Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American HistoryBy John Fabian Witt (Free Press, 498 pp., $32) WAR IS ABOUT killing, maiming, and destroying. Yet in its midst men have sought heroism not only in savage acts of bravery but also in observing limits, in finding a way to affirm their and their adversaries’ common humanity, in the concept of honor as a higher expression of morality than is attainable even in peace.
In the twilight years of the New Left, revolutionaries would regularly parse their adversaries’ statements for indications of “objective racism.” Even the slightest irregularity—calling someone’s thoughts “dark”—could unleash a volley of accusations.
The results are in: The electorate on the whole regards Barack Obama’s proclamation of personal support for gay marriage as a political maneuver, rather than an expression of heartfelt belief. Unfortunately, if Obama’s heavily hyped interview last week was in fact a political calculation, it was a bad bet—from a purely strategic standpoint, that is, not a moral one—since it seems to have hurt him in the polls.
Eisenhower in War and Peace By Jean Edward Smith (Random House, 950 pp., $40) The histories we write say as much about our own times as about those we study. The current polarization in Washington has prompted a nostalgia for parties that were less ideologically uniform and more prone to compromise. Fashionable “pragmatism” has similarly infected thinking about foreign policy, as the fallout from the Iraq war lingers in the air a decade on.
I had forgotten, until I picked up my copy of Steven Biel's Down With The Old Canoe: A Cultural History Of The Titanic, that Henry Adams booked passage on the Titanic's return trip. "My ship, the Titanic, is on her way," he wrote in a letter on April 12, 1912, "and unless she drops me somewhere else, I should get to Cherbourg in a fortnight." (Adams, then 74--he would die six years later--mentioned in the same letter that the as-yet-unpublished Education, which he'd forwarded to his correspondent, was "hardly ... fit for any public.
It took decades for Congress to address the problem. When, at long last, federal legislation was passed, some people raised constitutional objections, but few took them seriously. The objections required the Supreme Court to adopt unheard-of constitutional theories, hamstringing well-established powers on the basis of hysterical fears about a tyrannical federal government. Even the law’s opponents were surprised when the Court took those objections very seriously.