In our age of cultural revisionism, can an institution with a distinctive military history at odds with prevailing progressive narratives and norms about identity reform itself without completely renouncing its heritage? The recent and ongoing assault on the Virginia Military Institute illustrates that Orwellian historical obfuscation and submission to the application of critical theory as a governing principle are the inevitable consequences of these absurd and arbitrary political imperatives. The results are anything but tolerant, equitable, or inclusive.
It would be hard to conclude otherwise from the final report the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) released last month of its investigation into the “culture, policies, practices, and traditions” of VMI following allegations of systemic racism at the school. The Roanoke Times first reported some of the allegations last June, which emerged as African-American alumni shared accounts of racism at the school over social media. Others circulated petitions to remove a statue of former VMI professor and Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from its prominent position in front of the school’s barracks, and to deemphasize other elements of the school’s distinctive heritage and symbolism. The outcry came amid the broader cultural upheaval and invigorated attention to racial injustice in America that followed the killing of George Floyd in police custody.
VMI’s then-superintendent, retired U.S. Army general J. H. Binford Peay III, responded to the allegations, first in a letter on June 4 and then in another on July 29, which included a five-pillar action plan to address at least some alumni concerns. The plan announced that the school would deemphasize the prominence of Jackson’s statue by recentering its flagpoles to abut a statue of VMI graduate George C. Marshall, while also removing ceremonial tributes to the school’s involvement in the Civil War Battle of New Market in May 1864. But it was not until October, however, after Ian Shapira detailed a harrowing selection of the allegations in one of what would become a series of articles for the Washington Post, that Virginia’s Democratic political leadership in the Executive Mansion and the General Assembly took notice and issued a scathing letter of their own on October 19, accusing the Institute of a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” and demanding “an independent, third-party review of VMI’s culture, policies, practices, and equity in disciplinary procedures.”
The president of VMI’s Board of Visitors responded the following day, welcoming “an objective, independent review of VMI’s culture and the Institute’s handling of allegations of racism and/or discrimination” and pledging “the full cooperation of VMI officials in the review.” Yet only two days after the reply, before any such investigation could begin, Virginia governor — and VMI graduate — Ralph Northam conveyed that the state’s political leadership had lost confidence in General Peay’s ability to lead a transformation necessary to address the allegations, spurring Peay’s resignation on Monday, October 26.
That Thursday, October 29, the Board of Visitors voted to remove the statue of Jackson, reversing its previous position, while also establishing a permanent “diversity and inclusion committee,” now the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee,” and a “building and naming committee,” now the “Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review Committee.”
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What began early last summer as a movement against systemic inequalities in America’s criminal-justice system — the disproportionate mass incarceration and police killing of African Americans — morphed quickly into a broader upheaval concerning itself with allegations of systemic racism and oppression in a nation that has still not healed the wounds of slavery over 150 years after Emancipation. The protests, in turn, redirected their attention from specific and legitimate policy problems to the destruction and removal of monuments and memorials to dead Caucasian men, especially those affiliated with the Confederacy.
The relationship between Confederate symbols and institutional racism against black Americans traces its roots to the political failures of postwar Reconstruction — which coincided with the beginning of America’s failure to successfully integrate freed slaves into society as citizens. The Ku Klux Klan, established by former Confederates, adopted the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of terror, segregation, and white supremacy in the lawless post-war South. An emblem that was once a soldier’s flag — a banner of honor for veterans and their friends who fought and died in a war that was, for many, not of their choosing — became a symbol of racial oppression.
All of this injustice — the enduring systemic inequalities in our country, including in policing — traces its roots to the evils of slavery. But the American Civil War did not cause slavery; it ended it. And whatever the opinions of its participants and its casualties — North or South — may have been on the matter, a faithful understanding of history requires us to acknowledge that their involvement in that war was far more complicated than contemporary conversations acknowledge. We benefit from the hindsight of being able to examine in toto the history they lived and created in each moment — but suffer from our tendency to compress, categorize, and oversimplify as that history recedes away from us in time.
