A Matter Worth Raising

July 31st, 2020

Iwo Jima

(published in The Daily Memphian)

After the sad and revealing events in Charlottesville three years ago, I wrote a column about symbols. Recent events bear repeating it.

We may actually be on the verge of burying the war no one should mourn. We, the South, may be finally admitting that the primary cause of that war was slavery, and that the loss of that cause should be celebrated rather than honored, that there should be no monuments to any responsible for the rebellion and its unequalled carnage.

One of those, an iconic one of those, understood.

When asked to attend an event at Gettysburg “for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite” the battle, Robert E. Lee declined the invitation in a letter dated August 5, 1869. He ended with, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

I couldn’t agree more, General.

Some 30 years ago, Nora approached the concierge desk at the General Walker Hotel in Obersalzberg, Germany, just below Hitler’s infamous retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, and just above the town of Berchtesgaden. We’d heard that there was a museum in the hotel’s basement. The man behind the desk was behind a newspaper when Nora asked, “Excuse me, could you tell me how we get to the Hitler museum?” He snapped the paper down and in a tone the Fuhrer himself would have been proud of and loud enough to turn heads in the lobby, he sneered:

“There is NO Hitler museum in all of Germany!”

He then dismissed her by dramatically snapping the paper back up in front of his face.

That response has been our go-to for emphatic denials ever since.

His righteous indignation might have been because he’d been asked that question far too many times, or perhaps the idea of such a museum is embarrassing because of what it means to his country, or maybe just hearing that name even though his hotel exists because of it just ruined another beautiful morning. For so many reasons, Germany doesn’t want to dedicate anything to Hitler.

They’re not denying history. They’re just not publicly reminding themselves of their national disgrace, or turning it into some sort of glory, choosing instead to move on.

Before you say there he goes again, another reference to Hitler to make a point, another gratuitous tie to racism and war and murder on a horrific scale, waving a symbol of all of that in our faces …

Like the swastikas and rebel flags waving in the ill wind of Charlottesville, like any symbol that stands for the superiority of race or religion or creed unto the death of others, like any monument that would glorify a crushing defeat of such ignoble causes.

Imagine a statue of Hitler in a city where the majority of the residents are Jewish, or on public property in any city.

Imagine a statue of Rommel in North Africa because he was a great general and ignoring what he fought for and that he thankfully lost. Imagine a statue of Reichsmarschall Goering at Dunkirk or Omaha Beach in honor of all the brave Germans who died in the war, or one of Emperor Hirohito on any number of beaches in the Pacific.

Imagine a statue to Benedict Arnold in West Point honoring his plan to surrender it to the British.

Imagine public statues anywhere here to the heads of governments and their generals who fought a war against the United States at the price of a generation of their young men to preserve the right to buy and sell human beings.

Just imagine.

Symbols matter. Just ask any of those flag-waving, tiki-torched cretins in Charlottesville.

Ask the men who raised a flag on Iwo Jima and decide – once and for all – which flag to stand for, which flag to follow.

I’m a Memphian, and it’s time to look up to something that looks down on no one.

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