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Destroying Confederate Monuments Hurts Us All—and Accomplishes Nothing

Eternally vilifying the losers of some past conflict leads to eternal division.

As president of a cultural heritage organization, I feel obligated to weigh in on the current controversy over Confederate monuments. The semi-hysterical push to remove them is, I strongly believe, a mistake, a dangerous precedent, and an exercise in ignorance. Mobs pull statues down. ISIS destroys monuments. Fanatics rewrite history to edit out the bits they don’t like. Our country should not be walking down that road.

To the advocates of historic cleansing, this is about racism. Remove its reminders from public spaces, and you are helping to remove it from society. That is a bold assumption—in fact it’s many assumptions: that what a monument says to you is what it says to everyone. That negative periods of history should be erased. That the losing side in a conflict also loses, for all time, the right to honor or mourn its dead. That driving an opposing sentiment underground will make it go away.

My nonprofit helps people in conflict zones protect their endangered heritage sites or rebuild them if they were damaged by war or terrorism. For example, we are working to restore the last remaining Judaeo-Christian pilgrimage site in the vicinity of Mosul, the only one that was missed by ISIS in its rampage. From my vantage point, the idea that the way to deal with history is to destroy any relics that remind you of something you don’t like, is highly alarming. It’s bad enough when some insane bunch of fanatics has this idea. When it happens in a supposedly rational, knowledge-based society, it sets a terrible precedent. And by the way it doesn’t even accomplish its aim—quite often, a destroyed monument thereby gains in power and resonance. There are much better ways to process the past.

The first problem with projects of cultural cleansing is that they must always, inevitably, be subjective. The people behind the destruction of a statue or an edifice or a monument of course believe themselves to be justified. They see Object X as offensive to their beliefs and values. Others may argue for its survival by pointing out that it does no harm, or that it is art, or that they are sentimentally attached to it, or that they want it to remain for any number of other reasons. But even if everyone agrees that Object X should go, later generations may find that decision appalling, a loss to culture, to art, to science, to knowledge and to the historic integrity of the urban landscape.

To the Taliban, the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan were impious remnants of a pre-Islamic age, idols that deserved to be blown up. Now these irreplaceable, priceless and beautiful statues are gone, lost to the world. ISIS dynamited Palmyra (“a heathen site”) and many other beautiful and valuable places in Syria and Iraq, including the tombs of the Biblical prophets Jonah and Daniel and countless other historic treasures. And they can make a case for so doing—not a case you and I might agree with, but a case nonetheless. They disapprove of monuments altogether—a sort of radical “thou shalt make no graven images” argument, and they especially disapprove of monuments honoring anything that is not Islamic, or not Islamic in line with their own particular vision, which is why they also destroy historic mosques and Muslim shrines. They feel virtuous and justified in targeting something they despise and turning it to rubble. The rest of us ought to beware of that feeling.

The second problem with this method is that it doesn’t work. Object X will just become one more martyr. Fifteen years after their obliteration, the Bamiyan Buddhas are arguably the most vivid Buddha figures in the minds of millions of people. There are other colossal Buddha statues in the world—but how many can the average nonarchaeologists, non-Buddhist name? The Buddha of Hyderabad anyone? Of Kamakura? Similarly, can we seriously expect that removing Robert E. Lee from perches in parks will contribute to the elimination of racism in America? Taking a statue away is not a social reform action, it is a pseudo-action to make people feel they are accomplishing something when in fact they are not.

Another thing to consider, and perhaps be healthily humbled by, is the temporal nature of our societies, their accomplishments, their battles. Tour the archaeological ruins of any formerly great civilization, and you will invariably encounter inscriptions that have been chiseled away, faces that have been obliterated, heads that have been struck off the rumps of their statues. Someone overthrows or assassinates a predecessor and orders his or her name and image removed. Often, the relevant dynasties have been lost to historic memory, and no one has any clue what their bitterly monumental conflicts were about, who won, who lost, who got slaughtered, what they believed in. What could have remained is their story, and any lessons later humans might draw from it. Erase your story and you erase yourself.

