Memorials to Heinz Guderian and Stonewall Jackson by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2009, 5:56 pm
Filed under: United States

I’m pretty sure I disagree with the implication in this Matthew Yglesias post that the US shouldn’t have any memorials to Confederate politicians or military heroes:

Jefferson Davis was the political leader of an organized insurrection against the United States government, whose aim was to perpetuate the enslavement of black people. And there’s a highway named after him just a few miles from where I type. When I drove back to DC from North Carolina on Tuesday, I passed the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, which is an official National Parks Service site. 

I actually think it’s extremely important to any society that it not pretend that it can simply wash away the embarrassing figures from its past. I also think that the question of how figures from the “wrong” side of a war should be presented is a pretty complicated one, in any country.

I’m living right now in Vietnam, a country that has no memorials to the “wrong” side in its civil war. The armed forces cemetery outside Saigon that holds thousands of war dead from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam stands neglected and deteriorating. I happen to agree with the standard Communist Vietnamese historical line that the South Vietnamese government was a brutal, weak dictatorship beholden to foreign powers. But many of those who fought for the South did so nobly, and for good reasons — because the Communist Party had persecuted their Catholic or landowning relatives, say. People in Hanoi may have thought Southern soldiers were just cowardly puppets of America, but Southern soldiers thought they were fighting for different reasons, and their own understanding of what they fought for deserves consideration. And the current Vietnamese historical orthodoxy, which leaves Vietnamese kids growing up with little knowledge of who Gen. Duong Van Minh was or why he fought against Ho Chi Minh, impoverishes Vietnam’s understanding of itself.

Now, it’s true that to a contemporary American like myself, the cause the Confederacy fought for was far more evil than the one South Vietnam fought for, and so the comparison is inapt. So let’s try a different comparison. One might say, for example, that Stonewall Jackson was fighting for his homeland and his culture, and that one can only apportion him a limited amount of blame for the fact that the culture he was born into happened to be horribly, violently racist. Then again, one might say that Nazi General Heinz Guderian was fighting for his homeland and his culture, and bears only limited blame for the fact that the homeland he was fighting for happened to be horribly, violently racist.

And then yet again, one might say: yes, exactly, and there ought to be memorials to Heinz Guderian and other figures of the Wehrmacht that make that complexity clear and force people to deal with it. And such memorials might also, for example, force contemporary Americans to confront the fact that the praiseworthiness of our own military and political figures is dependent on the subsequent verdicts of history, verdicts which may be different in different places. (Personally, my attitude towards Moshe Dayan has shifted pretty radically under the influence of the past decade-plus in Israeli-Palestinian relations.)

I imagine the Stonewall Jackson Shrine is a pretty interesting place to contemplate these kinds of thorny historical issues, and that kids who visit both that shrine and the Lincoln Memorial may learn to think about history in a more sophisticated way than kids who only visit one of the two. Given that the shrine already exists, through the vicissitudes of America’s changing historical memory, I think it would be an act of vandalism to tear it down. It might be worth re-contextualizing the place every generation or so, as historical attitudes evolve, and erecting any new memorials to Confederate figures might be impossible because the African-Americans on the board would probably have views incommensurable with those of the whites on the board. It’s kind of hard to picture a mashup of the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the Alamo. But I’m not sure it’s not a good idea in principle. It’s just that designing memorials with this kind of reflective approach to history demands more sophistication than most governments or communities are usually capable of. In any case, the Jeff Davis Highway thing seems pretty useless; I’m not really sure whether there’d be any utility at all to a Heinz Guderian Autobahn.


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