The Civil War began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Virginia did not pass its Ordinance of Secession until April 17 (a previous proposal failed on April 4), after President Lincoln called for states to provide troops to “suppress” the rebellion on April 15. For Virginia, threats to the preservation or continued expansion of slavery proved insufficient causes for secession or war. The threat of invasion of its neighboring states and the request to furnish troops for that purpose, however, were unacceptable affronts to their concept of sovereignty. Slavery, though undeniably a cause of the first wave of secession across the Deep South in December 1860, nonetheless did not become a central issue of the fighting for Union forces until after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. As National Review’s Dan McLaughlin has noted, “the Union mostly fought to preserve the nation against secession, and only a minority of its members (especially at the outset) saw the war as an anti-slavery crusade.” People today might be surprised to learn that Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland did not secede, but nonetheless maintained slavery and remained in the Union.
History is often more complicated than what we are able to capture in a sentence.
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Central to the complaints, political turmoil, and relentless media scrutiny that VMI endured over the past year was the statue of Jackson, sculpted and donated to the school in 1912 by a VMI graduate and veteran of the Battle of New Market, Moses Ezekiel. This points to the broader source of controversy: The school’s association with (and institutionalized tributes to) individuals affiliated with the Confederacy — or, more specifically, affiliated with the Institute prior to 1865. We may understand the decision of the Institute to honor and revere its erstwhile professor so prominently as an homage to his character and his prowess as a military officer (which earned him international renown) — as well as a branding decision. Honoring the legacy and affiliation of a military man with the reputation of Jackson, though he was a poor professor, was distinctively appropriate for a Southern military school.
Similarly, and more poignantly, the honors paid to the cadets who fought and died at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, are fitting and proper: not because they fought for the Confederacy — a fact incidental to their action — but because they responded to the call of duty with a selfless sense of sacrifice to defend their native state, making VMI the only school in American history to fight and suffer casualties as a student body in battle. Their foe, General Franz Sigel, was the first commander of an Army dispatched by General Ulysses S. Grant to wage “total war” against Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley through the destruction of food supplies, crops, and farmland upon which the Confederacy relied to feed its soldiers.
These points, of course, should not diminish the legitimacy or gravity of the allegations of racism voiced by African-American alumni and cadets last year (or at any time): The experiences they detailed are, indeed, unacceptable for any institution in the 21st century. They warrant investigation and remediation. Unfortunately, these legitimate complaints have received only shallow and fleeting attention, even in the investigation, as instruments of political theater.
The complaints, too, that VMI has too long emphasized its distinctive history from the Civil War era at the expense of acknowledging the more recent significant contributions and accomplishments of its graduates — including men such as George C. Marshall, Jonathan Daniels, or General Darren McDew — also bear due consideration. Venerations of Stonewall Jackson and the Battle of New Market no longer offer the appeal they did a century ago. The school does and should stand for more than its contributions to the defense of its native state during the Civil War.
But there is something troubling in the response that VMI’s Board of Visitors has adopted. Rather than seeking to better understand and convey the significance of Jackson or New Market — and why they remain worthy of continued respect, not as trifles of Confederate apologia, but as distinctive elements of the Institute’s history — the school instead chose to allow its critics to misrepresent them as artifacts of hate.
We have seen the same treatment — worse, in fact — of Confederate monuments and memorials across the American South in recent years. There endures an unsettled debate over whether some were erected as markers of racism and segregation. But we must recognize that at least some of the monuments exist as due tributes erected to the memory of a war, its casualties, and its veterans, that shaped the collective memory of a country for over a century, in the wake of utter destruction, loss, and trauma. The men and women who erected these memorials — friends, families — understood the collective memory of the experience as something worthy of commemoration: not in hate, but in reverence. May they not also mourn their dead? The commandment to “honor thy mother and father” is one we may all recognize, even if we are not religious.
