Two sides of a historic coin and wrestling with the past

The debates over the public and state-sanctioned display of the flag of the slave-holding Confederacy point to the United States’ not-so recent past. No country is pure, and the United States’ evolution is marked by great accomplishments, great divisions, and also some historic acts that leave a painful legacy. Our history of conflict in the 1800s stretches the entire century, from the War of 1812, through the Mexican-American War, dozens of conflicts with Native American bands across the continent, overseas expansion and trade wars (the Opium War), and the Spanish-American War.

in 1902, Portland area residents and war veterans erected a statue honoring the nation’s war veterans at the city’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. The cemetery is filled with graves of many white, Christian early settlers from the 1800s, and latter-day residents of all persuasions. I stumbled on the cemetery accidentally at a staging of Macbeth last weekend.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

I looked up and saw this statue of a Civil War soldier, with memorials plaques honoring veterans of Spanish-American War of 1898, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Indian Wars from 1846 to 1856, which saw most of Oregon and Washington occupied and appropriated as U.S. territory from many native tribes.

There were conflicts, but many of the original inhabitants were perishing en masse due to diseases like smallpox that accompanied the arrival of new settlers. Even after land was ceded by treaties and tribes were resettled on reservations, hostility was pronounced. Eleven years before this statue was erected, in 1891, the Oregon Legislature was passing resolutions with language that characterized the state’s Native residents as “a wild man.”

State lawmakers signed their names to a measure that stated: “… it would only be a fact of evolution to call him a wild animal on his way to be a man, provided the proper environments were furnished him. While the instincts and perceptions are acute, the ethical part of him is undeveloped, and his exhibitions of a moral nature are whimsical and without motive. Brought into contact with white men. whether of the lowest or of the highest, he is always at a disadvantage which is irritating, and subject to temptations which are dangerous.”

Today, what are we to do with such legacies to this time when these attitudes prevailed, and good people erected monuments to their fellow soldiers who fought for their country, and many doing so believing they were in the right and doing it for the best of intentions?

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

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One comment

  1. I have suggested this to a number of people including some in the US military who flatly rejected my idea: to set aside a preserve as an international war memorial. In the vast majority of wars, both sides were wrong and both sides were right. Did our First Nations have issues with the expanding racist regimes out of the east? Sure. Did immigrant peoples have issues of their own? Yup. The problem with monuments like the one pictured here is the one-sidedness of memorializing, one which follows the right of the “victor” to the spoils including what is sometimes an “after the fact” determination of what is moral.

    Too often this version of “morality” only seeks to justify social intolerance of the gray areas of intercultural conflicts as well as elite and collective ambitions. And yet, examples of valor can be found on both sides in any conflict, each goaded by an internal sense of duty and belief that such and such is right whether it proves to be so in history’s hindsight or not. These things need to be recognized. All sides in war offer anecdotal examples in which the best and worst in humanity. All sides in war must recognize the wounds inflicted, for what was done upon the other has forever brought harm upon the self. This is true whether war is declared as a manner of some version of “manifest destiny” or whether out of fear of being overrun by tyrants. As people justify war as a moral act, they also invoke religion to bolser that justification, calling upon the divine to bless weapons and fighters while besmirching the very name of God and encouraging the kind of one-sidedness demonstrated in their monuments.

    An international war memorial would address these issues on all sides, memorialize all sides, and provide a poignant reminder that despite human moral claims, war remains little more than vainglorious mass murder. And I would place therein the facilities for people to work out the ways of making peace, an act which sooner or later must come.

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