Firing the first shot is almost always a mistake. If President Bush had thought about this more carefully and handled his crisis with Iraq as wisely as Abraham Lincoln handled the Fort Sumter issue, the war in Iraq might have been much less costly and divisive both at home and abroad.

Normally even when I disagree with Walter Russell Mead I find his remarks thought-provoking, but this aside in a piece about the Civil War is staggeringly wrongheaded. Besides the appalling notion that getting Saddam Hussein to fire on U.S. troops would have been a “wise” way to take the country to a war, it isn’t even true that this would have made the campaign and subsequent occupation less divisive at home: the Gulf of Tonkin incidents that propelled the U.S. to full-scale (but still undeclared) war in Vietnam were presented to the American public as a case of “they started it,” but that didn’t make the conflict any less polarizing over the long run. And in the short term, Bush’s war wasn’t divisive at all, it was overwhelmingly popular not only among Republicans but with Clinton Democrats and foreign-policy nabobs like Mead. The American Conservative was founded because there were so few outlets opposing the war.

The rest of the piece is terrible as well. Mead writes of “honor[ing] the moral and political complexity” of the Civil War, but instead of doing that — by, say, acknowledging that Southerners were fighting for self-government along the same lines (and with the same stain of slavery) that the American revolutionaries had fought for — he invokes Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, the most effective thing imaginable to preclude nuanced discussion. The trouble here is not the belaboring of familiar Southern evils but the refusal to allow any possibility of Southern virtue (but for isolated exceptions like Mead and his family), coupled with absolute obliviousness toward the sins of the North (which of course has its own racial hatreds and problems with civil rights and liberties) and of the country as a whole. The national conscience is continually assuaged by the sacrifice of dead Southerners, who must be rendered ever less human as time goes on.