THE BLOG
07/26/2013 10:06 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013

Mystic Chords of Memory and the 'Heroes' of War

When I first arrived in America a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the road name, Jefferson Davis Highway. For a moment, I wondered whether I was trapped in the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A: the Confederate States of America, where the South had won the American Civil War. After a short explanation by my girlfriend, I realized that for many Americans, publicly honoring those adversaries who came closest to destroying this nation is no contradiction.

As I discovered later, this is largely due to the myth of brotherly reconciliation perpetuated for most of the 19th century in the United States and still promoted in U.S. history textbooks today (and in movies such as Gettysburg). It started with the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. The myth is based on two assumptions: first, that the American Civil War was an apolitical conflict between brothers, and second, that Southerners fought for certain archetypes of American political virtues -- individual liberty and freedom from oppression.

"We are all Americans!" was supposedly Ely Parker's, a Senecan Indian and member of U. S. Grant's staff, reply to Robert E. Lee during the famous surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox in 1865. This iconic statement is seen as the beginning of the long road of reconciliation between the North and South after America's bloodiest conflict to date -- a sentimental reunion of brothers who had quarreled needlessly for four years. The resolution of Appomattox implies that both North and South, despite a bloody war largely fought over slavery, displayed virtues and performed deeds during the war that never made them lose their unique "Americanness." Indeed, people in the South thought that they fought the Second American Revolution against a foreign imposed government and displayed the most American virtue: the defense of the rights of the individual.

"Lost Cause" historians perpetuated this myth by portraying the struggle as a misguided interpretation of liberty, disregarding the slavery issue, condemning Southern politicians and praising the gallantry of the southern soldiers -- most notably Thomas Jackson and Robert E. Lee. The martial prowess of the South is still celebrated throughout the United States on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Many US military installations bear the names of Confederate officers (Fort Lee, Fort Benning, Fort Gordon, Fort Bragg, etc.), which has created some controversy as evidenced in a recent piece in the New York Times and a public petition to rename bases named after Confederate generals.

As an Austrian soldier myself, I can see some parallels between the South and Germany and Austria's treatment of their military after the Second World War. As in the South, the public perception endures that the Wehrmacht -- like the Confederate forces -- fought honorably on the battlefield and that other forces of the state (in the Confederate case, the politicians; in Germany's case, the Nazi party and the SS) were responsible for the disastrous, racial politics of their respective nations. Veterans of both armies prided themselves on being the better soldiers in their respective wars and only eventually were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Both were justifiably proud of their military achievements, and in both cases, military leaders perpetuated a system based on racial bigotry. Both armies were connected deeply to a mystic medieval past grounded on an aristocratic landed gentry -- in the case of the South, the Planter class, and in the case of Germany, the Junker landowners of East Prussia. Both armies received a general absolution of their sins immediately following the war; with few exceptions, war crimes in both armies were seldom prosecuted.

Germany and Austria, however, were more radically amnesic than the United States after the Civil War. The years of the Second World War (1939-1945) practically do not exist in the official traditions of the Austrian Bundesheer and German Bundeswehr. It is unthinkable to have a statue of a German general of the war years displayed on a public square or a street named after a Nazi politician. When it comes to military bases, around 30 German installations still carry names of German soldiers who fought during the war, but most of them are rather obscure figures or young soldiers who displayed "outstanding military" virtues such as the fighter ace, Hans-Joachim Marseille, or Josef Schreiber, a Sergeant who survived 30 close combat encounters with the Russians on the Eastern Front.

In Austria, four barracks carry the names of men who served in the Wehrmacht, but all of them also served in the old Austrian Imperial Army and were opposed to Nazism and consequently never achieved positions of high military importance in the Wehrmacht. There are no barracks, with the notable exception of the Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, named after prominent officers. This is of course a testimony to essential differences between the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Confederate States of America and the immense international pressure West Germany was under after the end of the war.

The bigger question, however, is how much we can admire the deeds of justly famous generals like Robert E. Lee or Erwin Rommel without also judging them based on the masters they served. There is obviously an ontological distinction between Jefferson Davis and Adolf Hitler, but Davis nevertheless headed a regime responsible for the death of more Americans than any other regime in history.

Based on sheer military skills and practical results, John Bell Hood, Braxton Bragg, and Bishop Polk are unworthy eponyms. And yet, there are no Longstreet Barracks in the South even though, as the Civil War historian Jeffrey D. Wert has observed, "Longstreet ... was the finest corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia; in fact, he was arguably the best corps commander in the conflict on either side." But Longstreet criticized Lee's tactics at Gettysburg and joined the party of Lincoln after the war.

When it comes to issues such as abortion, gun laws, energy policy, and military expenditures, there is a sharp ideological divide in the country today. The political map of the last election closely matched North-South divisions in the Civil War. An independent observer might wonder whether there is a profound transhistorical divergence in America that was born in geography and culture and persists nearly 150 years after Appomattox. Naming a base after soldiers is and always will be a political act. By every definition, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee et al. were traitors to the Union. The principle reason why there are military bases named after Confederate soldiers is because the majority were built in the periods around the First and Second World Wars when the United States had reason to promote a national cohesion at all costs because of the scale of two global threats.

The human heart clings to its native attachments. I believe American soldiers, who are proudly political and deeply attached to installations where they have served and lived, would strongly oppose renaming bases. Shelby Foote once wrote that Southerners are "very strange about that war." Are we to infer that Northerners are less so or not at all thusly "strange?" Perhaps Mr. Foote was very tactful in his public expressions about that war which seems to persist more than in memory 150 years after Picketts' glorious or infamous charge.

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