There is a spirited debate going on in the USA about what should happen to the hundreds of statues erected over the last 150 years commemorating leaders involved in the US Civil War.
The debate is not entirely based on logic or courtesy, since we live in stressful times, with self-identified nativists, racists and Nazis showing up in public appropriating the Confederate flag.
Or more correctly, what passes these days as the Confederate flag. The flag most commonly used is not the official Confederation states flag, if indeed there ever was one. It was the battle flag of a Confederate Army unit commanded by Ronbert E. Lee, who, after the Civil War was over, disavowed the public display of Confederate symbols, including at his own funeral.
So, the flag that people wave in public, affix to cars and trucks, display on t-shirts etc. is the flag of a defeated army. To use dismissive American vernacular, the symbol of a bunch of losers. Given the sneering way in which people in this country dismiss the idea of “participation trophies”, I find the use of a defeated army’s flag as a symbol to be quite amusing.
But, on to the more interesting irony. The majority of the current statues and monuments erected to commemorate the Civil War do not date from the period immediately following the war, unlike the collections of war memorials in (say) Europe. Instead, they date from periods in the 20th Century, as this article explains
This tells me that the primary purpose of these monuments was not war casualty or war leader commemoration. The people responsible for erecting the monuments were, in many cases, not even alive at the time of the Civil War. These monuments were almost certainly erected for another purpose entirely. And this chart of when the monuments were erected reveals that protesting advances in civil rights for all might be one of the drivers for the erection of those monuments in the 20th century. Josh Marshall provides a summary commentary here.
More interestingly, monuments are still being erected at the present time. As the article explains:
…some continue to be built – USA Today notes that 35 Confederate monuments have been erected in North Carolina since 2000.
This is not commemoration of war events, leaders or casualties. This is a different kind of commemoration or virtue signalling. The people pushing for these monuments were either not interested in Civil War history, or chose to ignore it. In my opinion, they were protesting the outcome for a collection of reasons, some of which had to do with racism, some to do with regional solidarity and dislike of all forms of central government. But anybody who tries to convince me that any monument erected since 1900 was for Civil War commemorative purposes is going to have an uphill struggle.
The focus on leaders is also instructive. The real losers in any mass war are common people, who are pressed into service in large numbers and used as expendable cannon-fodder by military and political leaders. If there is any type of memorial that should be erected, it is to the people who lost their lives. In the UK, most World War II memorials are not statues of leaders, although there are a small number of statues of key figures in World War II, such as Winston Churchill and Gen. Bernard Montgomery. Most of the memorials are to war casualties. This is not the case with the Civil War memorials in the USA. When you start to erect statues of wartime leaders, you always ignite controversy, since many of those leaders issued orders that sent numerous people into battle, and many then lost their lives. The controversy in the UK over memorials to Air Marshal Harris is an example of this. He ordered the firebombing raids on Hamburg and Dresden that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and as a result, commemorating him has become a lightning rod subject. Ditto the exploits of the 503rd Composite Group in the US Air force, the unit, led by Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets, that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Controversy over how that effort should be memorialized has been going on for decades. The fact that these statues were apparently erected without any discussion of the war casualty dimension tells me, once again, that this was not about the war itself. It is defiant symbolism.
I therefore find the complaints that removal of the statues is “erasing history” to be both intellectually bankrupt and ironic. The complaints are unserious because removing a statue does not “Erase history”. It merely removes a symbol from public view. People in the UK would still know all about World War II even if every symbol and monument was removed.
If you subtract the whining about erasing history, you are therefore left staring at the irony that most of the proponents of the memorials are ignorant of history. They need to go learn some history first.