Alan Pell Crawford: Blood and revenge

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ned, who is 10, came home from school a week after the terrorist assaults a little troubled by the outburst of reflexive Americanism that had swept over his school. "Americans think this was all about them, but people from other countries died in those attacks, too," he said. "I mean, it was the World Trade Centre." Ned knows that war is a messy business that almost always confounds our best calculations and defies our neat categories. Keen on military history, he owns a great many plastic soldiers. A nut for war movies, he has thrilled to the tidy, long-distance heroism of the fighter pilots in The Battle of Britain. But he has also witnessed the slaughter of Zulu.

Perhaps more to the point, he is growing up in Richmond, Virginia, 100 miles south of Washington, DC, on what turned out to be the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. During the American Civil War, Richmond was of course the seat of government of the Confederacy. Battles were fought all around this city, and the sites are well preserved.

So we've visited the battlefield at Cold Harbor where, in June 1864, 7,000 Northern soldiers were shot down in half an hour. We have also taken friends to Malvern Hill. There, two years earlier, 5,300 Southern soldiers fell. Many of those who could get back on their feet staggered, bleeding, up the road leading back into what was, for some of them, their home town. Then they died.

People in the American South come of age with a better sense than many of their Northern brethren do that blood has been shed on their native soil and that not all wars turn out the way that our generals and politicians would like. Richmonders, whose town was burned at the end of what some here persist in calling the War of Northern Aggression, know this best of all. The South may be the only place left in this country where a tragic sense of history prevails. This sense can sometimes – but not often enough – check our collective impulse to rash action. "I'm afraid it's time for some 'tough love'," a gentle friend says with some sadness. "I think we've got to go to war."

But patriotism can be a complicated matter in these parts. On Monument Avenue, named after its statues of Confederate heroes, stands an immense equestrian likeness of General Robert E Lee, who came to live in Richmond after surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. In the days after the 11 September attacks, there appeared at the Lee statue's base a smattering of makeshift memorials to the terrorists' victims. Flowers, red-white-and-blue Mylar balloons and hand-lettered cardboard signs saying "God Bless America" now adorn this monument to a man who gained fame fighting against the Stars and Stripes.

The Almighty is also invoked on the marquee of our local striptease parlour. The proprietor of Richard's Rendezvous, like most Richmond businessmen, wants God's blessing, as, come to think of it, do I. Flags are flying here as elsewhere, and televisions glow late into the night. The thirst for revenge is enormous, for the South's tragic sense is adequately offset by a staunch military tradition and a highly developed (some say neurotic) notion of honour.

When honour has been offended, it must be restored. But they know that itwon't be pretty and that success is far from assured. "People who call those terrorists cowards had better wake up," an inmate at the Richmond City Jail tells me. "These are disciplined and dedicated warriors."

Since the attack, local sales of survival gear – candles, lanterns air-mattresses and ammunition – are up. The Hull Street Outlet has sold as many gas masks as it ordinarily does in a year. The chapel at First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue has been "open for prayer" ever since the attacks.

This is no time for "military and diplomatic restraint", the local paper intones. Wars are not merely the means by which we achieve geopolitical goals; they "test the content of a nation's character". That means that Southerners will fight and, if need be, die for a cause that may well fail. They've been there before.

Alan Pell Crawford, a Southerner, is the author of 'Thunder on the Right: the New Right and the Politics of Resentment'