David Frum quotes Richard von Weizsacker:
Richard von Weizsacker, on May 8, 1985: We need and we have the strength to look truth straight in the eye–without embellishment and without distortion. ... The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility.... There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective, but personal. … The vast majority of today's population were either children then or had not been born. They cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes that they did not commit. No discerning person can expect them to wear a penitential robe simply because they are Germans. But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it...
And Senator James Webb, who--back in 1990 when he was a Republican--gets it wrong in two ways:
First, he makes a big error in history, taking seriously Alexander Stephens's post-Civil War claims that the South fought for reasons of constitutional law and ignoring Stephens's Civil War claims that the South fought to overthrow Jefferson's claim that all men are created equal.
Second, he claims that he is not going to try to justify their cause in his speech--but then he tries to, unconvincingly.
Much better to have followed U.S. Grant:
My own feelings... [at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox] were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse...
Had Webb followed Grant rather than blathering about how Southern soldiers thought it wasn't really about slavery, it would have been a much better speech. Still, Webb's ending is very powerful and very good:
There are at least two lessons.... The first is one our leaders should carry next to their breasts, and contemplate every time they face a crisis... echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves. It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership.
The second lesson regards those who have taken such an oath, and who have honored the judgment of their leaders.... [D]uty is a constant, frozen in the context of the moment it was performed. Duty is action, taken after listening to one's leaders, and weighing risk and fear against the powerful draw of obligation to family, community, nation, and the unknown future.
We, the progeny... [are] the intended beneficiaries of those frightful decisions made so long ago... the caretakers of the memory, and the reputation, of those who performed their duty -- as they understood it -- under circumstances too difficult for us ever to fully comprehend.
Remarks of James Webb at the Confederate Memorial, June 3, 1990: This is by no means my first visit to this spot. The Confederate Memorial has had a special place in my life for many years... this deeply inspiring memorial, to contemplate the sacrifices of others, several of whom were my ancestors, whose enormous suffering and collective gallantry are to this day still misunderstood by most Americans.... I would study the inscription: NOT FOR FAME OR REWARD, NOT FOR PLACE OR FOR RANK, NOT LURED BY AMBITION OR GOADED BY NECESSITY, BUT IN SIMPLE OBEDIENCE TO DUTY AS THEY UNDERSTOOD IT, THESE MEN SUFFERED ALL, SACRIFICED ALL, DARED ALL, AND DIED... this simple sentence spoke for all soldiers in all wars, men who must always trust their lives to the judgment of their leaders, and whose bond thus goes to individuals rather than to stark ideology, and who, at the end of the day that is their lives, desire more than anything to sleep with the satisfaction that when all the rhetoric was stripped away, they had fulfilled their duty -- as they understood it. To their community. To their nation. To their individual consciences. To their family. And to their progeny, who in the end must not only judge their acts, but be judged as their inheritors.
And so I am here, with you today, to remember. And to honor an army that rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a yet unconquered wilderness. That drew 750,000 soldiers from a population base of only five million--less than the current population of Virginia alone. That fought with squirrel rifles and cold steel against a much larger and more modern force. That saw 60 percent of its soldiers become casualties, some 256,000 of them dead. That gave every ounce of courage and loyalty to a leadership it trusted and respected, and then laid down its arms in an instant when that leadership decided that enough was enough....
I am not here to apologize for why they fought, although modern historians might contemplate that there truly were different perceptions in the North and South about those reasons, and that most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery. In 1860 fewer than five percent of the people in the South owned slaves, and fewer than twenty percent were involved with slavery in any capacity. Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war -- just as overt patriotism is today -- but it was tempered by a strong belief that state sovereignty existed prior to the Constitution, and that it had never been surrendered. Nor had Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in Kentucky and Missouri when those border states did not secede. Perhaps all of us might reread the writings of Alexander Stephens, a brilliant attorney who opposed secession but then became Vice President of the Confederacy, making a convincing legal argument that the constitutional compact was terminable. And who wryly commented at the outset of the war that "the North today presents the spectacle of a free people having gone to war to make freemen of slaves, while all they have as yet attained is to make slaves of themselves."..
We are [now] a stronger, more diverse, and genuinely free nation. We are also a different people... a majority of those now in this country are descended from immigrants who arrived after the war was fought. And so those of us who carry in our veins the living legacy of those times have also inherited a special burden. These men, like all soldiers, made painful choices and often paid for their loyalty with their lives. It is up to us to ensure that this ever-changing nation remembers the complexity of the issues they faced, and the incredible conditions under which they performed their duty, as they understood it....
We often are inclined to speak in grand terms of the human cost of war, but seldom do we take the time to view it in an understandable microcosm. Today I would like to offer one: The "Davis Rifles" of the 37th Regiment, Virginia infantry, who served under Stonewall Jackson. ONe of my ancestors, William John Jewell, served in this regiment, which was drawn from Scott, Lee, Russell and Washington counties in the southwest corner of the state. The mountaineers were not slaveholders. Many of them were not even property owners. Few of them had a desire to leave the Union. But when Virginia seceded, the mountaineers followed Robert E. Lee into the Confederate Army. 1,490 men volunteered to join the 37th regiment. By the end of the war, 39 were left. Company D, which was drawn from Scott county, began with 112 men... of the 39 men who stood in the ranks of the 37th Regiment when General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, none belonged to Company D, which had no soldiers left.... To my knowledge, no modern army has exceeded the percentage of losses the Confederate army endured, and only the Scottish regiments in World War One, and the Germans in World War Two, come close....
There are at least two lessons for us to take away from such a day of remembrance. The first is one our leaders should carry next to their breasts, and contemplate every time they face a crisis, however small, which puts our military at risk. it should echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves. It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership.
The second lesson regards those who have taken such an oath, and who have honored the judgment of their leaders.... Intellectual analyses of national policy are subject to constant re-evaluation... but duty is a constant, frozen in the context of the moment it was performed. Duty is action, taken after listening to one's leaders, and weighing risk and fear against the powerful draw of obligation to family, community, nation, and the unknown future.
We, the progeny who live in that future, were among the intended beneficiaries of those frightful decisions made so long ago. As such, we are also the caretakers of the memory, and the reputation, of those who performed their duty -- as they understood it -- under circumstances too difficult for us ever to fully comprehend.