UPDATE: A number of people have expressed frustration over my decision to publish an anonymous guest post. I understand the concerns expressed and will re-think my policy. At the same time there is a vibrant and productive discussion in the comments section of the post. People are engaging with the argument and that is what I intended. You can read my response here.
What follows is a guest post authored by a experienced instructor in professional military education, who wishes to remain anonymous. Publication of this piece should not be interpreted as constituting agreement with its content.
My thoughts on removing Confederate monuments, of any type, boil down to two major arguments with several subpoints. As a caveat, I am not commenting on the recent violence, the President’s comments, or in any way supporting the alt-right political extremism (which is antithetical to the American creed). My arguments below are rooted in what I call “common sense historicity.”
FIRST, taking down the monuments is a betrayal of the trust of the past in the future. When those monuments were erected, America, and especially the American South, was a different place with a different context than that governing today’s mores and values. The veterans, sons, wives, and daughters who paid good money to put them up, often in communities still economically damaged from the war, did so because they believed their failed cause was worth remembering–for the sheer sacrifice of it. This was especially true for the hundreds of smaller “soldier’s monuments” scattered about the small towns of the South. That lone soldier standing atop the column represented dead husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and comrades whose lives were tragically cut short, regardless of what we may think of the cause they fought for or the racialist society they espoused. We cannot–and especially the extreme political left today–even come close to feeling the sense of personal loss, desolation, (initial) despair, and even pride that the survivors felt. They had given their all, and lost. The monuments were their way of dealing with failed sacrifice. Of course, there were actual attempts to skew history on the part of some memorialists, I grant that, but the vast majority of these monuments, such as the soldier’s monument ruthlessly toppled in Durham, were put up to honor communities’ joint sense of sacrifice in a massive, and massively unsuccessful cause. Think, if you will, how some late 19th century Americans, still loyal to the mother country, would have felt about monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and other revolutionary leaders erected in the wake of a hypothetically failed American Revolution. I sense the same canards of “treason” would have been trotted out, as they are today post-facto about Confederates, but the point is that we today cannot really comprehend what it felt like to lose just about everything in a failed revolution for independence. It is beyond the scope of understanding for all but a few refugees among us (the failed Hungarian revolt against the communists and the Nigerian civil war come to mind here).
Unquestionably, preserving slavery was a major—if not the dominant—secessionist argument for independence, and people today are historically correct to mention that. I’ll also grant that minority groups today, especially African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, have a right to be offended by the Confederate past. But that does not give them, or anyone else, the right to judge the past by our modern standards and wipe away what they perceive to be offensive, especially with such undisciplined (dare I say close-minded?) rancor. Doing so is not only a betrayal of the past but also disappointingly un-American and, most troubling, short-sighted. It is not the fault of the monuments themselves or the Confederate battle flag, for that matter, that they were highjacked by white supremacists as symbols or rallying points (the flag was co-opted way back in the 1920s against the protests of the United Confederate Veterans and Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy). The monuments are silent testimonies of a bygone era. It is not they that offend people by themselves—it is the alt-right activists today and their incendiary rallies that, by association, make the monuments, especially of the leaders like Lee and Jackson, offensive to some. But if the most radical arguments now proffered by the Left are taken to their worst extremes, we should all be worried. Who is to say that in one-hundred years, statues of the heroes of the Left, like Dr. Martin Luther King (who is frankly an AMERICAN hero), might not be toppled for similarly vacuous reasons? Do we really want to set this precedent today for our descendants to follow? Should present-day political trends erase the record of the past? Thucydides would roll over in his grave at the thought. He might recommend, as have a few others recently, the erection of explanatory placards and displays adjacent to monuments that provide all sides of the story.
