A few days ago, I watched on television while they literally took Robert E. Lee down off his pedestal in New Orleans.
That white marble pedestal, 80 feet tall, made Confederate General Lee’s elevated 16-foot statue a commanding figure in this Southern American city. He stood there for 133 years, in the middle of one of the city’s main roundabouts on St. Charles Avenue, which everyone knows as Lee Circle. Looking north, toward the region of the country that defeated him in his bloody efforts, Lee cut a stalwart figure, arms crossed and with a stern, determined cast on his bearded iron face, as if still contemplating how to win the war he lost so long ago.
Personally, I have a hard time understanding this kind of lofty reverence for anyone responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people, so I was happy to see Lee’s statue come down from such a prominent place of honor and veneration. Beyond the fact of his murderous and treasonous killings, Lee fought for the extension of slavery, an unparalleled social evil and one that doomed his cause from the beginning.
Even today, though, people still call General Lee a national hero, think of him as a noble warrior and visit the monuments and statues to his memory in many different places—despite the fact that history accurately depicts both of his major offensives into Union territory as abject failures. Civil War historians now describe Lee’s aggressive, win-at-all-costs, scorched-earth tactics, which wasted tens of thousands of lives while the Confederacy suffered a mounting shortage of troops, as ultimately disastrous for the South:
For Gettysburg as a whole Lee sustained 22,638 casualties out of 75,054 men engaged, a startling 30.2% casualty rate. This figure alone demonstrates Lee’s aggressive tactics were crippling to the Confederate army. The fact that Lee lost the battle makes the statistics even more disastrous. – Lee at Gettysburg, A Critical Analysis of Aggressive Tactics, by William W. Coventry.
I visited the site of the battle of Gettysburg once. I recommend going there, if you ever have a chance—it’s a sobering and profoundly moving sight. It lies about ten miles north of the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, and its green, open fields seem welcoming and peaceful now. But in the three days of that horrible battle—July 1-3, 1863—fifty thousand men died. I know, it’s hard to imagine. I tried to think of a whole stadium filled with young men, suddenly gone. With that in mind, I stood on the Gettysburg battlefield and attempted to conceive of such an enormous loss. I imagined President Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address there a few months later, the smell of all those corpses still lingering in the air. Then I thought about what those men and their potential progeny might have contributed to humanity, and I realized I could never comprehend the scope of such a massive tragedy.
As they generally do when I visit any battlefield, the memories I have of combat in Vietnam returned to me there. I remembered the chaos, the noise, the smoke and the screaming. My stomach knotted. I began to see, in that movie of our lives that we all have in our minds, the replay of those terrible events.
All of that made me wonder: why do you suppose we venerate the memory of warmongers like Lee—and not just Lee, but any military general or dictator or tyrant who succeeds in slaughtering thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people? How do we justify calling them heroes? What is it that prompts us to erect such massive memorials in their honor?
The Baha’i teachings ask humanity those same basic questions:
O ye dear friends! The world is at war and the human race is in travail and mortal combat. The dark night of hate hath taken over, and the light of good faith is blotted out. The peoples and kindreds of the earth have sharpened their claws, and are hurling themselves one against the other. It is the very foundation of the human race that is being destroyed. It is thousands of households that are vagrant and dispossessed, and every year seeth thousands upon thousands of human beings weltering in their life-blood on dusty battlefields. The tents of life and joy are down. The generals practise their generalship, boasting of the blood they shed, competing one with the next in inciting to violence. ‘With this sword,’ saith one of them, ‘I beheaded a people!’ And another: ‘I toppled a nation to the ground!’ And yet another: ‘I brought a government down!’ On such things do men pride themselves, in such do they glory! Love—righteousness—these are everywhere censured, while despised are harmony, and devotion to the truth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 2.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday we could dismantle all of our society’s monuments to war and mass murder? Can you imagine a more spiritual society erecting statues and memorials to those who served others, who harmonized civilization, who loved humanity—people dedicated to life rather than death? Imagine the parks and pavilions of our lands dotted with statues of devoted teachers; kind, caring physicians; activists and humanitarians and artists and peacemakers.
Man needlessly kills a thousand fellow creatures, becomes a hero and is glorified through centuries of posterity. A great city is destroyed in one day by a commanding general. How ignorant, how inconsistent is humankind! If a man slays another man, we brand him as a murderer and criminal and sentence him to capital punishment, but if he kills one hundred thousand men, he is a military genius, a great celebrity, a Napoleon idolized by his nation. If a man steals one dollar, he is called a thief and put into prison; if he rapes and pillages an innocent country by military invasion, he is crowned a hero. How ignorant is humankind! Ferocity does not belong to the kingdom of man. It is the province of man to confer life, not death. It behooves him to be the cause of human welfare, but inasmuch as he glories in the savagery of animalism, it is an evidence that divine civilization has not been established in human society. Material civilization has advanced unmistakably, but because it is not associated with divine civilization, evil and wickedness abound. In ancient times if two nations were at war twelve months, not over twenty thousand men would be killed; now the instruments of death have become so multiplied and perfected that one hundred thousand can be destroyed in a day. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 102.