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On Monuments and Honor

I’ve been in the military for about 15 years now but have always been interested in history (except during high school when I failed my American History class!). Not long after I came into the Army as a chaplain, I began to wonder about Army posts like Fort Hood, Fort Hill, Fort Bragg and seven others that bear the names of Confederate Generals.

They were the losers, why did they get federal installations named after them?

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Sign at main entrance to Fort Bragg, NC (photo from official Army website)

When I began to talk about it with other chaplains, it was explained to me that the naming was part of an effort at reconciliation, bringing the people and states that were once at war with the United States back into the fold. Seeking to once again be the United States of America. That made sense to me, at least at the time.

Then there are the monuments of Confederate generals and soldiers. Honestly, I had less heartburn over those than the federal posts named after generals from the losing side.

Being a history buff, when I visit historical battlefields and sites, and even monuments in town squares and community cemeteries, not only am I interested in the history of the one being memorialized but also in the background of the placement of the monument itself. Just as future historians will likely find interest in their displacement or destruction.

It’s all part of our history.

At least for me, though I believe also for many who have fought in America’s wars, even the monuments honoring those who lost are still moving and worthy of respect. While, in the case of the American Civil War, their cause was immoral, the bravery and sacrifice shown in the face of combat is still something that stirs a sense of honor. Even more, when I consider the death toll -those who died in battle- I’m moved to grieve over the losses, even those of the “enemy.”

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Monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, PA (photo by author)

In the military, tactics and strategies -even of the losers- are studied by soldiers and officers to become more proficient at war. General George Patton is said to have studied Field Marshal Rommel and his tactics. Often, the leaders of opposing forces are held in esteem for their battlefield prowess.

In wars past, captured or killed officers were often treated with a degree of respect, not because of any shared allegiance to a common flag or cause, but because of a common sense of duty and honor in service to one’s country.

The honor given to their bravery, the grief felt for their deaths, the esteem held for their prowess and the respect given for their duty, is not an affirmation of their flawed cause, but rather an acknowledgement of our shared profession as well as a remembrance that while at one time we were enemies, at wars end we needed to once again be friends.

However, in Germany following World War Two, it didn’t take long for any remnant of the failed Nazi regime to evaporate into history. When I was there in 2008-2010, it was still illegal to display Nazi symbols, even on historical items for sale. But we need to be careful not to equate too exactly their situation with our Civil War. The restriction on monuments to the Third Reich and their heroes in Germany (the losers) was mandated and enforced by the United States occupation force (the winners). There were no rogue states who needed to be welcomed back into the fold or any need to reunite brother who had fought against brother, as was the case with our Civil War.

In Germany, there was a very clear loser and an unquestioned victor. In our Civil War, while there were sides who won and lost, they were two sides of the same country; people who needed to come back together to once again be a common people, a united people.

But are any of these considerations reason enough to keep Confederate monuments standing? The removal of the monuments won’t erase the battle tactics and strategies from military text books. The absence of Confederate monuments will not prevent us, as Soldiers, from honoring the bravery of those who fought. Having no monument as a reminder will not remove the grief that wells up when considering the lives lost in battle. In short, are Confederate monuments necessary to accomplish any good that the study and memory of the Civil War produces for members of the military?

As a military, we need to be careful how much honor we place on those who took up arms against the United States. After all, the very fact that they became enemies of our country taints any honor they may have won on the battlefield.

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COL Claus von Stauffenberg (photo public domain)

Returning to Germany for a moment, their military has a place for tradition and honor, similar to the United States military, but as they trace their heritage, they bypass those who espoused the Nazi philosophy and instead place honor in those who resisted the Nazi regime. German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and the other officers involved in Operation Valkyrie for example, are held up as deserving honor since they worked against the Nazi regime to do the right thing. While they don’t have monuments honoring Nazi battlefield heroes, they haven’t erased their history but rather use it to teach properly placed allegiances and moral responsibility.

