Confederate Statues are but a symbol of our social divide

I have watched the mounting political divide in our country with growing unease. The rhetoric and actions have become more and more extreme, hostile and divisive. I fear that without some substantive reconciliation, we are truly headed for a “house divided.”

As is typical in society, we confront each other over the symptoms, but fail to address the root causes of our differences, because that would be hard. It is easier to argue over the superficial. Unfortunately, that tends to exacerbate the problems. There is no solution when the minimum acceptable result for one side is totally unacceptable to the other.

My alma mater, West Point, seems a microcosm for the debate. There are numerous recognitions honoring Confederate generals. It is also unique. West Point had 294 generals that fought for the Union and 151 who fought for the Confederacy. At every major battle, a Graduate commanded at least one side, often they faced off against each other.

Among other examples, there is a cadet barracks named for Robert E Lee.

Lee was, independent of his service to a hostile country, a national hero. He was a stellar cadet and later the Academy’s Superintendent, a brilliant engineer and fought in the Mexican American War (which by the way was a conflict largely contrived by the United States to secure territory for itself).

He served for 32 years in the US Army, far longer than my own 23 years, yet I am thanked for my service. He is the object of derision.

Lee made important contributions to the Academy and to our country, as did many other Confederate officers. He applied for a presidential pardon and restoration of his citizenship. It was granted, in part, “to further the goal of reunion of this country.” If a military ought to honor its leaders, it seems fitting that General Lee was amongst those so recognized.

However, one might ask how an African-American cadet would feel living in Lee Barracks? Moreover, how has any soldier felt about serving in one of the ten Army posts named after Confederate generals? Do our warriors, of any color, really think about such things?

For me, and I would suspect most others who has trained there, Fort Benning is synonymous with pain, sweat and growing into manhood. “Bragg” is not a Confederate general, it is the home of 82nd Airborne and Special Forces. I have never really thought about why they were named what they were any more than I wonder why, in passing, Peoria, Illinois is named such. (Wikipedia says its named after the Peoria Indian tribe by the way).

However, I am a white male in America and statistically that has put me at an advantage to minorities and women alike. My perspective, while likely shared by others, is biased by my status and upbringing.

One might question why we honor such people at all. In that, we seem unique in our recognition of leaders of a rebellion against the parent country. Does Great Britain memorialize Thomas Jefferson or George Washington? I suspect, there would be few if any other such examples in the world.

In fact, why do we honor some “traitors” (a person who betrays a cause or country), but not others? If we recognize Confederate generals, why not Benedict Arnold (synonymous with turncoat)? He was a hero in the Battle of Saratoga. He commanded West Point, then a key Revolutionary War stronghold against the British, but later tried to sell the plans for the fort to the British. He is simply listed as “Major General,” on a plaque, not by name as all the other American generals are.

Does it matter, why someone acts or only that they acted? General Arnold’s actions were at least in part personal, motivated by feelings that he had been slighted and his achievements overlooked. Was Lee’s action more noble because his loyalty lay more to his family and home state of Virginia rather than to the Federal government.

If that logic is acceptable, how should we view Sanctuary Cities. Their leaders clearly feel that Washington is morally wrong and overstepping its bounds. Where does their loyalty lie? And, is it to be condemned or condoned?

Simply put, there are numerous and varied rationales for why we have done things the way we have. There is not consistency. There is certainly not an overwhelming consensus.

In a recent article, entitled, “The Tangled History of Confederate Generals at West Point and in the US Army: What’s in a Name,” Chris Jenks, a legal scholar and fellow West Point graduate states that “we should consider why (statues) were originally dedicated and what that says about us, then and now…we should conduct individualized and contextualized assessments about the appropriateness of their continued use in public spaces. One size does not fit all.”

He is correct. Do we have the moral courage to have such a debate in a civil manner? And, act accordingly? If we do not, what does that say about our country, its people and our future?



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