompetence, abuse, and gross and 'exorbitant fees' aren't sufficient grounds to replace a monitor, what is? This is the kind of garbage that makes people think the entire legal profession is despicable.

If Cote's verdict is entirely overturned and the law allows it, Apple should sue Bromwich to recover those 'exorbitant fees' plus some extra as compensation for having to deal with his fishing expeditions outside his remit. Apple also ought to push for Judge Cote to be censured for appointing an unqualified personal friend to the monitor's job in the first place. The whole arrangement reeks of cronyism and corruption. I'm starting to wonder if she didn't declare Apple guilty just so she could give her friend a chance to enrich himself at Apple's expense.

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

On this Memorial Day, I think it fitting to share an observation that Ronald Reagan once made about human freedom.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction...It must be fought for, protected, and handed off."

The question, of course is "protected from what?" The answer is: "from us."

Freedom is not, by any stretch, the normal state of human affairs. On the contrary, for most of recorded history, humans have only enjoyed those freedoms they could defend with the sword on any given day, or which some king or warlord deigned to grant them and which he could rescind on a whim for anyone or everyone under his command. Think of freedom as a ball resting on the fulcrum on a balanced scale, where tyranny sits at one end and anarchy on the other. If you aren't sitting right in the middle, you're probably rolling towards one extreme or the other.

We're fortunate, then, to live in a country and a time where there are no true military threats to our freedoms. There's not a country or group on this earth that could invade the United States of America, overthrow our civilization, and abolish our freedoms. So what, then, could threaten our liberties?

I ask you to consider the story of the Newburgh Conspiracy.

In March 1783, a group of Colonial officers had grown frustrated by the Continental Congress' neglect of the Army — specifically, the men hadn't been paid and Congress hadn't funded their pensions. They had sent a letter to Congress a few months before demanding a resolution and promised that "any further experiment's on their [the army's] patience may have fatal effects." By March, that patience had run out and they circulated a letter calling for the Army to send Congress an ultimatum. 

The men convened a meeting on 15 March to discuss the proposal and were surprised when George Washington showed up. He asked to address the officers and was given the floor. He pleaded for patience, and then asked to read them a letter written by a member of Congress. He fumbled with the paper, then pulled a pair of spectacles from his pocket and said, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind." That said, the letter's contents became irrelevant. The rebellious officers knew that Washington had suffered and sacrificed as much for the fledgling United States as any of them, and more than most, but he would not rebel or join a military coup. If he would not, how could they? The subsequent vote to express confidence in the Congress was unanimous in the affirmative.

Had Washington chosen to lead the Newburgh Conspiracy against Congress, he could have overthrown the government and ruled this country as a king. Instead, he quelled the rebellion before it started. For a brief moment, the country's future as either a democratic republic or a military dictatorship — possibly a monarchy — hinged on one man's choice. We know now that Washington chose not to indulge in a selfish desire for personal power, but it wasn't a given. How many times in history have we seen men make the other choice? 

With one word, Washington could have subjected the freedom and liberties of all Americans to his own whims. None of us will ever be in a comparable position, but the Newburgh Conspiracy has convinced me that the greatest threat to our freedoms is us — the choices that we make. How much do we value our freedoms? Enough to exercise them? Enough to tell our own government that there are lines we will not let it cross?

The Freedom of Speech is worthless to those who refuse to speak up in the public square for what they believe. The Freedom of Religion — better described as the Freedom of Conscience — has no value to someone who has not deep-seated beliefs that they consider valuable enough to defend. The Freedom of the Press is useless if we don't demand that the press publish truth and stop succumbing to partisanship, sloth, and fear; and so on. We don't value what we don't use; and what we don't value, we don't appreciate until it's gone.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln pointed out that the United States had been created to secure liberty and freedom equally for all, but the Civil War was "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." He then pleaded with the audience to remember the dead soldiers of Gettysburg and "take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." His point was that the Civil War was something that we had done to ourselves. The country was tearing itself apart not because a foreign power had pushed us to it, but because Americans themselves had radically different views on who should enjoy freedom and what it was worth. Were the Americans of his day going to do what it took to extend freedom to everyone on this continent, or were they going to decide that freedom wasn't worth the fight and quit?

Lincoln's question was, essentially, "how much do you really value freedom?"

When people say they are grateful for the soldiers who fought for our freedom, I prefer to think that they fought to give us the chance to protect freedom; and I would love to see us all resolve, on this Memorial Day, not just to thank those soldiers for what they've done, but to promise them that we'll work harder to protect those freedoms and ensure they can be handed off when the time comes.

