Friday, July 10, 2015

The Confederate Battle Flag

Full disclosure: my favorite book since the age of 8 has been Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  I fell deeply in love with the story as a child, and as an adult I am still fascinated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  My enthusiasm for the story extends to the movie as well, and I value it as the story of a deeply flawed character who refuses to give up despite the challenges placed in her way.  I have a (nearly) life size poster of Rhett Butler in my office, I have numerous books about the movie, and I posses an endless array of Scarlett & Rhett items (even a Christmas tree ornament of a teddy bear named Rhett Beartler).  When my mother was alive, we usually watched the movie together over Christmas break.  One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Scarlett tries to find Dr. Meade to assist with Melanie's terrible childbirth as the City of Atlanta is under siege.  She races to the train depot, where she finds complete chaos and endless rows of dead and dying men.  The camera focuses on Scarlett's complete dismay and total fear as she observes the death around her, and then -- using a specially developed camera for a memorable long shot -- it pulls back to show the hundreds of bodies piled up at the train depot.  As that long shot concludes, a tattered Confederate battle flag is shown flying above the scene of death below.  

For the historian in me, that scene from a fictional movie captures the existence of the Confederate Battle Flag during the time that the Confederate States of America existed.  The people who flew it were humans -- humans who experienced joy and pain and folly, just as we do today.  My direct ancestors fought for the Union, but their cousins still in Virginia fought for the Confederacy.  It truly was a war that divided families, ruined lives, and set our country back developmentally.  I am not offended when I see the Confederate Battle Flag depicted in a historical manner: example given, at the Alamo there is a collection of the seven flags that have flown over Texas, including the flag of the Confederacy.  I do, however, applaud the state of South Carolina for removing the flag from being flown under state auspices at their capital.  The reality is that this flag is the emblem of a defeated nation; it should not fly in an official capacity.

During the time I spent as a McCloy Fellow in Germany, I was intrigued by the efforts of the German people to learn from their country's actions that led to World War II.  The German people have worked to renounce the atrocities, learn from them, and move forward.  The historic sites which we visited were very straight forward in explanations of historic fact.  The German people of today seem to own the past in order to learn from it, and then move forward away from it.  The old axiom is true that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.  

I thought of my time in Germany this morning, and my observations on that country's efforts to learn from its own divisive history.  The Wall Street Journal carried articles today on the signing of the law to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina capital, as well as another article on efforts to remove other symbols from the Confederate era.  I wholeheartedly support removing the flag from a state capital: the insignia of another nation -- and one that tried to defeat our own -- should not fly in an official capacity.  Nor should it be used for political purposes that detract from our efforts as humans to promote a society of understanding, love, and respect.  The historian in me, however, is quite concerned to see further efforts to remove all Confederate symbols.  If we remove our history, we cannot learn from it, and we set up future generations to repeat it.  History must be a continual education for those of us in present times, that we might create a better future.  

When I read Gone with the Wind, it is clear how the author utilized older characters to try to tell the young how terrible war truly is.  The young men are full of fervor for battle, convinced that they know best -- and they ignore the older generation who is opposed to war having lived through the Mexican-American War and the Cherokee uprising.  As the book plays out, it becomes clear that those voices of experience who argued against war were the wise ones. This fictional interpretation illustrates the folly of ignoring history.  History happened.  Learn from it, and become a better person.  Be a part of building a better world for the future.  We must make wise decisions to improve our world -- even our own individual daily choices -- and unless we learn from our common history as humans, we can never move beyond the poor choices of previous generations.

1 comment:

  1. This the the best, most well-reasoned commentary that I have read on the removal of the Confederate flag, and the lessons we should not forget.