Should we honor soldiers who fought on the wrong side?

This is a complicated question, not least because the “good guys” and “bad guys” aren’t always easy to identify, but also because military service often is involuntary and we recognize it’s unfair to punish people for things over which they have no choice.

But even this gets sticky. After World War II, many German war criminals resorted to the defense of “orders are orders,” drawing upon the widely accepted dictum that soldiers must follow their orders without questioning them.

But must they? Following the My Lai revelations, U.S. military codes were revised to require American soldiers to refuse to obey “unlawful” orders. But what is an unlawful order, and who decides whether it is? Many military experts have questioned whether an ordinary soldier in the field, who’s had the sanctity of military hierarchy instilled him, should be expected to make such judgments on his own. Far more likely, he’ll simply do what he’s told by his superiors.

Who decides what is a “just” war, or a war crime? The old saw goes that winners write history, but that won’t strike most people as satisfactory. The Nazis weren’t bad guys just because they lost. It is universally accepted among civilized peoples that their behavior was evil. Likewise, the American South’s bloody rebellion to preserve slavery has few defenders today.

But what about the Wehrmacht? Professional historians and thoughtful readers of history distinguish between the soldiers of the regular German army and the Nazi regime’s paramilitary organizations (SS, Gestapo, einsatzgruppen, etc.). The Wehrmacht is widely respected among history buffs for its fighting ability. In its time, it was the world’s best army, and it took everything the Allies could muster to defeat them.

So, too, with Confederate soldiers, especially Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Those who study Civil War battles often come away impressed by the skill and tenacity of Rebel soldiers. Lee’s army was one of history’s greatest fighting organizations. The soldiers of the Confederacy were as good at their craft as any soldiers of any army at any place or time in history. We can admire and respect them without liking the cause for which they fought. It’s often stated this way: Great soldiering, terrible cause.

Which raises another question: Why do good soldiers fight for bad causes? It’s clear they do, because history is replete with such examples. It’s partly a trees-and-forest thing; soldiers are preoccupied with fighting and surviving, and their minds don’t wander beyond food, sleep, and going home someday. They tend not to think very much, if at all, about the causes or justifications of the wars in which they fight. Their loyalty is determined at birth: Most people fight for their own country. 

So it was in the American Civil War. If you lived in the South, you fought on the Confederate side; if you were a Northerner, you fought for the Union side. There was quite a bit of dissension in the North, where support for the war was hardly universal and many people were willing to accept slavery; the South was far more unified, but from their point of view, they were fighting to preserve a way of life, and for “states rights” (i.e., local control), that is, they didn’t want to be dictated to by people in other states. To many of them, slavery was a side issue. Neither side fought to war over slavery per se; it was fought to determine whether Americans would be one country or two countries.

The Vietnam War, in which I served, was about as ambiguous as a war can be. Many people of my generation felt it was an immoral war — that America was the “bad guy.” My parents’ generation, who sent us there, believed it was necessary to stop the spread of communism. In retrospect, this is understandable: The world had learned of Stalin’s horrors, China had fallen under Mao’s bloody heel, the Berlin Wall had gone up, the Cuban missile crisis was a fresh memory. Their generation had fought, at great sacrifice, a world war to defeat German aggression and Japanese imperialism, and now felt threatened by communist aggression and imperialism. No one living in the 1960s could imagine they would ever live in a world with no Soviet Union; the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, when it came, was a complete surprise.

Many young people of that time frustrated by our government’s policy took it out on the soldiers when they returned home. The anti-war movement, for whatever reason, failed to distinguish between the war and the warriors, and vented their anger on people who had nothing to do with the policy. Many weren’t even old enough to vote. (We have the 18-year-old vote today because of Vietnam; the argument behind its enactment was, “If you’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to vote.”) This was a mistake, and things gradually got better for Vietnam veterans, who no longer are pariahs and generally enjoy the respect of their fellow citizens now. That’s a good thing, for many reasons, not least because we didn’t deserve to be mistreated because of another generation’s mistakes, but also because that war was at worst a policy error and not the kind of criminal enterprise for which our side punished German and Japanese leaders after World War 2.