The Most Appalling Thing I've Read Lately

Note: the following short essay is about freedom of speech, not the morality of same-sex marriage.

Of all the things I've read in the news over the last few weeks ISIS sweeping across Iraq, Greece heading towards financial disaster, biker gangs slaughtering each other in Texas, California withering from drought, etc. this article has worried me the most.

The facts of the story aren't in dispute: a Marquette philosophy instructor named Cheryl Abbate was lecturing to her students about the application of philosophical texts to recent controversial political issues. Listing several such issues on the board, she included same-sex marriage and apparently having not read a newspaper for the last five years announced, "everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it." A student afterward informed her that not everyone "agrees on this." Abbate replied that any opposition to same-sex marriage is de facto homophobic, could offend any LGBT students in the class, and so such views wouldn't be aired. The Marquette professor who authors the above-linked blog came to the student's defense, decrying her response as politically motivated censorship, and was promptly suspended by the university for "harassment." Marquette apparently is trying to fire him.

Why does that worry me more than ISIS, financial turmoil, and the rest? It has to do with the disintegration of the key freedom that holds peaceful civilization together.


F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Why? Because a person who can't objectively examine a viewpoint that clashes with their own is intellectually crippled. If you can't consider that an idea you support might be wrong, you probably won't be able to catch your own mistakes until the consequences smack you in the face and even then you might not be able to connect cause and effect. Worse, once people with such narrow vision get in a position of political power, they usually discourage discussion of competing ideas when formulating policy and that's a recipe for disaster.

Some practitioners of this kind of "education" defend it on the grounds that not all ideas deserve equal time. "Should we let flat-earth proponents have a day in the classroom to teach their theory?" No, obviously not. Some ideas really have been truly and thoroughly discredited by a mountain of empirical evidence gathered over decades or centuries--scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they're wrong. Others that can't be settled so quickly through scientific observation — notably sociological or cultural issues — have simply gone through the debate, developed a very large body of relevant case law, and been so thoroughly accepted by the majority of society for so long that they've become an integral part of the culture. Anyone who thinks we should, for example, reopen the debate on whether women should have the right to vote will earn himself a lot of strange looks. But notice the false dichotomy presented by many people who want to squelch debate on ideas that aren't culturally or scientifically settled  the implication that allowing any contrary idea (and the idea they suggest is always an extreme one, to the point of being a straw man) into the debate means we would have to allow debate on every contrary idea. As with all false dichotomies, it's never that simple, and anyone who says it is probably has an agenda. 

In fact, what's particularly disturbing about that false dichotomy is that a key part of a good education is teaching students how to sift through competing ideas and determine which are worthy of consideration and which aren't. Just learning how to narrow the field of arguments, theories, hypotheses, etc is a core skill for any scientist or researcher. But such sifting should be based on evidence, for and against. Telling students that ideas can be rejected just because they might offend personal sensibilities? That isn't education by any standard.


I first saw that lesson taught in dramatic fashion during my first semester at Brigham Young University. For my first General Education science elective, I enrolled in Biology 100 and was promptly rocked to find the class met in a standing-room only 1,000-seat amphitheater (my high school graduating class only had 100 kids in it). Moreover, Biology is not my best subject and I pulled a C in the course.

I'm grateful to this day that I took that class because the professor taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, and it had nothing to do with frog livers. In fact, it's the only lecture from that entire semester that I still remember.

The professor spent the hour teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution (you can already see where this is going) and I saw a number of students spend the entire lecture flipping through their Bibles. When the professor finished his presentation and opened up the Q&A period, one student leaped from his chair and walked quickly to one of microphones, scriptures in hand. Apparently, this poor, deluded freshman imagined that his Ph.D. professor had never encountered the religious tension between the Book of Genesis and Darwin's theory — despite having tenure at BYU of all places — and was going to educate him. The teenager opened the scriptures and, in an outraged tone, said, "But professor, it says here in Genesis—"

That's as far as he got.

I don't remember the professor's precise words, so I'll paraphrase as best as my memory will allow.

"Stop right there," the professor said, cutting the student off. "I know exactly what you're going to say. I'm a Mormon. I know the scriptures and the Gospel, and you're not the first person to raise that particular objection in my class. But you know what? The Theory of Evolution is the prevailing scientific theory of Biology and that will continue unless and until a theory that better fits the empirical evidence rises to replace it. Now, some of the students here want to go to medical school, some will become professional biologists, etc. Whether they personally want to believe in Evolution or not is their business, but if they want to work in such fields, they have to understand the theory because their colleagues will base their research on it. So I'm going to teach the theory. There's a time and a place to debate religion vs science, but my class isn't it. Save it for your religion classes. And, by the way, if I ask you to explain the Theory of Evolution on the final exam, which I will, and you give me an essay explaining how the Bible disproves it, you'll fail the course."

