Why Threading the Needle Between Soldier and Cause is Doomed to Fail

The call to remove Confederate monuments shows no signs of letting up. Many people who supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds in Columbia have articulated positions holding the line on removing monuments. For some monuments offer educational opportunities and function as important reminders of the community’s collective past. Others have staked a position around the claim that Confederate soldier monuments can be understood apart from the broader cause of the Confederate nation. In other words, we can honor the memory of the soldier, along with his bravery and strong sense of duty, without having to deal with the baggage of race and slavery.

What follows ought not to be interpreted in support of the removal of Confederate soldier monuments nor should it be interpreted as an attempt to demonize the common soldier or anyone else for that matter. My position on these matters has been consistent.

It’s worth pointing out that in no other war do we bend over backwards to draw such a sharp distinction between the service of soldiers and the cause for which a war was fought. No one feels a need to strain to make such a distinction at our many WWII monuments or even those honoring soldiers who fought in the Revolution. Of course, this is because we celebrate our decision to get involved in these wars and with their results. We decided as a nation to simply forget WWI, including the men who fought. Our memory of the Vietnam War is broadly understood as the result of a flawed national policy and the loss of roughly 58,000 is generally accepted as a national tragedy. We neither celebrate the cause or the results. However, we do have a need to remember the men who fought and died, which we do in the form of names etched in granite in Washington and across the country in local communities. While we remember, our national response is largely muted at the site of monuments and markers.

In recent years the attempt to thread the needle between Confederate soldier and cause has become increasingly difficult.

Keith Harris asks in his most recent post, “can we divorce our Confederate ancestors – the common soldiers – from a national cause explicitly and undeniably linked to racial oppression and the  preservation of slavery?” He approaches his response based on what little he knows of his own Confederate ancestors. As I pointed out in a recent post this is certainly true for most descendants of Confederate soldiers. Later on he offers the following:

My contention with the heritage crowd is not so much with their specific ancestor(s), but with their failure to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of that miscarried national experiment known to history as the Confederate States of America. My issue with their steadfast devotion to Confederate symbols, indelibly associated with the Confederate nation, are not so much about linking individual common soldiers to any specific cause, but with the symbols’ association with a national ideology wedded to slavery.

Confederates might have exhibited great gallantry under fire (or not). They might have cared not a bit about slaves (or maybe they did). They might have fought to defend their firesides (or maybe they were just bored at home). In most cases we don’t really know much at all.

What we do irrefutably know is that eleven southern states seceded from the Union and waged a war for independence to preserve the institution of slavery. Anyone who drew a sword, squeezed a trigger, or pulled a lanyard for the Confederacy ultimately contributed to that aim. Without disunion and without war, there would have been no Confederate soldiers to fight and thus none to honor (or not honor, as it were). Why won’t Confederate apologists acknowledge this? Why do they not include this rather salient feature in their narrow vision of  southern “heritage?”  Let’s put the fundamentals on the table, sans all the Lost Cause mythology denying or dismissing the slavery issue, then we can talk about how to best honor our ancestors. When you claim “heritage not hate,” well…you are missing the point.

Harris nails it, but he does so by resisting the urge to impose his own assumptions concerning character and virtue on the Confederate soldier. He is honest in this regard.

Most, however, cannot resist the urge. We want enough space to at least honor the common soldier, along with their famous commanders, as the embodiment of martial virtue apart from the goals of the nation for which they fought. Many Confederate soldier monuments call on their communities to remember their devotion to duty, sacrifice and bravery in defense of their communities.

The effort expended at reconciliation gives us some sense of how much of ourselves we have invested in the memory of the Confederate soldier. As the title of this post suggests I don’t believe that a stable reconciliation is possible. Kerry Walters, who teaches philosophy at Gettysburg College, helps to explain why:

If courage is primarily a psychological willingness to face danger, I suppose Confederate soldiers can be said to have displayed it. But the problem with this value-neutral way of thinking about courage is that it forces us to say that anyone risking life and limb for an obviously wicked cause acts courageously in pursuit of evil ends. This, at the very least, is counter-intuitive. Think, for example, of Nazi Einsatzgruppen murderers, ISIS thugs, or drug lords.

Opposed to this value-free understanding of courage, Christianity and the best of the western philosophical tradition understand courage to be a virtue, one of those character traits that, when cultivated, make us morally good persons. Genuine courage, precisely because it’s a virtue, can never be a means to a wicked end, nor can people fighting for a wicked end legitimately be called courageous.

