Some Vietnam veterans would rather shake hands with their former enemies than with armchair patriots who shouted curses at peaceniks. Some Americans who fought in World War II later visited Germany and Japan, cringed at the obsolete symbols they saw, but drank beer or sake with enemy soldiers who survived the same hardships.
The reason isn’t political. It has to do with the respect that soldiers on opposing sides can pay to those who shared the same kind of sacrifice, the same kind of courage.
Which leads to the recent ravaging of the Confederate flag.
To many it is a symbol of the rankest racism; but to others it might symbolize the courage and devotion that their ancestors exhibited. The Civil War was a tragic and wasteful war. So was Vietnam. Soldiers on each side of both wars might deserve some respect. Their descendants might honor the noblest aspects of elder examples.
We are wrong to think that a piece of cloth or any other object can mean only one thing. Imagine a Christian cross in Kabul rather than Atlanta. Imagine a Muslim flag flying over a peaceful mosque in Jordan rather than the finish line of a Boston Marathon. Imagine a Red Sox pennant at Yankee Stadium with the home team behind by ten runs.
We don’t banish the Christian cross because it “represents” the Inquisition and the Crusades and priestly pedophilia. When considering some symbols, we are willing to filter away the bad parts.
The Christian cross. The Confederate flag. The Nazi swastika. Some symbols seem unambiguously repugnant, out of place everywhere; but no symbol inspires the identical reaction from everyone who views it.
Our objects don’t declare their meaning. We do. A symbol is neither good nor bad, except as we choose to see it one way rather than another.
Slavery was bad. Granted. A symbol of slavery is hurtful. Granted. But what of an object that symbolizes both bad and good? What of an object that has been obstinately adopted by unrepentant racists, as well as by people who revere the memory of ancestors who did selfless, courageous service?
Descendants of men who carried the Confederate flag brought their Rebel-Yell traditions into World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and now the Middle East. Men and women whose Confederate ancestors displayed a full measure of devotion have saluted our national flag whole-heartedly, and died for the privilege of doing so.
The Southern military tradition has been welded into our flag, and we are all stronger and better for that. Our American flag contains Confederate thread.
Certainly, using the Confederate flag as a nasty, taunting, divisive provocation by state and local governments ought to be stopped. We should ensure that the Confederate flag isn’t so misused; but we should ensure that our national flag isn’t misused as well.
Cynical people – phony politicians mostly – wear American flags in their lapels and brand anybody who doesn’t as a traitor to the “right kind” of America. Cynical people deploy the flag as a blanket to hide their own sins. Other people don’t give into that ruse, don’t wield the flag as a weapon against reason, and see the dark side of symbolism that the phony politicians exploit.
If dishonorable men fought under the Confederate flag, so did many honorable men, whose example has incited their descendants to sacrifice everything they had in service to our country. We owe it to those people to concede that an object can mean more than one thing. We need to repudiate the bad but open our hearts to the good. We need to look to the bearer and not just the flag.
Richard Galli has been a Rhode Island lawyer and writer; a news reporter; a Vietnam veteran and Iraq correspondent; and a 2014 MacDowell Colony Fellow. His websites are at http://richardgalli.com and https://gallireport.com.