Look, we’re in no position to gloat. A few years ago we were a huge empire but now, after World War I, there’s hardly anything left of us. We can’t even afford to fix this little statue. It commemorates a shared piece of our history, and people walking by will admire the dashing Turkish soldier—what do you say?
The Turks must have seen things similarly. They paid for the restoration, though they declined the invitation to attend the celebration of their repulsion.
A few years ago I hosted a conference about postconflict reconciliation and peacebuilding. The participants were teachers, writers, political activists and historians from Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. The specifics of their respective wars and civil wars differed, but they shared one challenge: how to process what had happened to their country and their society in a way that was truthful yet would not cause an inflammable situation to explode all over again. We convened in Colonial Williamsburg, a “living history” site that greatly enchanted our foreign guests. They loved the re-enactors who strolled about in garments of the day and chatted about news topics of that era. They loved the beautifully reconstructed Colonial era buildings, but most importantly, they found its mission statement compelling: to tell the story of America in a way that was truthful, while also ensuring that every visitor—black, white, Mayflower descendant or recent immigrant, Northerner or Southerner—had a good and enjoyable experience that left them feeling uplifted and united. This was no easy feat, the on-site historians told our group. It required honesty, but it also required historic context and nuance. You needed to acknowledge, for example, that a “founding father” had been a great statesman, while condemning the fact that he had owned slaves. You needed to accept that people have conflicting loyalties and sometimes make what later is recognized to have been the wrong, perhaps even the very wrong call. And you needed to remember that not everyone is a hero, prepared to resist conscription or the pressures of his family and his neighbors, and risk jail or even a firing squad for standing up to the powers that be.
This conversation with the Williamsburg historians, which had not even been part of the conference agenda, so fascinated the participants that they couldn’t stop talking about it. Yes, they asserted excitedly, this was exactly what needed to happen in their own countries: a way had to be found for everyone to not only face up to the terrible things that had happened and that their side and the other side had done, but to find a way to go forward together. For that, you had to refrain from humiliating or forever demonizing the losing side. Some time might need to pass before that became possible; a generation.
On the way back to Dulles airport for their postconference departures, we had scheduled a little detour to show our participants the Capitol. In mid-tour, one of them came rushing over to fetch me. They had seen a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, right smack in Statuary Hall! This was exactly what we had been talking about, they enthused. This was the way—you let people keep their heroes, you allowed them to feel pride in themselves, because if you eternally vilified the losers of some past conflict you would only end up with eternal division. Instead you told them: your ancestors made the wrong choice and were on the wrong side, but they’re part of our shared history and we’re all in this together. I could never ever have guessed, on that day, that a few years later Americans would begin to tear down the statues of Robert E. Lee, that the Civil War was somehow going to reappear as a current events matter.
Robert E. Lee in many ways personified the tragedy of our country during the Civil War—he was a divided and torn person. He was so respected as a military genius that both armies offered him command positions, and he reportedly agonized over the decision. Ultimately, in his formal rejection of the Union offer, he explained that “I look upon secession as anarchy . . . but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Most of his family supported the Union—his wife was an abolitionist—but many of them followed him, out of personal loyalty, to the Confederate camp. Though the Northern armies were vastly superior, Lee achieved a number of significant victories, but ultimately he was obliged to surrender unconditionally to Ulysses S. Grant. He lost much, including his family home and land, which were confiscated and used as a burial ground: today’s Arlington Cemetery.
After the war he became a leading voice for reconciliation and reunification, urging his fellow Southerners to accept defeat and abandon the angry talk of resistance, militias and guerilla warfare. He retired to academic life and became a popular, iconic figure in the North as much as the South. Until 2016, that is, when unaccountably he turned into something he certainly would never have wanted to be: a figure of contention.
I’d like to conclude with a U.S. institution that, in my opinion, properly understands its mission as custodian of history and culture: the U.S. Park Service. I will cite just one illustration.
In 1876, a major battle took place at Little Bighorn in Montana. Two of the combatant leaders who squared off here remain iconic figures of American legend—General Custer on the side of the youthful United States, and the fabled Native American leader Crazy Horse. Custer was killed in this battle, which is consequently also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Today the site is a National Monument maintained by the U.S. Park Service. There is an informative visitor center and there are placards to guide you as you explore the terrain. There were three sets of participants in this conflict: the U.S. military units commanded by Custer; the Native American tribal alliance opposed to him and consisting of the Lakota, North Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho tribes; and the Native American scouts who were in Custer’s employ. These latter were mostly recruited from the Crow tribe, which had been pushed from its ancestral lands by the three other tribes and thus was willing to work with their enemy.
Those who designed this historic site had choices. One option would have been to consign the physical location to oblivion, which would have been easy to do since it is essentially just a large grassy plain interspersed with a few modest elevations barely deserving to be called hills. Another option was to highlight it as the location where the revered General Custer and the men in his cavalry detachment were killed. Instead, it has been turned into a memorial that honors all three sets of participants equally. The story line includes each of their perspectives, and goes as follows:
The Native American alliance had its back to the wall, since the white newcomers were aggressively expanding into their ancestral lands and forcing the original inhabitants onto reservations. Their struggle was desperate, tragic in its hopelessness. They attained a clear victory at Little Bighorn, but this caused no real rejoicing on their part, because they well knew that a much larger army was poised to follow and that in the long run, they were outgunned and could not win.
Custer, meanwhile, was defending the westward drive of a young American nation.
The Crow scouts who helped him did so not only to thwart their Native American enemies, but also because they had come to the assessment that the white Americans were unstoppable. They had concluded that the best way to safeguard at least a portion of their lifestyle, culture and heritage was to ally themselves with the inevitable victors.
These are the relative perspectives as they are portrayed at the site. The website of the official U.S. Park Service states that “this area memorializes the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the Indians’ last armed efforts to preserve their way of life”—an astonishingly ecumenical formulation, coming as it does from an institution of the side that “won.”
The monument itself consists of a circle of plaques upon which are inscribed the names of the fallen, and quotations from their leaders that speak to their motives. Each plaque was designed by descendants of the respective combatant group, and they are worth a closer look.
One set of plaques lists the names of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota and Sioux fighters who fell during this battle. Another records the names of the Crow scouts who fell on the U.S. side. An additional plaque explains why this tribe was fighting against its fellow Native Americans:
Our leading chiefs saw that to help the white men fight their enemies and ours would make them our friends. . . . We had always fought the three tribes, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. . . . Our decision was reached because we plainly saw that this course was the only one that might save our beautiful country for us.