The Rush to Destroy the Past
I read the other day that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, apparently is in favor of renaming military bases named for Confederates. Having spent the first three years -- and the very last year -- of my military career as a paratrooper at Fort Bragg, NC, I have a bit of a problem with that.
Gen. Milley may be intimately familiar with the history behind the names of all military posts in all of the branches of the services, and in the case of those named for people, their individual histories. That would put him into a pretty exclusive category: most civilians in the states where such bases are located don't know much about the people for whom bases are named, even those who work on them. The same can probably be said for many, if not most, of the military members stationed there, though they have a much higher likelihood of knowing at least the person a base was named after. I'm pretty sure that most members of Congress don't know who the bases in their districts were named for, though they no doubt have staffers who do, or can find out quickly if needed. Even among people who might know full names, they probably couldn't tell you much about them, what war(s) they served in, or whose side they were on if they even guessed "Civil War" correctly. Until a few weeks ago, nobody cared a whole lot.
History is what happened. It isn't judgment, it is a statement of fact (one hopes) about events that took place at a time and place, and participants in those events. People decide, often later and in a different context, how to interpret those facts, if need be, and if they so desire, to judge for themselves what the facts "mean." Denying them doesn't change the events; trying to erase or bury them doesn't either. It simply means that other people no longer have access to the facts about those people, places, and things that shaped the history that is examined by others at a later time (because once an event has occurred, every examination of it happens later, and is colored by the perceptions of those who do the studying). Whatever might be learned -- good, bad or indifferent -- is lost once references to the past are erased, and as Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (often quoted in different forms, which is quite ironic). The most repressive regimes in history like to destroy the past, so that people have no basis to refer back to in order to see if history is repeating itself, for better or for worse. If you don't know any better -- because there isn't anything to remind you -- then you are pretty much forced to play along with whatever the current regime tells you. Orwell's 1984 was nearly prophetic in our modern era, as the past is erased or constantly rewritten, and the only thing we have is the present. Anyone who thinks differently is guilty of wrongthink, and thoughtcrimes are to be punished as severely as possible. It seems as if this is happening widely, swiftly, and alarmingly.
If we are going to get rid of all symbolism that doesn't conform to the current dogma and judge all past actions of everybody by the feelings of the moment, we will destroy society. Statues are being torn down; flags banned; alternatives to the National Anthem actively sought; institutions shuttered or defunded, and critical voices effectively silenced. A generation ago -- a decade ago, even less -- this would have been unthinkable. Now, it is wrong not to agree with such thinking, and one criticizes it at one's own peril.
If we are going to engage in the rename game to cleanse society of any reference to anything the thought police find objectionable, military bases will be joined by almost anything else that has a name. I went to Jump School at Fort Benning, outside Columbus, GA -- and Columbus is now persona non grata, so what shall become of the city? (Ohio must reckon with this also.) Watch out, Jefferson City, MO! How about Lincoln, NE, or Jackson, MS? And let's not forget the most egregious of all: Washington, D.C. (for District of Columbia!), which is a double whammy. The list is not endless, but it is extensive. What should be done with our nation's capital? Rename it Floydsville, District of BLM? How about renaming all offensively named cities for martyrs of whatever the popular movement of the day is? And doing it every few years as certain movements fall out of favor and new ones arise? We probably need to rename anything that smacks of cultural appropriation, so anything that carries a Native American or other indigenous people's name must be renamed. If people can no longer buy a house with a "master bedroom" or "master bathroom," what new terms will people have to learn for most things that could possibly have any sort of objectionable connotation? Finally, what shall our country be called, because "America" cannot be allowed to remain?
I don't know when, or if, any wisdom will prevail, and the insane rush to destroy the past in favor of an ever-shifting present will subside, but I fear what the aftermath will be in either case. Franklin responded to a question about the newly formed American government by saying "...a Republic, if we can keep it." Either "if" should have been immortalized in capital letters, perhaps underlined and in bold print as a quotation, or should have been spoken as "for however long" instead.
I fear for the future, because a future with no foundation in the past, however sordid or insufficient it was, is not a future where I will have a place.