I’ve been hanging with my children these last weeks of summer, while also taking a bit of time to absorb the conversations and controversy surrounding events in Charlottesville, all triggered, ostensibly, by the relocation or removal of statuary honoring officials, officers and soldiers who supported or fought for the Confederacy. It’s heartening to see the monuments issue gain traction since, for years now, I’ve been tracking the controversy surrounding one particularly nettlesome war statue, although not a Confederate one. I’ve become enchanted with the lovely, albeit hated, Peace Monument in South Korea.
The young woman depicted in Peace Monument, often referred to as the Comfort Woman statue, represents women enslaved by the Japanese during the Second World War. Beginning a decade before and throughout the war, Imperialist Japan forced somewhere between 80,000-400,000 women in Japanese-occupied countries into Comfort Stations — during WWII most of the women were Korean. In Comfort Stations, the prisoners, dubbed Comfort Women, were forced to endure rape by Japanese soldiers and officers. Sometimes these places and the women housed there are referred to as military brothels and prostitutes, but that implies employment. Comfort Women were sex slaves for deployed Japanese.
Understandably, the Japanese do not like to reflect upon the unseemly matter of Comfort Stations or Comfort Women, therefore they disapprove of the statue. They claim it “disgraces” Japan and have insisted on removal of the statues in Korea and object to the handful of sister statues erected the world over. Representatives of the South Korean government promised to remove them, but an outraged Korean public pushed back and they stayed put. Earlier this year, the Japanese became so incensed over Peace Monument they recalled their ambassador from Seoul and their consul general from Busan. In June, the new South Korean president rejected the former deal. For now, the Comfort Woman statue remains seated outside Japanese embassies in both cities, bouquets of flowers at her feet in the summer, hand-knitted scarf warming her slim neck when it is cold.
With so many issues pressing Japan, ongoing recession and nutter North Korea firing missiles their way, the dust up over Peace Monument confounds me. I don’t get the big deal over one little statue minding her own business out front of an embassy. Who knew the Japanese were so sensitive?
That’s what people who don’t get all the fuss about Civil War memorials are saying, right? How everybody, meaning Black people and their white, liberal benefactors, has gotten so sensitive, takes everything too seriously. It’s gotten so bad people can’t even tell derisive jokes anymore. Everyone’s been so uptight these last few years and now this: White southerners unable to acknowledge their cherished family histories lest it hurt someone’s overly-sensitive feelings.
You’ll get no argument from me about the importance of history, heritage, telling our stories. However, I insist we tell the entire story, or at least as much as we can. Your southern great, great, great granddaddy may have had many good qualities. He may have worked his own land and been a God-fearing proponent of state’s rights. He was, undoubtedly, brave. He may have sacrificed everything for what he believed in. That said, the cause he fought for upheld a social and economic system dependent upon the imprisonment, forced labor and subjugation of millions of actual human beings. It was a 300 year travesty, the effects of which linger to this day. That was a long time ago. Granddad didn’t know what he didn’t know. We don’t have his excuse. Go ahead and love Granddad the person, but today, in 2017, honoring the government or army that battled to preserve the right to slavery is simply indefensible.
Still, I say keep the Civil War statues. The fact that they were erected at all tells an important, if unflattering, story. Besides, those things look heavy and are probably a fortune to move. It’d be cheaper, more historically accurate, employ hundreds of talented Americans and add to the greater good of our nation if we carve and cast and chisel additional statues. To tell more of our story and give proper context and counterweight to seemingly racist existing memorials, we should erect a statue commemorating slaves or those who fought to end slavery next to every statue honoring Civil War heroes. I’m dead serious: one new statue for every existing statue.
Something like the memorial above would be fitting beside a monument honoring Confederate general and KKK co-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Or monuments could be less ghastly for more ambiguous historical figures, something akin to The Slave Memorial at George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. And all the new monuments need not shame or unsettle. Lesser known war heroes can be honored in all their dignity, as in this towering Michigan memorial to Sojourner Truth. Statues of historic figures like Truth, an illiterate Black woman who escaped slavery and fought for abolition and racial equality, should evoke pride in all Americans, no matter their background, political persuasion or from which region they hail.
Let’s face it, human beings do, and have done, horrific things to other human beings. Of course no one likes to think about this ugly stuff. While we mustn’t dwell on it, we can’t forget entirely. This is why I’m so taken with Peace Monument, fascinated by the international crisis surrounding a statue of a silent, defenseless girl. Unlike the women she honors, this particular Comfort Woman possesses power. She disconcerts a mighty nation. Peace Monument and statues liker her act as quiet, necessary reminders of what we were, and could again become, if we ever let ourselves forget.