When George W. Bush captured Iraq in 2003 to conclude the still-controversial U.S. invasion of the country, there was no protest in either Iraq or the United States when the infamous Saddam Hussein statue in the city square was toppled by US marines — or if there was, it must have been so covert that I could not find any evidence of it. A cursory Google search returned not a single article even arguing against the dismantling of the statue. Hussein was a colonialist who paraded through his country like Louis XIV while his country starved under crippling economic sanctions. If I were an Iraqi citizen circa 2003, I would have wanted to see the statue unseated as well; Hussein represented a decade and a half of an oppressive regime.
This anecdote illustrates an important point that is often lost in debates surrounding the removal of statues in this hemisphere: Statues stand not to memorialize individuals independent of their moral inclinations, but to celebrate those individuals and their character in the polis or contributions to our world. The way we remember individuals who we have no interest in celebrating is not by constructing statues in their honor. To collapse statues of those individuals is not an erasure from history. Few could deny that Hussein still inhabits the collective psyche of Iraqi, and even American, consciousness.
If statues of important men are the way in which we remember rather than celebrate people, then why have we no statue of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero to remind us of his evil; no statue of Eric Harris at Columbine to remind us of his hatred; no statue of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dealey Plaza to remind us of his malice? Statues are not how we remember people. They are how we celebrate them. Bin Laden, Harris and Oswald are still etched into our history as deeply as Alexander Hamilton, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur, whose statues occupy Washington, D.C., and West Point.
Because of the role statues play in our culture, the only ones that ought to adorn our cities are those that represent individuals whose character and contributions we would like to see emulated and repeated today. Nobody decried the erasure of Hussein from history as his statue was destroyed because nobody wanted the bust of a war criminal to sit atop a stately pedestal in the middle of Baghdad. Likewise, in our own country, we should not allow statues of individuals responsible for our darkest days to remain decorating our city squares.
A frequent response to this position — President Donald J. Trump among its promulgators — is the reductio ad absurdum that we ought to remove statues of those like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well, given that they were slaveholders. As a counterpoint, though both Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders in their private lives — a stain that should be included in any statue of or memorial to them — we remember them for their greatness in the political arena.
Take, for instance, Cecil Rhodes. Although he was a white supremacist and colonialist who believed that the superiority of the British would rub off on Britain’s colonies by osmosis, he also founded the Rhodes Scholarship, which has consistently proven instrumental in developing the best minds of our time. While we do not consent to his perverted colonial preconceptions, those perverted preconceptions do not define his legacy. Despite some calls to remove his statue at Oxford University, it is not his white supremacist ideals for which we remember him and it is not his white supremacy for which the statue was constructed.
This can get quite hairy for those important individuals whose legacies approach the middle of the continuum between sinister and humanitarian. But when it comes to Confederate leaders, there is no such moral conundrum. It should be the easiest thing in the world to disavow the values that constituted the genesis of the Confederacy.
Let’s look at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., that reignited the whole debate a few weeks ago. Lee has one legacy: leading a revolt against the North as a preemptive measure against the abolition of slavery. Anyone not akin to white supremacists Richard Spencer or David Duke has little trouble denouncing, at the very least, Lee’s indignant support for slavery — which is, at most, everything for which we remember him. And yet many of the same people argue that a removal of his statue is an attempt to erase his legacy from history.
If the Robert E. Lee statue were built in 1862, then these people may have a point — removing these statues might preclude having to grapple with a difficult historical episode. In that case, the statue would be contemporary to the Civil War and therefore an important historical monument to the most formative, albeit dark, years in our nation’s history. To destroy such statues would truly amount to the erasure of history.
Virtually all of the statues of Confederate leaders, though, were constructed between the 1890s and 1950s as a response to the end of Jim Crow laws, when the civil rights movement was at its peak.
The Lee statue, for instance, was built in the 1920s — long after Lee’s legacy was cemented into the annals of history. That, along with the great balance of the other Confederate statues in the south, is not a historical artifact but a retroactive celebration of a malefactor who spit in the face of those who fought for freedom from slavery, the most basic of human rights.
To leave such statues erect would amount to a celebration of men who encouraged the most damnable segment of our history. We happen to have institutions designed to house precisely those types of objects: museums.
The legacies of these men consist of leading whole armies to uphold the institution of slavery in the bloodiest war in American history. Clearly, they were not erected out of regret; they were not erected so we could reflect on the nuances of history as we pass by them in our cities.
A century and a half since the final battles of our Civil War, when presumably so few people would fail to denounce the evils of the Confederacy, there is no reason we should still display, much less celebrate, the leaders of the Confederacy. The fact that they remain unmoved edifices in the squares of our great cities remind us not of the greatness of the individuals, not of the complex moral questions of history and not of the events in our past that we must grapple with today. The statues remind us of little more than the fault lines that still run though our country and the divisive politics of our time. We cannot and should not erase history — but we can choose which legacies to celebrate and uphold.
Grant Osborn is a College junior from Springfield, Ohio.