The Confederacy lost the civil war, but found acceptance in fighting America’s imperialist wars of conquest

April 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the US civil war. The sesquicentennial was celebrated with many commemorative activities, historical reenactments, seminars, documentaries and presentations by academic associations. General Robert E. Lee, the overall commander of Confederate forces whose Army of Northern Virginia had twice tried to invade the North and failed, finally surrendered on April 9 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to the commander of Union troops, General Ulysses S Grant. Lee’s forces had abandoned the Confederate capital, Richmond, in the face of advancing Union soldiers, and had no option but to surrender.

The year of 1864 was actually the decisive year of the American civil war, when the fate of the United States hung in the balance. Either side was still capable of winning, and the slave-owning secessionist war showed no signs of slowing down. In July 1863, General Lee’s second foray to carry the war into the North failed, with his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. Grant was appointed commander of all Union military forces in March 1864, and began a series of heavy, bloody battles with the Confederacy. The Emancipation proclamation, freeing around four million African American slaves, had been in effect for just over a year. Millions of former slaves flocked to the Union armies, depriving the Confederacy of essential labour power.

The Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, transformed the Union’s attempts to defeat a secessionist rebellion into a revolutionary war. The economic and social underpinnings of the Southern slave-owning economy were being attacked. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation can rightly be considered the largest, government-sanctioned expropriation of private property in world history until the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Add to that the following: in November 1864, Union General William T. Sherman launched his March to the Sea, (otherwise known as the Savannah Campaign) a military attack designed to cut the Confederacy into pieces, and destroy its economic base. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee left their supply lines behind, lived off the land, attacked the economic infrastructure of slavery and liberating thousands of slaves. Having captured Atlanta, Georgia in September 1864, Sherman’s army was well placed to launch a serious offensive aimed at destroying the Confederacy’s transport networks, industrial base, as well as military targets.

Sherman captured Savannah Georgia at the end of 1864, the Confederacy’s economy destroyed and the slaves liberated. By the end of the year, the slave-owners rebellion was in retreat. By April 1865, the civil war was over. The slave-owning Confederacy was defeated, but white racial supremacy as a political ideology was not long in recovering, and reasserting itself in a different way.

150 years later, the struggle against racism continues

Abayomi Azikiwe, writer and activist for the Workers World Party in the United States and the editor of Pan-African News Wire, wrote an article about the end of the civil war and the efforts at Reconstruction. He wrote that while formal emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy were historic steps forward, the effort to construct a nation without racial oppression is still unrealised. The former Confederate states, having lost the military campaign, now resorted to underground and rearguard actions to preserve racial segregation. Under the Federal government’s programme of Reconstruction, former slaves acquired land, competed for jobs, sought out education, and raised money to improve their economic position. The hungry and unemployed mass of African American labourers were now looking for work and economic security. All this was done in the shadow of millions of US troops stationed at strategic points in the South.

The Southern power structures resorted to dual tactics to resist the desegregation of public life. The former Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan to advance the cause of white racial supremacy and waged a racist terrorist war against the black communities of the South. This terror campaign targeted the Reconstruction process, and attempted to sabotage efforts at racial integration.

Democrat politicians in the South whipped up a campaign of white racial hatred against the African American community, helping to pass a series of laws that racially segregated public and economic life in the South. These laws became the basis of Jim Crow legislation, a system of racial caste laws that enforced racial segregation in the economy, education, infrastructure and in public interactions between blacks and whites.

These were the laws overturned by the Civil Rights movement decades later in the 1950s and 1960s. Lynchings and racist terror against the African American community undergirded the systematic exclusion of the later, and their enclosure into impoverished ghetto-communities. The Reconstruction process ended in 1877, and while it is not the purpose of this article go into a rigorous examination of its successes and failures here, it is important to note that American capitalism, while demolishing the secessionist basis of slavery, still needed racism in its drive for economic conquest. The American civil war – the Emancipation Proclamation and the liberation of slaves – encapsulated revolutionary ideas about equality in the social and economic spheres. These ideas are at direct odds with the underlying basis of the capitalist system as an exploitative, class-based social structures. This contradiction came to the fore in years of Reconstruction.

