Even if removed from military curriculums, Lee’s story and many like it will continue to be sought out and learned. But future tactical disciples who find Lee outside of a structured education risk omitting his failings. We want future soldiers to learn Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. To learn the brilliance and the failure.
That is what has happened in German military units like the KSK, where Nazis like the brash Otto Skorzeny — who led one of the most audacious commando missions of all time, the rescue of Benito Mussolini, and an attempt to capture the Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito — remain unclaimed by the Bundeswehr, and are venerated as spiritual fathers by the far right in unofficial, secretive meetings rife with Nazi symbolism, rather than studied with clear understandings of both tactical genius and ideological bigotry.
Much of what I learned about Germany’s military I learned in the context of our military. It should go without saying that this appreciation wasn’t ideological but tactical. In various military schools and courses, my instructors assigned a range of military strategists: from the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and wrote the seminal text “On War” (“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” he famously said), to U.S. Adm. William McRaven, whose first book featured the Wehrmacht’s 1940 commando raid on the Belgian fort Eben Emael as a case study to demonstrate principles we’d later use on raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tactical influence of the German Army appears everywhere from the Marine Corps core doctrinal publication “MCDP-1 Warfighting” (spelled as one word, in the German way) to the design of the standard-issue Kevlar helmets worn by soldiers in the U.S. military.
Although Germany’s airbrushed narrative has granted its military an acceptable place in society, some historians believe it has helped foster the current far-right extremism in its ranks. I spoke with Klaus Schmider, a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, who believes that the German government has “brought the current crisis on themselves by refusing to give German soldiers a positive self-image as soldiers.” To be a soldier in Germany, he said, one must “repeat a mantra how being a soldier isn’t really being a warrior.” This goes beyond the Nazi past: “Even units which are able to trace their lineage to the wars against Napoleon have recently been actively encouraged by the ministry to empty any display cases with mementos from that period, because of the eventual Prussian influence within the Wehrmacht,” Dr. Schmider said.
When I think of our nation’s complicated past — Confederate or otherwise — I prefer to associate those symbols with our society’s dead-enders. I would much rather see the “Stars and Bars” flown in a backwater by one of those brittle souls being left behind by a pluralistic, inclusive America, rather than unfurled in a basement one night 10, 20 or 30 years in the future by a group of active-duty, if disaffected, SEALs, Rangers or Marines who’ve appropriated it as their own. The former would be troublesome, but the latter would be a threat to our republic.
History teaches us that civil-military divides like those that exist in the United States and Germany can become fertile soil for grievance. The seeds of discontent exist in the pasts of both countries. But it is best to leave those seeds scattered on the surface, where they can be picked at and disregarded, instead of buried deep in the earth, where they can eventually take root, breaking ground in twisted, unexpected ways.