Symbols of Change

On August 12, 2017, a self-identified neo-Nazi killed one person and injured 35 others during dueling public rallies about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence in the name of a symbol or identity is not a new phenomenon, but the atavism of the current debate highlights the need for in-depth and thoughtful discussion. As the subject of the ongoing debate in the United States is about statues of Confederate military leaders, it appears appropriate for members of the profession of arms to think deeply about the symbols society uses to remember military endeavors. An example of thoughtful introspection on this topic comes from retired General Stanley McChrystal’s “Leaders: Myth and Reality.” McChrystal works through his intellectual journey, as an American military leader, and the cognitive dissonance between the image of Robert E. Lee as a gentlemanly tactical expert and the strategic environment that brought him to face the Union Army on the field of battle.

In an attempt to build upon the thoughtful work of McChrystal, this article provides a framework for understanding the difficult challenge of dealing with historical military symbols. The discourse below explores public symbols of military history illuminated by examples from the British and French colonial periods. The goal is not to convince readers of the best way to deal with historical symbols, but to provide a broader perspective for understanding the modern strategic environment.

The public square is an accessible public space that serves as a locus for civic connections, and a landmark or building usually dominates it. The civic uses of the public square include public forum, meeting space, and marketplace. The symbols a community chooses to adorn their public square serve to tell a story about what they honor and who they are. The military officer or non-commissioned officer undergoes a similar decision when they decorate their office. For example, they can display a print of the uncertain but peaceful contemplation of General Washington praying at Valley Forge by Henry Brueckner, or the bold and turbulent crossing of the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. The selection of the symbol matters. Unlike the historical symbols military leaders use to define themselves professionally, the symbols in the public square are, by definition, public and collective. Consider the different symbols from Tiananmen Square, to Tahrir Square, to Trafalgar Square, to Red Square, to the Plaza de Mayo, to Times Square. Towns and villages around the world have their version of the public square, with similar public and collective significance.

Frantz Fanon framed the use of high culture and symbols in Black Skin, White Masks as a means to remind colonized peoples of their inferior status as an embedded feature of society. An efficient and permanent way to embedded desired colonial relationships was through the design of the public square. For example, the royal decree for the Spanish colonial plan of the public square throughout Latin America included a prominent church. The other sides of the square generally included buildings that housed the other colonial instruments of power, like government offices and barracks. After colonial rule, most cities renamed their central plaza after salient historical symbols of their independence. For those subjugated by colonial rule and symbols, their intent was relatively easy to understand. For citizens of countries without a salient history of colonization, the symbols can take on varying significance over time.

Communities are evolving organic entities that grow or die based on their ability to adapt to meet challenges across multiple domains. The case of the United States Civil War monuments provides an example of this process. The Compromise of 1877 and election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president of the United States ended Reconstruction. Many communities in the former Confederacy began to re-establish traditional societal norms through laws later to be known as “Jim Crow,” groups like the Klu Klux Klan, and the placement of monuments in public spaces. The humiliation of defeat and loss of relative status found perhaps its most innocuous outlet in community efforts to venerate Confederate military leaders and fallen soldiers. Communities continue to evolve, however, and the once innocuous now fail to fade into the landscape of public space.

As highlighted in the case of the American Civil War, the intent behind the celebration of heritage varies. British rule in India and French rule in Algeria serve as historical examples that inform the case of the American Civil War. Each of the cases exhibits layers of complexity that show various valid perspectives and evolution of meaning over time.

The Brigadier

The 19th century British colonial experience in India filled volumes of Victorian-era fiction and nonfiction. One major character in these works was John Nicholson, an interesting and war-hardened British colonial officer. Kipling referenced him in Kim, and he is memorialized in works such as Ian McGuire's The North Water. By the standards of Victorian England, Nicholson represented a heroic guardian of the greatness of the empire. By modern standards, however, his commission of extrajudicial killings and other forms of repression do not give the image of a historical figure that modern citizens might use as a model for aspirational behavior. An obelisk memorializing Nicholson has been in the Margalla Hills in Punjab Pakistan since 1868. The obelisk is on a hilltop away from constant public view and other symbols of state power—completed before the end of the British colonial experience on the Indian subcontinent. It is hard to imagine the esteemed body of British military intellectuals lamenting a Pakistani effort to remove the monument.

