Atop a 76-foot marble column in the 700 block of Broad Street of Augusta stands the likeness of a Confederate soldier, Barry Benson. Beneath, on four corners, are the statues of Lee, Jackson, Cobb and Walker, all generals of the highest rank.
It is not an accident that a sergeant was chosen to stand in silent memorial above his commanders.
I lived through the awful years of the Vietnam War, serving in the U.S. Army stateside, while friends and relatives were sent to that war, some to return in flag-draped coffins. It was a gut-wrenching and transfixing experience to watch Ken Burns’ newest documentary, The Vietnam War. My generation can remember how this country was almost torn apart in ways not dissimilar to those of 1861 — or 2017, for that matter.
I have my memories of those years, and my beliefs about the validity of the war, at the time, which were admittedly those of an innocent and nescient young man. Armed and burdened by these human foibles I watched the documentary with all the emotions that run the gamut of human experience.
I was simultaneously struck by the pride and bravery of these young men, sickened by the needless sacrifice of so many lives, and angered at the elders who prosecuted that war and acted often for purely political reasons. I had to come to grips with myself that, as a young man, I really didn’t understand nor want to accept the awful truths of that war.
Many who served did so with mixed emotions and found themselves in the mud and muck of a civil war not of their own making and for which they killed and destroyed because they saw it as their duty to country. Many were fortunate to have escaped the draft, or went to Canada, or evaded the responsibility that their consciences dictated was unjust.
And yet many, bereft of opportunity, poor, and ill-educated, were drafted and had no choice.
Were the young men of the 1960s any different than the Barry Bensons of the 1860s? If we can learn anything from our history, the answer is emphatically: No!
Isn’t it time to quit the “blame game” and simply honor our war dead, no matter how right or how wrong the cause? We need to separate the politicians who, armed with extreme biases, play on a chess board far removed from the battlefield where soldiers gave their “last full measure of devotion” for the only home and hearth they ever knew.
Many will cogently argue that the Vietnam War was an unlawful and deceitful war; certainly many would make the same claim about the War Between the States.
In considering taking down the monument in the 700 block of Broad, I ask you to contemplate a future in which individuals enraged over the illegality of the war and genocide of the Vietnamese people decide to remove the long black wall on our National Mall, upon which is etched 58,318 names of men and women who did their duty as they saw it at the time, whether right or wrong by future standards.
A full 483,026 Confederate soldiers fell on the battlefields of their war, which they called the War for Southern Independence. Many are buried in unmarked mass graves while gleaming white stone markers for Union soldiers are laid in straight lines and rows across mown green fields and surrounded by elaborate monuments to their sacrifice.
Confederate monuments on these same battlefields are sparse and austere in comparison.
We must resolve to remember that these young men were merely the distillate of their times, not ours. We are ill-served if we insist upon harshly judging their hearts and souls through the lens of modernity, for in the end we can never step into their shoes.
Not only is it cavalier and arrogant to do so, but by virtue of their ultimate sacrifice compared to our own blessings, we do not have the right!
The writer lives in North Augusta, S.C.