In other words, the spectrum of virtues that are encouraged must have an object. The development of a virtue such as courage is strengthened when the individual is placed in a situation that warrants it and the ultimate goal for which that virtue is exercised, we trust or hope, is moral. This completely breaks down when thinking about Confederate soldiers. Here is a little thought experiment to help make the point and one that I’ve utilized in the past.

Ask yourself if you are satisfied with the fact of Confederate defeat. Was it a positive outcome that the Confederacy failed to achieve its independence? I suspect that the vast majority of you will answer in the affirmative. This does not mean that you believe that the United States acted morally throughout the four years of fighting or that Lincoln intended to free the slaves from day one. Again, I suspect that the vast majority of you believe that the right side won the war.

I will go a step further. I wish that there were fewer “Diehard Rebels” who appeared to go furthest in exercising the virtues of the soldier. I wish that there were fewer from “The Last Generation” whose sense of duty propelled them in what they considered to be a righteous cause. I wish more Confederate soldiers had been less courageous and deserted from the camps and battlefields in much larger numbers to help bring a speedier end to the war.

The debate today about Confederate iconography is not about why individual soldiers fought or about the complexity of the Confederate South from one end to the other. Those questions are important and they have their place. The current debate, in all of its vitriol and messiness, is about whether or not this nation will come to terms with why there was a war to begin with and what was at stake in its outcome.

So go ahead and celebrate the duty and honor of Robert E. Lee and the bravery of the Confederate soldier. Just remember to thank your lucky stars that the cause for which they exercised these virtues ultimately FAILED.

And if you are committed to honoring the courage and duty of Southern soldiers try George Thomas and Winfield Scott. Their courage and sense of duty was of a different kind, one whose object we should all acknowledge.

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23 comments… add one
  • Annette Jackson Jul 18, 2015

    Excellent observations! When I was venting to a family member after encountering a couple of flaggers in pickup trucks on my way to the grocery store, the person reminded me of a passage from “Ivanhoe” when Rebecca challenges her father about continuing to follow the “old ways” of their ancestors. To paraphrase Isaac of York’s respond, the closer something seems to be moving into the past/and lost, the harder some will cling to it, and he would continue to honor his heritage, in this case Judaism, until he passed on.

    Now obviously the CSA is not comparable in any way to Judaism but the sentiment seem to be alive and well among heritage groups. And in fact that very idea was expressed far less eloquently by the organizer of the flag run through Southside last weekend….”we are probably the last ones who will do this..” meaning displaying the flag openly. And it is tied into present day partisan politics for many.

    Honor your 2nd or 3rd or 4th GGF as a person from whom you are descended, just as you would honor any family member who had no association with the war is my feeling. At last count, I have over two dozen relatives who fought in the Civil War, 90% for the Union (large Missouri families) but I don’t belong to a heritage society, and I think that is fairly typical of descendants of Union veterans. We have nothing to prove, perhaps, even when facing the most fervent Lost Causers.

    • Charles Moore Jul 18, 2015

      After placing a comment against battle flag and other such displays on public property on social media recently and having my credentials as an Alabamian and southerner thoroughly questioned, I came to the very same conclusion as you. Perhaps a little further, though. We not only have nothing to prove, but most of all, nothing to prove to the Lost Causers. Neo-Cons are people who will not listen to reason. Whatever you say, their minds are on one track and reason does not apply. Its like talking to conspiracy theorists from another century. Thank God the men and women of the South Carolina legislature, the great majority of them at least, are people of reason.

      • Patrick Jennings Jul 20, 2015

        I am confused. By Neo-Con do you mean Neo-Confederate?

        • Annette Jackson Jul 20, 2015

          I am sure Charles meant Neo-Confederates, as in the one I encountered just today on the Internet who posted that the south had freed all its slaves prior to the start of the CW.

  • Annette Jackson Jul 18, 2015

    Sometime I would like to explore why we as a country have no interest in World War I. I have a great uncle, an uncle, a step grandfather, and two cousins who served. The great uncle was with the AEF at the Muse Argonne, and the uncle was with the CEF from British Columbia at the Somme, where he was shot and bayoneted in the chest. When my cousin and I were misbehaving, Uncle Ernie would promise to let us see his wounds if we calmed down! That was generally all it took, as we were little ghouls. The other relatives all served stateside. These are relatives to honor.