And on the subject of stories: a monument does not impose a story. A monument is just a piece of stone or metal. The “get Robert E. Lee out of here” contingent assumes that anyone who stands before his statue will be thinking, “how noble it was to own a plantation and have slaves, I wish the South had won.” A reasonable viewer, however, is more likely to think: “How sad that so many thousands of young men had to die for this lost cause. Too bad that Robert E. Lee, by all accounts a brilliant man, made the wrong call. We should all learn to subject our loyalties to very careful moral scrutiny.” Instead of removing the object, it’s much better to try and shape what lesson it conveys.

And President Donald Trump was right to ask where this will end. Our Founding Fathers were flawed personalities on many levels, and one could make the case that none of them deserve to be put on pedestals. An estimated 70 precent of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. And let’s spend a moment perusing the following quotation:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black racesI am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Any guesses on who the speaker was? Robert E. Lee perhaps? Stonewall Jackson? No, these are the words of Abraham Lincoln. The sad hard truth is that although he presided over the abolition of slavery, Lincoln was and throughout his lifetime remained a racist. Shall he now be purged from our memory and deprived of our esteem, or shall we accept—as Professor Tanya Marsh argues in an exceptionally engrossing article—that history is “messy.” And not just ours.

Which is why we need to ask ourselves: what’s the bottom line here? That after a societal conflict, the losing side should have its symbols erased? That instead of looking forward and considering how to do things better, we should focus on looking backward to retroactively judge and eviscerate the past, in a Cultural Revolution of Politically Correct Righteousness?

It’s true, of course, that there are historic personages who should not be honored or venerated. But I don’t agree that keeping a monument means venerating the person or era it depicts; it can just as well stand witness to the folly of some despot’s hubris or some tragic mass delusion. If North Korea ever becomes a normal state, I for one sincerely hope that they keep the bizarrely grandiose monuments of the peculiar dynasty that kept them in thrall for so long—as a historic curiosity, an object lesson, and a warning. Statues can have many meanings. In Vienna, just off the Ring—the broad circular boulevard that was built in place of the old fortification wall when the city had begun to sprawl beyond its medieval boundaries—stands an expansive fountain. At its head looms a twenty-meter high column topped by the statue of a Russian soldier holding a shield with the insignia of the Soviet Union in one hand and a Soviet flag in the other. At the base are two quotations from the dictator Stalin. The statue was erected by the Soviet army in 1945, using German POW’s as forced labor. Designed in the trenches before the troops had even entered Vienna, the plan for the monument was modeled out of bread, since the architects had no other materials to work with.

Russian occupation forces did not establish a very warm relationship to the civilian population. In Vienna they principally distinguished themselves by stealing, looting, raping and cutting off peoples’ fingers if their gold rings wouldn’t come off. Consequently, the Viennese public sarcastically referred to this statue as the “Monument to the Unknown Looter.” In allusion to the shipment of dried peas that had been Russia’s first distribution of public aid to the starving Viennese, and which turned out to be riddled with worms, the statue was also referred to as the “Prince of Peas.” Because these sentiments were known, the Treaty of 1955 that gave Austria back its independence, included a clause obliging it to keep and maintain this monument. In the years since then, the Austrians could easily have reneged; after all, the signatory Soviet Union no longer even exists. But the Austrians have stuck to the bargain, and graciously at that. In fact, the city has since added colored lights, and on hot summer nights the earnest Russian soldier presides over festive crowds of people, none of whom are disturbed by the Stalin quotes or the reminder of war and occupation. And why should they be? The Soviet Union is no more and neither are the Nazis, Stalin is gone and so is Hitler, and there is no reason to begrudge the 17,000 young Russian men who lost their lives in the battle for Vienna their monument.

The statue says all of this, and that’s only one of the countless stories that cities like Vienna tell you as you walk through their streets. Here they burned a poor woman who was accused of being a witch. Fortunately, the witch hunts never took hold in Vienna and she was the only victim. Here is the massive, gold covered monument commemorating the end of the plague that had decimated the population of the city—a premature celebration, because the plague was to recur—and representing as well one of the first examples of the new style of High Baroque. From this basement, a baker’s apprentice heard the sounds of Ottoman shovels trying to dig their way under the battlements, and raised the alarm. In this wall, see the Ottoman cannonball that struck the house. Was it removed because it reminded people of the terrible siege and famine and the slaughter of tens of thousands of townspeople and villagers by the advancing Ottoman army? No, it was gilded and left in place and given a commemorative plaque, and thereby converted into a testimonial to the brave resistance of the vastly outnumbered, besieged Viennese citizenry, who successfully held the line after their Emperor Leopold and his family fled and abandoned them.

