Memory › The WPA Pavilions and What We Remember
We all want to have heroes, the noble and resilient under fire standing for something. I want to have heroes, unblemished, honorable, minus the inevitable flaws. I search for, long for the heroic. I watched the series Band of Brothers more times than I can recall. I would often go back to it when I was feeling let down by people, the world, my country. The incredible journey of “Easy” (E) Company of the 506 Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne, that began at a southern training base outside Toccoa, Georgia, went into action on D-DAY, and ended in Austria on VE-Day is epic. I can hold up their story and say all of these things: theirs was a noble cause, they were a tough resilient lot, what they did was honorable and it stood for something. But can I say that all of the members of Easy Company, or more fairly, that all Americans within the Allied Expeditionary Force fighting against facism were without flaws? Of course not. None of us are, or ever have been; and eighty plus years ago, that lacking was even more pronounced. For all the noble, honorable, and just reasons that Americans fought and helped win World War II, the effort itself was staged in a way that did not undermine or even question the segregated nature of Jim Crow America. It was, instead, exported alongside the war effort overseas. That should and must be acknowledged. Still, what that particular group of paratroopers and so many other American soldiers did during World War II was fight for freedom and the idea of a free world. It was a collective action undertaken for the cause of self-determination. That is noble. That is honorable.
Across my life, many have said that the soldiers of the Southern Confederacy fought for home and hearth, that they fought for their “rights.” Many have stressed how so few of them owned slaves, and that they served with valor and toughness. There is no question that as a group Confederate soldiers were tough, put up with more, sacrificed more, and often served faithfully. But to attach honor to what they fought for evades the obvious shitty truth, and does so in the name of simply wanting to have heroes. Despite all the toughness, the unquestionable courage and bravery under fire, even the faithful service, it does damage to the present and future to call them anything but wrong—systemically, terribly, appallingly wrong. Heroes must fall on the right side of history in their moment. If individuals lack the toughness of mind, conviction, and simple decency to recognize other humans as human, and then fight in a cause devoted to the notion that those humans are sub-human and deserve their lot, valor is not enough to bridge the gap between service faithfully executed and honor.
And yet, for so long that was not at all an acceptable theme. Glory, valor, even honor had applied equally and with hardly a question to the soldiers on both sides of the war—Americans, all—for over a century. Memory of the Civil War would be the only thing truly reconstructed throughout the South in the decades and generations that followed that war. Memory would not be a slave to facts, but only that which supported a more heroic and honorable narrative. And white America largely went along with it. We would have our heroes, even if we had to lie through our teeth.
A Work In Progress . . .