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    War memorials carry the blood and pain of history into the present. They should never be removed.
    • December 19, 2023

    A 71-year-old Vietnam veteran today is about the same age as a Civil War veteran was in 1914.

    Certainly no one in public office today would entertain a suggestion to tear down the Vietnam War memorial. The deeply affecting monument is made up of two black granite walls inscribed with the names of over 58,000 service members who didn’t come home from that controversial war. The memorial was completed in 1982, just over 40 years ago. Imagine, if you can, that 60 years from now, politicians might decide that the Vietnam War memorial is inappropriate or offensive, and then take a wrecking ball to it.

    That would be a desecration. Nothing could be more dishonorable than to erase an earlier generation’s recognition of the terrible costs of a horrific war.

    But on Monday, the U.S. government began to tear down a century-old Civil War memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. The demolition work was halted hours later when a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, an action that resulted from a lawsuit filed by a group called Defend Arlington. Their complaint charged that the U.S. Army, which runs the cemetery, rushed its decision to remove the monument without first completing an environmental impact report, and that the demolition risked damage to nearby graves and headstones.

    The monument is the Confederate Memorial, also known as the Reconciliation Monument. It was dedicated in 1914, when a veteran who was 18 years old at the start of the Civil War would have been 71.

    The well-known and respected sculptor was Moses Jacob Ezekiel, born in Richmond in 1844. Ezekiel was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute during the Civil War (the first Jewish cadet ever to attend VMI), and as a cadet he fought on the Confederate side in the 1864 Battle of New Market. Ezekiel died in 1917 and is buried at the base of the monument he created.

    Reconciliation after the Civil War took many decades. In 1900, when the war and its casualties were within the memory of any American older than 40, Congress authorized the burial of Confederate remains at Arlington National Cemetery in a special section. In 1906, Secretary of War William Howard Taft authorized the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization of Southern women, to raise money for a memorial in that section of the cemetery. That’s the monument now slated for removal.

    The Confederate Memorial stands accused of showing “a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” There are 32 life-size figures on the towering bronze pedestal. According to the final report of “The Naming Commission,” chartered by Congress in 2021 to remove names and symbols of the Confederacy from “assets” of the Department of Defense, “Two of these figures are portrayed as African-American: an enslaved woman depicted as a ‘Mammy,’ holding the infant child of a white officer, and an enslaved man following his owner to war.”

    It would be appropriate and decent to inform visitors to Arlington National Cemetery that the Confederate Memorial was constructed during a period of time in the first half of the 20th century when certain offensive characterizations and stereotypes were widely seen in popular culture. The Naming Commission’s report mentions “Gone With the Wind.” The list is much longer than that.

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    What’s never appropriate or decent is to drive a crane over the hallowed ground of a national cemetery to tear down a war memorial.

    The Naming Commission recommended that the Army “should consider the most cost-effective method of removal and disposal of the monument’s elements,” as if it was a pile of trash.

    That’s a revolting way to refer to a monument to war veterans, regardless of what anyone thinks of the war or the monument.

    Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has opposed the removal of the monument, said he plans to move it to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in the Shenandoah Valley. But the monument belongs where it is, in Arlington National Cemetery, standing somberly above the graves of the fallen in our reunited country.

    War memorials carry the blood and pain of history into the present. They should never be removed.

    Write [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley

    ​ Orange County Register