The Politics of Remembrance

Remembrance–the ongoing public process of acknowledging the importance of past people and events, is inherently political (as we know all too well here in the “Witch City”) but it strikes me that Civil War remembrance and reconciliation is particularly problematical. This point was brought home this past weekend when I read a provocative and powerful editorial in the New York Times entitled “Misplaced Honor”.  In the piece, author Jamie Malanowski calls for the renaming of the ten or more U.S. Army bases that are named for Confederate generals, men who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves. Malanowski acknowledges the historical reason for the names of these bases– most of which were built between the world wars when the need for national unity was paramount–but asserts that we cannot let these names stand now, when African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?

Apparently there is even a consensus among Civil War historians that several of these namesakes (like Braxton Bragg of Fort Bragg) were bad generals. When I visited the official sites of bases names for Confederates–Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Ford Benning–there was nothing to be found about these generals, except bland statements that they were local. And that really is the crux of it. The only substantive rejoinder to Malanowski’s argument that I could find (here) so far argues that local communities should have sway in the naming, or renaming, of public places in their midst. Hopefully, at the very least, this conversation can continue.

Politics of Remembrance 1

Politics of Remembrance 2

Portraits of Confederate generals, including Henry L. Benning, namesake of Ft. Benning in Georgia, lower center, Illustrated History of the Confederacy, 1899 & the 41st Engineers building a bridge at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, 1942, Arthur Rothstein, photographer, Library of Congress.

8 responses to “The Politics of Remembrance

  • Melinda

    Thanks for this excellent and eye-opening read, Donna. and thanks to Jamie Malanowski, too!

  • markd60

    What upsets me, is the official “remembrance” of Ronald Reagan already is not the way I remember it, and makes me doubt the accuracy of all US history.

  • Brian Bixby

    The practice for naming things for people does put us in a quandary, doesn’t it? We’d like to think that we’re commemorating someone in a way that will last forever. On the other hand, we don’t want to continue to commemorate someone whom we now find distasteful. And yet at the same time we use many names without even thinking about the person behind the name. Who thinks of Gov. Jonathan Belcher when visiting Belchertown?

  • James Schmidt

    Thanks for posting this. Reading the Malanowski article I, too, was appalled at the extent to which US military bases continue to be named after individuals who — not to put too fine a point on it — were enemies of the state. Much here, as you suggest, goes back to the need to forge some sort of unity in the wake of a civil war. I wonder whether it might be time for some adjustments in the policy of “malice towards none” in the interest of something closer to “charity for all.” Letting certain of these names slip out of history hardly counts as “malice” — the political implications of memorializing some people inevitably involves not remembering others.

  • cecilia

    what an extraordinary discussion. thii is something i have never thought about, a disturbing subject indeed..c

  • daseger

    Very thoughtful and insightful comments from everyone–thanks! Since I read the piece on Sunday, I’ve been thinking about it constantly, so it’s nice to have company!

  • Nelson Dionne

    Time will take care of the problem. The list of active military bases is a small % of what we once had. Besides, does anyone realize what is entailed when what amounts to a city is renamed ? Costly as well as very disruptive to all.

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