Selective Memory

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Rob Moody rightly encourages Americans not to forget the terrible events in Waco, Texas, when David Koresh and the Branch Davidians — 80 people in all, including more than twenty children — were burned and gassed to death at the hands of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the USA who “took full responsibility” for the 80 deaths, has been discussed as a Democratic candidate for governor of Florida.

Which reminds me of a headline I read a while ago: “Some scars will never heal.”

That was the headline on my local newspaper for Sunday, June 10, 2001. The story was in reference to the execution of Timothy McVeigh for his bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people died.

The Washington Post headline proclaimed the words of one victim’s relative: “Too Easy for Him.”

The headlines which trumpeted the execution of Tim McVeigh, however, were more than a bit incongruous, since they indicate a hypocritical mentality on the part of the political class and the mainstream media.

Roughly seven years ago, Timothy McVeigh, perhaps acting with the help of others, killed 168 people with a bomb. Consider, then, the statement that “Some scars will never heal.”

If “some scars will never heal,” why do Northerners and philosophical Yankees continue to ridicule those who would remember the sacrifices of the citizens and soldiers of the Confederate States of America?

Tim McVeigh killed 168 people. Abraham Lincoln’s war killed 620,000 Americans. Where the South is concerned, the combat losses rival those of the French in World War One, and the Germans and Russians in World War Two. In short, the CSA suffered combat losses which are equivalent to some of the most horrific losses of life in military history. (In this regard, see Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s work Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men).

To put this in perspective, half of the male French babies born in 1900 died in the First World War. Confederate losses were equivalent to that.

Now consider that the men and women of the Confederacy suffered not only combat losses, but also losses to state terrorism, by which I mean the Federal army campaign to destroy the private property of Southerners. Perhaps you have heard of Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In this regard, rather than the numerous historical works on Sherman’s March, consider one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, William Faulkner. In The Unvanquished, a 1938 prequel (Episode I was not the first significant prequel in American art) to the 1929 Flags in the Dust (originally published as Sartoris, edited over the objections of Faulkner), Faulkner details the Yankee invasion from the perspective of the home front.

Faulkner’s fictional Sartoris family, Southern aristocrats, and their part of Mississippi, are shown on the receiving end of total war. Much attention is paid to burying the silver dinner ware in the back yard (so as to prevent its discovery by Northern troops) and to the struggle to find food. More than a few homes are burned by Northern troops, so that formerly well-off families find themselves living in their fields, or in the cabins vacated by their liberated and departed slaves.

In the category of “some scars will never heal,” consider the views of the Yankees held by the Sartoris family. Early in the novel, Bayard Sartoris (a main character) describes the following scene:

I was looking at the road, and there in the middle of it, sitting on a bright bay horse and looking at the house through a field glass, was a Yankee.

For a long time we just lay there looking at him. I don’t know what we had expected to see, but we knew what he was at once; I remember thinking, “He looks just like a man,” and then Ringo and I were glaring at each other, and then we were crawling backward down the hill without remembering when we started to crawl, and then we were running across the pasture toward the house without remembering when we got to our feet. (pp. 27-28)

The notion that the war “to save the union,” then, misses an important truth. It misses the truth that the South and North are distinct regions, culturally different, and that no union was “saved,” so much as an agricultural people was conquered by an industrial people.

Later in the novel, Bayard and his cousin Drusilla discuss the shooting of Yankee carpet baggers.

“He is thinking of this whole country which he is trying to raise by its bootstraps, so that all the people in it, not just his kind nor his old regiment, but all the people, black and white, the women and children back in the hills who don’t even own shoes — Don’t you see?”

“But how can they get any good from what he wants to do for them if they are — after he has — “

“Killed some of them? I suppose you include those two carpet baggers he had to kill to hold that first election, don’t you?”

“They were men. Human beings.”

“They were Northerners, foreigners who had no business here. They were pirates.” (pp 256-57)

As a man, Bayard is no longer surprised to find that a Yankee is a human being. Note, however, that his cousin Drusilla regards the Northerners as “pirates.” And with good reason. Soon after her wedding, her husband was killed in battle with the invading Northern army. A new bride, now a new widow, Drusilla proceeded to dress as a man and ride with the troops of Col. John Sartoris (the father of Bayard; Col. Sartoris is the “he” to whom Drusilla refers in the extract above).

Northerners — unless they moved to the US from Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq, or some other such contemporary war zone — have never experienced anything like a foreign invasion of their homeland, and they have no shared memories of war, invasion and resistance. Those who fought overseas understand the evil of war: children killed, innocence lost, fear, suffering, and pain, friends killed before their very eyes, if not dying in their arms. Veterans understand better than anyone that war truly is hell. And yet most American vets have not returned to loved ones who suffered the abuses of an occupying army.

Southerners, however, suffered the abuses of an occupying army. Southern men suffered defeat in battle, and returned home to find their homes and property destroyed. Such terrible suffering does not simply disappear from memory. Daughters who saw their mothers weep remember this until they are very old, and so pass these stories on to their grandchildren. Remember Drusilla. In short, families do not quickly forget — nor should they — the trials and tribulations of their loved ones.

In that regard, Charley Reese points out that the Confederate battle flag did not fly over any state which allowed slavery. The states had their own flags. Some, such as South Carolina and Virginia, were adopted in 1861 — at the time of secession (Virginia and South Carolina continue to fly these flags). The Confederate battle flag, however, was exactly that: a battle flag, a military flag, carried by soldiers and sailors fighting in defense of their homes and freedom.

Some scars will never heal? Indeed. One hundred and sixty eight people died in the federal building in Oklahoma City. The federal army, meanwhile, burned whole cities to the ground, including Richmond and Atlanta.

Even when whole cities were not burned to the ground, the Northern troops perpetrated terrible crimes. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “General Sherman’s occupation of Columbia was marked by the burning of St. Mary’s College, the Sisters’ Home, and the Ursuline Convent.” And yet Ken Masugi of the Claremont Institute contends that Abe Lincoln was “a fulfillment of the Holy Mother Church.” Far from it.

If Atlanta were burned to the ground today, would the media simply shrug? If Catholic colleges and convents were burned today, would the media spike the stories? One hopes not.

In the grand scheme of things, the suffering occasioned by the deaths of 168 people pale in comparison to the suffering occasioned by the death of roughly 300,000 people. If you understand the outcry over the tragedy of Oklahoma City, understand that the South suffered such a tragedy on a much greater scale. Where the vengeance directed at Timothy McVeigh is concerned, Americans seem to have lost their sense of perspective.

Southerners should no more stop flying the Confederate battle flag than should the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing victims be torn down.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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