In July of 1861, not long after war had broken out, a Union officer wrote these words to his wife of five and a half years:
My very dear Sarah: . . . The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.
What could possibly override such deep domestic fulfillment? Sullivan Ballou, the letter’s author, tries to explain:
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
Ballou was killed a week after writing the letter, in the First Battle of Bull Run.
Out of all the thoughts that come to mind in response to Ballou’s letter, none is more powerful than the tragedy of it all. And when I probe a little deeper, when I think about what it is I find so heart-achingly tragic about this episode, one aspect stands out: Ballou’s choice inevitably required forgoing something of great value and worth.
Here was the decision before him. To choose his family, to live out his days with them, and to love them so deeply, as his letter suggested he would, that his presence would inexorably lift their lives to far greater heights than they could reach without him, would be to abandon a war of great moral and historical consequence. Yet to join the war, to plunge headfirst into this great and terrible struggle, would mean he might never see his family again.
The tragedy here isn’t that a man’s capacity for domestic bliss was cruelly cut short by the senselessness of war; the tragedy is that Ballou’s family and the war that whisked him away from them are both examples of the highest goods a person can strive for. Either one of these would likely override almost every other valuable thing — yet Ballou had to choose one and thereby renounce the glories of the other.
I hardly need to defend the value of romantic and marital love or the incomparable joy of being a parent. But maybe I should explain why I’m claiming that entering a war — a collective violent conflict that necessarily results in remarkable suffering, the kind of conflict John Steinbeck called a “symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal” — could ever be a good thing.
A war is worth joining when it is waged for a cause that is worth dying for. To acknowledge the raw intensity of Sullivan Ballou’s love for his family and to still see his choice to involve himself in the Civil War as the right one is to understand that the Union cause was worth everything.
Am I saying that only because I have the benefit of hindsight? While it’s certainly true that 150 years of historical witness to the transcendent significance of the Civil War influences my assessment, the war’s importance was unmistakably felt by its participants. The war was an episode — the most important episode — in the drama of keeping America together, and, increasingly as it went on, of fighting against a vision of America’s future that centrally included the brutal subjugation of an entire race.
This was worth giving up everything for. The other war Ballou cites, the American War for Independence, the revolution whose outcome made the American experiment possible in the first place, was just as momentous.
Yet the wars we’ve fought since World War II are not seen the same way.
During World War II, the British population understood the world-historical significance of their resistance. Early in the conflict, the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns attempted to sap their will to continue fighting, to get them to beg their leaders for it to stop, yet the people were undaunted. Later, when the larger missiles rained down, the reaction was the same. And this despite having endured a war of unfathomable destruction just decades prior. Stopping the Nazis was simply worth it.
Americans came to recognize the war’s importance far too late in the game. Early in the summer of 1940, fewer than 40 percent of Americans thought it was more important to help our allies than to stay out of the war; this soared over the following year to above 70 percent, but it took a surprise attack on a military base of ours in December of 1941 to get us in.
Yet it’s interesting that American popular support for the war had the chronological trajectory that it did. Had Americans embraced early intervention instead, only to revoke their support later in the contest, it would have represented a public rejection of the war’s abiding significance.
And that is exactly what has happened for every war we’ve entered since .
This is not just a collective gut reaction. The people’s disapproval is powered by considerable deliberative and reflective activity. An argument must be made for continued involvement in a war, and the people sense when the argument just isn’t persuasive enough.
Currently airing on PBS is The Vietnam War, a multi-episode film by master documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. (You can also watch it all online.) Burns and Novick have an archival touch so deft that he is often able to convey not just the inner logic to a historical moment but also its emotional register. But I suspect that not even they — despite going ten episodes deep on the conflict — will be successful in convincing us of that war’s meaningfulness.
Not because stemming the red tide of Soviet-style Communism was an unworthy pursuit. To be sure, if the very possibility of a societal configuration organized around political and economic freedom were genuinely threatened, defending it would easily rise to the top of the importance queue. The whole rationale for getting into Vietnam rested on the expectation that a Communist Vietnam would meaningfully expand the presence, durability, and reach of Communism in Asia and beyond.
