In the centre of Washington DC, the monuments are clustered, white and hard, like teeth in the jawbone of a titan. Pillars, rotundas, plinths, monoliths; all proclaim that this is the Forum of the new Rome.
Their uniformity is numbing. White marble quickly begins to wear down any kind of human response. You wander past reflecting pools and more temples to the fickle gods of politics and money. And then, just when it seems that this whole white world is impenetrable, the earth opens up.
The titan has been stabbed; bayonetted close to its heart.
The slash is gaping, but it’s clean: a wall of black, polished stone plunging down into the scooped-out ground.
When you descend into the wound, you see the names carved into the wall: 58000 Americans killed in Vietnam. Their names float over the reflection of your own body, touching you, and for a moment there is a sense of what it means to be hit in the face or chest or stomach; how easy it is to become a name on a wall.
Nearby, visitors gently reach up and touch the letters. For some it is an act of curiosity, for others an intimate caress, remembering a fiancé or imagining a father they were too young to remember. The day I was there, a middle-aged woman stepped forward, kissed her palm, placed it on a name, and then walked away.
For me, it is a successful memorial, remembering individuals without romanticising the war that killed them. But when the design was revealed in 1982, thousands of Americans, including many in government, were appalled. The wall, they said, was obscene, depressing and anti-heroic. Funds were hastily raised and another monument was created: a bronze statue of three sombre soldiers – white, black and Hispanic – armed to the teeth and built like quarterbacks.
It remains a profoundly unsophisticated memorial, a statue for those who believe that wars are about guns and muscles rather than burnt children. But it’s good that it remains there, near the wall, a bronze reminder of how feeble statues are as symbols of history.
You’d think that lifelike figures would make us feel more than black stone would, but the tinny cliché of The Three Soldiers amplifies the humanity of the wall and makes it resonate like a beating heart.
I don’t want to add to the debate currently being hosed off the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, mainly because I don’t understand why it’s even a debate. If we all agree as South Africans that the legislated dispossession and disenfranchisement of black people was a crime then I can’t figure out why anyone would come out in support of one of the chief criminals.
Is there some kind of bizarre statute of limitations on racist fuckwittery?
I also don’t get the double standard: statues of Hendrik Verwoerd have disappeared without resistance from white academics, and yet Verwoerd, as the architect of apartheid, was merely drawing up the blueprints commissioned by Rhodes. Is there some kind of bizarre statute of limitations on racist fuckwittery? Do acts committed before an arbitrarily chosen date fall under the “don’t judge the past by the standards of the present” defence?
No, I’ll leave all that to the poo-flingers and the pundits to sort out. And yet I can’t help wondering if by ditching the statue, we might be chucking out an oddly essential baby with the ideological bath water.
I sympathise with those who want it gone. If I was a student whose parents had had to carry a dompas, whose grandparents had lived in poverty because their parents’ land had been hijacked by white supremacists, a statue of the supreme supremacist would make me weak with rage. I would want to blow it up. I would want it dropped into the sea so that octopuses could gag that supercilious little mouth. I would want it melted down and turned into dozens of Oscar-like statuettes, to be awarded every year to the most productive black farmers working land once annexed by Rhodes’s policies.
Satisfying, perhaps. But what if he is our The Three Soldiers statue, a crude, backward-looking image that nevertheless might enhance more sophisticated memorials? What if removing unpopular statues robs us of a chance to reconcile the history learned by most white children before 1994 with the more complex stories that form modern South Africa? What if there is a way to use these symbols of the past as lenses through which to see our present more clearly?
Instead of carting Rhodes off to a museum, could we not hand him over to young South African artists so that they can build – on him, around him, over him, next to him – their own vision of their past and their present?
And if the answer to all these questions is no, and we still feel he’s in our way, let’s dynamite the old pirate. After all, it’s what he would have done.
First published in The Times and TimesLive