End of discussion. The professor actually was pretty polite about it, but his message was clear. Students who couldn't hold the Theory of Evolution in their heads alongside Genesis were in trouble.

On the surface, it might look like that Biology professor did exactly what Ms. Abbate did shut down discussion of a dissenting viewpoint. In reality, he did the opposite. 95%+ of BYU's student body is Mormon. On that campus, the belief that there is a God who created humanity isn't a remotely controversial idea. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was the idea more likely to stir controversy (not so much these days, almost 30 years later), but the professor was going to teach it and wasn't terribly worried that he might offend anyone in doing it. Why? Because he knew that if students with strong religious backgrounds couldn't learn to be objective about potentially clashing secular ideas, they would never be able to work professionally in an analytical field.

That was the most important lesson I learned my freshman year, and possibly during my undergraduate education. I wish I could remember that professor's name. I owe a lot of my professional success to him.


That's what worries me about Marquette's actions. A university that silences students and teachers to keep controversial subjects from being discussed so as to "not offend" is teaching students that emotion counts for more than reason.

I'm not advocating offending people. Intentionally offending others is reprehensible behavior. But there's a difference between the presentation of an idea and the idea itself. We can and should denounce people who present ideas in ways intended to shock and offend. But teaching students that they can and should shut down anyone trying to discuss an idea they simply find uncomfortable? They're doing a severe disservice to those students and to society; and if this becomes prevalent in our universities, colleges, and high schools, our civilization will be in real trouble. Why?

Democracy, with its many variants, is the only modern political system in which people with diverse viewpoints govern themselves non-violently through rational argument and discussion. In democracy, debate replaces violence. Take away debate and the free exchange of ideas, and what's left? A group of people who impose their political will on another group without considering, maybe without even knowing, the views of the second group. Governance without consideration for the views of the governed creates an environment in which people feel disenfranchised; and people who feel they have no way to express contrary viewpoints start looking for other ways to make the politically deaf listen to them. Nature abhors a vacuum. If debate no longer replaces violence, we risk having violence come rushing back in to fill the void. Go down that road far enough, and you find civil wars and revolutions and insurgencies waiting at the end. Hence the famous Clausewitzian dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." When debate fails to resolve an issue, resolving it through force becomes a temptation.

We're fortunate that Western civilization has a (relatively young) tradition of non-violent civil disobedience to perceived political injustice, but history shows that violent resistance is always lurking at the edge of human affairs. Just ask the Founding Fathers. That's why they enshrined the Freedom of Speech in the First Amendment. They knew that tyranny and free speech are mutually exclusive, and so did not want free speech curtailed, no matter how well-intentioned the motives for doing so. 

That's why Marquette's actions should be denounced. If we want to strengthen society and solve pressing social and cultural problems, we need more educated people — lots more — who can debate potentially offensive ideas without becoming offended, not less. We need citizens who look at someone who disagrees with their politics as a person to be persuaded, not a person to be silenced. In backing Ms. Abbote and trying to fire the professor who defended the student, it looks to me like Marquette has decided that it's not interested in helping produce that kind of citizen.

The End at Appomattox

150 years ago today, just before 3:00 pm or so, this happened.

Lee_Surrenders.jpg

If you heard bells ring today for four minutes starting around 3:05 pm and didn't know what they were for, it was to commemorate the end of the US Civil War. The bells rang for one minute for each year the war was fought.

General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant didn't officially end the war. It did, however, mark the end of the Confederacy's military operations in the eastern theater of the war, which effectively killed the southern states' hopes for independence. Other Confederate armies and units would surrender in the coming months, and a few small battles were even fought after April 9, 1865; but the war was, for all practical purposes, ended by Lee's decision to surrender.


Robert E. Lee is a divisive figure. In the South, he is still revered as a hero. Outside of the South, views towards him are often, shall we say, less charitable. Richard Cohen summed up the opposing view in his April 29, 2011 column, "Dispelling the Myth of Robert E. Lee"

"The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend—swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism—has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the 'Lost Cause' to get lost. Now it should be Lee's turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country—not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him."

Lee was a complex man, and I'm not here to declare Cohen right or wrong (though Cohen is wrong about Lee being "loyal to slavery," which he considered a serious political and moral evil). However, whether you revere or revile Lee, I would argue that one day before he surrendered to Grant, Lee made a decision which should earn him the gratitude of all Americans, if not their respect.

