Civil War memes in the daily press

At the risk of inflicting on the reader painful political spasms, I want to draw your attention to three pieces that appeared in the Washington Post last week. They're interesting in being heavily laden with Civil War memes and terminology.

These linked pieces below are all of the type "inside analysis" in which a researcher with limited access to a small set of decisionmakers attempts to tell "what it all means" and "how it all came about." In other words, the writer plays the part of the drunk who looks for his keys under the lamp post because the light is best there.

The Anaconda strategy
The first piece is by a lady who bases her insights on a 10-month stay in Iraq. Her editorial is disjointed and slightly incoherent - it is clear she lacks a military framework to help her process the information she has collected - and consequently, she deals out some tantalizing meat in a context-free soup.

The juiciest morsel contains this reference:

Petraeus convened a study group that shrewdly analyzed the raging sectarian conflict, then came up with what he called "the Anaconda strategy" to address the underlying dynamic.

It is not clear that the writer understands this is an ACW reference, nor does she develop it to give us insight into what Petraeus thinks it might mean. After introducing the term, she abandons it to stress Petraeus's immersion in Iraqi domestic politics.

What might it mean? To the lay ACW reader, Anaconda probably means a less violent war strategy, one that puts the squeeze on an enemy economy to bring that enemy to the negotiating table. Although TV pundit Bill O'Reilly has repeatedly called Petraeus the U.S. Grant of this war does he see himself as Winfield Scott instead?

Lincoln's backchannels
As the excerpts from Bob Woodward's new book began appearing last week, I was pretty excited to find aspects of Lincoln's management of the war cropping up in the installments.

In this September 8 piece, we find the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a state of distress at being routinely bypassed on military decision making - shades of McClellan and Halleck!

In this September 9 installment, we find the brass in an uproar over the president using a retired general as his personal liaison to the general commanding (Hello, Ethan A. Hitchcock! And for that matter, Charles Dana!).

It seems that in the Civil War Lincoln could not stop taking advice, or soliciting advice. After he stopped listening to Halleck, he stopped listening to Stanton, who learned of some military decisions second hand (or so Stanton's biographers tell me). He constantly changed his sources and inputs. His taste for backchannels was so voracious, he encouraged Abner Doubleday's missives from Ft. Sumter during the crisis (see Detzer's Allegiance for the harm done Major Anderson, commanding).

One of the provisions of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (that reorganized the military) stipulated that the chiefs of staff would always have access to the president. I thought this proviso redundant until Secretary Rumsfeld - an interesting, Stanton-like figure if ever there was one - approached the chiefs and asked them to write memos renouncing this right.

The consolidation of war powers in the War Department that Stanton sought would come to fruition in our own time.

Hattaway and Jones have spent some ink on the history and operation of the Union War Deaprtment's War Board, headed by Hitchcock (picture, top). It reached a point where it withered away from disuse. The chiefs are not going to wither away. Neither are the eternal questions of organization and accountability that Lincoln failed to resolve.

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The writer behind the Anaconda reference is Linda Robinson, author of Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. In her 2008 book, the Anaconda reference is rendered thus:

The United States also sought to attack Al-Qaeda's appeal with the "anaconda strategy," which aimed to go after the terrorists from every angle. "You can't do in Al-Qaeda with just counterterrorist forces," Petraeus said. "You've got to reduce any threat that gives a reason for Sunni Arab communities to want to support Al-Qaeda as a bulwark against them. You've got to get services, education, jobs. The religious side is important ... You've got to get out there in cyberspace ... and you have to get with all the source countries."
This appears to have no connection to the "Anaconda Plan" attributed to Scott. BTW, an aide gave him a copy of Catton's Grant Takes Command upon his departure to take command in Iraq and the book tells of him being inspired by that.