Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers? How?

DSCN1516Sometimes it’s the tough questions that don’t get asked, because we are afraid to ask them … and even more afraid to answer them.

The question is simple: how should we treat the service of those who served in the Confederate military. Should we recognize it? Respect it? Honor it? Why? And please don’t tell me that they fought for what they believed in, because the problematic nature of that claim should be readily evident as soon as I recall for you that other fighting men fought and died for what they believed in, and we would not think for a second about honoring them. We’d have to defined what they believed in, and that’s where the difficulties begin.

What are appropriate ways to go about such treatment? Should Confederate flags be flown, and which one(s) should be flown?

My own take on this is that quite often the way we answer these questions say something about the importance we attach to reconciliation as a necessary process in order to forge a sense of national unity and purpose. That is, we often offer answers that reveal our need to move beyond and to move ahead, as opposed to refighting the war endlessly. Saying we honor someone for their service or for fighting for what they believed in may be heartfelt and respectful, but it also manages to sidestep other issues. As Americans we have not always been this way. Many Americans decried the service of US military personnel who served in Vietnam because of perceptions about their conduct and the cause for which they fought. Now people will thank US military personnel for their service while reserving commentary about the war in which they served.

We need to be honest about this and discuss issues of ambivalence and contradiction as opposed to simply ignoring them.

For some people, of course, there’s no contradiction between honoring someone for their service and praising the cause they served, although defining that cause is where things become contentious. In many cases we actually don’t know why someone served or how they defined the cause for which they served, and so those claims say something about us, not them. We’ve also battled over distinguishing between why soldiers fight and why nations (or other collective actors) fight. Simply put, telling me why you believe a Confederate soldier fought (and the number of people who admit that their Confederate ancestors owned slaves is right up there with the number of people who admitted voting for Nixon in 1960) is not the same thing as explaining why there was a Confederacy in the first place, what it stood for, and why it went to war.

These questions reach far beyond Confederate military service and how we today view it, but, as it seems that a discussion about Confederate service and how we do (and should) view it is most likely to bring these issues into sharpest relief, I begin there.

The floor is open.