Nikki Haley, the Confederate flag and the fraudulent ‘Lost Cause’

Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina – and previous US ambassador to the United Nations – made a curious remark about the Confederacy. Earlier in December 2019, Haley stated that the Confederate flag represented ‘service, sacrifice and heritage’ until it was ‘hijacked’ by Dylann Roof. The latter is a white supremacist murderer responsible for the shooting deaths of multiple African American worshippers at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

When carrying out his attack, Roof was wearing, among other racist emblems, the flag of the Confederacy. Haley, who was governor in 2015, oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina legislature building. Her remarks defending the flag as an honourable emblem may seem surprising, at least initially. Haley, the child of Indian immigrants, represents an American success story. Intelligent, articulate and resourceful, her life typifies the social mobility of non-white migrants for which America is supposedly famous.

So why, as a member of a racial minority, is she defending a symbol of an openly racist enterprise? Haley has positioned herself – with help from her colleagues in the Republican party – as a moderate and reasonable voice, in contrast to the overtly misogynistic, vulgar and racist Trump. With her comments defending the Confederate flag she has, in one swoop, demolished her status as a ‘moderate’, but has also used her racial-minority status to deflect from her party’s racist platform.

The Confederate flag – a response to civil rights

The deployment of the Confederate flag, and the building of statues of slave-owning Confederate generals, is not a benign exercise in remembering the past. The flag, and associated monuments to the military leaders of the Confederacy, were erected as a direct response to the push by African Americans for civil rights. As black Americans organised themselves to fight segregation and racist legislation, politicians from the former Confederate states – such as South Carolina – raised the Confederate flag on state buildings.

In the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, Confederate monuments and symbols all but disappeared. They were resurrected after World War 2, as the struggle of black Americans for civil and economic rights gathered momentum. National Geographic magazine published an article, in 2015, detailing how white segregationist politicians revived the Confederate flag in order to promote the white supremacist cause. Rather than being simple reminders of the Civil War, the Confederate monuments provided a rallying point for modern-day white racism fighting a rearguard action.

Since the end of the Civil War, there have been attempts by the neo-Confederate partisans to whitewash the purpose of the Confederacy by claiming that states’ rights was the main rationale for secession. Today’s defenders of Confederate monuments make the same claim. But this dishonest explanation is undermined by the words of those who began the Confederacy – slavery and white supremacy was encoded in the founding documents of the slave-owning states.

The ‘Lost Cause’

White supremacy was defeated, but it also metamorphosed – into segregation and legalised discrimination. In the 1950s and 60s, as segregation was being rolled back, the Confederate flag reemerged as a symbol of a white racist backlash. In the discussions about race and racism in the United States, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ was born – the Confederacy’s violence against African Americans was obfuscated by a wilful rewriting of its history. Racist vigilantism against black communities was rationalised as defence of a ‘lost cause’ and the values of an imagined past.

White Southerners have been passing on this mythology of the ‘lost cause’, wrapping the Confederacy in a reimagined past of honour and sacrifice. The South consisted of ‘gentlemen’ willing and able to sacrifice themselves against the Northern invaders – the Confederacy became a fixture of regional identity. Reinventing the Confederate flag as an emblem of ‘Southern pride’ allows white supremacy to cast itself in the role of victim – precisely the kind of voters Haley’s political career depends upon.

The neo-Confederate revision of history – sanitising the racism of the white South and promoting a fictionalised version of the Confederacy – is a main plank in the platform of the Alternative Right today. When Haley contributes to this fictional portrayal, she is actively aiding and abetting the extreme racism of the white Right. Dylann Roof did not ‘hijack’ the flag, but carried out the kind of violence the flag represents. Since the conclusion of the Civil War, white supremacy has fought a racial-vigilante-type of warfare against the African American community.

Lawless racist vigilantes – the forerunners of the Ku Klux Klan – may sound like relics from a bygone era, but today’s white supremacist terrorism falls squarely in that tradition. The main emblem of these killers is the Confederate flag. It is not unusual for white vigilante groups to direct their violence against federal authorities – white victimhood at the hands of ‘multicultural elites’ is a recurring theme of racist organisations.

When Haley defends the Confederate flag, she is providing a platform for recycled racism – or at least a ‘respectable face’ for white supremacy. She has proven that she is articulate and intelligent, unlike Trump – but just as extreme as the US President in her ideology. When she excuses Trump’s racist comments directed at Representative Ilhan Omar – ‘go back to where you came from’ – she is facilitating a white nationalist agenda. There is no rehabilitating white supremacy.

