When I saw a confederate statue come down in my own adopted home, I reacted as a veteran and with the veterans I work with in mind — I was shocked and offended. Most of my friends who replied publicly insisted that the reflections I posted on social media were inappropriate not because they were thoughtless, but because they were (perceived to be) coming exclusively from a place of white privilege. However, what I posted online was coming not only from a vocational call to the poor (white, southern, enlisted men), but also from my own experience and reflection as a veteran among veterans.
The veterans I hear from are typically poor, white, formerly enlisted men in the South. It isn’t that I seek these veterans out; these demographics are simply a function of the modern “All Volunteer” military in which members are no longer plucked more or less at random from the population. When people aren’t compelled to serve, it falls to those who need what the military offers – money and status. So who serves? Well, 85% of the total force is made up of men, 60% of all individuals are white, and 83% of it is made up of enlisted personnel. Enlisted soldiers are often less educated and more likely to come out of poor, working class backgrounds than their commissioned officers, and they are disproportionately recruited from Southern states.
Why is this important? Because confederate monuments are also veterans’ memorials, public symbols whose meanings are not monolithic. As confederate markers, they operate powerfully in a racist society to demean, intimidate, and oppress African-Americans. As symbols, however, their meanings are not set in stone but are rather subject to context.
The statue in Durham, N.C., was situated in a memorial garden commemorating veterans who died in war. This context was set by the first to go up on the courthouse lawn, a WWI marker, dedicated three years prior. Interpreting the Civil War memorial as a veteran, I hear echoes of the pain felt by confederate soldiers in the sentiment of later generations, encapsulated in the founding principle of a prominent veteran service organization: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” Maybe an entire generation of soldiers never thought to erect memorials to a cause they never fully endorsed until, that is, they saw one go up to remember sacrifices made on distant shores away from public scrutiny.
The particularities situating individual statues are important; the protesters in Charlottesville could trace Robert E. Lee’s history and point out precisely why a memorial to him was problematic. In Durham, no such effort was made. Had there been, activists would have to explain why “the boys who wore the gray,” for whom the statue was erected, shared the same level of moral guilt as their commanding general. But as numerous other veterans attested to me in private, fearing social reprisals from their civilian peers, that assumption is fundamentally flawed. After all, the fact that no names appeared on the statue that was brought down is one of the first things veterans would notice, as an outlier from the norm. Civilians should take notice as well, because it means that the visage attacked in my adopted hometown was a composite, an amalgamation of a certain type of confederate soldier, “The Boys” who largely would not have been issuing orders or owning slaves…
Loving our enemy requires being able to tell their story well, to listen before we speak. Or, as I was reminded several times on social media, to “de-center” ourselves and make room for marginalized voices. What none of the social media commentators could see, or were willing to believe, is that race is not the only legitimate interpretive lens. My status as a veteran is often a site of oppression, and engaging in public discourse as a veteran is essential to diversity of thought and inclusion of contrasting narratives like my own.
Besides, empathizing with confederate forces does not allow our easy, binary assumptions to remain in place. Nor does it undermine the experience of people of color, for justice is not a zero-sum equation, as though speaking up for one obstructs the struggle by others. Put another way, speaking up for poverty-stricken soldiers from our own history is not unlike the statement “Black Lives Matter.” It challenges a status quo that silences the poor through fear. In contrast to the public replies I received, I heard privately from nearly as many veterans. Each one of them, including three black soldiers, expressed some variation on a theme: “Thanks for speaking up, I can’t because…”
Intellectual honesty demands we do our homework. When we do, we will find that “The Boys Who Wore the Gray” were southern white men who were poor, uneducated conscripts. More than 90,000 men of the confederate force were drafted. In April 1862, every soldier was involuntarily retained for three years, and the penalty for desertion was summary execution. As has happened before, exemptions could be purchased, which carried a price tag of $500 (or about $11,000 in today’s dollars). Thanks to the “Twenty Negro Law,” that price tag was zero if you enslaved enough people.
Why is all this important? Because the language around, and image of, the confederate soldier doesn’t match their embodied reality. Veterans need civilians to let them tell their story on their own terms, to recognize the value that their lives have in understanding the complex history of both church and state.
Poverty knows no race, and for many white Southerners, then and now, the oppression of poverty makes the drums of war sound like the only escape, the path of least resistance to financial and social stability. I know, because it is a path I took myself. After bankruptcy and a foreclosure, the military was the only way to pay for an education, the supposed path to success. Unfortunately, soldiers often realize too late that the lost cause of war can bankrupt their souls – if not in the moral confusion of battle, then in the silence and marginalization at home. Civilians can help us come home from war by welcoming, rather than silencing, our stories.