    • M.D. Blough Jul 18, 2015

      Annette-I don’t know a lot of the details but all of my male relatives on my mother’s side (I don’t know of any exceptions) served in World War I. Of course, they were all Scots and served in the UK forces. In 1972, I visited the Scottish relatives with my mother who had reconnected with her father’s family on a prior visit. We’d always been in contact with my grandmother’s family). I met two of my great-uncles on my late grandfather’s side (they were a much younger half-brother and step-brother), both of whom had seen combat and injuries in WW I. When we were talking at one point, someone asked why my grandfather (he was exempt under US draft law since he was a coal miner) had never returned home to visit unlike many expat Scots. my great-uncle Tom (the half-brother) got even quieter and said, “I can’t think of anyone he was close to who survived the war.” The room fell silent and then, by unspoken mutual agreement, the conversation went to an unrelated subject.

      It was then I realized the devastating impact World War I had on the countries who were combatants through the entire war. So many were killed or permanently maimed that many countries effectively lost an entire generation, especially the ones who would likely have been leaders at every level of society. Americans tend to be very critical of the European reaction to Hitler’s rise as too passive but I really believe that the terrible trauma of WW I greatly affected Britons and Europeans, particularly at the possibility of another war.

      • Annette Jackson Jul 18, 2015

        I agree. Americans don’t realize the loss suffered by the British in the Great War. My uncle was born in Manchester but the family immigrated to Canada a few years before the outbreak of the war. He enlisted at the age of 16 and served until the end.

    • Patrick Jennings Jul 20, 2015

      I find this rather interesting as I did in the initial blog. I have lived in 20 of our 50 states (and have visited the rest) and have seen WWI memorials in 48 of them (I never found one in Hawaii or Alaska other than headstones of veterans). To be clear, I don’t just mean in the capital cities.

      At the same time I can name town-after-town that has a “walker,” as the monuments to veterans of the Spanish American War are known. Korea gets a little tougher, but even there most communities have the names of their veterans listed on a plaque of sorts – especially their war dead.

      I imagine that in the current super-heated climate most people simply can’t see the forest for the trees.

      • Annette Jackson Jul 20, 2015

        There were two WWI monuments in the Southern California town where I grew up, and one in the central Virginia town where I now live. But this is the centennial of the Great War and I see very little evidence of widespread interest.

  • Michaela Jul 18, 2015

    As to your and Keith Harris’ point I am wondering at what point it is acceptable to use the phrase “honoring a soldier” in the context of the Confederate Army. As the granddaughter and niece of 3 men who fought in world war II it is incredibly difficult for me to comprehend the American rhetoric of Lost Cause and the “valiant soldier”. Throughout my life I was never able to intellectually nor emotionally separate my relatives’ service from the Holocaust, from concentration camps, from medical experiments on humans, from rape and genocide performed by the SS, Gestapo, you name it.

    These 3 men joined the war for different reasons. These reasons were respectively 1) conviction that the Nazi regime was doing well for Germany’s economy, 2) a family tradition that goes back to the 15th century where every male descendent had served in officer roles in the military, or 3) being “saved” from concentration camp and instead sent to the front as potential canon fodder.

    So here I have 3 relatives who either joined or were forced respectively for different reasons. All 3 had the chance to say no. All 3 knew of the crimes of the Nazi regime to some lesser or greater extend and expressed knowledge and/or concerns in conversations with family members. All 3 came back as broken men. And still, I don’t think any of this matters when I analyze their and any soldier’s ties to a war. What matters is the cause of the war. The motivation of a country or an organized group to take up arms. They joined and they took part in it.

    The American South took up arms to defend their rights. These rights were not some abstract right to the pursuit of happiness, these were rights that were governed by law. One essential right was to hold another human hostage against their will and brutalize them or kill them as it fit. And to preserve that right they took up arms. That is what every confederate soldier fought for. You cannot sign up for a club and then argue later that your membership fee did not support certain activities. “Honor” seems a code word for discarding every soldier’s responsibility and actions in a war and replacing it with that “holy cow” that allows no criticism.

    • Charles Moore Jul 18, 2015

      All three had the chance to say no? In Nazi Germany? In Nazi Germany, I fear what happened to any man who refused service to the Reich. Or to his family. Opposition to Hitler is what concentration camps were originally built for. During times of declared war, even men in free countries are expected to either serve their country or they can be forced to serve under law. Under totalitarian regimes such as Germany or Imperial Japan, forced service was much more severe. The last generation to have live in such times is rapidly dying off. We have lived far too long believing that life is all about making choices. In the world of our ancestors, making choices was not so simple; many times the choice was already made. Condemning our ancestors with our 21st century values is wrong.

      • Michaela Jul 18, 2015

        I chose my words very carefully. All 3 men had the chance to say no. Only 1 had the choice. You assume that all 3 were drafted or pressured. Any dictatory system has its winners and losers and the winners can choose.

