Endurance is frequently a form of indecision.  ~Elizabeth Bibesco, Haven, 195

I spent the last weekend pondering an important question: Do we as a county have the capacity to question our own values?

This post is not going to be a diatribe about how our values are messed up, but more of a reflection on the decision-making process itself. At a time when we seemed paralyzed as a nation while we careen into one crisis after another, we need to know if we have the capacity to self-correct.

I'm rereading Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Killer Angels. It is an historical-fiction account of the battle of Gettysburg, the decisive, tide-changing battle in the Civil War. It is an incredible, inspiring novel I would recommend for everyone - even those adverse to tales of military conflict. If you ever get the chance to visit Gettysburg, do yourself a favor and go. It is a humbling experience.

What strikes me now about Killer Angels is how the Southern Army defeated themselves because their core values failed them. They abandoned the hard-earned knowledge they had gained in battle, the tough lessons they had taught the Union Army, and instead of making a tactically decisive move that likely would have won them the war, they instead charged up a hill to their doom. Let me elaborate.

The American Civil War began with southern states, including Virginia, seceding from the Union. When it became clear that the North was going to enforce the union by military means, armies formed and prepared for battle. Those battles would initially be fought in the south, most decisively in Virginia on ground very near Washington D.C.

The battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, two major conflicts involving Robert E. Lee's command, should have taught the South some clear lessons. In those battles, the Union Army headed south into Virginia. Lee's Army was dug in, waiting. Lee occupied the high ground and, in terms of terrain, had every tactical advantage. The Union commanders, being pushed hard from Washington to use their superior numbers to attack, walked right into slaughter after slaughter. 

After Chancellorsville, following Napoleon's tenant that, "the only logical outcome of a defensive war is surrender," Lee decided to bring the Rebel Army north and take the fight to the Union. With the Union Army reeling from defeat and clearly lacking capable leadership, it was thought that a decisive battle on Union soil would end the war. 

Killer Angels begins as the armies converge on Gettysburg. The picture the book paints is even more real in my mind having seen the site in person. The Union Army was first to the scene and occupied the high ground to the east. The Confederate Army came from the west and would have to cross a wide clearing and then advance, under fire, up a steep hill. This was crazy.

As Shaara brilliantly gets into the minds of the commanders, his tale describes how Robert Lee disagreed with his second-in-command, General James Longstreet. Longstreet felt that the lessons of Fredericksburg, where he had commanded the Confederate troops atop the defensive hill, were apparent. They should not attack the Union Army on such poor ground. They should swing the Confederate troops to the south, position them between the Union Army and Washington D.C. and then back into their capital, fighting a defensive war on the best ground of their choosing.

General Lee would have none of it, and this is where the values question comes in. In the book, it is pride - the "we can't retreat" type of pride - that compels Lee to attack at Gettysburg. And this is not simply Lee's shortcoming. Sharra depicts it as the mentality of the entire Southern Army. We don't retreat. We don't withdraw. As Lee is reported to have said,

"If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him."

The rest is history. Lee attacks, his troops are predictably cut down and he subsequently orders a retreat back to Virginia. The war drags on through that year and the next until the South is forced to surrender.

This is where history is interesting to me, because I can't help but ponder the larger question. Obviously by today's set of values, there would be nothing dishonorable and everything tactically brilliant about Longstreet's advice. It is hard to understand a value system that would rather run up a hill and be killed than fall back a few miles and dramatically increase your chances of winning. It seems so foreign to us now, yet it was this hubris that changed the course of history and, ultimately, allowed the North to turn the tide of the war.

And in Killer Angels, it is not just Lee and his commanders that thought Longstreet was crazy. The troops - the ones who would die first - looked up the hill and said, "There they are. What are we waiting for?" From our view of history in 2010, this is not gallantry but madness. These were not "southern gentlemen". They were pompous fools.

Or were they?

This is where I get to Strong Towns. So much of our pattern of growth is now more of a belief system - a religion almost - than it is an expression of logic. Even when we give specific examples of where our approach is bankrupting us, it is tough to get buy-in. Sure, Chuck, that example is pretty remarkable, but overall that can't possibly be true. We persist in our beliefs, even when confronted with facts that challenge the reality as we see it.

  • Driving equals freedom, even when we give ourselves no option but to be a slave to our cars, wasting years of our lives in the "freedom" of traffic congestion.
  • More parking helps businesses, as our eyes see failing business after failing business in our downtowns full of parking.
  • Wider roads are safer, as we build fences to keep our kids from getting anywhere near them.
  • People don't like density, as condo units sell out and single-family, exurban homes fade into foreclosure. 
  • We need to grow our tax base to reduce taxes, as our tax burdens continue to climb.
  • We want limited government, as nearly every city in the country turns to Washington D.C. for grants, aid and bailouts.

Can we question our own values, determine where they fatally clash and make logical, proactive decisions about the future? Or do we need to wait for the decisive battle, when the broken bodies of our own delusions are left to rot and we retreat back to whence we came?

We have to do better. We need a national dialog on our values, which are systematically being undermined by our pattern of development. Please join us in building an America of Strong Towns from the bottom up.


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