In recent days, I have re-read David L. Lindsay’s novel, Body of Truth. In it, he describes a cruel and gruesome civil war that terrorized the people of Guatemala for thirty-six years, from 1960 until 1996. It was the federal government, then run by a series of generals, who attacked the poorest of its citizens.
A United Nations report, dated March 1, 1999, declared that, “An estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the civil war, including at least 40,000 persons who disappeared.”
David L. Lindsay says the same thing, but he resorts to far more graphic terms.
“Guatemala was a Central American country wracked by a succession of ruling generals who had gained their authority through coups and countercoups and established a tradition of political violence that became so entrenched as a way of life that the country would be forever stained by it.
“It was cruel beyond imagination, and it engendered death squads. Guatemala was one enormous killing field. Death squads operated with impunity. No matter who lived in the presidential residence, the army ruled. The generals were busy executioners.”
A principle emerges. If the civilians—presidents, lawmakers and judges—relinquish their power to the generals, one can expect mass killings to result, because no government power can stop them.
Also, in recent days, I have re-read Bruce Catton’s article, “American Traditions,” that appeared in the June 1963 edition of American Heritage. Catton was a prolific and popular mid-twentieth-century American Civil War historian, who wrote engaging accounts of the Civil War’s battles.
In “American Traditions,” four pages long, he presents a series of thought-provoking statements:
“We are just a little too fond of saying our nation draws its greatest strength from the ancient traditions of American democracy.” “We like to believe that in time of crisis, we can rely upon them.”
“They will rescue us either from the results of our own folly, or from the evils created by fellow citizens in whom the traditions never took root.”
“Sometimes it pays to see just what these saving traditions are, and where they can be found. Who are their guardians? How do the best traditions take shape? How do we know when we are doing them? Democracy’s noble traditions can be vague; what happens when we need to make them concrete?
“It is easy to become very fuzzy-minded about American traditions. The things that make democracy work are uncatalogued and various, but they arise from the faith of the individual citizen.”
“The essence of the democratic tradition grows out of this simple notion about the individual citizen’s duty, a duty that is self-imposed, that the people involved in a democratic society owe something to the society of which they are a part.”
I—like most readers I would suspect—have to re-read each of Catton’s sentences a number of times to catch and appreciate his full meaning.
Although he says that these democratic traditions are “uncatalogued, various, vague, and fuzzy-minded,” I contend that each begins with the concept of “self-rule,” that in each U.S. citizen’s home, village, town, city, county, state, and country, it is the people who rule themselves.
Not an army, not a general, not an autocrat, not a dictator. Only the people. That is liberty.
The words, “We the people,” still ring as true today, as they did in 1787, when the Founding Fathers drafted a document, the U. S. Constitution. Its Preamble declares:
“We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Six reasons for a new governing document.
Catton then tells a story of one man who in a quiet way returned to America’s democratic traditions, after drifting far from them. In April of 1865, Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederacy, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, general of the Union, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Catton writes, “Lee was an aristocrat who had very little use for democracy, and he devoted his immense talents to the task of destroying the government that the democracy had established. In the end he failed.”
“A few days after Appomattox, one of Lee’s officers urged him to take to the hills with his army and carry on guerrilla warfare, but Lee rejected the advice. ‘We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.’ He would let the past be the past, and work for the future.”
The democratic traditions work. Like a magnet, they pull sensible people toward them. Catton said it best. “The people deserve decent government, and they will insist on getting it once qualified people show them how to do it.”