Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


“Removing a monument doesn’t remove the history. It removes the myth.”

That was the last phrase on the last slide as John Bodnar concluded his remarks at “Monuments, Memory, and Meaning after Charlottesville.”

Bodnar was one of four IU historians who spoke [7] and discussed at the Monroe County Library Monday evening, Sept. 19. The other three were Maria Bucur [4], Michelle Moyd [5], and Edward Lilenthal.

Here is what I learned:

There are three phases in the life of a statue [landscape monument] or other monument/memorial.

The first is mourning. The suffering of the war or event is new and real. This is the time when statues of suffering rather than heroism are raised. [1] Most Confederate memorials in the early years after The Civil War were driven by white women who had lost sons and husbands and were grieving. [2] This is the “lest we forget” phase. We are in that now with 9/11 memorials.

The second phase is forgetting. “Lest we forget” is replaced with “Let’s forget.” Nobody wants to be responsible for all the deaths and misery. Who can white Southerners blame for 200,000 white deaths? So the myth begins, symbolized by the monuments. These were heroic figures, fighting an heroic battle. The point is not slavery or other social issues but heroism in the face of the foe. Nobody is responsible. It just sort of happened and we reacted with courage. [6]

Finally, the myth is complete. It was a noble but lost cause. It’s just history, something to cherish. [3] Also, since it was a noble but lost cause, it is a myth we can use to revive old passions.

Monuments are not primarily historical; they are primarily mythical.


Yes, I know, the footnotes are out of order… or are they?

1] There are statues that depict not the heroism of war but its suffering. They are raised in the early  mourning period. Bodnar showed a slide from a New Mexico town. Because a New Mexico National Guard unit was sent to the Philippines in WWII, many New Mexico towns have statues depicting American soldiers in great agony on the Bataan death march. Those were their boys, and that is what they want to remember.

2] For blacks, however, the main memorials at this time were celebrations of emancipation, even though there were black deaths to mourn, too.

3] Not everyone gets caught up in the nobility of lost causes, though. My author friend, Elaine Palencia, went to Oxford, MS to tour the William Faulkner sites. She was looking at the Confederate monument statue when an old guy came up to her and said, “You know what that is?” He spat and said, “It’s a prize for second place.”

4] Bucur focused primarily on how Romania dealt with the statues of WWII dictator, Ion Antonescu.

5] Moye focused on the controversy about the statue of a black soldier [Askari] in service of the British in colonial times, in Dar es Salaam.

6] Even well-intentioned memorials participate in this. Bodnor noted that Tom Brokaw depicts “the greatest generation” in a war in which nobody died.

7] Although Helen is no historian, she was glad we went. She’s quite interested in the topic. But she was discouraged by the speaking competence. “I had no idea that four faculty members at IU would not be able to speak any better than that.” She knows that content is more important than delivery, and she liked the content, what she could get of it. But all four, Bodnor the least, did their content a disservice by inadequate volume and enunciation, stumbling reading of their own material, and far too many “ums,” [I began to think we were in a monastery.] The problem for Helen may be that she hears the excellent Jimmy Moore speak every Sunday and unconsciously her bar has been raised higher than most.

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