History versus Heritage
The United States is currently in a full-blown crisis; actually, two full-blown crises.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has yet to run its course, we face the crisis of a rising awareness among a significant number of Americans that we need to take a long, hard look at how we treat our nation’s history, especially the history of race relations. The latter is playing out in an often-rancorous public debate about the status of symbols of the short-lived Confederate States of America, its flag, statues of its leaders, and the names of Confederate generals currently designating 10 army posts in the American south.
Those opposed to removing these symbols from public display, including the President, argue that they are symbols of our American heritage, and removing them erases our history. Such arguments show a lack of understanding of the difference between heritage and history.
Dictionaries define ‘history’ as an account and analysis of past events, while ‘heritage’ is defined as something that is handed down from the past that shows characteristics, culture, and tradition; in effect a nation’s birthright.
I do not argue that these symbols illustrate a heritage, nor that they are not a part of this country’s history. But I do wonder if they illustrate the heritage that we wish to claim as a ‘birthright,’ or a history that we wish to celebrate.
Leaders of the confederacy took up arms against the United States, and one of the motivations behind this act was the desire to preserve the peculiar institution of human slavery. Those military officers, many of them graduates of West Point, and active duty officers at the time, violated their oaths of office, and, in the words of some of our current serving and retired military officers, committed treason. There is no euphemistic way to put it. No matter how agonizing their decision to do so was, they committed treason.
Is this the heritage we want our brave men and women in uniform to consider as their own? As a 20-year army veteran, my response to that question is an unequivocal NO. Our country deserves better; our young people deserve better. Our President should know better.
I am not calling for history to be erased. These symbols are a part of our history, and they should be in museums or private collections where historical relics belong. They should not be on or in public institutions such as schools or federal military installations.
Contrary to the President’s assertions, these symbols do not stand for Winning, Victory, and Freedom. For my ancestors, they stand for Slavery, and for the men and women of today’s military, whose mission is to Win wars, they stand for Betrayal and Loss, and in the case of some of those who have been honored by their names on our most famous posts, Incompetence and Recklessness. Is this the heritage we wish to bequeath to the younger generation, the history we wish to honor? I think not.
Anyone who truly loves this country should wish to see it live up to the promises implied by our founding documents.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution describe the kind of heritage we should be striving for. Sure, many of the Founding Fathers, following the practice of the times, were slaveholders, but a deep dive into the background of the colonial independence movement indicates that most of them realized that the peculiar institution, as slavery was sometimes called, was at odds with what they were fighting for. They were looking toward the future, while today’s leadership seems fixated on looking at a romanticized and distorted past.
History doesn’t stand still. Today’s events will be tomorrow’s history. We can delete or ignore the chronicles of historical events, but we can’t actually erase history. Those events have happened, and had an impact on those living at that time. We might try to forget them, but they will have happened, and nothing can change that.
Heritage can also change, or perhaps it’s better to say that our idea of our heritage can evolve over time. As we look back on our past, we should try to understand our history, good and bad. The former to help us better understand our true heritage, the latter to avoid repeating our past mistakes.
All Americans who love their country should commit themselves to preserving those elements of our history that portray our better angels, for those are t he elements that make up a heritage worth preserving. We should insist that our political leaders do the same, or elect ones who will.