Brigadier John Nicholson statue at the Royal School Dungannon (RSD)

A less clear image emerges when we consider a Nicholson statue at a place like the Royal School Dungannon in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Responses to a removal initiative at the Royal School Dungannon would likely use a form of the careful contextualization of Nicholson by Donal McCracken in How an Angry Irishman Became the Hero of Delhi, in that his actions were appropriate for his time. The challenge with this logic is the existence of the statue in a prominent public space of a school established by Royal Charter. The Nicholson statue exists in physical space further defined by a clear hierarchy of power, thus legitimizing it. Regardless of the panache of the subject, modern leaders should frame the appropriateness of symbols with an accounting of present context and the relationship to legitimate sources of power. The provocative use of the language of power, in this case, is deliberate as it is the language of the ongoing efforts to remove these types of symbols that make some military leaders uncomfortable. It is also the language of a growing segment of the population military leaders serve.

Aversion and Avoidance

The French experience in Algeria provides an example of the difficulty of managing complex collective historical memory. For the French and the emergent Algerian state, the conflict represents a difficult memory to reconcile. The French state was reluctant to call the conflict a war, given the definition of Algeria as part of the sovereign French state. The shame at the loss, and political pressure from the communist party, created a situation where the traditional French custom of celebrating its soldiers did not occur.

The Algerian conflict represents a bloody and brutal counterinsurgency effort by the French, with estimates of Algerians killed starting at 240,000 and untold thousands tortured and disappeared. Additionally, 25,000 French soldiers lost their lives, with another 60,000 injured. By the time the French government completed a monument in 1996 in the outskirts of Paris, the conflict was still not referred to as a war. The French completed a subsequent national monument in 2002 on a promenade overlooking the Seine, close to the Eiffel Tower. It was only in 1999 that President Chirac referred to the conflict as a war, and in 2002 that the level of violence of the conflict became known through the publishing of Paul Aussaresses’ Battle of the Casbah. The French chose to deal with this complicated and painful historical memory over four decades by avoiding the inflammation of old wounds and by constructing monuments at a time and place deemed appropriate by leaders and those impacted by the war. While the complexity of the French experience in Algeria led to a long delay in the completion of the physical monument, it was a process embedded in the broader social progression of reconciling the conflict with national identity. In short, the monuments represented the culmination of a long societal process.


Taller Buddha of Bamyan before 2001 (James Gordon, Wikimedia)

The examples from Great Britain and France do not serve as perfect analogies to the American Civil War. The difficulty of managing the changing context of the physical symbols of historical memory, however, does resonate across the Atlantic. The challenge for modern leaders is how to balance the importance of historical memory for group cohesion and identity with the dynamic context of these physical symbols. Just as the world celebrated the toppling of statues of Saddam and Stalin, it voiced concern with the destruction of ancient Buddha statues by the Taliban. Further, fears of a culture war by those that perceive of all manifestations of power as unjust or patriarchal create a condition where thoughtful professionals are reluctant to give any intellectual ground. There is a risk that the removal of a Brigadier Nicholson statue may lead to an erasure of all Victorian era literature from school curriculum, or that failing to honor fallen soldiers promptly may lead to decades of denial. The world continues to change, however, and leaders will need to make decisions about what is worth fighting to conserve and “everything” is not a tenable answer.

Regardless of policy desires, a measured course is required to manage the competing interests in the current challenge. There is an ethical concern about historic military symbols in locations that symbolize the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, as the colonial public square did. In the modern state, town squares located next to courthouses, jails, and other government buildings serve as examples. The military leader in the United States often works and lives on another symbol of the legitimate use of force, the military installation. Military installations from Texas to Virginia bear the names of prominent Confederate generals. As military leaders grapple with the appropriate disposition of statues in the public square from afar, they live, work, and raise families on bases named to gain the acquiescence of the former Confederate states. They build teams of citizens on these bases from varied backgrounds to support the lofty ideals of the United States Constitution. The United States military altered the framework for legitimate social behavior in the past through the racial integration of units and the minimization of gender barriers. Military leaders can lead change once again—and retain the moral high ground—by thinking deeply about the physical vestiges of the historical memory they inherited.

Matthew Kopp is a U.S. Army Officer and Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Robert E. Lee statue, Charlottesville, Virginia (New York Times)