While the Confederacy was defeated, its cause found re-acceptance into the American family – firstly through the waging of wars against the indigenous nations of the United States, and secondly through the launch of imperialist conquests overseas.

Endless wars need and reinforce domestic racism

The sub-heading above comes from an informative article by Greg Grandin, history teacher at New York University and author of the essay “The Confederate Flag at War (But Not the Civil War)”. The Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, was lowered after the surrender at Appomattox Court House. But it found readmission into the American family with the wars against the first nations of the Americas. In the era of westward expansion, as white settlers interacted with the native American nations, conquest and annexation were the order of the day. The ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy found renewed expression in the racist wars to subjugate the indigenous populations. As Grandin states in his article:

But Confederate veterans and their sons used the pacification of the West as a readmission program into the U.S. Army. The career of Luther Hare, a Texas son of a Confederate captain, is illustrative. He barely survived Custer’s campaign against the Sioux. Cornered in a skirmish that preceded Little Big Horn, Hare “opened fire and let out a rebel yell” before escaping. He then went on to fight Native Americans in Montana, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and Arizona, where he put down the “last of the renegade Apaches,” before being sent to the Philippines as a colonel.  There, he led a detachment of Texans against the Spanish.

The crucial moment for the full rehabilitation of the ‘Lost Cause’ arrived at the end of nineteenth century, when the United States ruling class embarked upon its own programme of imperialist conquest. Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam – these were the first countries to be fully subjugated by the projection of American military power overseas, and were wrested from the control of the Spanish empire. The Spanish-American war of 1898 marked the rise of the United States as an imperialist power in its own right, and the seamless integration of the Confederate-brand of racism into the imperial project. Since the days of slavery, Cuba was viewed as a potential slave state. Now, the American army left the shores of the United States waving the Confederate flag, joined by Confederate veterans and their descendants.

In June 1898, as the United States conquered Cuba, veterans of the Confederacy were gathering for a reunion in Atlanta Georgia. The city was festooned with Confederate flags. The event was marked by speeches appreciative of the historic conquest of Cuba, valorising the heroism of the soldiers that gone to subjugate the island. Long gone were any references to equality, emancipation and liberation, ideals that permeated former President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. Here was the language of class rule and conquest. President McKinley, on a victory tour of the South, praised the invincible fighting spirit of the American military, united as one, to vanquish foreign enemy. To quote from Grandin’s article again:

War with Spain allowed “our boys” to once more be “wrapped in the folds of the American flag,” said General John Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, in remarks opening the proceedings. Their heroism, he added, has led “to the complete and permanent obliteration of all sectional distrusts and to the establishment of the too long delayed brotherhood and unity of the American people.” In this sense, the War of 1898 was alchemic, transforming the “lost cause” of the Confederacy (that is, the preservation of slavery) into a crusade for world freedom. The South, Gordon said, was helping to bring “the light of American civilization and the boon of Republican liberty to the oppressed islands of both oceans.”

During World War One, then-President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, re-segregated Washington, pushing out African Americans from federal jobs, and began the annual tradition of laying a wreath at the Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate war memorial. He screened the racist film, Birth of a Nation, in the grounds of the White House with major political figures and officials in attendance. This film depicted the ‘Lost Cause’ of the South as a noble, unflagging venture against the unscrupulous racially-integrative project of the capitalistic North.

