On the morning of April 9, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago, the main Confederate army attempted a last desperate escape from its encirclement southwest of Richmond, Virginia. The attempt was over by the break of dawn, and General Robert E. Lee sent a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later described that he’d been suffering from a terrible migraine headache for hours on that morning, and that the moment he read Lee’s letter his headache disappeared.
How does a war end? There are many different possible ways. Recent US wars in Iraq both ended badly and uncertainly, as our invading forces left vacuums of power behind. But questionable wars do not always end badly. The US/Vietnam War, which began exactly a hundred years after the US Civil War ended, was finally resolved in a luxurious European conference room by depraved and nefarious diplomats. And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.
Ironies abound as we compare the unique ways a war can end. The Korean War never ended; it stands ridiculously at eternal stalemate, requiring armed guards to stand stiffly with weapons glaring at each other across a big fence to this day. They are marching at that fence right now, solitary soldiers in a war that has been dormant since the age of television: a show that nobody knows how to cancel.
World War One and World War Two each ended in opposite ways. The Second World War so completely exhausted all its combatants that most of the nations involved have managed to live peacefully next to each other since 1945. They seem to have learned a lesson that is all too easy to forget.
But the chaotic collapse of Germany 27 years earlier at the end of the First World War left a dreadful power vacuum. Extremist parties began rising up almost immediately in Berlin and Munich, as the leaders of the victorious nations met at Versailles to produce a formal treaty that would provide an enduring peace. American president Woodrow Wilson strongly urged an equitable settlement, along with the creation of a powerful League of Nations to arbitrate global disputes.
The League of Nations was formed, but Wilson’s own Senate refused to ratify the treaty, mostly on petty political grounds. Led by Wilson’s bitter rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the US Senate actually rejected the treaty that all the nations of Europe had signed, a treaty that was designed to curb the power of extremist parties that were then rising all over Germany. Four years later, Hitler staged his first putsch.
Some wars end in an overpowering sense of moral collapse. The literature and journalism of late 19th Century France shows a nation deeply wounded by the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. But other defeated countries bounce quickly back, as Japan did after 1945. It’s very difficult to find clear patterns of any kind that explain how a war ends, and what happens after it does.
150 years ago in Appomattox, Virginia, four years of ruinous war ended with an outburst of gentlemanly courtesy. According to all accounts of the meeting between Lee and Grant, both generals addressed each other with sincere warmth. Lee told Grant that his soldiers were hungry, and Grant ordered that they be immediately fed from his stocks.
Though this meeting went well, a bitterness has remained between the former South and the former North in the United States of America, and a political division has remained too. When a war is fought and the war ends, do the conflicts that originally created the war linger into the peace that follows? It does not seem so; rather the shame of defeat itself sometimes seems to become a new source of conflict.
War is a thing that self-perpetuates; this is perhaps the best reason why peace treaties are nearly always helpful. What, for instance, are the USA and Iran at war about today? Nobody really knows, and yet we do not seem to know how to end this war either. Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.
I visited Appomattox, Virginia for the 150th anniversary. Here are some pictures I took while visiting the town and the historical park, where of course a reenactment was taking place. The specter of Robert E. Lee on horseback with an aide seemed to me to bear an unintentional resemblance to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The house is the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee and Grant’s first meeting took place.