Confederate Flags and the Monuments They Adorn

Confederate Battle Flag

It seems that the Confederate Battle Flag on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol will likely come down. If we see the back of the flag as it descends into the proper netherworld of memory, then we should remember how it got there. The flag rose back in 1961 to protest integration and declare the state’s firm commitment to segregation forever. It moved from above the capitol building itself back in 200o. Now it may leave entirely, just as it shall leave the shelves of the nation’s larger retailers. Good riddance.

By these tiny steps, bought most recently at the cost of nine lives, we measure progress. If and when the flag departs, we will congratulate ourselves again on the death of racism. Most white Americans will probably not consider that it took an outbreak of Reconstruction-level violence to move a piece of cloth. This says many things about us, none of them good.

The flag presently adorns a Confederate veteran’s memorial. That might seem like a good excuse to keep it. The legislators who voted it over to that spot and then required a supermajority to move it again, certainly thought so. By placing it there, they dared future critics to disrespect the memory of the dead by challenging it again, or fall silent and so accept the flag. That sounds like an easy choice to me. When probably every other flag in South Carolina flew at half-mast, the Confederate Battle Flag flew high. Given the cause for which the veterans in question risked their lives, one could imagine it flying a bit higher. Did it grow a metaphorical inch taller for each death?

One can argue that the flag sits in an appropriate context. The veterans fought and died under it, or one like it, so why not fly it over their memorial? If the flag can’t fly there, then where could it fly? I don’t know why “nowhere” would prove unacceptable. Private individuals can do what they like with their flags on their property, but the grounds of governments buildings belong to, and inherently speak for, all of us. The foes of white supremacy should not deny to themselves this particular power that the cause’s friends exercised in decades past. They erected the flag, and the monuments and all the rest, to celebrate their crusade and venerate its martyrs. Those who preached the subjugation of black Americans had their way and spoke on behalf of us all by putting up their flags. We can choose other crusades with other martyrs and try the same by taking them down.

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasakuni Shrine in 1933

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 1933

We could probably do with some national soul-searching about the Confederate monuments too. In saying that I don’t mean to insult or offend the descendants of Confederate soldiers. But I don’t know how to separate a soldier from the cause he or she fought for, without reducing the soldier to a meaningless object of blind veneration. This strikes me as doing far greater violence to their memory than simply ignoring them, if not quite so much as outright lying about them. To make the point, I’d like to consider it in the context of a different situation:

In Japan, one can visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors the sacrifices of all those, Japanese and otherwise, who died in the service of the Empire of Japan. While Japan still has an Emperor, he lacks even the limited reserve powers that the usual constitutional monarch enjoys. Thus the Empire of Japan generally runs from the Meiji Restoration of the late 1860s until 1947. In that time, Japan waged, brutal imperialist wars. While Americans remember Pearl Harbor and the rest, Imperial Japan did far worse to China. The Japanese military employed chemical and biological weapons against the Chinese, something they dared not attempt against European or American enemies. Those enshrined within include not just ordinary soliders, but more than a thousand convicted war criminals, fourteen of whom postwar tribunals found guilty of Class A war crimes. One goes to the shrine to venerate their spirits.

Japan’s wartime victims and their descendants don’t look fondly upon the shrine. The history of close government cooperation with it and repeated visits by Japanese prime ministers do little to help. Nor does the shrine’s embrace of Japan’s native version of the Lost Cause in the attached museum.

I suspect most Americans would read this as a sign that Japan hasn’t really moved that far beyond its wartime self. Something has gone wrong, or never gone right, with Japan for such a state of affairs to persist. When it makes the news here, the stories generally run in that vein. The fact that relatively few Japanese people actually frequent the shrine or endorse its history doesn’t enter into things. Nor does it matter that the shrine operates as a private establishment and thus the Japanese state can’t just order changes. But even allowing these nuances, the shrine should give us cause for some concern.

If we can have that concern about Japan, why can’t we have it at home? I don’t mean that we should just take crowbars and bulldozers to Confederate monuments with glee, or that we should root around national parks removing the markers for this regiment and that, but they could do with a harder look. Many of them have inscriptions rife with Lost Cause tropes. The Confederate Soldier’s Monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol declares that those it honors “died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution” without saying the only right of any state actually in question. Many other monuments, in Texas and elsewhere, do much the same.

These displays tell a story and we should consider if we want to keep telling it or not. How does it differ from the story taught at the Yasukuni Shrine and museum? If we look askance at one, then how can we not do the same of the other? We will have shrines one way or another. The ones we choose speak volumes. If we have chosen poorly before, we can choose differently now. No law of nature demands we go on as we have. Only we can demand that.

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