The “domino theory,” which held that if one country in a region turned to Communism the other countries were at risk to follow suit, had considerable purchase within certain pockets of our political leadership. Our foreign policy was centered around the notion of containment, which meant we were committed to stopping Communism’s spread rather than to eradicating its presence in the places where it had taken hold.
But what if Vietnam was never going to become an evangelistic springboard for furthering Communism’s reach? Can anyone seriously make the case that the level of danger a Communist Vietnam posed for democracy’s global prospects was ultimately worth tens of thousands of American lives?
My intention isn’t to denigrate the sacrifice of those who fought in Vietnam. Nearly 60,000 U.S. military personnel died in that war, and that is no small number. But it’s hard to imagine Sullivan Ballou writing what he did in the context of Vietnam.
When we start demanding that the local governments we’ve been helping take on the work primarily or entirely themselves, it’s a signal we no longer think the war is worth fighting.
By the time Nixon took the helm — after Vietnam had flushed Lyndon B. Johnson’s career down the drain — there was considerable pressure to just get out. Immediately thereafter, the very development of “Vietnamization” as a strategy was a testament to the war’s incomprehensibility. When we start demanding that the local governments we’ve been helping take on the work primarily or entirely themselves, it’s a signal we no longer think the war is worth fighting.
Nixon pledged to link withdrawal to the pace of Vietnamization, but a self-sustaining South Vietnam capable of warding off Communist forces independent of our assistance was a fantasy. It had always been clear that, barring our presence, South Vietnam would not be able to withstand an encroaching North Vietnam, backed by China and the Soviet Union, in pursuit of unification. Yet Nixon’s goal of “peace with honor” was acceptable to Americans, so long as they were convinced our gradual withdrawal was a genuine withdrawal. Americans just did not believe a Communist Vietnam represented an existential threat to democracy’s geopolitical survival.
Our subsequent military interventions have followed a similar trajectory. New York Times readers found Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s recent op-ed ghastly and tone-deaf, for example, because he offered a mercenary solution for Afghanistan. But proposing that troops be replaced by contractors is far from out of step with an American public, which has exhibited widespread dissatisfaction with the prospect of increasing our military presence in Afghanistan. A recent Politico poll found that only 20 percent want troop increases there.
It is not simply a war’s scale that determines its importance. Though World War I is harder to categorize, at the heart of it was a scandalous pointlessness. For all of Woodrow Wilson’s intense moral posturing, the Lost Generation just did not comprehend why they needed to lose themselves in this conflict.
In Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel’s main character, Paul Baumer, still a teenager when he is deployed to fight the British and French, describes the war’s effects on his generation:
Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.” He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are ﬂeeing. We ﬂy from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The ﬁrst bomb, the ﬁrst explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.
And this self-immolation, this effacement of humanity, this destruction of the capacity for joy, what was it all for?
A war whose cause is worth dying for is not ultimately experienced as a nihilistic force of devastation. That’s because it often involves stopping the nihilistic forces themselves, which is unquestionably worthwhile.
The sacrifice is real, the sense of suffering and loss is excruciating, and aftereffects can be irrevocable and unforgiving, but the meaningfulness of the cause keeps the darkest parts of war from ultimately trampling over everything else. To eradicate slavery, to stop a madman from carrying out a program of ethnic cleansing — nothing can strip these pursuits of their inherent worthiness.
In his letter, Sullivan Ballou wrote of his dilemma. Here were his two irreconcilable loves:
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
Fighting for the Union, and against the nation-dissolving and humanity-destroying aims of the Confederacy, was a struggle worthy of Ballou’s letter, indeed, of his life.
— Berny Belvedere is the editor-in-chief of Arc Digital. This piece originally appeared on his Medium page.
Correction: This article originally identified Ken Burns as the director of The Vietnam War. In fact, the film was co-directed by Mr. Burns and Lynn Novick.