Nearly every inch of Vienna has a story. The major metro hub Sweden Square, thoughtlessly traversed by thousands of people every day? This is where the historic hotel Metropole once stood, until it was taken over by the Gestapo and converted into their headquarters. Badly damaged by bombing during the war, the decision was later made to level this structure because of its dark history. In the 1950’s, though, a group of concentration camp survivors decided to put up a plaque as a reminder. In the 1980’s, this was replaced by a larger plaque put up by the city, which also added a granite block taken from the Mauthausen Quarry and a statue representing a concentration camp survivor. The inscription, composed by the Survivors’ Association, reads:

Here stood the house of the Gestapo. For us, who believed in Austria, it meant hell. For many, it was the gateway to death. It has fallen into ruin along with the rest of the “Thousand Year Reich.” But Austria was resurrected and with it so were our dead, the victims whose memory shall never die.

A walk through European cities, towns and often even the countryside is an experience in time travel, across layers upon layers of human courage, folly, error and triumph. As the present generation, we add to these layers and are their transitory curators. This is a position of responsibility, requiring careful thought, not sledgehammers. That some of the anti-Confederacy activists are explicitly calling for the latter, is disgraceful and unbecoming.

And not very smart.

A few years ago, controversy arose over a plaque on the wall of a public housing complex in the ninth residential district of Vienna. It was an ordinary plaque bearing an unremarkable quote, except that the author of the words was Adolf Hitler. At some point, someone had chiseled away his name, thus the plaque had gone unremarked for a time, but later its provenance was discovered and made public. Action had to be taken. But action of what type? Easiest would have been to just remove the plaque. Here, by the way, is what it says: “We pray to you Lord God, let us never vacillate or become cowardly, let us never forget the duties we have taken on.” Generic enough, until you considered the author, and then they take on an ominous cast—what murderous “duties” might he have been alluding to? And how dare such a monster call upon God… Residents, local politicians, historians, everyone weighed in. Agreement was quickly reached on two points. It couldn’t stay the way it was, but neither should it be removed, because what’s really wrong is to forget.

The solution that has since found broad acceptance in Western Europe—and that I think should be emulated everywhere—is to “clearly mark (controversial or problematic monuments) and place them in context.” In this instance, the plaque was highlighted with brackets and visually connected via a pathway to a large glass marker upon which was inscribed a history of the housing complex. It had been built during Austria’s brief era of reform under the social democrats after World War I, then later this plaque had been put up to falsely claim the public housing as an achievement of the Nazis. The marker also details the fate of the Jewish residents. I suggest that a similar approach will work very well for Confederate monuments and statues. Keep them, but append information about the Civil War, its enormous human cost and the not-yet-resolved problem of racism.

There really is no way to cleanse history of all of its ugly parts and have anything left over. Following the logic of the anti-Confederacy trend, shouldn’t we be removing any signs of England? Instead, U.S./UK relations could hardly be warmer. They cheerfully attend our Fourth of July celebrations, where we host them with no hard feelings about their former oppressive rule or the casualties of the War of Independence. Why? Because that American Revolution was a long time ago, and everyone knows how it came out and no one is worried about its result being challenged. Well, you will say, that’s not a good analogy. The Confederacy lives on in diehards who still see its flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

Let’s take a different example, then, from a conflict that is also not yet over and perhaps never will be: the struggle between Christianity and Islam. Let’s stay with Vienna. In its history, Vienna was twice besieged by Muslim armies. These armies cut a terrible bloody swathe across the countryside, razing villages and towns, burning down the churches along with the terrified villagers who had sought refuge therein, slaughtering women, children and the elderly by the thousands, before encircling, nearly starving out, and almost taking the capital of Vienna. There remain many reminders of these long-ago, but not forgotten days of terror. Today children play in the popular Tuerkenschanzpark (Turkish Fortification Park), from where Turkish cannons once fired on the city. Countless plaques commemorate this or that related event: here the mass of thanksgiving was held in honor of the Polish general who rode in at the head of the relief army, here is the city of Hainburg whose entire population was slaughtered with only two survivors, here is the bell that was made from the metal of melted down Turkish cannons after the Ottoman army was defeated, and so on. The tone of these monuments is bitter, angry, determined, relieved, or simply factual, in various combinations depending on what exactly they commemorate and when they were put in place. One of the artifacts had an interesting renaissance. The statue was small but covered in gold, and it depicted an Ottoman rider in the turban and loose pants of their uniform of the day. The accompanying text read only: “here stood the tent of Kara Mustapha during the second siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683.” In 1933, preparing to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the rescue of Vienna, the Austrian Department of Monuments noticed that this statue was in a sad state of disrepair. The gold had worn off and the marble had become discolored. However, they had no funds for its restoration, so they decided to apply to the Turkish embassy for a grant—and received it.

