Here is Shelby Foote’s short comment at the end of The Civil War by Ken Burns on what I call Civil War Entertainment:
We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.
It’s not clear to me whether Foote intends this as a criticism of our popular perceptions of the war. If so, than I assume he means this as a self-criticism since Foote engages in just this type of speech throughout the series. I made a similar point in a previous post:
I dare say that Americans love to remember their past when they can set the terms of the inquiry. We prefer a heroic past that is continually progressive and exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Just reflect for a moment on the way we think about our Civil War compared with news of civil wars from around the world. For most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American Exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layers you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the “outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy.” I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.