But more than that, Wilson willingly appropriated the Confederate cause into his own advocacy of militant, messianic imperialism. World War One was not just about justice, but about America going out to conquer. Confederate veterans and their descendants rallied in Washington in June 1916 to demonstrate their support for Wilson and empire-building. The conquered banner was no longer relegated to the past, but was rehabilitated as an active participant in American wars overseas. The Confederate flag was hoisted by American troops in battle fields around the world – Okinawa, northern Europe, and later in Vietnam. It was also hoisted by serving American soldiers in Baghdad in 2007. Grandin quotes African American soldiers serving in Vietnam, who witnessed the proliferation of Confederate flags among the white troops in that conflict. One African American trooper wrote home’ “and we still have some people who are still fighting the Civil War.” Two weeks after he wrote these words, he was dead – officially killed in action.

As American militarism engages in mass violence and wars overseas, whether through drone strikes, outright invasions, and the use of greater domestic repression at home, racism is not confined to one particular geographic region or economic system. It is a necessary pollutant that sustains an unjust, inequitable, and exploitative system. Imperialist wars not only eat away at the fabric of the republic, they toxify the cultural and political environment. Democratic ideals, enshrined in documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, are shunted aside as more repressive tactics are adopted by the ruling class, and suggestions by top-level political figures for further suppression of ethnic and minority groups are considered to be quite normal.

As the capitalist system remains mired in terminal crisis, greater levels of police violence are directed against the African American community, and indeed against minority communities across the United States. We in Australia need to re-examine our political and economic directions, as we are tobogganing head-first into the American scenario. If the United States is characterised by social decay, racist violence and economic growth that benefits only the ultra-wealthy, why is this example being held up as worthy of emulation?

Charleston, the Confederate flag and racism – the political intersection of ultra-right terrorism

In June 2015, a young gunman Dylann Roof, shot dead nine people of African American descent in the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was attending a bible study group and prayer service, when he took out an automatic weapon, opening fire, and killing nine persons including the senior pastor and state senator the late Clementa C Pinckney. Roof, the shooter shouted racial slogans, declaring that African Americans were destroying his white kinfolk.

He deliberately spared the life of one person so that she could bear witness to the attack. Roof hoped that the living witness would explain to the wider world his motivations for the shooting. His decision to kill was motivated by his desire to stop black people taking over the country, as he saw it. After his arrest, he stated to police that his intention was to ignite a racial war. The facts of the mass murder are well established.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, there was an intense debate among politicians, media commentators and the corporate media about whether the mass murder at Charleston constituted an act of domestic terrorism, a hate crime, or both. The governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, in speaking about the atrocity, stated that she cannot and never will understand what motivates someone to enter a holy place of worship and kill.

Well, it is true that the motivations driving the perpetrator in each and every case of murder are complex and multifarious. In the more recent case of the Chattanooga shooting, involving the death of four US marines, there was never any doubt that this act constitutes a case of terrorism, especially given the fact that the shooter’s name is something like Mohammed Yousuf Abdulazeez. In this case, the shooting is immediately categorised and understood as terrorism. However, when a white mass murderer is arrested by police, he is provided with a hamburger meal, and a bullet-proof vest for his protection should he be the target of vigilante violence.

Let us help Governor Haley understand the motivations of Dylann Roof by having a closer look at his picture – on his jacket, he is wearing two flags, one of the previous apartheid South African regime, the other the flag of the white supremacist state of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was previously known. Indeed, Roof’s own web page, in which he elaborated his melange of white racist and sovereign-citizen-militia ideas as a manifesto, described himself as the ‘last Rhodesian’. Roof never made any secret of his ultra-rightist political motivations.

As Eugene Puryear, author of the article “Charleston Massacre: Yet another terrorist act against Blacks in America” explains it, the reason for the obfuscation of this issue as an expression of ultra-rightist terrorism is clear:

The establishment in capitalist America is fearful of revealing the depth of racist oppression that continues to exist. Particularly in South Carolina, a state run by hard-core Tea Party types with a deep strain of racism that involves quite a bit of Confederate boosterism.

The leaders of South Carolina, then, will be loathe to admit their own complicity in not only the terrorism of the past but its glorification in the here and now.