I love this story:

Your army was defeated at our gates and its commander was ordered to be ritually strangled in penalty for his failure. We are hugely happy that you were driven away and we are planning a large celebration. But here’s this attractive statue of one of your combatants, can you help us polish it up?

Subtext:

Look, we’re in no position to gloat. A few years ago we were a huge empire but now, after World War I, there’s hardly anything left of us. We can’t even afford to fix this little statue. It commemorates a shared piece of our history, and people walking by will admire the dashing Turkish soldierwhat do you say?

The Turks must have seen things similarly. They paid for the restoration, though they declined the invitation to attend the celebration of their repulsion.

A few years ago I hosted a conference about postconflict reconciliation and peacebuilding. The participants were teachers, writers, political activists and historians from Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. The specifics of their respective wars and civil wars differed, but they shared one challenge: how to process what had happened to their country and their society in a way that was truthful yet would not cause an inflammable situation to explode all over again. We convened in Colonial Williamsburg, a “living history” site that greatly enchanted our foreign guests. They loved the re-enactors who strolled about in garments of the day and chatted about news topics of that era. They loved the beautifully reconstructed Colonial era buildings, but most importantly, they found its mission statement compelling: to tell the story of America in a way that was truthful, while also ensuring that every visitor—black, white, Mayflower descendant or recent immigrant, Northerner or Southerner—had a good and enjoyable experience that left them feeling uplifted and united. This was no easy feat, the on-site historians told our group. It required honesty, but it also required historic context and nuance. You needed to acknowledge, for example, that a “founding father” had been a great statesman, while condemning the fact that he had owned slaves. You needed to accept that people have conflicting loyalties and sometimes make what later is recognized to have been the wrong, perhaps even the very wrong call. And you needed to remember that not everyone is a hero, prepared to resist conscription or the pressures of his family and his neighbors, and risk jail or even a firing squad for standing up to the powers that be.

This conversation with the Williamsburg historians, which had not even been part of the conference agenda, so fascinated the participants that they couldn’t stop talking about it. Yes, they asserted excitedly, this was exactly what needed to happen in their own countries: a way had to be found for everyone to not only face up to the terrible things that had happened and that their side and the other side had done, but to find a way to go forward together. For that, you had to refrain from humiliating or forever demonizing the losing side. Some time might need to pass before that became possible; a generation.

On the way back to Dulles airport for their postconference departures, we had scheduled a little detour to show our participants the Capitol. In mid-tour, one of them came rushing over to fetch me. They had seen a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, right smack in Statuary Hall! This was exactly what we had been talking about, they enthused. This was the way—you let people keep their heroes, you allowed them to feel pride in themselves, because if you eternally vilified the losers of some past conflict you would only end up with eternal division. Instead you told them: your ancestors made the wrong choice and were on the wrong side, but they’re part of our shared history and we’re all in this together. I could never ever have guessed, on that day, that a few years later Americans would begin to tear down the statues of Robert E. Lee, that the Civil War was somehow going to reappear as a current events matter.

Robert E. Lee in many ways personified the tragedy of our country during the Civil War—he was a divided and torn person. He was so respected as a military genius that both armies offered him command positions, and he reportedly agonized over the decision. Ultimately, in his formal rejection of the Union offer, he explained that “I look upon secession as anarchy . . . but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Most of his family supported the Union—his wife was an abolitionist—but many of them followed him, out of personal loyalty, to the Confederate camp. Though the Northern armies were vastly superior, Lee achieved a number of significant victories, but ultimately he was obliged to surrender unconditionally to Ulysses S. Grant. He lost much, including his family home and land, which were confiscated and used as a burial ground: today’s Arlington Cemetery.

