It’s time for the stars and bars to be put to rest, most of us agree. So why is this still a debate? For those who have never lived in the South this decision is clear. However, in the deep recesses of the former confederacy the notion is not that simple.
As a solider, I have been stationed all over the United States. However, most of my time in uniform has been spent in the South. I have loved every place that I have lived but some of the cultural nuances are challenging to ignore. Before my first tour, as a kid who grew up out west, I thought racism did not exist systemically. I believed it was something in the distant past or the purview of a small handful of jerks. However, it was only a few weeks into initial training that I realized racism was alive and well. I found that most Southern communities are racially isolated and did not, as a general rule, co-mingle (this is not unique to the south: data here).
I also found out that racial tensions are a sword that cut both directions. At one duty station the African American soldiers where counseled not to stop for gas in a small town just outside of the military base for fear of reprisal. Along the same lines, if a white soldier patronized the wrong bar in town they would be subjected to intimidation and harassment. All this took place in the 2000’s and likely persists today.
The reason for the racial tension and love of the confederate battle flag is simple. The enormous wounds of the civil war persist. This is not an excuse; there is none for racism. It is, however, an explanation. Even today, half of the all time American war casualties are a product of the civil war.
The total casualty count by war does not give an accurate view of how much of an impact there is on the general population. The following chart shows how many casualties each war caused per 10K of the population at that time.
The confederacy experienced the largest loss of life related to war in the history of America; twice that of the union and an order of magnitude greater than any other conflict since. Keep in mind that these losses, which do not included wounded, are only a few short generations past.
Consider how the war ended. It was not the Appomattox courthouse that caused deep resentment; it was Sherman’s march to the sea. In fact, Sherman’s march was later referred to as ‘total war’ or ‘scorched earth’ (taught in military doctrine to this day) as it resulted in the complete destruction of, at least, two southern capital cities (Atlanta and Columbia) and a wake of chaos.
Many in the South inherited the resentment for the ‘Northern Aggression’ and a passion to remember their ancestors unequalled sacrifice. The Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans remain active organizations today with the sole charter to preserve their history. In fact, every single major US Army base in the south is named after a confederate general. Only a few short years ago, in 2001, did West Point (the military academy that trained many of the civil war leaders) erect the 'reconciliation plaza' honoring both confederate and union casualties.
If the wound of slavery has not yet healed, the same can probably be said of the rebellions defeat. As much as this seems irrational, it is the historical reality of the South. Perhaps the tragic recent events in South Carolina can have the unseen benefit of helping to close this chapter in American history.