[This post on Confederate legacies has two parts. You can read the second, more personal one, here.]
The current proposal to rename U.S. military bases brings to light a troubling and peculiar feature of American politics. It is hard to think of any other country that so publicly memorializes those who killed its own citizens on behalf of a disgraced ideology in open insurrection against the state.
This point may be brought to light for Americans by stepping back to consider the U.S. as if it were a foreign country. Imagine if you were to study, or to visit, a country that named military bases after disgraced statesmen and defeated generals who had fought a war of insurrection. Imagine if it did so specifically in a former secessionist zone, which also happens to have a distinct social structure and predictable voting patterns. Imagine if those names were associated with a flag which, today, inspired bitter hatred from half the population.
What would you think? You would almost certainly conclude that this is evidence of a deep historical rift, of conflict lying just below the surface. You would conclude that this was a wound that had not healed, but rather been allowed to fester.
The full details of this convention of naming military bases after Confederate generals are certainly complex, yet the core issue is not. Naming bases after Confederate soldiers was a practice to “placate disgruntled Southerners“. These politics are understandable, even if they are no excuse for the practice.
But this makes the U.S. odd. Other countries do not name military bases after traitors and secessionists. You do not see monuments to Kartosuwiryo in Indonesia, to Abdullah Öcalan in Turkey (and if you try…), or Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, or Josu Urrutikoetxea in Spain. Look how China memorializes the traitor Qin Hui.
You may counter by observing the abundance of monuments to Scottish nationalists in Scotland. And here my point is laid bare. Scotland almost voted to seceded from the UK just six years ago, and may do so again. And I would bet (although I do not know, and may be proven wrong) that not a single unit of the British Army in Scotland is named after (or maintains a barracks named after) a Scottish nationalist. My bet is that it’s “Queen’s This” and “Royal This” and “George That,” all the way down. I would wager the same bet, names adjusted, for any Spanish installations in the Basque Country. It would be interesting to know if there are any exceptions at all.
The U.S. is certainly not alone in its monuments to disgraced, controversial, or plainly evil men. In Bristol UK, the statue of slaver Edward Colston was recently toppled. Several years back, the University of Cape Town took down a statue of Cecil Rhodes. And in the U.S., Confederate figures are certainly not the only historical figures with troubling histories who are memorialized. We can see this the debates over monuments to Christopher Columbus, and we still have monuments to Custer and the fraught history of Thomas Jefferson. Any country that excavates its history is bound to confront these painful memories.
But what these cases share is that the figures represent the state’s founding myth, or the established historical narrative. Racist and imperialist views notwithstanding, Cecil Rhodes was neither anti-British nor anti-South African. In this, he resembles Jefferson: a figure of immense historical significance for the contemporary state. And Americans and Britons confront their past, so too do we confront these figures and their role in public life. Jefferson has figured prominently here. So, too, right now, does Rhodes.
By contrast, Germany does not have monuments to Hitler or other Nazis; Norway has no monument to Quisling; France has no monument to Marshall Petain (it used to, but they are now gone). Monuments to communist leaders in Russia abound, but occupy an odd historical place in Russian memory, because the October Revolution is the founding moment for post-imperial Russia. And note how quickly cities were renamed after communism fell: Leningrad → St. Petersburg, Sverdlovsk → Yekaterinburg, Kuybyshev → Samara.
I am certain that there are exceptions to counter my claim, and I have an inkling that countries like Italy and South Africa are where to look. It may be that the U.S. is not completely exceptional in its open and public memorialization of traitors and secessionists. But those cases will be in divided societies too, with festering historical wounds that deserve to be healed.
[Read the follow-up post here.]