RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Rebel Flags Still Fly

The day after the Ds swept the elections in my neighborhood, the geezer with the Bush sticker on his pickup hung a rebel flag under Old Glory in his yard. We didn't think much about it -- "there he goes again" crossed our minds -- and didn't stop and explain to him that the Rebels were Democrats, mostly.

We knew that if we stopped he'd throw us off the porch and, anyway, he doesn't really care about history. He just needed a symbol to show his anger and frustration. The Rebel flag is, around here, a 140-year-old symbol of loss of control and angry discontent with a system that hasn't gone your way. Wars last forever, and what that old guy is trying to say is that he's frustrated. To him, leaving Iraq would be un-American.

Wars last forever -- that's the point -- and symbols of war like the Rebel flag have the power to ignite anger for a good long time.

I'm not sure when historians decided that the war between north and south in America was a "Civil War." For at least a couple of generations, Missourians called it "The War of the Rebellion." And around here it wasn't about slavery, which had died out for the most part. It was about the right for states to determine their own laws.

Missouri saw more than a thousand battles and skirmishes, more than any other state besides Tennessee or Virginia. The guerrilla action devastated whole counties. Historians say there were 27,000 dead out of Missouri's total population of 1.2 million.

Before the killing started, north and south sympathizers managed to get along. About two miles from where I sit today, in October 1862, three men were putting shingles on a school house. Two of them were Southern sympathizers and one was a Union man. I think about them when I go by the place, wonder what they talked about. Did they tease each other like the carpenters do today? Brag about their hounds, hunting and mules? Or did they work silently?

And did they discuss the Rebellion? Or did they agree not to discuss politics, just get the roof on the school? The two younger men probably had kids of school age and the elder would have been a grandpa.

A few days ago, the president announced that we will send a "Surge" of troops into Iraq, a plan which was probably dreamed up by the same guy that thought of "Shock and Awe" and "Mission Accomplished." We should be roofing schools, silently showing that we believe in a future for the kids.

140 years ago, there were skirmishes all around here, many of them complicated by the Union's use of German militia that had just entered the country and didn't understand American English. Long story short, the warriors of one side or the other interrupted the shinglers and made them prisoners, then shot them. The elder was on his knees praying when he was shot.

All three died and are buried in the church yard, and this is certainly not the only place where men from both sides of a misunderstanding occupy the same cemetery.

Twenty years after the War of the Rebellion, there was a history of the county published and the historian wrote that, although he would like to tell the story of the War, he could not because the details were unrecorded. "Indeed, were it even possible to present the facts as they occurred, we doubt the propriety of so doing, as we would thereby reopen the wounds which have partially been healed by the flight of time and the hopes of the future."

Iraq is surrounded by nations of well-armed thugs, many more than we could ever control. Our president has already endangered our future -- health, education and welfare. We thought he would never endanger it further by sending more troops. We figured he'd take the advice of the Iraq Study Group and move toward diplomacy.

I was in the car when I heard the president's speech, and it made me so sad I had to turn off the radio. I've seen his PR interviews for the plan on TV. He's a disconnected, lonely, clueless guy with a puzzled expression saying he's sending more kids to their deaths. This is a guy that looks like he could swing a hammer and shingle a school, but someone has convinced him that he needs to fight.

I do not believe that the Iraq Study Group had all the answers. For one thing, they didn't mention repealing any of the orders imposed by Paul Bremer and I believe those orders should be carefully re-examined and many should be discarded. Leaving them in place would be like leaving future thugs a hundred symbols of loss of control and anger.

Wars last a long time. Generations. Around here, the Iraq situation has split neighborhoods. After 30 years, families can hardly talk about Vietnam. And, whatever you do, don't bring up the Rebellion.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email


From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2007

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