The Confederate flag – the long reach of the US civil war

South Carolina, one of the states involved in the Confederacy’s secessionist war of the 1860s, has a long history of deep-seated racism. South Carolina’s government, in 1961, raised the Confederate flag atop the state government headquarters as a direct response to the rise of the black American civil rights movement and racial desegregation. South Carolina state authorities resisted desegregation for as long as they could, and the ubiquity of the Confederate, slave-owners flag throughout the southern states is astounding: it can be seen on licence plates, coffee mugs, articles of clothing, and body tattoos. Roof was not unaware of this cultural and historical context.

Indeed, April this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the US civil war. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, there is renewed interest in the legacy of that war, and the question of racism in American society has taken on political urgency. Roof chose the target that he did, not out of sheer coincidence, but for specific political reasons. Barry Sheppard, long-time socialist and anti-racist activist in the United States penned a thoughtful article called “Racist Charleston massacre has clear political roots”. In it, Sheppard states that:

Roof’s choice of the Emanuel African Methodist Church as the scene of his terrorist attack was also political. It is one of the oldest Black churches in the South, having been established as a refuge for slaves in the early 1800s. Ever since, it has played an important role in the fight for Black rights, including up to the present.

One of the founders of the church was a former slave, Denmark Vesey, who had been able to buy his freedom from his owner. Vesey was the main leader of a planned armed slave revolt in 1822.

South Carolina, being one of the defeated states after the civil war, has a long history of terrorist violence against black Americans. In the immediate aftermath of the US civil war, when the slave-owning class and its economic base were smashed, South Carolina witnessed a white supremacist backlash against Reconstruction, with newly-formed racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan launching an underground war of terror to sabotage any attempts at racially integrating the political and economic structures of the state.

Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and an expert on race relations in the US, wrote that South Carolina authorities resisted the federal government’s Reconstruction programme tooth and nail, and appealed to white resentment against black ‘encroachments’. This generated an interpretation of US civil war and reconstruction history where whites were the aggrieved party, facing a hostile takeover by the formerly subservient African Americans. Roof’s exclamation that ‘you are taking over the country’ has historical resonances that derive from this interpretation of white ‘victimhood’. Southern ‘victimhood’ provides an outlet for the Dylann Roofs of the world to vent their racial hatred wrapped in the mantle of purported injustice.

When elaborating his reasons for committing the crime, Roof provided his own perverse fascination with a mythologised history of the Confederate white-supremacist political platform, drawing from the reservoir of the ‘lost cause of the South’. The slave-owning Confederacy is not just a long-defeated historical artifact, but lives and breathes through its lineage with racist terrorism aimed at the African American community.

The Confederate flag was finally lowered from South Carolina’s state house in July 2015, after a concerted campaign by political and community figures across a wide spectrum of American society. As Monica Moorehead, activist and writer for the Workers World party stated in her article “Who gets credit for removing Confederate flag?”:

Finally. The profoundly offensive, pro-slavery Confederate flag no longer flies high in front of the State House grounds in Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. It was taken down on July 10, 43 years after it was first hoisted in a ceremony “officially” marking the centennial of the start of the U.S. Civil War.

It is unfortunate that is took the Charleston shooting, a terrorist tragedy, to finally achieve even this limited step, but a forward step it is for race relations in the United States. It required a mass outpouring of public justifiable outrage after the Charleston mass murders for the political establishment to remove this symbol of slavery and racism.

However, consider the following: the US military still has major bases named after Confederate slave-owning military figures. In the Workers World online magazine, Sara Flounders lists the following symbols of US military domination honouring the slave-owning officers:

Fort Hood, Texas, is the largest military base in the U.S., named after a Confederate general, John Bell Hood.

Fort Rucker, Ala., named for Confederate Col. Edmund W. Rucker, is where all of the Army’s aviation training has taken place since 1973.