I realize that a very small percentage of the American public might associate with the views that those in the military may hold. That is why we have the current outcry against such monuments in public places. Many citizens view these monuments not as historical military figures but as symbols of the cause they fought for, reminders of enslavement and oppression, recognition of enemies of the United States who sought to fracture our nation. It is understandable that these monuments would come into question, especially now with the increased tension in race relations we have experienced over the last several years.

So if we’re going to think reasonably about the removal of monuments, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves. We need to determine the reason we want to remove these monuments from public view and not just follow the crowd (or mob).

Do we want them removed just because they symbolize something or someone we disagree with? I don’t think that mere disagreement is a reason to erase the visible remnants of our history. The freedom to disagree is written into our Constitution so disagreement alone is not sufficient cause to remove a monument.

Would their removal return power to the people away from the government? If they produce or maintain a disproportionate power, perhaps. But we should tread lightly on the power issue. Our system of government gives power to the people, but within the bounds of the Constitution and laws. A mob tearing down a public monument isn’t power, it’s criminal. A government removing a monument legally still doesn’t shift power since the government controlled the removal.

Do we want to remove the monuments because they remind us of the evil of slavery and the oppression of an entire race? I wonder if we really want to erase that memory. People keep posting things about Nazi Germany in opposition to the U.S. white supremacist movement with the hope that remembering the evil, and results, of the past will help to avoid it in the future. Do these monuments help us to remember evil so as not to repeat it or do they just bring up a memory that is painful to maintain?

Do we want them removed because of a feeling it produces in some people? While this deserves a whole other post, here we need to realize that sometimes things make us feel uncomfortable but that isn’t always bad. Sometimes we just need to realize that we will experience uncomfortable feelings in life and learn to deal with them.

Finally, do we want these monuments removed because they place honor in a cause that was borne of evil and currently empower groups who consider their race superior to those who were enslaved? Are they a form of governmental sanction of the superiority of one race over another? If so, I think this concern, if any, should bring action on these monuments. If Confederate monuments equate to government endorsement of oppression of a race today, we need to seriously consider whether there remains any value in their existence.

I speak of consideration because I’m not convinced that every monument in every context should be removed. One exception is in cemeteries and grave yards. Often these monuments are memories of the person for the family. They honor a life lived and not just four years out of their life in a poorly chosen endeavor.

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Confederate Chaplain, Major Telfair Hodgson

Another exception is monuments on battlefields. As I recently read in a posted article (the source of which I can’t recall) battlefield monuments place them in the proper perspective of opposing forces; of good versus evil. If any monuments should be retained I think that these should since they’re in a context to remember the struggle that was the Civil War, more than the cause of those who rebelled.

Finally, I think monuments that highlight the service of non-combatants in war, even those on the opposing side, should remain. Instead of honoring the cause, these monuments honor the good that can be found even in the midst of war. Monuments to those who rendered medical and spiritual aid, for example, like volunteer nurses and chaplains should be honored and remembered.

As for the others, I’ll leave them to the lawmakers and civilians to decide their fate. For me, as a Soldier and historian, perhaps it is time to render a slow salute, maybe shed a quiet tear, and bid farewell to our fallen foes.

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3 comments on “On Monuments and Honor

  1. Now if we all could sit down and talk this out. With all the issues of the day that need to be addressed, how come we always find a way to get hung up on these social issues to such a extreme degree?

  2. Being born and raised in the north and being a resident of the south for nearly half my life and having visited battle grounds, ,monuments,museums and historical markers,I can honestly say that each visit brings feelings of both pride and sadness for the wasted lives and shattered dreams of families effected. The pride comes not for winning a battle ,but for how we all united after the war and became as one. Markers,monuments and sacred battle grounds are part of our history and should always remain as a remembrance of a very sad time of division our country experienced, and stand as witness to make sure we never have to experience death and destruction again.We are a GREAT COUNTRY ,won by the brave patriots willing to sacrifice all so we can enjoy the incomparable freedoms we have which are available to EVERY citizen free of charge. It is imperative we stop those determined to take us back to the days of division. God be with us all.

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