Revisionism Revised

My brother’s name is etched into the black granite face of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C. Dedicated in 1982, Maya Lin’s masterpiece was unlike any war memorial that preceded it, commemorating as it did not just generals, or the boys from a given town, but every one of the nearly 60,000 U.S. service people who died in the misguided conflict in Southeast Asia. In the glib vernacular of today, every one of these warriors was a hero, but even if you solemnly honor the sacrifice of each man and woman who died, and even if you have lived the sorrow of how each death can reverberate through a family for decades, it must be said that the triumph of Lin’s vision is its fidelity to an antiheroic time. The wall honors cooks and truck drivers and those who unloaded huge transport planes in equal measure with those who slogged through rice paddies or, like my brother, flew fighters.

As the writers of both of our cover stories, Elizabeth D. Samet and Robin Kirk, point out, war memorials are expressions of a given time in history, and they are also a standard by which the future can judge those times. Samet, who is an English professor at West Point, writes about the April unveiling at the military academy of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who became president for having won the Civil War. Does the bronze, larger-than-life figure of Grant represent a return to the heroic and thus a historical critique  of Maya Lin’s work? Not exactly. Of course, we will have statues of generals at West Point, now and in the future, even of generals as cold-blooded in battle as Grant and as hot-blooded in life as Douglas MacArthur, but Samet argues that one of Grant’s most compelling qualities, as expressed in his peerless autobiography, Personal Memoirs, was his refusal to romanticize or heroicize warfare, to revise it into something other than the ugly business that it is.

Kirk, co-chair of the Human Rights Center at Duke, writes about a very different sort of statue, the heroic image of a Confederate soldier. It was erected in 1924 in front of the county courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, courtesy of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which lobbied the county to levy a special tax to pay for it. A full-blown example of the Lost Cause revisionism that has gripped the South for many decades, the “silent sentinel” met an appropriately ignominious end when it was pulled down by  protesters two years ago. Kirk takes us through the searching process that she helped lead in which Durham considered what should be done with the statue’s crumpled stamped-zinc remains.

The renowned music critic Joseph Horowitz writes in this issue  on a subject with an unexpected connection to these articles-—why classical music in America has failed to give black composers their due. It is an injustice that is at last starting to be set right.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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