We don’t ‘remember history’ by erecting monuments

I was perusing the Enterprise website from Iraq in the fall of 2017 — one month after a solider in my unit had been killed by an enemy Improvised Explosive Device — when I encountered Rose Schneider’s Nov. 2, 2017 article about a Confederate flag flying in the yard of a Berne residence, per request of the teenager who lived there.

His mother had told the reporter that he’d “been upset about Confederate statues being torn down” in the wake of the Charlottesville fiasco earlier that year — acts that she depicted as “destroying history” — and had further characterized her son’s public display of the Confederate flag as his “right to say ‘heritage, not hate’.”

Writing as I am on the Fourth of July, overseas in a country in the midst of its own civil war, it seems important to acknowledge that America’s War of Independence secured that Berne teen’s right to say whatever he wants.

But it’s equally important to acknowledge that the significance of Independence Day — as breathtakingly portrayed in Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” — is subject to interpretation depending on the historical legacy that informs one’s American identity.

Like, I can understand harboring an embittered resentment if the heroes annually lionized on this day had similarly subjugated my ancestors to the nightmarish horrors of lifelong labor, torture, and chains. After all, it’s 2020, yet I still expect an apology from Egypt’s pharaohs. Can you imagine if, on Passover, someone told me to “get over it?”

Unsurprisingly, reactions to Schneider’s article in the following weeks indicted the Berne teenager for being racist. And, while I understood those sentiments, I suspected he’d simply been confused, however grossly. It was hard to imagine a neighbor’s heart harboring hate.

You can be insensitive, historically ignorant, and needlessly inflammatory without overtly hating someone for the color of their skin. And, in fairness, some people are simply unaware that the preservation of human slavery was identified as the justification for secession in each and every Declaration of Secession authored by the Confederate States. (That young Berne resident may be unclear as to what the Confederate flag represents, but Confederates in 1861 certainly weren’t.) 

 Some people may not know that the claim the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights” is a deliberate fraud; in fact, it was the Southern states that appealed to the federal government to enforce the return from the North of those desperate humans who’d escaped their bondage.  Many Northern states had passed state laws extending safety and refuge to escaped slaves (who awaited lashes and physical mutilation if returned to their owners), but the South adamantly opposed states’ rights when the benefits thereof didn’t inure to slavers.

And, some people haven’t taken time to consider that, in flying the Confederate flag, they share association with nearly every white supremacist militia in America. The Fourth of July is as good a time as any to take stock of the company you keep, and whether it says anything about you.

The online version of this column embeds links to West Point’s Colonel Ty Seidule’s irrebuttable explanation of whether the Civil War was fought over slavery (spoiler: it was) or John Oliver’s intimate look at slavery as the exclusive cause of secession.

Or, google the dates that the various Confederate statues were erected in America, and the identities of their proponents; it’s hard to straight-facedly argue that Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Monument — installed in 1924, fifty-nine years after his surrender — is intended to broadly honor Southern heritage, as opposed to that highly specific aspect of it which entailed the enslavement of human beings.

Yet that’s precisely what some people do argue, seduced as they are by the cynically self-serving architects of “Lost Cause” historical revisionism. And I therefore presume that lots of folks are mystified by: Mississippi’s decision to become the latest and final state to remove Confederate symbology from its state flag; or the decision by the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Forces Korea, and NASCAR to prohibit display of the Confederate flag; or the full-scale removal of Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia (former heart of the Confederacy).

So on this Independence Day — and just in case the intervening three years haven’t afforded that Berne teen (perhaps now in his early 20s) the wisdom to which he didn’t have access when he first flew the Confederate flag — I want to explain why Confederate symbols so offend me personally. Because there’s nothing more American than making it all about me.

To begin with, what’s known today as the “Confederate flag” is not, in fact, the official flag of the Confederacy. That flag — the “Stars and Bars” — is an unimaginative budget rip-off of Old Glory’s stars and stripes. Meanwhile, the flag that caused so much consternation in a Berne yard three years ago derives from the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, known today as the Confederate Battle Flag. It is, in short, the flag of General Robert E. Lee.

No discussion of the Confederate flag is complete without reference to Lee — the man complicit in the deaths of more U.S. soldiers than anyone else in human history. (And when I say “U.S. soldier,” I’m referencing those who fought for the United States, not against it; who fought to preserve the Union, as opposed to tear it asunder in order to maintain the right to rip apart Black families at the auction block.)

Indeed, there isn’t much that separates Robert E. Lee from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the Islamic State. They both caused the death of American soldiers; they both owned slaves; they both were vanquished by the United States; and they both had beards.

