Wednesday, August 23, 2017

War and Other Historical Memorials Aren't Created Equal

Memorial in Frank Ortiz Park.
The camp was at what is now the 
Casa Solana residential area
(N. Mesa Mutts photo)
 Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.
Grass, by Carl Sandburg

 There is quite a bit of uproar over the de-emphasis of United States Civil War monuments to Confederate generals and other CSA warriors. Neo-Nazis and folks still fighting The War Between the States are marching in (tiki)torchlight parades, occasionally battling leftists with fists and other semi-lethal objects (and occasional lethal weapons like cars). This all over the symbolism of  monuments of Confederate heroes and current efforts to sanitize the South of its Lost Cause mentality. The debate is leaking over into New Mexico, where we have our own issues with statues vs. historical oppression.

Juan de Onate y Salazar, Conqueror or Criminal?
With foot attached
Photo Advanced Source Productions
  Presumably, our difficulty in putting the Civil War (or other conflicts) behind us is because some of the underlying issues around these conflicts were never completely resolved and have been overprinted with modern  identity politics, as recently demonstrated in places like Charlottesville by white nationalists and their friends. Hence our inability to let go of the past, which we drag around like Jacob Marley's chains--something we forged during our nation's life.

Jizo lives in our yard in Casa Solana
to honor and remember the 
Santa Fe camp internees 
(N Mesa Mutts photo)

Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others may have been pretty keen military tacticians and in most situations, no less honorable soldiers (with the exception of incidents like Fort Pillow) than their adversaries, but they were fighting for a pretty rotten cause. Grant and Sherman may have been just as ruthless in war (Cold Harbor was a senseless Union sausage grinder and Sherman's March to the Sea presaged 20th Century economic "total" warfare), but Grant and Sherman were fighting for the winning side. The bottom line is that in our Civil War, States Rights and then secession were being used in the service of slavery. One would think that would be enough to put those Lost Cause heroes to rest quietly even if they were damn good and brave soldiers. After all, Irwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, and Erich von Manstein were great military leaders but all their leadership did was prolong the carnage of World War II in the service of Hitler (Rommel was forced to commit suicide after he was implicated in the July 20th plot against Hitler, Guderian fell out of favor with Adolf, and Manstein was eventually convicted of war crimes). Indeed, there were many other excellent Werhmacht generals. We don't see statues of them although no military history is complete without their stories. If only that Germany had more lousy generals...
Dead at Stalingrad, 1943. 
Anyone for a hero's statue?

Some memorials are to things we would rather forget but should not. The bronze plaque in Santa Fe overlooking Casa Solana, shown above, is a memorial to the colossal mistake Franklin Roosevelt made in signing Executive Order 9066, which put innocent Japanese-Americans in internment camps for the duration of World War II all because of prejudice and wartime hysteria. We have been toying with repeating that mistake.

Kamehameha Statue in front of 
Aliʻiolani Hale
Wikipedia source
 Hawai'i (where I lived for 14 years) is an interesting case. Most residents know where all the political bodies are buried. There is an imposing statue of King Kamehameha along with streets named after both Hawaiian rulers and haole colonizers such as Sanford Dole.   An undercurrent of debate still goes on regarding the sins of the past but at least when I lived there, no one was toppling monuments or painting over street names. Maybe we can get along if we study the Fiftieth State. When you live on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, you either learn to get along and deal with differences or I suppose, you throw each other off of cliffs (e.g., the Battle of Nuuanu).

Monument to Soviet Tank Crews
 Prague, 1961 (Wikipedia source)
 The Czechs had an interesting approach to their own revisions of history. Rather than obliterate one particular memorial or fight  over it, they mocked it.

The Red armies liberated Czechoslovakia from the Germans during the spring of 1945 and promptly put up their own war memorial in Prague; the tank on the stone base in the picture was in honor of the Soviet armor that first reached the city. As time went on and especially after the 1948 Communist coup, that tank became the symbol of the Soviet boot on the Czech (and Slovak) neck. Following the 1989 Velvet Revolution it was painted pink and eventually had a middle finger added in fitting tribute to the misery inflicted on Czechoslovakia by the Soviet government. The tank was moved permanently (except for occasional trips back for special occasions, as seen below on the barge) to a military museum rather than sitting in the national capitol. During one period, a pink tank was buried partway in the ground as an art-in-life symbolism to the fall and attempted rise of the USSR. The idea was not to forget the past but to put it in a moving context.
Pink Tank temporarily returned to Prague, 2011
complete with middle finger of fate
(Wikipedia source)
Maybe those Czechs have a point that should not be lost on Americans.

 I don't think it would go over too well to dress General Lee up in a pink tutu and mock Traveller, but you get my drift. Sh*t happened. How we remember and learn from it says far more about us than it does about our historical relatives. Pulling down the structural barriers to equal opportunity in this country is a lot harder than pulling down statues. Maybe that's why some seek the easy path.

But we need to move on, albeit without erasing the past. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". I might add, those who do not understand and resolve the mistakes of the past are more likely to blindly repeat our many past mistakes. Perhaps those who want to pick fights rather than reach peaceful resolution over statues or other cultural issues like Entrada in Santa Fe forget how toxic such disputes could become.  I think Carl Sandburg might agree.

Related reading: "Preserving the Offensive in Memory", by Sterling Grogan (in the New Mexican).

Russia rising again? Or sinking into the earth?
(Wikipedia source)


Steve A said...

Americans share an odd sense of humor about Soviet detrious. For many years there was an 8-foot statue of Lenin (rescued from the Ukraine) outside a burger joint in Dallas. Inscribed in the very nice base provided for Vladimir was the pointed "America Won."

Khal said...

Indeed. Rather than bitching about monuments, why not re-label them?