Fort Bragg, N.C., named to honor Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, is home to the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command Center.

Fort Benning, Ga., named for Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning, is home to the formerly named School of the Americas, which provides military training tactics of torture, assassination and subversion for Latin American military officers.

Fort Gordon, Ga., is home to the U.S. Army Signal Corp and the former base of a military police school. The base is named after Confederate Lt. Gen. John Brown Gordon, head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Gordon was a vicious segregationist who fought Black Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War with racist terror.

This issue goes deeper than just names and symbols. The Confederate influence in the US military goes beyond symbolic honours. While after the US civil war, little united North and South, and the Confederate cause was defeated, there was one area where the white separatist cause could find reconciliation and acceptance; the pacification of the indigenous American nations and the emergence of American imperialism.

How and why that happened will be the subject of the next article – part two.

Summing up Part One

The Charleston shooting was a wake-up call not just about the issue of racism in the United States, but also about an equally important trend – the resurgence of ultra-right terrorism. Dylann Roof’s political motivations were the product of a very fertile soil – the continuing presence of not only a white supremacist political platform in American society, but the growth of the ultra-right and its propensity for violence against minority groups. As Brendan McQuade, a visiting assistant professor in international studies at DePaul University states in his essay for Counterpunch online magazine, the reanimation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Sovereign Citizens and patriot militia groups, the John Birch Society and its influence in the ultra-right libertarian Tea Party, point to the need for a serious examination of the visceral racism and white supremacy that is built into the social and economic roots of the capitalist system. If an anti-racist alternative is too limited or weakened, there will be a steady stream of willing recruits, the Dylann Roofs of future generations.


Iran Air Flight 655 – Lest We Forget

The title above comes from an article in the Washington Post published in 2013, referring to the shooting down of civilian Iranian Air Flight 655 back in 1988. The Iranian airliner was on a routine flight from Tehran to Dubai, when it was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles launched from the US warship USS Vincennes. The aircraft was in Iranian airspace, flying over Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf, and was flying away from US warships in the area. All 290 passengers and crew were killed. There were no survivors.

Why is this important to remember?

In the context of the tragic downing of Malaysian airliner M17, where official outrage in the United States and Australia were squarely directed at the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it is appropriate to explore the conduct of the US with regard to the comparable crime of shooting down a civilian airliner.

There was near unanimity in the corporate-controlled media about the culpability of Putin, and the blame was placed on the shoulders of the Ukrainian rebels opposed to the US-backed, ultra-rightists and racist regime in Kiev. The possibility that one of many neo-fascistic, thuggish militias operating under the guidance of the Kiev regime was never seriously considered or investigated. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatened to ‘shirtfront’ Russian President Putin at the G20 Leaders Meeting in Brisbane. The Russian government laughed off the remarks, but it does indicate that the Australian ruling class is willing to play the role of attack-dog for the American imperialist power. The steady and unrelenting barrage of accusations of the Russian side’s culpability has never been seriously questioned.

Be that as it may, the perpetrators of a such a horrific crime should be brought to account.

July 3 1988

Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted most of the 1980s, the United States actively encouraged the Iraqi regime of former President Saddam Hussein with military assistance, intelligence-sharing and loans. The US stationed naval warships in the Persian Gulf, supposedly to protect maritime commercial traffic in that region. The US Navy was monitoring naval and air traffic out of the Persian Gulf, and had engaged in attacks with Iranian warships. The USS Vincennes commander, Captain William C. Rogers III, ordered the shooting down of the Iran Air 655 and two missiles were launched. The aircraft was destroyed and all on board were killed. They included 66 children.

In the subsequent investigation into the attack, the US authorities blamed human error, describing the airliner’s downing as a regrettable tragedy. Then US President Ronald Reagan, basing himself on the reports submitted by US naval officials, stated that the commanding crew of the USS Vincennes believed they were under threat and took appropriate defensive action given the circumstances. Admiral William Crowe, then the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also defended the actions of Captain Rogers, remarking that the USS Vincennes had sufficient reasons to believe they were in danger and took the necessary defensive measures.