The historical record demonstrates the impetus for independence trumped slavery in the end (by spring 1865) for most of the Confederate leadership, and for the common soldiers, most of whom did not own slaves, the war was mainly about fighting for their homes, their comrades, their leaders, and their families (not too different from modern soldiers’ motivations). Read their letters: the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. Certainly, one may find the exception here and there, but let us not make the exception the rule. Postwar ex-Confederate southerners did create a fabric of memory that, we know, was not always truthful to the historical cause they fought for, and they were joined in the creation of the Lost Cause by many white northerners, an uncomfortable fact that has not received much air time of late. Regardless of their motivations, however, the survivors of the failed Confederate war for independence trusted that future generations would honor their failed sacrifice, which they believed, in their context, was righteous. If any of them were alive today, they would be shocked at how the radical left now portrays them and their cause and regards their monuments. Their historical reality was, unsurprisingly, entirely different from what the run-amuck political correctness movement has forced into most modern Americans’ heads, and I fear most American citizens today are thus completely ill-equipped to make a critically-informed, reasoned decision about what to do. The American public has truly lost sight of what it meant to be a Confederate or ex-Confederate, in the context of the 19th century, and has little or no ability to even attempt to get into the heads of dead Confederates and their offspring. Therefore, it should also not surprise us that they cannot possibly have historical-minded or enlightened thinking about the monuments. Even the descendants of the Confederate leaders exhibit this syndrome, which we in the historical education profession call “presentism.” The presentism being displayed these days is beyond saddening—and it affects both the political right and the left in spades. But political leaders on the left side of the spectrum, many just as historically ignorant as most of their constituents, have flown to the monuments issue like moths to the flame for their own purposes. Beware, my friends and colleagues on the Left–political correctness is a double-edged sword. We know not what the future and its public sensibilities may be like.
SECOND, taking down the monuments displays immense arrogance on the part of the present towards the future and future generations. We have no idea today what the future will look like, which groups will be dominant politically, what events may occur that will alter popular outlooks, etc. I am consistently astonished how people today, again on both sides of the debate, think they know so much about “everything” and therefore “must” be correct in their self-serving convictions. There is no room in such close-mindedness for creative thinking about what might be, what could occur down the road, and how people in the future may think about past events. This is part of thinking contingently—considering that one’s current reality may not hold forever, and that alternative paths must be pondered beforehand to avoid a future worst-case scenario. This sort of critical thinking is imperative for national security professionals. Of course, I cannot expect the general American public to understand this concept, and do not, but also do not think it too much to ask to allow the future and its people to make their own judgments about our joint past. Those generations to come will share the same Civil War history with us, and by toppling monuments that are “offensive” today to some, we are depriving our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their right to make up their own minds about them, for better or worse. This is sheer arrogance–rooted, once again, in run-amuck politically-correct presentism. The short-sightedness of many on the Left today is simply astonishing to me in this regard. A few groups, as is often the case in extreme Liberalism, have actually gone full circle in their thinking and are now making the case that, like the preservation of concentration camp sites in Germany and Poland, keeping Confederate monuments up will actually help the future NOT forget the past. I deplore any parallels between the Nazis and Confederates for obvious reasons, but the basic idea is not wrong here. Perhaps these groups will prevail in their struggles within the greater Left. Concurrently, the alt-right requires a serious dose of common sense, too. Their co-option of Confederate symbols and rallies at famous generals’ monuments only spur on their adversaries, and operationalize the extremists among them to vandalize those same memorials and clamor for their removal. They cast a bitter, racist, and un-American pall over monuments that would otherwise be, as previously stated, silent reminders of a failed, past revolution and the sacrifices laid on its alter by those who survived it and, importantly, those who did not. Watching neo-Nazis parade around Robert E. Lee’s statue was sickening.
What is the answer to this gigantic mess? I would offer a modest plea for common-sense historicity. Evaluate the past on the past’s ground and on its own merits, not ours. Teach our young how to think critically, creatively, and with a sense of contextual historical-mindedness about complex, and possibly distasteful historical realities. And by all means permit the remaining monuments to stand, if for no other reason than to allow future generations the liberty of judging them for themselves.