Saturday, July 11, 2015

Battle flags and battle lines

Confederate Cemetery image taken from the site, "Johnsons and Woodys of North Carolina."

Well, I've frittered away a lot of time this morning trying to figure out if squabbles in Congress about display of the Confederate battle flag in federally owned cemeteries would affect annual observances at the Confederate Cemetery on Arsenal Island.

I'm not sure how many Iowans are aware that this cemetery --- containing the remains of about 2,000 Confederate veterans and perhaps 125 Union guards --- lies just offshore, on Arsenal Island in the Mississippi River near the Rock Island National Cemetery.

This was the site of a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War where harsh conditions and mid-19th century inability to deal with infection and infectious disease claimed all those lives. Huge tolls in these camps were not unusual --- 13,000 Union prisoners died, for example, at notorious Andersonville.

The custom of marking the graves on Arsenal Island with small Confederate battle flags began in 1953, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated the first batch. The Daughters also erected a modest memorial. More recently, Iowa's division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has carried the tradition forward.

I'm by no means a fan of the battle flag, principally because so much revisionist "lost cause" history has been wrapped in it since it became a symbol, irrefutably racist, of resistance to integration and equal rights in the mid-1950s. And I was glad to see it come down on the Capitol grounds in South Carolina on Friday.

On the other hand, that field of battle flags flying near Memorial Day a short distance from the fields of U.S. flags at the national cemetery help emphasize an important point --- that harsh divisions and exploitive behavior are significant issues in U.S. history, too; that divisions remain; and that these divisions have been and continue to be deadly when unresolved.

Outright bans don't resolve issues --- anymore than deification of scraps of brightly colored cloth does. Somewhere between the extremes, there should be room for useful conversations.

Then, too, I try to figure out if being a veteran of Vietnam has anything to do with how I look at absent cause and lasting effect. In that instance, a government frittered away more than 50,000 American lives and far more "enemy" lives and all, as it turned out, for no particular reason. We're still working on how to honor those who served and died in that vacuum and how to explain why we do it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We have made great progress in American race relationships since I was a child in the 40s and 50s. Let’s celebrate those successes instead of dwelling on the negatives. Let’s learn from and remember our history, not re-write, destroy and forget only to continue making the same mistakes over and over.