Yes, I’m being deliberately incendiary to make a point; of course there were stark differences between Lee and al-Baghdadi. For example, al-Baghdadi never swore an oath to defend the Constitution, his forces took longer than four years to defeat, and whereas al-Baghdadi was a foreign enemy against whom American soldiers swear to defend the Constitution, Robert E. Lee was a domestic one.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

That’s the oath of commissioned officers. Today, an Army officer who follows in Lee’s footsteps by breaking his or her oath to the Nation (and God) would be tried for mutiny and sedition — a violation of Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maximum punishment for which is death. The Army takes its oaths seriously.

Robert E. Lee, however, did not take his oaths seriously. He first swore an oath of allegiance upon graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829 and being commissioned as a second lieutenant; he then swore another oath of allegiance upon his appointment as lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry in 1855. 

Yet when the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Robert E. Lee flouted his oaths, turned his back on the United States, and applied his elite military training against even his former soldiers in a bid to keep his several slaves in bondage.

Those are the irrefutable facts; I serve my country in defense of your right to deny them. But spare us both the indignity of contorting logic and history to suggest that Robert E. Lee is worthy of memorialization. 

We don’t “remember history” by erecting monuments to that other notorious slaver, Adolf Hitler, and we need not expend oxygen discussing whether removal of Robert E. Lee statues erases history.

History happened; it can’t be destroyed. It can only be forgotten (by people who don’t read) or reinterpreted (by people who read Facebook).

If a statue really is the only way you can orient yourself in the linear progression of time, here’s a compromise: Let’s modify the offending “Emancipation Memorial” statue by substituting the Black slave on bended knee beneath Abraham Lincoln’s paternalistically outstretched hand with a subjugated Robert E. Lee in the same posture, evoking the latter’s gratitude to our 16th president for mercifully declining to court-martial him for treason.

Or we can replace the many statues of Robert E. Lee standing proud in military uniform with ones of him in a nightgown on his deathbed, contemplating the awkward conversation awaiting him when St. Peter scrutinizes the oaths he betrayed and the blood of four-hundred-thousand American soldiers still dripping from his hands.

Why subject Robert E. Lee to such dishonorable treatment? Because his Army service was, by literal definition, dishonorable. That’s the legal characterization of treason; the Confederate flag is its shorthand.

Given the American South’s rich and expansive history, it’s hard to understand why anyone would celebrate with Lee’s flag a heritage focused solely on a specific four-year period comprised of the South’s twin shames: slavery, and unqualified military defeat.

Treason-apologists claim the Confederate flag represents the “rebel spirit.” Nonsense.

A conductor on the Underground Railroad better typifies the rebel spirit than the sulking slavers who took up arms against their countrymen merely because they preferred not to plant their own crops. And don’t even get me started on how reverence for the antebellum South is an affront to all red-blooded American farmers whose soil is tilled with their own blood, sweat, and tears.

In 2017, my fellow soldier’s remains were draped in the same flag as were the remains of the two soldiers in my current unit who were killed this past February, just six weeks after we arrived in Afghanistan.

That flag was the American flag, which represents the freedom of all human beings; the fallen were American soldiers, like the ones Robert E. Lee martyred on a Gettysburg battlefield; my comrades’ remains were transported by C-130 back to an America that Robert E. Lee endeavored to destroy.

And the promise of today — Independence Day — means something uniquely special in spite of Robert E. Lee.

I said some pretty crazy [censored] when I was a teenager, so I can forgive a neighbor possessed of the attention-seeking contrarianism that defines adolescence. But what of the adults who would stand arm-in-arm with Lee beneath that Confederate flag? Do they lay claim to today’s fireworks?

True: That Berne teen has every right to personally redefine the Confederate flag’s significance, and to give it some personally-contrived meaning divorced from its origins as the flag that flew in triumph over the graves of real patriots.

But so, too, do I have every right to view that decision with disappointment. For there’s no defensible justification for flying colors that rallied traitors to the cause of killing United States soldiers.

I followed in the footsteps of those fallen young men — heroes who fulfilled their oaths to the Constitution, who gave their lives in defense of our country — so as to advance a cause that the Confederacy sought to deny: freedom.

Their uniforms were blue, whereas mine is camouflage — but both serve the colors of the only flag, for all the faults of its history, that’s worth saluting in the perennial struggle for liberty.

This is the second time I’ll return home with fewer soldiers in my unit than when we deployed.  Through their ultimate sacrifice, their names join a venerable roster of those who gave their lives for a star-spangled banner that yet waves o’er the land of the free, irrespective of creed or color.  Their memory is the everlasting legacy of Independence Day.

So God bless the American soldier who lays his life down for his country; it is your place in history that I honor. And may God have mercy on Robert E. Lee. He is not my heritage, and his is not my flag.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He welcomes your thoughts at jesse@altamontenterprise.com.