Spectator – Carla Carlisle

You probably call it your belly button. Doctors tend to call it a navel, which, despite its maritime ring, derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘nafe’ for the hub of the wheel. Professors of anatomy prefer the word umbilicus, and describe it as the former site of attachment of the umbilical cord. Professors of a more literary bent like the word omphalos, the Greek word for navel, which also translates as ‘the centre of anything’. All this comes as a revelation to me. From my first nappy change until my last, I was told that the dimple in the middle of my tummy was ‘where the Yankee shot you’.

I never doubted it. The notion of being shot by a Yankee was no more far-fetched to me than Adam and Eve eating apples or Santa’s sleigh holding enough toys for every child in Mississippi. Plus I could stick my finger in the scar, and when I found grit there, I assumed it was buckshot working its way out. I grew up on stories of the war between the North and the South, between Rebels and Yankees, a war that had ended in 1865, the year my grandfather was born. My birthright was citizenship in a divided country. As the writer Lillian Smith put it: ‘Beyond the mountains was the North: the land of the Damnyankess, where live People Who Cause All Of Our Trouble.’

But real as the war was to me, it wasn’t called the Civil War. Although some die hards called it the War of Northern Aggression, it was mostly known as the War Between the States. Not until I was living in the North did I begin to know it as the Civil War. By then, I was surrounded by fellow students for whom the war fought between 1861 and 1865 was as remote as the American Revolution. Well-educated Yankees, they were largely unaware of the agony of a war in which six million men fought and 600,000 died, oblivious to the scars of a civil war, scars which fester, tear open, heal badly.

Perhaps that is why George Bush and Tony Blair don’t want to call the war in Iraq a civil war. And who can blame them, because once the label ‘civil war’ is fixed to Iraq, they have to swallow the rest of the truth serum, have to admit that Saddam Hussein didn’t conspire with the 9/11 hijackers, had no stockpile weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps even admit that Iraq the country was invented by the British after the First World War.

One of the miracles of American history is that, after its long and tragic civil war, the Union prevailed. What has been unleashed in Iraq the furies of ancient political, historical and cultural hatreds makes any future ‘union’ impossible to envision. Seen from here the big sky of Cromwell country one despairs at the recklessness and stupidity that led the two countries into this war, calling it ‘liberation’, raising the banner of ‘democracy’.

Farmers aren’t historians our reality is nurtured in the repetition of seasons, the tyranny of weather. We read the land. The view from the plough is that we have triggered a civil war and staying will not undo what we have done. Pulling troops out slowly is nonsense: it will only make those we leave behind more vulnerable. We must leave at once. Iraq may split apart, but our presence cannot keep it together.

We will not outlive the scars of this war. A hundred years passed before the South moved on. Even now, most Southerners can come up with only one quote from William Faulkner, a quote which harks back to that war: ‘The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.’ But the past has to begin.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 14 December, 2006.