Scattered thoughts on Nanjing, Armenia, and the Confederacy — what we choose to remember, and what we would rather forget.
“This monument perpetuates the memory of those who,
true to the instincts of their birth,
faithful to the teachings of their fathers,
constant in their love for the state,
died in the performance of their duty,
who glorified a fallen cause.”
— South Carolina Monument to the Confederate Dead
“Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates
I spent part of this past Saturday evening in Columbia, South Carolina walking the perimeter of the state capitol building. The grounds are beautiful and the night was warm, but what I was looking for was some of those Confederate memorials everybody’s been talking about.
The first one I found was a large statue of Confederate general Wade Hampton, straddling a horse. The horse stood atop a high pedestal decorated with the names of Hampton’s battles: Burgess Hill, Seven Pines, First Manassas, Gettysburg. It is a striking monument to the general, who went on to become South Carolina’s governor after Reconstruction and one of its U.S. senators.
I continued on to the front of the capitol building, where stands a 20-foot (?) obelisk, crowned by a relatively small statuette of a soldier. This monument is dedicated to the memory of the Confederate war dead, and on it is inscribed the poem quoted above about how the fallen soldiers perpetuate and glorify a fallen cause. I can see how this monument would be a source of pride for the city, especially for those whose ancestors fought and died in the war. Thinking about the racial justice protests of last summer and the political debate over these kinds of memorials, I tried to imagine how it would feel for the city to see this monument torn down. Does it really matter if a few statues remain in place, especially ones that help people honor their late ancestors? Does it really matter if those we memorialize fought on the “wrong” side of the war?
As I stood there, my mind skipped back to the summer of 2017, to a tour of China I went on in college, to an afternoon I spent sipping tea with a few researchers at the state-sponsored Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The Chinese professors who showed up to meet with us came from the subject areas you would expect: diplomacy, foreign policy, military strategy, and maritime law. They came armed with talking points about the U.S. - China relationship to help us understand various Chinese perspectives on international relations.
One of the professors, however, said he was a specialist in Jewish Studies. Jewish Studies was not one of the topics we expected to hear about that day — we were all intrigued.
As this historian of the Holocaust began to speak about his study of collective memory, the strategic relevance of his research became very clear. I recalled our visit to Nanjing, 300 kilometers to the west — the day we spent walking around the labyrinth of statues and bones that bear witness to the terrible massacre Japan’s imperial army perpetrated there in 1937, in what is commonly referred to as the “Rape of Nanking.”
The monument follows a set path, through memorial courtyards and through dark rooms filled with human bones and personal artifacts. Every recess of the memorial contains shocking details of the wartime atrocities committed by Japan against the innocent people of China’s former capital city.
But the memorial takes a jarring turn in the final room: you exit the dark maze of grief and find yourself in an ostentatiously adorned and bright red propaganda hall. Televisions on the walls play clips of President Xi Jinping speaking at party rallies and presiding over military parades, with patriotic music blaring from speakers in the background. Prominently featured on the walls were posters advertising the upcoming 80th anniversary commemoration of the Nanjing massacre. It was only the third such national holiday, which President Xi instituted soon after coming to power in 2013 and just before instituting his own humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang province against the Uyghur population.
This ploy at the memorial’s end — the Communist Party’s attempt to stoke the old potent memories of Nanjing into modern-day nationalistic fervor — could not have been more transparent. It was slightly offensive to me, even as a complete foreigner.
In Shanghai, I asked the Jewish Studies professor if he thought memorials like the one in Nanjing hindered cooperation between his country and Japan. His eyes flashed as he delivered an unexpectedly non-academic response: “They still have not given us a real apology!” The other professors chimed in as well, quickly departing from the measured tone with which they had answered all of our other questions. That was my first exposure to the seriousness and weight of historical memory at a national, strategic level.
So anyway — to answer my own question above — yes, I think it matters that grand monuments to traitors still proudly stand in the United States of America.
As China now exploits historical tragedy to whip up anti-Japanese and pro-Xi sentiment, our forebears have distorted history in similar ways. According to the official historical website of Columbia, the Confederate war memorial’s “unveiling… [in 1879] served as a statewide celebration of the end of Reconstruction and a way of unifying southern white men and women in a new era of Democratic governance.”
The main object of this statue’s construction was not to honor the men and boys whose leaders sent them off to be slaughtered in defense of slavery — it was instead to celebrate the end of a time for political renewal for freed Black Americans, to celebrate the beginning of a new period of racial discrimination, violence, and terror in the United States, and to celebrate the resilience of white supremacy in the state of South Carolina. It was to exploit the fallen Confederate citizen-soldiers’ lives and deaths one more time in service of a hateful and tyrannical ideology.
To treat these monuments — I actually think celebrations or commemorations are better terms — as mere decorations is to ignore their true meaning, the “why” behind their construction, the builders’ intent. More simply put, it is to choose indifference. It is not a way to “preserve history” or “celebrate heritage,” it is actually the opposite. When we treat our public historical memory as trivial or valueless, we choose to forget.
This public forgetfulness is the same indifference that in 1938 inspired Adolf Hitler, after issuing orders for his Nazi “death-head formations” to “send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language,” to write the famous phrase, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Public ambivalence about human tragedy emboldened him.
Recently, of course, many people have been speaking of the Armenians, because over 100 years after the genocide carried out by Turkey during the First World War, an American president has decided to publicly recognize the facts. As casual observers of international relations, we are tempted to treat this as a merely symbolic, even odd, gesture — what can the United States do to save the Armenians a century after their slaughter?
But this “symbolic” statement has already provoked a strong response from Turkey’s current autocratic president and threatened U.S. relations with a NATO ally. In Armenia, the Prime Minister issued a statement thanking the United States for helping to prevent “the recurrence of similar crimes against mankind.” It clearly matters.
All this to say — and there’s a lot more that could be said — I think it matters what we remember, and how we choose to remember it.
Just like the people of the 19th century American South and the 20th century Ottoman Empire, we live in a time and place that will someday be commemorated, memorialized, and accounted for. We need honest journalists to write history’s “first draft,” nuanced and rigorous historians to help us immerse ourselves in the past, and civic leaders who seek to learn from history instead of simply exploiting it for their own ends.
And, as much as I enjoyed my walk through Columbia this weekend, I think we need to tear down those commemorations of the Confederacy, because as people with limited time and space to celebrate things, we can do a lot better. Let’s learn to celebrate something new.
Thanks for reading this month’s newsletter! Historical memory is a topic that I have enjoyed thinking and writing about ever since a research paper on Robert E. Lee I did for Dr. Mary DeCredico’s Civil War & Reconstruction class at the Naval Academy. My thoughts here are a little scattered, but I would like to return to the issue of historical memory in the future. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve done any reading or thinking on this topic, or if you have any opinions on what I wrote here.
MW and I have no other updates this month, other than that she is enjoying the beginnings of her junior submarine officer tour in Hawaii and I am trying to make the most of the rest of my nuclear power training in Charleston!
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All the best,