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Owning legacy

June 29, 2015

All wars have complicated histories, and most armies draw the ordinary range of people into their ranks. Some are drafted and then serve from loyalty to their comrades. Young men volunteer for a range of motivations that largely are blind to the political realities behind the war, and then follow up on their commitment. People are loyal to their neighbors and nation despite political winds they dislike. Every warring state mistreats many individuals and generates some forces for its opposition in so doing. So, yes, Jim Webb has some basis for saying “we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War.” In exactly the same way that we should remember some honorable Germans fought in Hitler’s armies and some honorable Japanese fought in Hirohito’s.

When we make judgments about war, though, we focus on the larger political realities behind them, not the stories of the individual soldiers. Perhaps part of what underlies the current debate is that so many Americans have a need to believe that they and their ancestors always were on the right side. Two of every three Americans believe “God has granted America an exceptional role in human history.” If they have family who fought under Lee, they have to believe there was a purpose to that. Unlike a modern German, they have a hard time honoring the individual soldier, while condemning the purpose served.

What Webb ignores, and what many want to ignore, is the core political reality of the Confederacy: it was founded to preserve and extend black slavery. As Coates explains, there is no Confederate legacy separate from that. Much of what has passed for defending the legacy of the south since the Civil War has been a large pretense otherwise.

The current furor over the Confederate flag is — or should be — about getting Americans to own up to that legacy. I no more care whether someone uses a Confederate flag in a Civil War re-enactment than I do whether Nazi swastikas are used in making a movie or in a war game. I do care when people try to whitewash the Confederacy’s history. Southerners are right that owning up to that legacy is an American duty, not just a southern one. And northerners as well as southerners participate in that whitewash. This debate is no longer about region or ancestry. It is about owning up to legacy. America’s legacy includes a large amount that betrays its better principles. Not just slavery. But that is our original sin and the Confederate cause. Those who try to paint a prettier picture of the Confederacy are refusing to face historical truth. That is the issue. A flag is just a symbol. When a southern state flies a Confederate flag on its capitol grounds, it suggests many in political power there are not yet owning up to their legacy.

Update: Margaret Biser, who recently worked as a tour guide at a historic plantation, explains well how purposely blind Americans are to their own history.

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