The slogan ‘Support our troops’ is meaningless

The South Korean mercenaries who fought in the Vietnam war are not heroes. The statement ‘support our troops‘ is not only completely meaningless and idiotic, it exhorts us to uncritically accept the agenda of the politicians who have deployed them.

Let’s unpack all of this, because while the Vietnam war finished decades ago, its repercussions are still with us today.

When we memorialise soldiers and the wars they fought in, we must ask ourselves what exactly we are being asked to remember. It is possible to recognise the suffering they endured, but be critical of the predatory and imperialistic goals for which they fought.

This sentiment is not original, and is certainly not my own invention. Sam Husseini, writing in Counterpunch magazine, stated his reflections on the passing of Vietnam veteran and POW John McCain. He, similarly to the Confederate soldiers of the slave-owning South, endured horrendous suffering, but fought for a cause that was economically predatory and motivated by racist misconceptions regarding the official enemy.

Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces strenuous criticism from, among others, South Korea and Australia, when he attempts to rewrite the history of Imperial Japan’s conduct in World War 2. Abe, like other conservative Japanese politicians before him, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in his endeavour to minimise the crimes of the Japanese military during WW2.

The shrine is ostensibly dedicated to honouring the Japanese soldiers who died serving in that conflict. When Abe, and rightwing Japanese politicians, visit the shrine to honour the dead soldiers – the equivalent of ‘support our troops’ in our political culture – they are engaging in a concerted campaign to rewrite the history of WW2 to absolve the Japanese ruling class of its culpability for crimes against humanity.

South Korean troops in the Vietnam war

Another imperialistic war fought for economically predatory and racist motives was the American assault on Vietnam. This attack, more so than other overseas wars, has attracted more than its share of attempted rewriting and mythologising, in particular along the lines of ‘supporting our troops’. While the overwhelming focus of retrospectives on the Vietnam war examine the conduct and suffering of American soldiers, less well known are the contributions of their South Korean allies.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has honoured those troops who served alongside the Americans in Vietnam. His comments have been criticised by the government of Vietnam as an attempt to whitewash the numerous crimes committed by Republic of Korea (ROK) forces in that conflict. The South Korean President in the 1960s, General Park Chung-hee, sent the first contingent of thousands of South Korean soldiers into the Vietnam war in 1965.

Overall, 320 000 South Korean troops would participate in the Vietnam conflict, forming part of the American-led effort. By the early 1970s, South Korean soldiers outnumbered their American counterparts, and the ROK became a model client state. In fact, much of South Korea’s success in transforming its economy, and becoming an economic miracle’ story, is because of its participation in the Vietnam war. The Park Chung-hee era, a military dictatorship characterised by its cultivation of clan-based conglomerates, the chaebol – was a solid ally of the US in the Vietnam war.

In the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the American government and its ROK allies embarked on a massive campaign of retaliation. Unleashing an orgy of violence, South Korean soldiers targeted civilians, killing women and children, and committed terrible atrocities. While the voices of South Korean veterans from that conflict are steadily being heard, the war crimes they committed have not received the attention they warrant.

In much the same way as South Korea demands an apology from Japan for the latter’s kidnapping and use of Korean ‘comfort women’ during WW2, Vietnam is demanding answers from the Seoul government regarding the exploitation of Vietnamese women, raped and abused by South Korean troops in the Vietnam conflict. Campaign groups are urging recognition and for Vietnamese women afflicted by sexual violence from South Korean soldiers, and their children produced by such forced unions.

Cliches are soothing for the conscience

Empty slogans such as ‘support our troops’ make us feel good about ourselves, but they do nothing except shut down critical debate about the role of the military in overseas wars. In fact, such slogans help to disguise the criminal character of imperial wars, and implicitly portray anti-war dissidents as potential traitors – why would you not ‘support our troops!?’ Steven Salaita, writing in Salon magazine, states that unthinking patriotism, typified by the ‘support our troops’ slogan, makes for an exploitable consumer commodity.

Salaita makes an interesting observation:

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq?

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War campaign organisation, in gathering evidence about the conduct of American troops in Vietnam, detailed how US troops cut off the heads and ears of Vietnamese deemed to be the enemy, used electric shocks on their victims, poisoned the wells of Vietnamese farmers, killed their livestock, burned down villages and scorched the countryside of South Vietnam. Future Secretary of State and Vietnam veteran John Kerry has stated how such crimes were known at all levels of command.

Such war crimes cannot be covered with anodyne slogans and ridiculous cliches.