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Still Fighting for a Lost Cause

Another horrific Islamist terror attack occurred in Spain on Thursday, which should have provided President Donald Trump an opportunity move past the racial controversies that have dogged him the past week. He responded to the deaths and injuries in Barcelona with an appropriately dignified statement of sympathy and support delivered via “tweet,” but spent more time in the day prolonging the racial controversies, provoking new ones, and picking fresh fights with his growing number of critics.
That appropriately dignified “tweet” to Spain was followed within an hour by another advising the Spaniards to summarily execute the captured terrorist suspects with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, based on a thoroughly-debunked story he likes to tell about the American an anti-insurrection campaign during the Philippines occupation, and thus far the Spaniards seem to be ignoring the counsel. A similarly shaky historical knowledge of the Civil War seemed to misinform another series of “tweets” lamenting the recent removal of several statues and other monuments honoring heroes of the Confederacy in several cities, including the Virginia town where a white supremacist rally set off deadly violence that started the past week’s lingering controversies.
There’s a reasonable case to be made for leaving the monuments that expressed the beliefs of past generations be, and letting future generations draw their own conclusions about them, but the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally is the wrong time to make the argument, and throughout the week Trump has demonstrated he’s not the right man.
He spoke of the “beauty” of some of the statues, but as a real estate developer in New York City he was notorious for razing such historically beautiful structures as Fifth Avenue’s Bonwit Teller Building, with its classic art deco bas-relief sculptures preserved only by court order and charity funds, and his aesthetic sensibilities are not well-regarded by most architectural critics. Trump is right to worry where such historical revisionism might end, as some people would like to see even such founding fathers as the slave-holding George Washington and Thomas Jefferson banished from places of honor in the public square, but he only bolsters their case when he consistently fails to not the crucial difference between the Revolutionary heroes who won America’s freedom and created a system of government that inexorably led to the abolition of slavery and those Confederates who fought to destroy that country and forever preserve the peculiar institution.
Some of those Confederate soldiers fought for the safety of their homes and families rather than for slavery, to be sure, and there’s certainly a strong case to be made that their descendants should be able to honor such bravery and sacrifice in their own communities. For many of those descendants the memorials express only the virtues of loyalty to home and family and the bravery that backs it up, values they now wed to the still-United States of America and feel with a deep regret for the worst of its past, and their views deserve the respect Trump has given them.
Any honest argument, however, requires a frank acknowledgement that slavery was an intolerable moral evil and that the Confederacy did wage its war of rebellion in defense of it, that many of the memorials were explicitly intended by their builders to honor that indefensible cause, and the sort of torch-bearing and shield-wielding and Nazi-flag-waving white supremacists who provoked the deadly violence in Virginia last weekend wanted the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in the park preserved for the very same reason. Any honest argument would also have to address all the people in those communities whose ancestors were enslaved, who might have a very different view of the statues in their hometowns of the general who fought preserve slavery, and frankly acknowledge that any American president also owes those views his respect.
From our very old-fashioned Republican point of view, we also think it best this argument  he made at the local level. It’s taken a while, but those descendants of slaves and slave-holders and the folks who only fought for the Confederacy because that’s where their homes and family were have been working things out fairly well for themselves in the past few decades. There are still the occasional racial atrocities — yes, on both sides, although we don’t want to get into the score — but the region has seen rapid economic development, enough racial amity to draw many black migrants back from the north, and their college sports teams have been hugely successful. Southern legislatures and county commissions and town councils now work out such mundane matters as tax abatements and bridge-building contracts and zoning permits with black and white representatives, so we also trust their judgment whose statues should adorn their city parks. Here in Wichita in the heart of “bleeding Kansas” all the monuments are to the boys in blue, so we don’t have deal with these issues, but we trust that the people of the south interact with one another enough to know which white folks were for home and family and which black folks won’t want to tear down the Washington Monument,  and can come to a reasonable conclusion. If they decide they’d rather not honor Confederate generals, we figure there’s also a strong case to be made for that.
General Ulysses Grant allowed the Confederate army he’d vanquished to ride home atop their own horses with dignity and a military salute from his own victorious troops, and although Grant was also ruthless in battling the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan there was also a strong case to be made for that. The Reconstruction years of occupation by the Union army were harsh on the south in less defensible ways, too, but there was good reason to usher the south back into the Union with something of its dignity and values of home and family and martial spirit intact. President Abraham Lincoln made that case with enduring eloquence when he stated a policy of “Malice toward none and charity toward all.”
Trump is admittedly more the “punch back ten times harder” and summarily-execute-’em-with-a-bullet-dipped-in-pig’s-blood kind of president, though, so he’s handling the latest recurrence of the debate quite differently. The critics of his rather equivocal response to the white supremacist violence in Virginia now include South Carolina’s white Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who knows his constituency better than Trump and has calculated that he shouldn’t run for re-election on a neo-Confederate platform, and Trump “tweeted” back with a claim that the “publicity seeking” Senator had lied about him. South Carolina’s black Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who wouldn’t have been elected without a lot of votes from the descendants of slave-holders and those who fought for home and family, and strikes us as an impressive fellow, declared the president had abdicated any moral authority, but so far as we can tell he hasn’t yet been met with any presidential “tweets.”
By now the entirety of the Democratic party and much of the Republican party is critical of the president, along with most of the executives of the Fortune 500 companies and the entirety  of the  Joints Chiefs of Staff and most of the heads of state of our democratic allies, but Trump seems unlikely to back down any time soon and move on to such mundane matters as that debt-ceiling resolution that’s going to need Graham’s and Scott’s votes if the country doesn’t go bankrupt. Like the vanishing heroes of the Lost Cause, though, his most stubborn defenders can be assured that at least he fights.

— Bud Norman

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Another Memorial Day

Today is a good day to take it easy, enjoy the arrival of another long-awaited summer in America, and to not bother with the mess we’re making of it. It’s also a good time to reflect on the men and women who once made America, so we’ll re-post an old essay once again. Nothing much has changed since we wrote it.
On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman