Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Empty Joy of Forgetting: Presumably, Confederate War Dead Are Next

"The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again,” the Commanding General of the United States Army said, explaining why he would not allow his men to laud and Lord over the broken army that had just surrendered to him.

On April 9, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender on behalf of what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia. The terms were unbelievably generous, given that the opposing army was at the forefront of the battle for secession and treason (or secession and independence, as the losers had believed it): The officers were paroled with their sidearms and horses, the enlisted paroled under the charge of their commanders; both were to return home, obey the local laws, and put aside rebellion. Amazingly, overwhelmingly, they did.

In fact, when they returned home, they often returned to chaos. The Union armies had utterly smashed the governing structures (and killed many of the civic leaders) of the South, leaving no effective courts or law enforcement behind. Union armies followed those men home, not to drive home their victory, but to restore order and governance; and more than a few of those paroled men looked at their saviors, the men who had just beaten them, and remembered what made America great.

Not all went smoothly; truthfully, very little did. Reconstruction was not done well. It had the qualities of being insufficiently punitive to rebellious States; extraordinarily bad at integrating the freed slaves into meaningful civil society; a font of corruption and graft for carpetbaggers and Union lackeys who had only infrequently bothered to look at a battlefield; and being so short that the humiliating lesson of having a feudal, agrarian society plowed under by a modern industrial state did not have time to take hold. As we learned with Japan and Germany, and learned by negative example in Iraq, at least a couple of generations of occupation are needed before a place can be brought to heel. Reconstruction clocked in just under one.

Slavery was destroyed and by law no man over the age of 21 could be denied the vote; and yet millions of American men and women lived in virtual slavery (as the descendant of white sharecroppers, I'm here to tell you that one of the biggest differences between the two is the frequency of beatings) and were made into de facto and de jure untouchables, a second class of citizenry where by law no such thing should ever have been.

But the men Grant paroled that April day -- and the men Sherman and others paroled mere days later -- for the most part kept their parole. The Ku Klux Klan formed of a remnant of a remnant, and died quickly before being reborn in Indianapolis in the twentieth century. Most of the men who volunteered for -- or all too often, were impressed into -- the armies of the several Confederate states went home and tended their fields, or eked out the dirt, or took industrial jobs as life slowly returned to the devastated South. Lee spent his remaining years trying to make amends for betraying the country he loved in the name of the State he loved more. George Pickett, for whom Pickett's Charge is named (the goat of his West Point Class made it farthest on that terrible day) retired to a quiet life and credited the Yankees for breaking his army and the rebellion. (Both men abhorred or at least opposed slavery.) That list continues at some length.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, all honorably discharged, surviving veterans of both sides were invited for festivities and remembrance. Woodrow Wilson (inveterate bigot and even despite Jimmy Carter, America's nominee for History's Greatest Monster) nevertheless noted -- correctly -- that the men who came together that day came together as allies and friends, enemies in a terrible struggle but countrymen again. Their great-grandchildren would fight side-by-side in the First World War; their children in the Second; and, allowing for the fact that the Army remained segregated, the descendants of the freemen who fought in the name of liberty joined in as Americans.

I say all of this because we have lost touch with so very much. It is all too easy to say -- correctly, I emphasize -- that the Civil War was a terrible price to pay for an even worse sin; and that the Confederacy undeniably tried to secede over slavery.

It is also too easy to say that the privates and corporals and sergeants, the lieutenants and captains, are complicit in the South's terrible crimes (which, it bears noting, were the North's too, even as the War began). Indeed, some were. Worse, after decades of poisonous, modernist rhetoric and with the usual human tendency to tribalism, far too many joined in or tolerated the evil that was Jim Crow, accepting a world in which they were brutalized by the descendants of the men who seceded so long as someone else had it worse. From there, it is easy to say that the men who died, who were grievously wounded, fought in an unjust cause, and so deserve to eat the dirt in which their bones decay.

It is there that I dissent.

I have no stake in this war. My ancestors were, variously, hiding in a swamp until the shooting was done; not yet arrived in this country from France; or not yet arrived in this country from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, Catholic refugees from a much milder form of racism. I am a Texan, but I am a Texan born not long after our country celebrated its second century of life. Battles fought in the Wilderness, at Antietam, at Gettysburg, at little fords and crossings across the eastern half of the country and even a bit into the Western, were faded memories of a generation long dead when I was first knit in my mother's womb. I have no interest in pretending away the ill of slavery, nor excusing men who would wash the land in blood to preserve it.

But I have an interest in memory, and the ties that chain us together. I have an interest in justice. And assuredly, after mercy is gone, as always, justice will die next.

The next, logical step after erasing the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia from even polite mention will be to scrub the names of these men, these Americans, who fought bravely and with cowardice, with valor and with dishonor, from the memorials they currently enjoy; and then from all but the most arcane of tomes. They will be faceless legions, conscripted to play the role of bogeymen as they were once conscripted to fight for a dreadful evil. This will not stop the mad and the evil from slaughtering innocents for a thousand awful reasons, but it will allow us a moment to preen over those who cannot punch us in the face as we deserve, and for the America of today, that's a pretty damned good feeling.

We were a more generous nation once. We knew the value of honor and valor, even in a bad cause. We gave noble terms to our enemies because we wanted to rebuild a shattered nation; and while it was an imperfect exercise, as all things of men are, we succeeded.

Today, we are unforgiving tyrants; we judge men of yesterday by today's standards, invariably finding them wanting. We live in an eternal now, more frequently childless, and all too often without ancestors. We atomize and self-segregate, and wonder at our partisanship and mean-spiritedness. We wonder that disconnected, murderous man-children idolize hardscrabble dirt farmers who would spit on the softness of their reasoning and cause, and imagine it must be because of some dark force that only the enlightened among us can perceive. We forget a fallen world where men accepted that other men do evil things, and that the only way to stop them was to stand, to be strong, and yes, at times, to die fighting. We were a nation that applauded valor; now we are a nation that applauds only utopian purity.

And as that dark and noble, evil and good, imperfect but hopeful world slips away, we forget Grant's magnanimity and Lee's grateful acceptance, and the men who put down their arms and went home to be Americans again; and we lose something valuable and vital in the process.

So to Hell with the Confederate battle flag and the men who fought under it and with it as inspiration. It's where we're all going, anyway.