A Retired Army General Trashes His Portrait of Robert E. Lee

Lee

Here is Stanley A. McChrystal:

On a Sunday morning in 2017 I took down his picture, and by afternoon it was in the alley with other rubbish awaiting transport to the local landfill for final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.

The painting had no monetary value; it was really just a print of an original overlaid with brushstrokes to appear authentic. But 40 years earlier it had been a gift from a young Army wife to her lieutenant husband when the $25 price (framed) required juggling other needs in our budget.

The dignified likeness of General Robert E. Lee in his Confederate Army uniform had been a prized possession of mine. I’d grown up not far from the Custis-Lee Mansion, and at West Point, Lee, the near-perfect cadet, Mexican War hero, academy superintendent, and, finally, the commander of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, cast a long, ever-present shadow. Later, in Army quarters from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Fort Lewis, Washington, the painting reflected my fascination with leadership, and it spoke of duty and selfless service.

Although it was a portrait of a man, to many it evoked wider ideas and emotions. For like an object bathed in the light of the setting sun, Robert E. Lee’s shadow took on exaggerated size and grew steadily as America’s Civil War retreated ever further into the softer glow of history.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

8 thoughts on “A Retired Army General Trashes His Portrait of Robert E. Lee

  1. If right after WWII fascism and nationalism grew anew and to the point that government sanctioned statues of glorifying Hitler and his best generals were erected I think we would understand an outcry against them. And support efforts to tear them down. Tearing them down would not be hiding or changing history.
    Now razing the remains of the camps that now serve as memorials to the victims, and denying the holocaust would be changing or erasing history.
    We don’t need statues glorifying people who fought, however bravely, to oppress a people and keep them in involuntary slavery.
    The nazis committed mass murder over a relatively short period of time.
    The institution of slavery held people in often terrible conditions for generation after generation after generation. Even in the case of a supposedly kind owner there was a psychological force to bear in looking at another man and knowing he owns you.

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  2. All these memorials belong to people. In some cases, as in this story, private citizens. Others belong to people by way of their community and government.
    First, it’s a matter of choice and conscience for any individual as to what they do with their own painting or statue.
    Statues in parks or other public property also belong to people.
    They always should have a say as a community because we have a government of, by, and for the people.
    Statues in Baltimore City, (my closest city), were taken down last year or so. Those statues of Lee and Jackson were installed after WWII for the most part in reaction to African-Americans expecting more equally after doing their part in the war. They were a message to that part of the community that the Jim Crow era was alive and still in effect.
    The area where the statues were located had become a predominantly African-American community and that community was rightfully insulted by the presence of memorials to men who fault to maintain an institution that was cruel to them as a people. They were justified to demand their removal.
    Doing so did not erase or change history. What changed history for many Americans was the concerted effort that began practically immediately following the Civil War to rewrite the history regarding the purposes of the Confederate States in the rebellion, and turn those into something more honorable than they were.
    Individuals can do what they want with their property with few exceptions.
    Communities should have a say likewise, but with sensitivity to the fact that just as there is diversity in any community there is a diverse opinion to issues.
    Communities alone or through their representative government can work it out and make their choices. Their choices may be informed by the makeup of the community, where a particular memorial is located, it’s intended message and perhaps even it’s perceived message.

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    • A culture which increasingly demands that anything — statue, book, building, painting, Halloween costume, Heinous Appropriating Dessert Recipe, etc. — the existence of which displeases some group or person, must be abolished, is not only dangerously infantile but also opposed to genuine pluralism.

      Can people do what they want with their own stuff? Sure. As a matter of state and local governance, can communities decide if certain public monuments should come down? Absolutely. If someone wants to smash their Winston Churchill bobble head because they’ve realized, after reading a think piece in Slate, that it reeks of white colonialism (has that poor astronaut stopped apologizing yet to the Twitter mob for daring to quote the imperfect man who did the most to defeat the Nazis?), have at it.

      But this is not a positive trend.

      History is complex. People are, too. A healthy civil society requires a level of mutual, historical tolerance. Look hard enough — actually, it usually only takes a passing glance — and one can and will find fault with any person. Yes, even Joan of Arc. And Martin Luther King, Jr. Why, even Gandhi. Every historical figure is controversial. We should be able to say, for example, that Robert E. Lee was a great general, and a courageous man, who was fighting for a wicked cause. Once we go down the road of scrubbing the public square of all people who were not saints, there is no stopping point. All. Must. Go. (Yes, even the comfy Che t-shirt. It makes me upset.)

      I would argue that this instinct to shovel down the memory hole all which causes offense to some constituency is terribly misguided. Why, dare I say — un-American, even. Not in the HUAC sense, but because it is fundamentally incompatible with classical liberalism, tolerance, humility and all those bumper stickers which call for us to Coexist. I can think of many other places where the systematic eradication of the past, the making of unpersons, was mandated and pervasive. We don’t want to emulate those places.

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      • You are conveniently ignoring the purpose of the statues in question. They were erected not to commemorate Lee so much as they were erected to celebrate the rule of White Supremacy. Why do so many monuments to traitors exist? Why do statues commemorating men who did their best to destroy the United States of America exist in the public eye? Where are the statues of Grant, Sherman, and the USCT in the same communities?

        This is not the eradication of the past. This is about correcting the past. Lee was a traitor. The Civil War was caused by slavery. White Supremacy is evil. This is about getting rid of monuments that lie to us. If you want to keep them, then tell me what history they portray to the people who see them. If you want to say Lee was a great man, then explain why he stabbed his nation in the back when it needed him. Lee was a traitor. Those statues do not explain that or even mention it.

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      • You have unwittingly made my point. It’s easy to say: Nathan Bedford Forrest: bad and begone! But there are many people who despise Washington, Jefferson, pick-your-founding-slaver, as they would say. Others — as referenced above — loathe Churchill for a litany of perceived sins. Surely you’ve heard about the efforts to remove that evil Columbus fellow. The grievances against him are varied and sundry. And on and on it goes. Thus, the universe of “statues at issue” is not limited to icky Confederate generals, it is exponentially expanding.

        And the vandals will say: who are you to define what is traitorous and what is not? Princeton students have demanded Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from academic buildings. (I’m no fan of Wilson, but that seems … absurd.) Stanford students and other agitators want Junipero Serra — a Franciscan priest who was apparently unkind to Native Americans — cast into outer darkness. Harvard’s law school seal must be removed, because the endowing Royall family once owned slaves.

        There is no end to this.

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      • Thank you for proving my point. You are perfectly willing and complicit in supporting a lie instead of factual history. You don’t really care about history itself. What you do not want is change. You would rather see a traitor commemorated along with white supremacy supported than to see those Lee and lost cause statues removed.

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  3. Destroy all the Bad Things! Now, where’s that Stonewall Jackson print in the study? Into the burn barrel. (We’ll decide the fate of the Christopher Columbus coffee table book — maybe we can get away with ripping out select pages — after lunch.)

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    • Removing statues of traitors that were erected by people who opposed freedom and equality is a good thing. Why should any community be forced to display a statue that does not reflect the values and beliefs they wish to project to the world? Retaining the statues has often reflected a desire by some to present a false history to the world. If anything, removing the statues and relocating them so they can be repurposed to explain actual history based upon facts, such as how those statues were used to perpetuate the lost cause myth/lies would be the right thing to do.

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