The Civil War (1990) TV Series by Ken Burns

My wife and I binge-watched the series over the past two days, as she continues hopefully recovering from a serious infection from cancer/chemotherapy. We watch various movies and series because she is unable to do much physical activity or even go out of the house recently. We also watch with a heightened sense of personal vulnerability, frailty, powerlessness and mortality.

The quote to the effect that “one death is a tragedy but a million deaths a statistic”, recurred to me repeatedly during the episodes. It has been variously attributed, yet showed me a poignant validity worth some reflection. We both felt tremendous grief as we saw many contemporary photographs of handsome, innocent-looking young men and boys, really, almost glowingly full of the dreams of such young men in all times. Most all were dead soon after these remarkably-clear and detailed early B&W photos. A few score of thousand of such photos remain, but over 3 million were known to have been lost through falling into disinterest soon after the war. Many ended up as faded panes in glass greenhouse panels.

As if anyone needs reminding in today’s ahistorical polity, such facts as revealed in The Civil War, drive home the fleeting and meagre historical value/impact of any individual life. All it has taken to crystallize in me the all-but antithetical revelation of the infinite value of one human life, is for the life of my wife to be threatened - as it currently is, by an incurable cancer. I find this contradiction disturbing, shattering. It is a mystery, not unlike the mystery I experience when I think of the young vibrant friends I knew and loved as a child or young man - whose hopes and longings I shared and talked over - and whose life stories I now know, are ended forever. Why do I get to know the beginning, middle, and end of their lives, but they not mine. What will those who see the end of my story think, feel or remember of me? Does it matter in any way at all? Even our tombstones (those of us who ever have any or those vaporized in what increasingly apparent likelihood of a nuclear WWIII) flash in and out of existence, viewed in sidereal time.

I experienced this vivid and moving series at many levels and had I the time or energy, would prefer to elaborate, but present circumstances permit only broad brushstrokes. The most obvious impact of this series is as straightforward history of the American Civil War. Here, too, it succeeds on many levels and left me with a profound sadness. Thee was no shortage of sadness, pathos, and gestalts as to many elements portrayed by the artful production. The images and accompanying words - often eloquent and poetic, sometimes heart rending - succeed admirably in portraying this tremendous historical series of events in all their human power, impact and implications for the future. Such feelings came through as to individuals - both renowned and unknown - and to groups - the North, the South, whites, blacks; ordinary soldiers and their usually most honorable generals - however morally worng the side they fought for.

The films succeed admirably in portraying all the political and social subtleties necessary for the war to be fought successfully by the North. The mixture of motives at various times - fighting to preserve the Union and/or abolish slavery - these goals were varied subtly in their political amplification. Otherwise, the North might well have abandoned the war for lack of political support - especially at time when the South won stunning victories on the battlefield; despite the tremendous population and industrial advantages of the North. To do justice to the series as history, I may undertake to read Shelby Foot’s three volume book of the same title. His words in his voice, adds much to the story, in facts presented as well as inimitable coy, dry, understated style.

Also clarifying were numerous interviews with historian Barbara Fields, who offered deeply erudite and insightful analyses of what it meant for the US and the world, generally, for slavery to be abolished here. In describing the long and powerful white supremacy maintained in the South after the war was lost, she said, to that extent, the war is still unfinished. Her remarks, most gently and unemotionally put, were genuinely helpful, but I found myself disagreeing with one point in particular. She indicated a belief that all things are possible in any society at any time - that, for example, the US could and should have abolished slavery when the Constitution was ratified. This betrays a certain, what I call present-ism bias among many on the left today. They believe people in history must be judged by our elevated standards of today and discounts their inability to act without having had the benefit of the intervening evolution of society as it permits experience and even the possibility of some actions. In short, to a great degree, we are all constrained in our thoughts, beliefs and possibilities of action - by the times in which we live. The proof is in the study of how progress has been made. It has been made slowly and in small increments.

In parallel to this specific tale of American history, I somehow became aware that it was emblematic of the long, pathetic, usually tragic course of human progress throughout recorded history and almost certainly before. I ended with a good cry - one which felt necessary to both what I watched and what I am presently living. It felt somewhat cleansing. It became apparent to me, though sub rosa, that much of human history and, indeed, human social progress, has come about because men had to fight since ancient times - in order that better - more humane - ideas, extended to all people, might reign in human tribes and societies. Of course, every fight or war didn’t always turn out as we today would write it.

As to that last point, it seems the entire west are presently regressing, intentionally being driven back to tribalism and ancient feudal power structures - divide to acquire power to re-enslave. Only this time, in the new-and-imporved, “green” fascism, enslavement is far more clever and sophisticated, dulled with opioids and virtual circuses.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis best described present/near future:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated: but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. . . . This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” —C.S. Lewis


History is certainly tragic. Over the centuries, so many lives have been cut short by war and politics – the consequences of which would be a fruitful topic for an evolutionary enthusiast. Even so, empires crumble, kingdoms are forgotten, and yet the human race still clambers on upwards … despite the failure of evolution to remove that destructive political gene.

I suspect that the role of slavery in the War Between The States has been exaggerated in the interests of Our Betters’ “divide & rule”. Certainly, it is surprising that there is no sense that Americans of African ancestry ever feel any gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of Americans of European ancestry who died to end slavery.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Civil War was the election which put Lincoln in a position to launch it. He was elected by a minority of the popular vote, but the 60% who did not vote for him split their votes amongst 3 other candidates. If there had been something like a European preference voting scheme at that election, Lincoln would not have become President and the Civil War might never have taken place.

The Union could have split peaceably. Slavery would soon have come to an end in the South – just as it did in the Caribbean and Brazil without civil war. And North America today might consist of half a dozen different countries, peopled by the descendants of those who had not died in that tragic war.


Yes! Thank you. In my fatigue and barely staved-off despair, I forgot one of my main feelings while watching: anger at the total ingratitude of present generations of all hues, for the sacrifices you recount. This is extremely important to the total lack of civic virtue of today and will likely prove a major cause of the coming collapse.


Bingo. And the enslavement, in the form of socialism, is well-advanced.