        Also choosing between your own death and an immoral activity that is likely causing death or horror to others is still a moral choice. I have tremendous sympathy for my grandfather’s choice and I know what it did to him and his family after he survived. But I cannot argue that his choice was honorable and independent from the war’s objective and that was the question. I think cleansing such decisions with words like “honor” completely distorts the facts and belittles the tremendous tragedy for those that had to make them.

        None of the questions about honor do anything to explain a war in its historic context. The question of “honor” is not interesting to gain historic insight. In fact, putting up the shield of “honor” is rather hindering the analysis. In contrast, if we want to have a discussion about the philosophy or psychology of war the definition of honor becomes a different question.

        Honor in a war’s historic context mostly serves the narrative of governments and individual people’s agendas. It is probably the most non-factual description of people’s participation in it.

    • Keith Harris Jul 19, 2015

      Michaela – I was wondering if you had seen the recent three-part drama, Generation War. It deals with some of the points you address in interesting ways. I understand it was a tremendous hit in Germany and it confronts Nazi ideology heard on. As to your question about honoring a Confederate soldier. Ultimately I agree with Kevin. I think it is safe to honor abstract virtues such as valor on an individual basis, but only if one can acknowledge the context within which this valor was executed. In most cases, I am pretty sure this is not going to happen. In this way I take the same road as the Civil War veterans themselves – they were willing to embrace reconciliation, but only once the other side admitted they were wrong. And as you can imagine, that didn’t happen.

    • James F. Epperson Jul 21, 2015

      Michaela, that was very well-said. I think the distinction between the soldier and the cause is close to unique for our Civil War. I say “close to” because there is a similar idea emerging regarding Vietnam and, more recently, the second Iraq war. (Those are discussions perhaps for another day.)

      I think some of the distinction between your experience and what happened in the South has to do with the fate of the symbols. The swastika was quickly revealed and seen as the symbol of a horrific regime. There was a kind of “cleansing” of the Confederate flag in the years after the war which resulted in a lot of people not really knowing or understanding what it stood for.

  • Charles Moore Jul 18, 2015

    In his eulogy to the Rev. Clementi Pinkney, President Barack Obama eloquently addressed the necessity for removing the Confederate Flag. In part of that address he said, “Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.” Is President Obama’s position where he speaks of the “valor” of southern soldiers yet condemns the cause for which they fought, “threading the needle” as you say?

  • Forester Jul 18, 2015

    KEVIN: “Ask yourself if you are satisfied with the fact of Confederate defeat. Was it a positive outcome that the Confederacy failed to achieve its independence?”

    I can’t honestly answer that — not without invoking counterfactual speculations. We can make them up all day, and they keep getting sillier. I don’t — and CAN’T — know what a Confederate Victory would have entailed. It’s impossible to know, because it never happened. Period.

    The Confederacy failed, that’s a fact. And slavery is gone, that’s another fact. But I can’t find it in myself to praise either side in this war. It might have ended slavery, but it was the worst way to achieve it. The conditions black people suffered in the post war were also a national tragedy, and that shouldn’t be forgotten either.

    To quote Howard Zinn:

    “Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.

    We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.” (Zinn, “Untold Truths of the American Revolution”).

    So do I believe the right side won? I don’t know. I can’t know. But I do know that we’re one country now, and that’s all that matters for me. One nation, indivisible.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2015

      The Confederacy failed, that’s a fact. And slavery is gone, that’s another fact. But I can’t find it in myself to praise either side in this war.

      I am not asking you to praise anything. It’s a simple question. There was a war with specific goals set for the both sides. On one the establishment of a slaveholding republic and on the other the preservation of a union and eventually the end of slavery. I don’t see why we have to consider alternatives.

  • Laqueesha Jul 19, 2015

    There is a great speech from 1871 by Frederick Douglass regarding this very question:

    “We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.”

    That pretty much sums up my feelings. As for the two questions? Yes and yes, very much so.

  • Rob Baker Jul 20, 2015

    Our memory of the Vietnam War is broadly understood as the result of a flawed national policy and the loss of roughly 58,000 is generally accepted as a national tragedy. We neither celebrate the cause or the results. However, we do have a need to remember the men who fought and died, which we do in the form of names etched in granite in Washington and across the country in local communities.

    I love the parallels you draw between our memory of the Civil War and the memory of our other wars as well. National tragedy indeed.

  • Deborah Ferrenz Sep 18, 2015

    I recently visited the park at the bridge near Concord, Mass that’s the site of a very early battle in the American Revolution. In addition to the well-known Minuteman monument, there is a gravestone for two British solders, that reads ‘they came 3000 miles from home to keep the past upon its throne’ (and that their mothers grieve for them). Seems like the right stance for monuments to Confederate soldiers, too.

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