The Enduring Value of Arlington’s Endangered Monument to Reconciliation

The Confederate Memorial in Arlington.
(Arlington National Cemetery; photo by Rachel Larue)

by Donald Smith

Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, former Navy Secretary, and certified badass (Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts from his service as a Marine officer in Vietnam) grabbed quite a bit of attention last week.  On August 18 he called for the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery to be spared.  You can read his commentary here, if you have a Wall Street Journal subscription (or have some free articles left.)  Here’s a link to a no-paywall article on Webb’s piece.  Here’s a link to the most prominent criticism I’ve seen of Webb’s piece, from Civil War historian Kevin Levin. 

Webb’s commentary points out an important and, until now, mostly ignored repercussion of Congress’ blanket approval of the Naming Commission’s recommendations:  it diminishes our nation’s soft power.  That makes it harder for our military and diplomats to achieve our nation’s goals overseas without having to resort to coercion or violence. 

From Secretary Webb’s WSJ commentary:

In 1992, as a private citizen and veteran of the Vietnam War, I was seeking to begin a process of reconciliation with our former enemy and hosted a delegation of Vietnamese officials in Washington. One of my objectives was to encourage Hanoi finally to make peace with the South Vietnamese veterans who had fought against the North and who after the war were labeled traitors, denied any official recognition as veterans, and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in re-education camps.

To make my point I brought them to the Confederate Memorial. Pointing across the Potomac River from Arlington National Cemetery toward the Lincoln Memorial, I told them the story of how America healed its wounds from our own Civil War. The Potomac River was like the Ben Hai River, which divided North and South Vietnam. On the far side was our North, and here in Virginia was our South. After several bitter decades we came together, symbolized by the memorial.

Ever since the end of World War II, the American military, especially the Army and Marine Corps, has been called on to execute complex civil-military operations across the globe.  The first governors of occupied Germany after World War II weren’t from our State Department; they were Army Military Government units.  (The State Department wasn’t ready to take over until late 1949). 

The Army and the Marines fought counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, sometimes for decades.  They will undoubtedly have to do so again, at some point.  The least bloody way to win counterinsurgencies is to win over the local populace (and the warring factions.)  One way to do that is to show them that past Americans managed to handle some of the same problems warring factions across the globe face nowadays, i.e. “we did it, so you can, too.”

Until the Naming Commission, and the last Congress, American soldiers could point to their Civil War as an example of how Americans managed to come to grips with their differences and forge a newly unified nation.  Army National Guard units from Southern states, on deployment in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., used to be able to point to their unit colors as proof of that.  Locals could see campaign streamers that honored former Confederate units—units that had fought the United States.  Those streamers proved that, postwar, North and South found a way to come together and grow strong together. 

We were able to find places for Union and Confederate exploits in our military’s rich heritage.  (Just as we found places for the heroics of Native American tribes that once killed white settlers and tortured captive cavalrymen, by naming the Army’s helicopters—Blackhawk, Apache—after them.)

E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one. 

The post-Civil-War rapprochement, which the Confederate Memorial and the Confederate campaign streamers commemorated, was evidence that we Americans practiced what we preached.  (As a result of Congressional recommendations, which the Defense Department adopted en masse, all Confederate campaign streamers were to be removed from Virginia Army National Guard colors by August 1, according to the Virginia Army National Guard Public Affairs Office.)

This past April, the Army, in response to Defense Department instructions stemming from Congress’s recommendations, gave directives that forced John S. Mosby’s name on the Ranger Memorial, a privately-owned monument on federal property (Fort Moore), to be covered, pending permanent removal.  Bricks that commemorated former Confederates on the Ranger Memorial Walk were pried up.  The Army’s Infantry and Armor Schools are on Fort Moore, which is in Georgia.  International students attend those schools. 

I asked the Fort Moore Public Affairs Office if they’d done anything to explain to these students why this was happening.  Here is Fort Moore’s response: “Fort Moore remains a training ground where civilians become Infantry and Armor Soldiers and Soldiers become paratroopers, Rangers, and leaders. Our focus on developing the maneuver force and providing a first-class quality of life for Soldiers, Civilians and Army Families will not change.”  

I suspect the foreign officer students at Fort Moore (and other Army schools) wouldn’t find that answer compelling.  I also suspect they are scratching their heads at all this, along with the Vietnamese who must now be wondering if we’ve changed (or lost) our minds.  They, and many other nations, could be forgiven for wondering if the United States now wants a Mulligan in the Great World Power Golf Tournament, and now favors a much more punitive, emotion-driven standard for dealing with a nation’s past. 

Foreign generals and admirals read American history.  They know the causes for our Civil War were many and complex.  They know that Moses Ezekiel was a world-renowned sculptor.  They know that John Mosby, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and many other Confederates were great warriors and men of honor.  They understand the complexities in American history — complexities that apparently overwhelmed the Naming Commission and the U.S. Congress.   

“If [the Confederate Memorial] is taken apart and removed, leaving behind a concrete slab, the burial marker of its creator, and a small circle of graves,” said Jim Webb, it would send a terrible message, “one of a deteriorating society willing to erase the generosity of its past, in favor of bitterness and misunderstanding conjured up by those who do not understand the history they seem bent on destroying.” 

That’s not the message of a Great Power, and it’s not an example that would inspire anyone or any nation.  It is, instead, a sign of a weak horse.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.