Monuments to men such as Lee or Jackson — and especially and even more so, monuments to ordinary soldiers, such as the Howitzer Monument or the Soldiers and Sailors Monument removed from their pedestals in Richmond, Va., last summer — are tributes to neither slavery nor racial oppression, but to dead men who answered what they understood to be an obligation of duty to their native state. We would do well to recall that soldiers don’t start wars; civilians do. And civilians decide what happens when they are over. Soldiers merely endure, fight, die, or, if they are fortunate, live to remember their lost friends. Horrifyingly, they have become political pawns through which politicians may claim cheap victories in response to unrest over legitimate social grievances like what we witnessed last summer. It is much easier to remove a statue of a dead man than to provide a policy solution to racial injustices that deprive living men and women of their rights to life, liberty, security of person, and dignity. A monument to a dead soldier does not assault another man’s dignity, but a mischaracterization of its meaning is an insult to both.
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One million dollars and seven months later, the SCHEV investigation of VMI and its final report, conducted and produced by law firm Barnes and Thornburg, produced no new facts that previous reporting had not already offered. The executive summary merely recapitulates in more formal terms what we have already heard from Virginia’s Democratic leadership and Shapira’s salvos in the Washington Post: that VMI does not live up to progressive expectations of diversity, equity, and inclusion as informed by principles of critical theory and intersectionality. It is a school too dominated by white men. But failure to match arbitrary diversity targets does not illustrate a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism.”
The body of the report reviews the stories we have seen elsewhere and perhaps unearths a few more, pairing them with statistics as paltry evidence of the Institute’s insufficient diversity. Among the skewed statistics is one that claims that VMI does not match the racial and ethnic composition of the surrounding general populations: “VMI had a higher percentage of Caucasian cadets relative to the composition of the surrounding population and the Commonwealth, except compared to Lexington” (Appendix D, page 11). But the “surrounding population” the authors appear to offer as an example (at least in their chart) is the city of Lynchburg, located on the other side of Amherst County well beyond Rockbridge County and Lexington and with a population ten times greater. Geography and research methods are, of course, not among the subjects covered in law school or on the bar exam.
This raises a question that appears to remain unanswered: What are the objectives of diversity and equity in this context? What targets of ethnic and racial composition and outcomes should a rural state school such as VMI reflect? And how do those objectives relate to the distinctive history of a place?
Diversity in the 21st century is a valuable if not essential objective for organizational success — especially because we live in increasingly globalized and pluralistic societies. But efforts to cultivate diversity should also preserve and curate respect for the unique history and culture of a place. VMI is and long has been a distinctive institution because of its unique place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and its history as our nation’s oldest state-supported military college. To erase or recast that history because we have misrepresented it is to indulge in an irresponsible act of cultural destruction. Efforts to create diversity and cultural sensitivity training that the report recommends should bear this in mind. Apparently, no one reminded Barnes and Thornburg to be mindful of its own likely unconscious biases about what should constitute diversity — and the distinction between urban and rural contexts.
What the report is interested in, of course, is not so much inclusion as diversity of racial identity and equity — which, of course, concerns itself not with equality of opportunity but equality of outcomes. Indeed, as noted in a Wall Street Journal editorial earlier this year, “the government can’t measure equality of opportunity, but it can measure equality of result. If the results are not equal, they assume unequal opportunity.” This cuts to the heart of the investigation and the report, which is, put bluntly, an exercise in counting things — especially survey-response percentages and the composition of populations by markers of racial and ethnic identity. For bureaucrats, diversity only runs skin deep.
The report also gives extensive attention to the perspectives of the 385 interviewees, noting that perceptions were as important as facts in establishing an understanding of racial intolerance at VMI. How one reconciles perceived slights and wrongdoings with actual ones is a question the report does not attempt to answer. But this reflects the increasing prioritization of feelings over rational engagement with facts and aversions to potentially offensive ideas and emotional harm in American academia. Another trend in academia — reduction to binary moral thinking that understands the universe and each individual as easily classifiable into simple categories of good or evil — also overshadows the events of the past year.
