Adam Serwer defends Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, focusing on its substitution of “Django” the ex-slave for a more familiar Hollywood “Lost Cause” hero: “from Rooster Cogburn to Ethan Edwards to Josey Wales—all former Confederate soldiers who committed treason in defense of slavery.” The compact judgmentalism in this description is problematic, however. It evokes strenuously lived-down protest politics regarding Vietnam veterans, as well as common “further left” (and libertarian) incomprehension today regarding more “mainstream” attitudes on patriotism and war. In other words, the problem is not merely a weakness in Serwer’s writing, but a standing difficulty for the left in American political culture.
Much could be said about the justice or injustice of Serwer’s implicit claims. Without attempting a comprehensive discussion of all underlying issues, we can still note that no one involved in the Confederacy was ever tried for treason, and that the handful of Confederate leaders imprisoned after the war were amnestied by presidential order in 1869. Nor was anyone retroactively charged with a crime of enslavement. We also know that the eventual losers did not accept that they were committing “treason” – or any worse “treason” than the ones the Founders of the country once “made the most of” – and we can wonder how much of a role if any slavery played for them in their decision to fight. As for the winners, no one pretends that every Union soldier joined up and fought for Abolition, and we know that the war itself was legally and politically justified primarily as an action against insurrection, not as a crusade. Slavery for better or for much worse was part of the legal order on whose behalf, at least at the outset of the war, the Union soldiers were also fighting. Of course, as we have already discussed at length, this observation is not the same as a denial that slavery was in other senses the true cause of the war, and that it deserves to be seen that way.
The historical and moral complexity of the matter is actually quite evident in the cinematic depictions Serwer references. The three ex-Confederate characters hardly qualify as unambiguous heroes of the Lost Cause. “Ethan Edwards,” played by John Wayne in the The Searchers (1954), is a cruel and twisted racist ready and at first determined to shoot his niece, rather than accept what she has become – in short, a squaw – among the natives who have raised her from early childhood. The movie’s famous final shot depicting Ethan as unwanted and excluded, puts a noirish shadow over the “riding off into the sunset” Western cliché. “Rooster Cogburn” of True Grit (1969, 2010) is a killer who learned his trade with Quantrill’s Raiders, a guerilla force operating in alliance with the Cherokees. “Josey Wales,” played by Clint Eastwood, is a poor Southern farmer who enlists after his family is wiped out by marauding Northern irregulars, and who is a bit later in screentime betrayed by his own Confederate commander.
Wales’ eventual alliance with and deepening connections to Native Americans are central to his story, and in all three tales the Native American thematic plays a crucial role, if more as a background matter for True Grit. To say that Edwards, Cogburn, and Wales are all in this sense Western figures more than they are Civil War figures is not to deny their connection to the South. It is a reminder of competing and complex themes or ideas of justice: Put simply, if we are in a different mood – perhaps like the makers of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and their audience, in a post-Vietnam state of despair about official American narratives in general – we can define all Union soldiers, even the sainted Abraham, as “fighting for genocidal imperialism.”
We cannot call Serwer’s descriptions entirely un-just without seeming to diminish the evil of slavery, but his justice remains nonetheless a kind of “victor’s justice.” It relies on an imposed and partial justice that in this instance happens to coincide with one larger idea of justice, but not with others, and especially not with the idea of the Union and certainly not with the spirit of “malice toward none.” Nor does it comport with the common understanding of the soldier’s vocation: One simple reflection of the complexities of real rather than ideologically purified life is that neither at the time, nor in the immediate aftermath, nor generally at any time since, nor in any war, did or do we define the citizen soldier strictly by his cause. There are great gaps and contradictions in the law of war and common expectations of duty. The individual soldier’s thoughts and feelings about the cause and conduct of the war are not precisely irrelevant, but it is their suppression, if within limits, that defines the individual as a soldier. There is also a simple human understanding, a “there but for the grace of God,” that we grant to the inductee, whether conscript or volunteer.
It is often observed that after the Civil War “the United States” became for the first time a singular rather than a plural noun, and whether or not the idea is precisely true to historical usages, it accurately conveys a coherently arguable difference of opinion about the nature of constitutional government and the relation of the Federal Government and the States. Prior to the war and its decisive conclusion, a son of Virginia, for example, may have considered himself beholden to multiple sovereignties – federal, state, possibly regional-cultural – as in the famous case of Robert E. Lee, whom history deems to have made the wrong choice, but recognizes as reasonably having perceived a real one. Lee’s contention was invalidated by the war, but its possibility becomes by the same logic as much the true subject of the war as slavery, if not as a fundamentally separate subject. Yet a decision by war is not the same thing as a rational proof or a necessary logical conclusion. The remainder may be suppressed but is never quite erased or fully settled, like the feelings of a soldier who hates the war but loves his country or what he conceives of as his true country, or of the slave turned avenger for apparent lack of a rebellion to join, or of the ignorant farmer forced by a morally impossible regime beyond its laws and borders.