Today there are no living Civil War veterans. They mostly had died out by the 1930s, and the very last of them left us in the 1950s. All the personal issues of that war went to the grave with them, and what we have left today is intellectual arguments over the morality of the causes they served, depending on which side they fought on. Today we also live in a highly mobile society, in which many of us do not live where we were born and grew up, although some of us still do. Southern traditions live on, weakly in some places and more strongly in others, and it’s perfectly natural for “born Southerners” to want to honor their ancestors. They mostly do so obliquely, because it’s not respectable in many quarters to honor the cause for which they fought. For them, as for Vietnam veterans, it’s a matter of respecting the warriors even if you dislike with the war.

The irony is that many Vietnam veterans are Southerners, and vice versa. Today, America’s strongest military loyalties and traditions reside in the South. The southern states host many of our domestic military bases and produce many of our soldiers. They’re much more American flag-waving types than Confederate flag-waving types, although sometimes they wave both flags. And they fight for us, when we tell them to go to a distant battlefield, whether it be in Europe against the Russians or in Afghanistan against the Taliban. What are we to make of their unwavering loyalty to the United States of America coupled with their somewhat strange (to us) devotion to their secessionist “traditions”?

Honor the warrior, hate war. You can’t go wrong with that. The Confederate Rebels were a world-class army, soldiers to be admired for all time, who fought for an awful cause and were righteously defeated. We should tolerate our southern countrymen’s love for their ancestors with generous hearts. But what about the Confederate flag? How can we bring together the citizens of our country, reunited by Lincoln under one flag, when some believe the Confederate flag stands for racism and bloody rebellion, while to others it represents the noble service of their own kin?

The easy solution, of course, would be if everyone could agree to haul down the Stars and Bars, and display it only in museums for educational purposes. But we don’t agree on that. We can’t even agree to lower it to half-staff to honor murdered black people, whom Confederate soldiers fought to keep enslaved. Of course, it would be ironical to dip a Confederate flag in honor of black martyrs. If I were one of those black martyrs — and I’m not, so this is necessarily cheap talk on my part — I’d rather do without such an “honor.” The flags of the United States of America and South Carolina have been lowered in my memory, and that’s good enough, because those are the flags I recognize. I don’t give a damn about that other rag.

But it becomes more complicated if flying that other rag becomes an act of defiance. There something incongruent about the notion of dipping a Confederate flag to honor black martyrs, but there’s no conflict in taking it down altogether during the official period of mourning for those victims of racial hate. That hatred is part of the legacy of the Confederate defeat and the long-lived animosities it spawned; as Confederate general Henry Wise snapped to Joshua Chamberlain after Appomattox, in reply to Chamberlain’s hopeful suggestion that perhaps now “brave men may become good friends” — “You’re mistaken, sir. You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts that your little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

Those words were spoken 150 years ago, but the sentiment they express still endures in some segments of our body politic. There are still “Proud Rebels” who display Confederate symbols on their clothing, vehicles, and homes and businesses. Some of them are bigots who hate blacks for their race. This week, one of them walked into a black church and gunned down nine black strangers because he had this kind of hatred in his heart. The shooter is 21 years old; the Civil War ended in defeat for the southern cause 129 years before he was born. That apparently makes no difference to him. He spoke to friends of restarting that war, and fighting it this time to eradicate the black race, not keep it enslaved.

Our society is still a prisoner of these toxic emotions, as this week’s events illustrate, and some of that toxicity necessarily rubs off on the old Confederate symbols adopted by today’s racists. Should we insist South Carolina legislators take that flag down and find some other way to honor their warrior ancestors?

That’s a difficult question. I think yes. Dylann Roof wore that symbol to flaunt his racial hatred, making it even less legitimate than it already was. Why fly a symbol of division over a memorial anyway? Do southern Vietnam veterans want to lie at rest under American flags, or Confederate flags? Don’t the brave soldiers of the Confederacy deserve American flags on their graves? Shouldn’t the memorials to their service have American flags flying over them? To argue otherwise is to say we should think of them as foreigners, instead of fellow Americans with whom our ancestors had a difference of opinion.

This would be a good day to haul down that flag, put it in a museum where it belongs, and replace it with Old Glory for now and all time.



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