But to set aside the other faults of a report submitted to justify its own existence, one of its primary recommendations bears consideration here: specifically, that the Institute should “temper associations between VMI and the Civil War and Confederacy.” The Institute is well on its way to doing this, but as previously suggested, it is ineffective and distracts from real problems of racial inequality. The report, in its own stumbling manner, illustrates why this is the case:
Among Caucasian current cadets who participated in the survey, 59% rated the extent to which the statue of Stonewall Jackson promotes racial intolerance and/or discrimination as ‘none . . .’ By comparison, among African American current cadets who participated in the survey, 25% rated the extent to which the statue of Stonewall Jackson promotes racial intolerance and/or discrimination as “none,” 25% rated the extent as “a little,” and 50% rated the extent as “a lot” (384).
Clearly, there exists a perception among African-American cadets that a statue of Stonewall Jackson promotes racial intolerance. For reasons outlined above, we may understand why this perception prevails. But it is apparently lost on the authors of the report, who take the claim for granted. Ezekiel’s statue of Jackson does not promote racial intolerance in its spirit of reverence for his military service or its design; only the incorrect interpretations others have ascribed or attributed to it do. This, of course, is a problem of misattribution that looms over calls to remove many statues erected to honor historical figures — not because their statues represent racial oppression, but because we have superimposed that interpretation over the original intent of their artists and patrons. But if one believes that all soldiers associated with the Confederacy — or even all Caucasian men of historical prominence — are inherently evil and unworthy of reverence by even their families with due consideration for the constraints of their historical context, there are more insidious claims behind such a mentality that demand our reconsideration.
On May 3, the Board of Visitors, at the recommendation of the Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review Committee, voted to make another round of changes, mostly removing or deemphasizing Jackson’s name from prominent buildings on Post, including the main entrance to the Barracks and the school’s chapel (Jackson Memorial Hall). Among the changes, however, was an announcement that the statue of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” also sculpted by Ezekiel, would be reinterpreted “to honor all former cadets who have died in wars and military conflicts since 1839.”
The change is well-intentioned but flawed for multiple reasons. First, VMI already has a Memorial Garden dedicated to this purpose. Second, the stated purpose of the statue by its sculptor was to specifically commemorate the loss of his friends who died in the battle — who were, notably, not former cadets but current cadets at the time of their deaths. Perhaps an expanded significance does not diminish — and even enhances — the original intent of the artist. Strangely, however, an inventory of artifacts on Post with ties to the Confederacy produced months before the Board’s decision already indicated this broader purpose.
At a meeting earlier this year, the Naming Committee prepared an Inventory and Review of Monuments and Memorials Related to Confederate Iconography. Perhaps the most troubling fact about this list is the appearance of a statue of George Washington, which predated the Civil War — with no other acknowledgement for its significance relative to the other memorials identified. George Washington, of course, was a prominent Virginia planter who freed his slaves upon his death, the commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and the first president of our United States. His appearance on this list leaves us to wonder: what are the limits of the current episode of political theater, what do they conceal, and do they feature any serious consideration of the facts of history?
One year later, what have we accomplished? The Institute and its faculty, administrators, cadets, alumni, and parents, no doubt wish to get on with their lives as Virginia and the United States emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic. The turmoil of the past year will fade into memory as the bread and circuses of ordinary life return to divert us. VMI has found itself a capable leader in alumnus Major General Cedric Wins. The legacy of the investigation — and the consequences of the premature political censure that preceded it — will linger as the school strives to reconcile its mission to prepare citizen-soldiers for lives of public service through bonds of uniformity and camaraderie with the political imperatives of identity, diversity, and equity in numbers at all costs — even the cost of truth, cultural distinctiveness, tolerance, and real inclusion.