One of the most moving war memorials I know is on a wall outside the reading room of the British Museum. It is a simple plaque with the names of a hundred or so librarians killed in the Great War. Librarians. Think about it.
That plaque makes a point, doesn’t it, if not perhaps the one it was intended to make. Are we better off because those young men died? I don’t know. Maybe it would be easier to say if I were Belgian.
Here’s another. A few years ago, hiking in the hills above Lake Como, my wife and I came across a little chapel dedicated to the memory of local lads who died in World War II. It was decorated with freshly cut flowers. The boys it commemorated had fought for Mussolini.
Now, to have left that beautiful place to die in the sands of North Africa or the snows of Russia—well, obviously, the right or wrong of their cause is important, but why shouldn’t their parents and girlfriends have built that chapel? Who could fail to be touched that, 40 years later, they still brought flowers and burned candles?
I’m told that the Vietnam memorial attracts more visitors than any other site in Washington. I’m sure that many who go there believe that the cause in which those servicemen died was futile, even wrong, but surely no one goes to gloat or to scoff. There are some lines—are they from Housman?—something like:
Here we lie who did not choose
To flee and shame the race from which we’d sprung.
Life, to be sure, is not so much to lose,
But young men think it is, and
we were young.
The librarians, the fascist conscripts, the Vietnam draftees-no doubt all were scared young men. But they did not choose to flee, and the memorials honor them for it. We can sympathize with their causes or not, but we shouldn’t deny those who wish to remember their kin and countrymen. Maybe we should even honor them, too.
These thoughts came to mind last spring, as I was walking across the beautiful, flowering campus of the Southern university where I teach. I passed the pedestal where “Silent Sam” usually stands. Sam is a statue of a Confederate infantryman, and he is a memorial to the university’s alumni who died for the Confederacy. That month Sam had been removed for a much-needed cleaning after years of exposure to pigeons and rival football fans with paint cans.
By the empty pedestal stood a young man, obviously showing a visit ing couple around. All were Yankees, by their accents. “They’ve sent it off to be cleaned,” I heard him say. “Eight thousand dollars! Can you believe it?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact I can. In The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, Mississippian, tells this story:
When I was at Princeton, I blew up a Union monument. Tt was only a plaque hidden in the weeds behind the chemistry building, presented by the class of 1885 in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice to suppress the infamous rebellion, or something like that. It offended me. l synthesized a liter of trinitrotoluene in chemistry lab and blew it up one Saturday afternoon. But no one ever knew what had been blown up. It seemed I was the only one who knew the monument was there. It was thought to be a Harvard prank.
Will was wrong to do what he did. But Princeton was more wrong not to know what he’d done. Maybe Walker Percy, Mississippian, is slandering Ivy Leaguers here, but I doubt it. Say this for the South: If somebody blew up Silent Sam, it would be noticed.
And I’m afraid, in fact, that it’s only a matter of time before somebody does come gunning for him. We’re going through a spell of Confederacy bashing clown here. Some black folks are starting to object to state flags that incorporate the Confederate battle flag, for instance, and the Ole Miss administration has dropped that same flag as an official school symbol (largely, I gather, because coaches said it repelled black recruits-first things first). Last word from Maryland was that some schoolteacher was lobbying to change the pro-Confederate words of “Maryland, My Maryland” (“Huzzah! She spurns the northern scum,” for example). There’s even a move afoot to change the name of the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem; the objection is apparently to the very word “Dixie.” It’s nice, I guess, that we’ve solved all the real problems of race relations down here and can now take up the symbolic ones.
I’m actually more sympathetic than you probably suppose. Maybe it is time that we recognized that to many of our citizens, rightly or wrongly, the symbols of the Confederacy don’t stand for freedom and self-determination, or for a heritage of sacrifice and honor and duty, or even for hell-raising, good timing, don’t-tread-on-me rebelry, but for white supremacy, plain and simple. Given that, they’re entitled to their objections. Maybe we ought to get government out of the act and let those who value the Confederate heritage celebrate it privately.
But Silent Sam is a different matter. Like the Vietnam memorial, he doesn’t honor a cause; rather, he honors some brave men who died in one. And notice I said “in one,” not “for one.” We can’t know what motives impelled those men, but we do know that they were defending their families and their homes. And I mean their homes: not the shores of Tripoli, not even the halls of Montezuma, but, say, New Bern, North Carolina.
True, Sam was put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at a time when nearly all of the university’s alumni, students, and governors saw the Lost Cause as a glorious one. That’s no longer so, and some want us to acknowledge that somehow. Fair enough, but surely we can find a better way to recognize that change than by denying our alumni their memorial.
Maybe we can learn from still an other memorial, an extraordinarily sweet and fitting one, in the chapel of New College, Oxford. It just lists the names of the scores of graduates who died for their country in the First World War-including a half-dozen whose country was Germany. That memorial honors the dead, and speaks well of the living, too.
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