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First Blood?

3:55 PM, Aug 3, 2011 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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With the debt ceiling thing done, the scribes are now straining for the illuminating metaphor and “terrorism,” it seems, is the preferred choice. One New York Times columnist writes that “the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people,” and you had to wonder if he would have accused even Osama bin Laden of that. Another Times columnist describes the Tea Party as “the Hezbollah faction” of the Republican Party. Maureen Dowd, the Times’s diva columnist went with a different, idiosyncratic metaphor. The whole thing, she writes, was like a horror movie, a “gory, Gothic melodrama on the Potomac … without the catharsis.”

Civil War

One wonders, though, if this were not a case where an older metaphor—hackneyed but dependable—might have served. Maybe this was that old standby—“the first battle in a long war.” Der Spiegel's headline about the “Civil War Atmosphere” in Washington seems not only apt but to resonate with historical chords. One hundred and fifty years ago, the country was in the early throes of a real Civil War. The first major battle of that war, fought in late July 1861, resembled in many (metaphorical) ways the one, just fought, over the debt ceiling.

Before the Battle of Bull Run almost nobody, North or South, believed it would be a long war. Certainly not as long and bloody as it turned out to be. None could have borne such a prospect.

The thing would be settled in one conclusive, Napoleonic battle on a field somewhere in Virginia with flags, drums, glorious bayonet charges, and . . . final victory. In Washington, confidence in the outcome ran so high that people rode out in carriages, carrying the necessaries for a picnic to enjoy whilst they observed the battle.

Meanwhile, columns blundered and got lost. Orders were sloppily written, misunderstood, ignored. Those things that could go wrong, did. But eventually the armies engaged. The soldiers did their duty. The Union right advanced and seemed poised to carry the field except that one Confederate formation held and demonstrated the power of the defense—a lesson that was repeated many times during the war and never fully appreciated or accepted, then or later.

The Union advance stalled, then broke. The battle became a rout and demoralized soldiers wearing the blue made their way back to Washington not in a retreat, but a rabble.

Horace Greeley, whose New York Herald Tribune had carried the banner, “Forward to Richmond,” removed it from the paper and wrote privately to President Lincoln that, “On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair. If it is best for the country and for mankind that we make peace with the rebels at once and on their own terms, do not shrink even from that.”

The London Times suggested that, “So short lived has been the American Union, that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.”

Evidently, journalists were as excitable then as they are today.

Bull Run was an inconclusive battle in an exceedingly conclusive war. It was not, by the later standards of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, etc. etc.—even particularly bloody. But it was illuminating. The battle made plain that it would be a long, hard war. That was its undeniable lesson.

A vote to take on a lot more debt, cut back (perhaps) a little bit on the spending, and see about some tax increases later on—and the difficulty of getting even that done—demonstrates just how long and mean that current national debate will be.

One suspects that it will be so long and hard that the last few weeks will seem tragically quaint in comparison, like the fancy folks riding out from Washington for an afternoon picnic while they watched the soldiers do battle.

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