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.