Paul Greenberg

Let's hear it for The Usable Past. That phrase was much in vogue among historians not long ago, and may still be. Historians, too wanted to be part of the practical arts. History, we were told, isn't something to be studied for its own sake, but as a guide to current politics. A useful collection of talking points. A great warehouse of stick figures we can choose from to make our case.

The uses to which Robert E. Lee's name has been put vary. To the old folks at home, he is still an icon to be venerated, the centerpiece of a thousand Confederate Memorial Day observances, the storybook knight beyond reproach, the marble man of Sothern mythology -- less man than monument.

The revisionists in their turn cannot resist using Lee, too. As a foil. As the symbol and personification of all Southern sins and hypocrisies. An icon always invites inconoclasts. The hero becomes the anti-hero, and history one of the plastic arts. For once the past becomes usable, anybody can use it for any purpose. It's the modern, flexible, pragmatic way.

Call it instrumental history; we go to the past not as students but scavengers, on the lookout for what we can find there and, sure enough, finding just what we expected. Even if we have to plant it there ourselves. It's a campaign year, and the demand for such salvage increases accordingly. "History shows ..." just what we want it to show.

The idea of the past as something complete of itself, whole and almost holy, not to be profaned for our own partisan purposes ... how quaint all that seems now. Like the laws of war in an age of terror.

The American Civil War is often hailed as the first modern war. It saw the introduction not only of new technologies -- automatic weapons, ironclad ships, submarines -- but new strategies that did away with old qualms.

William Tecumseh Sherman's total war, an innovation in 1864, became the standard of the next century. His march to the sea, destroying whatever stood in his way, also destroyed the distinction between military and civilian targets. "War is cruelty," he warned the people of Atlanta, "and you cannot refine it...." To paraphrase, war is hell. Sherman certainly made it so.

What began with the burning of Atlanta would culminate a century later with the incineration of Hiroshima. The future of war had unfolded like a mushroom cloud. A most modern man, General Sherman. A prophet and precursor, practicing what he preached.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.