Gentle Readers, I need a short break from the Congressional Globe transcripts and have meant to write about this since last week. So here goes.
I take my title from Brooks Simpson’s post asking the same question. I don’t think we should, but the question warrants some unpacking. Not honoring Confederate soldiers does not also entail that we should go around smashing up their headstones, installing sewers that empty into their graves, dig them up and throw their remains in the garbage, bulldoze their battlefield memorials, or anything like that. It does not require that we endlessly castigate them. It certainly doesn’t require that we adopt a hostile attitude toward their descendants, who no more chose their ancestors than the rest of us did.
I say that we should not honor these men because the word implies something more than recognition or understanding. It carries with it a kind of endorsement. Honoring someone entails celebrating them and their deeds, paying tribute. Only the great war of rebellion to defend and preserve slavery brings all of those men, and probably some women, together. Whatever their individual motives, whatever sacrifices they endured, however that war traumatized them, they signed on to armies pledged to the cause of slavery. I don’t know how, short of some very selective attention, one separates them from their ultimate cause.
But even if we can, should we? I know that some people have a very strong emotional commitment to the idea of the military as a noble profession, perhaps the noblest. They would probably argue that these men demonstrated great bravery and endured great sacrifices and that warrants our respect. I don’t agree because you can say that about every soldier who goes off to war, whether the soldier joined on to steal Cuba, to break away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or to purge Europe of Jews, Communists, Roma, Homosexuals, and other allegedly inferior people. From that one could pivot to saying that the soldiers fought for what they believed in. Probably they did, but what did they believe in, precisely? I can think of a great many ideals, some of which I just listed, that don’t deserve celebration, let alone fighting and killing for.
All of this talking around the fact, however heartfelt, does something that I would think most people insistent on honoring Confederate soldiers would find very problematic indeed. It sidesteps the question of what they did fight for and ignores what individual motives may have impelled them to take up arms. Does one really honor a person by reducing them to a blank icon for veneration? Perhaps so, but it seems very strange to me. They did not make people out of marble in the past, but of flesh and blood just like they do now. I confess that my personal inclinations run very much the opposite direction, but my intense antipathy for the Confederacy’s cause does not demand that I turn every man in gray into a bloodthirsty devil or every Union man into a moral titan.
Ultimately I don’t think that any of the dead deserve honoring. We owe the dead nothing; they’ve had all that they could ever be given and have no use for more. But we owe ourselves the truth about the dead, their times, their virtues and faults. They, like us, had their share of great humanitarians and great villains. Like us, the great and good among them could have horrifying personal failings and the scorned and infamous could have surprising moments of humanity. Their times produced our own, but are not our own. They did not simply rehearse our struggles, but had their own. We should imagine them complexly.
I suppose all of this amounts to saying that we would do better to understand the dead than to honor them. In turn that deeper understanding of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and the long, difficult road from there to here.