A FEW WEEKS AGO, John McCain said the Confederate battle flag is "a symbol of racism and slavery." After briefly backtracking and saying it was also, somehow, a symbol of "heritage," he immediately retreated from that position, clarifying that if he had ever said it was a symbol of heritage he had misspoken. Slavery and racism it was.
A lot of New Yorkers may not know better, but John McCain really should.
The whole country’s military history is shot through with Southerners. Phil Caputo, liberal in good standing and author of the anti-Vietnam book "Rumor of War," was one of the first Marines in Vietnam, as a second lieutenant in 1965. He talks about how his best soldiers were Southerners: They could walk for hours and hit anything — as he puts it — just like their Confederate grandfathers.
The men that form the core of Stephen Ambrose’s book "Citizen Soldier," a true account of fighting on the German front in World War II, are heavily Southern. The first Marine awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II, Hank Elrod, was from Georgia. Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas. A vast number of military bases in this country are named after Confederate officers.
Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb describes Southern soldiers in his military novels whispering "and for the South" under their breath when saying their oaths to their country (as if Southerners needed to be reminded not to commit treason). They die at war, not for Old Glory, Webb writes, "but for this vestige of lost hope called the South."
Are you beginning to see the pattern?
It is pride in the South — having nothing to do with race — and its honorable military history that the Confederate battle flag represents. It is a "battle flag," after all, and represents defiance not unlike the "Don’t Tread on Me" flag.
This is a shared cultural heritage among both black and white Southerners: It is not just the Sons of the Confederacy. (And there are, incidentally, black members of Sons of the Confederacy.) Five black Marines won the Medal of Honor for their service in Vietnam, all posthumously: They literally dove on exploding enemy grenades to protect their comrades. Three of the five were from the South. The disproportionate number of blacks in the military is a reflection of the disproportionate number of Southerners in the military. Southerners are truly our warrior class.
The battle flag represents a way of life, and a noble way of life, an ethic and honor that belong to both blacks and whites of the South. Not surprisingly, given the South’s military pride, Colin Powell has remarked that he received his strongest support to run for president from "white Southerners." On that basis he concluded that there is no impediment to a black man being elected president.
Obviously boys from all over the country fought in this country’s wars, and fought admirably, but it is simply a fact that Southerners are overrepresented in the heroic annals of this country. It is the proud military heritage of the patriotic South that the Confederate battle flag represents.
Liberals love to cluck their tongues at such admiration for the military — which they consider a redneck trait, almost as bad as slavery itself. The military ethic of the South does place a premium on fighting, fraternity-like rituals, respect for authority, chivalry and virulent patriotism. But whether that ethic is your cup of tea or not, it was disproportionately Southerners — some wearing Confederate battle flags under their uniforms — who formed the backbone of the military that threw back Adolf Hitler.
Pride in being good fighters is not an endorsement of slavery.
It is completely preposterous to think that at the end of the 20th century, the Confederate battle flag represents support for slavery. Anyone who has ever met a Texan has an inkling of what Southern pride is about. The battle flag represents values — virtues — that exist independently of the institution of slavery. It is shameful for politicians like John McCain to call the Confederate battle flag a symbol of slavery as part of a campaign strategy, in the process defaming a symbol of America’s gallant warrior class, both black and white.