April 8, 1865 was a Saturday. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated from Petersburg earlier in the week where they had defied a nine month-long siege by Grant's Army of the Potomac. They had been moving steadily westward, trying to reach a trainload of supplies and rations to feed the starving men and outfit them with new clothes and ammunition. Lee had lost more than half his army in less than seven days to straggling, desertion, and capture. Under Lee's direction, they made one grueling night march after another...but starvation was taking its toll, Grant's cavalry dogged them the entire journey and the Union infantry was never more than a few hours behind. Confederate quartermasters had been compelled to keep moving the supply trains westward to keep them safe from capture; but they were also keeping them tantalizingly just out of Lee's reach. He'd received several letters from Grant, trying to convince him of the folly of further resistance. Lee had replied in his own letters that he didn't think his men were beaten yet, but he did ask Grant what terms of surrender the Union general might offer. They both knew that without those needed supplies, the chase couldn't go on much longer.

When Lee reached Appomattox on the 8th, he learned that the Union Cavalry had captured the supplies waiting at Appomattox Station. The closest supply trains were now at Lynchburg, 20 miles further west and the Union cavalry was now in front of him. 

Lee convened his final council of war that night with Generals James "Pete" Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Edward Porter Alexander. Longstreet and Gordon commanded the infantry, Alexander the artillery. Together, they decided that the army had enough strength to make one final attempt the following morning to break through the Union forces and push on to Lynchburg, but Lee realized that failure would leave him with no option other than surrender.

General Alexander disagreed. He suggested that Lee disperse the Army. The men would slip away during the night, dissolving into the woods, where they return to their homes and then fight on as guerrillas, raiding and killing Union troops and destroying Union property wherever and whenever they could. They would drag out the conflict for years and years until the Union grew weary of trying to extinguish the secessionist flame.

Alexander was suggesting, in short, that the Confederacy launch an insurgency.

The other generals turned to Lee, the most respected military officer the United States had produced since George Washington. He was beloved of his men, almost worshipped by Confederate civilians. He was the miracle worker who had defeated the Union army again and again, almost always outnumbered and outgunned. He had out-thought, outmaneuvered, and out-fought Union general after Union general. His troops trusted him implicitly. All he had to do was give the word and 28,000 Confederate soldiers would spread out and become, not to put too fine a point on it, terrorists. It would have been war without end for decades, a generation or more.

Lee rejected the suggestion out of hand.

"If I took your advice," Lee told Alexander, "the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders...We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from."

But here's the interesting bit: the country he was referring to wasn't the Confederate States of America. He was talking about the United States.

Robert E. Lee had spent four years fighting for the Confederacy; but facing the end of that country, Lee was worried about what would happen to the only country he would have left. He'd served the US faithfully as an army officer for more than twenty years before the Civil War. It's clear from his letters and the recollections of associates that Lee fostered no sense of hatred towards the US despite having fought against it for four years. With the Confederacy dead, the US would again exercise sovereignty over Lee's home state of Virginia.

So, in that moment, when Lee decided there would be no insurgency, he gave his once-former and future country a gift for which we should all be grateful. He offered the US a chance to start healing.

He didn't have to make that choice. Remember, he didn't know that Grant was going to offer him generous terms of surrender the following afternoon. In fact, Lee thought it more likely that Grant would arrest him and he would be tried, then probably hanged for treason. Facing that possibility, a lesser man might have lashed out at the enemy. Had Lee been a man filled with anger, hatred, and vitriol, he could have sent the entire continent spiraling down into unrestrained violence for decades to come. Had he been a more egotistical man, humiliated in defeat, he could have told his men to lay waste at random as a way of salving his wounded pride. Instead, he told his men that they had fought honorably, would surrender honorably, and should live honorably as citizens of the United States; and he sought to set the example for them. When he knew for certain the following day that escape was impossible, he chose to hand himself over to Grant—essentially to the United States—to answer for his actions instead of going down swinging.


I would argue that the decision that Lee made the night before was no less important than the one he made the next day to surrender. That one decision to not launch an insurgency merits a measure of this country's gratitude. I'm grateful that Lee lost the war, but I'm also grateful that, when faced with defeat, Lee told his men to let go of the old cause and take up a new one — to rebuild the United States. For that act alone, General Robert E. Lee deserves our thanks; and those who would simply declare him an irredeemable traitor should spend some time studying the decision Lee made that night. If they can come to understand what drove him to make that choice, they might come to see him as a more complex man than one who was simply "disloyal to his country."


If you want to know more about Robert E. Lee, you can't do better than the abridged Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman, unless you're motivated enough to hunt down and read the entire original four volume series.