All of the assertions of the US government in relation to the shooting down of Iran Air 655 have been shown to be false. The Iranian airliner was transmitting signals indicating its civilian status, something that the US Navy with all of its sophisticated technology could hardly have mistaken. Flight 655 was ascending, flying away from the military carrier rather than descending towards the ship.

The cover-up of the criminal action of bringing down a civilian airliner is just as inexcusable as the crime itself. In 1990, the captain of the USS Vincennes, William Rogers III, was awarded the Legion of Merit for meritorious conduct for his performance as a commanding officer.

The writers and editors of Veterans Today magazine, a journal that deals with the concerns of returned service personnel, had a different assessment of Captain Rogers and his crew. In an article entitled ‘Murder in the Air’, they wrote that:

The officers and sailors of the USS Vincennes may have the honor of being among the absolutely worst and most shameful of any who have ever served in uniform. 

In 1991, Admiral William Crowe grudgingly admitted that the USS Vincennes was inside Iranian waters when the shooting down took place, not in international waters as the US Navy had first claimed.

In 1996, the Iranian and US governments reached an arrangement organised at the International Court of Justice. A compensation payout of 61.8 million dollars was agreed to be provided to the families of the Iran Air 655 victims, and the United States expressed deep regret over the incident. The US government has never actually admitted responsibility for the attack, or ever apologised for it. Indeed, in August 1988, in the immediate aftermath of the airliner’s downing, former US Vice President George Bush (senior) stated that:

I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.

The enormous fury and frustration that accompanies the drumbeat of denunciations regarding the downing of Malaysian Airliner 17 reeks of hypocrisy. The deceptions of the United States ruling class are astounding, given that they have flouted the international laws that they now claim to uphold. The outrage over the demise of MH17 (whether real or manufactured) serves a useful tribal function – to unite us in an aura of  hyperbolic self-affirmative superiority over an enemy that stoops to new barbaric lows – surely we are not as savage as them?

Iranians honour those who perished in the attack

The Iran-Iraq war ended in August 1988. The shoot-down of Iran Air 655 constitutes an unhealed wound for the Iranian side, evidence of the perfidy and cunning deceptions of the power to the West. The Iranians mark July 3 with commemorative events and sombre ceremonies to uphold the event lest we forget:

Courtesy of Mehr News Agency
Courtesy of Mehr News Agency

In 2014, the Harvard Political Review published an article entitled ‘Sorry, but Iran Air 655 is not equivalent to Malaysia Flight 17’, a prolonged obsequious apologia for the shooting down of the Iranian aircraft. The author does make an interesting point – the United States, during the Iran-Iraq war, positioned its naval warships in the Persian Gulf to protect trade routes and uphold free navigation of the seas. This is actually a legitimate difference between MH17 and Iran Air 655. Perhaps that is the only valid point in the entire article.

The US imperialist power regards the Persian Gulf, and indeed the oil resources of the Middle East and Central Asia, as necessary to its own strategic and military interests. It will brook no opposition to its economic expansion, at the expense of the people in that region, the true owners of those natural resources. The attack on Iran Air 655 did constitute a strong signal delivered by the trigger-happy rulers of the American war machine – this region belongs to us, defy us, and we will take steps to blast you into oblivion. Malaysia has no economic or material interests in the Ukraine, or Eastern Europe. It has never attacked any European country, nor placed its soldiers on foreign soil, or constructed military bases in foreign countries.

Perhaps it is time to examine the deceptions, hypocrisies and evil committed by our own political and economic leaders. Successive Australian governments, both Labour and Liberal, have made it a virtue (if it can be called that) of riding on the coattails of US foreign policy objectives. An axis of evil can only exist when a criminal power has willing underlings that comply with its predatory actions.