It didn’t grab big headlines, but last month a controversy blew up at the U.S. Army War College—not about grand strategy, but about artwork. For decades, portraits of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson occupied positions in the halls of the rural Pennsylvania school for Army officers. Then they were taken down. The curators, it was said, were conducting an inventory of all the college’s paintings and photographs after an unidentified individual asked why two men who fought against the U.S. Army were now considered part of its proud heritage. The college was reportedly considering whether changes needed to be made.
But further developments indicate a lot of misunderstanding. In response to the news coverage, Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commandant of the college, explained that a faculty member had taken it upon himself to rearrange pictures in the hall outside his new office. Several prints depicting Confederate forces in action disappeared, and students and visitors, in the absence of an official explanation, jumped to the wrong conclusions. Some alerted the media, leading to headlines like the original title of the article in the Washington Times linked to above: “U. S. Army Mulls Wiping Out Memory of Robert E. Lee.” That, Cucolo insists, is an exaggeration.
There’s an obvious lesson here about brewing tempests in teapots, but also some useful instruction about the subtleties of history. College spokesperson Carol Kerr, when asked about the original controversy, didn’t help matters when she explained that Lee was “certainly not good for the nation. This is the guy we faced on the battlefield whose entire purpose in life was to destroy the nation as it was then conceived.” Historians would have a bone to pick with her about just how the nation was then conceived—whether states had a right to secede at the time is still a matter of debate. And for someone whose “entire purpose in life” was to destroy it, Lee did all he could to reconcile the nation after the war was over. The conflict was so emotional, foundational, and complicated we can’t even agree on what to call it. One side won and the other lost—that’s about all the clarity we can expect. Every generation into the foreseeable future will have to struggle with the implications for itself.
Unless they choose not to. The 20th-century reaction against the heroic view of American history has leaned much too far in the other direction. One thing today’s American schoolchildren are bound to know about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is that they were slaveholders—a fact meant to shadow all their accomplishments. But well-taught history offers us the priceless opportunity to make distinctions: What’s the difference between Robert E. Lee and Benedict Arnold? Between American and European colonialism? Between our generation and those behind and before? A black-and-white view of history that posits heroes and villains instead of human beings like ourselves has nothing to teach us. The Army War College, founded to study just those lessons, has hopefully learned that much.