After the war he became a leading voice for reconciliation and reunification, urging his fellow Southerners to accept defeat and abandon the angry talk of resistance, militias and guerilla warfare. He retired to academic life and became a popular, iconic figure in the North as much as the South. Until 2016, that is, when unaccountably he turned into something he certainly would never have wanted to be: a figure of contention.

I’d like to conclude with a U.S. institution that, in my opinion, properly understands its mission as custodian of history and culture: the U.S. Park Service. I will cite just one illustration.

In 1876, a major battle took place at Little Bighorn in Montana. Two of the combatant leaders who squared off here remain iconic figures of American legend—General Custer on the side of the youthful United States, and the fabled Native American leader Crazy Horse. Custer was killed in this battle, which is consequently also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Today the site is a National Monument maintained by the U.S. Park Service. There is an informative visitor center and there are placards to guide you as you explore the terrain. There were three sets of participants in this conflict: the U.S. military units commanded by Custer; the Native American tribal alliance opposed to him and consisting of the Lakota, North Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho tribes; and the Native American scouts who were in Custer’s employ. These latter were mostly recruited from the Crow tribe, which had been pushed from its ancestral lands by the three other tribes and thus was willing to work with their enemy.

Those who designed this historic site had choices. One option would have been to consign the physical location to oblivion, which would have been easy to do since it is essentially just a large grassy plain interspersed with a few modest elevations barely deserving to be called hills. Another option was to highlight it as the location where the revered General Custer and the men in his cavalry detachment were killed. Instead, it has been turned into a memorial that honors all three sets of participants equally. The story line includes each of their perspectives, and goes as follows:

The Native American alliance had its back to the wall, since the white newcomers were aggressively expanding into their ancestral lands and forcing the original inhabitants onto reservations. Their struggle was desperate, tragic in its hopelessness. They attained a clear victory at Little Bighorn, but this caused no real rejoicing on their part, because they well knew that a much larger army was poised to follow and that in the long run, they were outgunned and could not win.

Custer, meanwhile, was defending the westward drive of a young American nation.

The Crow scouts who helped him did so not only to thwart their Native American enemies, but also because they had come to the assessment that the white Americans were unstoppable. They had concluded that the best way to safeguard at least a portion of their lifestyle, culture and heritage was to ally themselves with the inevitable victors.

These are the relative perspectives as they are portrayed at the site. The website of the official U.S. Park Service states that “this area memorializes the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the Indians’ last armed efforts to preserve their way of life”—an astonishingly ecumenical formulation, coming as it does from an institution of the side that “won.”

The monument itself consists of a circle of plaques upon which are inscribed the names of the fallen, and quotations from their leaders that speak to their motives. Each plaque was designed by descendants of the respective combatant group, and they are worth a closer look.

One set of plaques lists the names of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota and Sioux fighters who fell during this battle. Another records the names of the Crow scouts who fell on the U.S. side. An additional plaque explains why this tribe was fighting against its fellow Native Americans:

Our leading chiefs saw that to help the white men fight their enemies and ours would make them our friends. . . . We had always fought the three tribes, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. . . . Our decision was reached because we plainly saw that this course was the only one that might save our beautiful country for us.

The perspective of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho is expressed in a quotation from Sitting Bull: “They attacked our villages and we killed them all. What would you do if your home was attacked? You would stand up like a brave man and defend it.”

But the final summation is offered on a plaque quoting the Lakota Indian Red Feather, who noted that “It was a terrible battle . . . a hard battle, because both sides were brave warriors.”

This strikes me as a formulation worth thinking about, and perhaps worth borrowing.

Dr. Cheryl Benard has a B.A. from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon and a PhD from the University of Vienna, Austria. After 9/11, when there was a need for experts on radical Islam, she joined the RAND Corporation as a senior analyst in its National Security Research Division and served as program director of its Alternative Strategies Initiative. Currently, she is president of ARCH, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, www.archinternational.org, a nonprofit that helps local citizens in areas of conflict and postconflict protect or restore their cherished cultural heritage sites. She is the author of many fiction and nonfiction books, one of which was found on Bin Laden’s bookshelf during the raid on his compound.

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