Defenders Make Last-Ditch Effort To Halt Pentagon From Tearing Down Arlington Cemetery Reconciliation Monument

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Advocates are pursuing a last-ditch attempt to save the Confederate Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery from the Army’s all but inevitable push to tear down most elements of the statue perceived to honor the Confederacy.

Since a congressional commission recommended dismantling the monument in September 2022, giving a deadline of January 1, 2024, the Army and Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) have completed nearly every step in the process of tearing it down. Defend Arlington, which has fought to preserve the monument, filed a lawsuit in November saying that the Department of Defense (DOD) is bulldozing past requirements and ignoring public opinion, court documents show.

Defend Arlington filed a request for an injunction in a District of Columbia court on Nov. 21. The court has not granted the request as the Army’s projected date to take down the monument looms. (RELATED: ‘Covers Up History’: Retired Army Rangers Hammer The Pentagon For Purging Confederates From The Ranger Memorial)

“The Memorial represents a symbol of reconciliation aimed at healing a country divided during a brutal sectional war and reconstruction,” Defend Arlington wrote.

“We do not believe the Army will reverse the decision, unless the Court or Congress make them. Sadly, the ‘march through the institutions’ has infected the U.S. military, and they are hell-bent on destruction,” the group told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Former President William McKinley, a Union veteran, commissioned the memorial in 1898, according to the memorial’s webpage on the ANC site. Congress allowed for more than 400 Confederate veterans to be reinterred in graves forming concentric circles around the memorial in a bid to foster healing from the Civil War half a century prior.

Those who want it to remain say it does not honor the Confederacy but serves as a reminder of progress toward national reunification after the Union’s victory. However, proponents of dismantling it say the monument depicts an ahistorical version of the Confederacy and sanitized portrayal of slavery in the South, paying tribute to the false “lost cause” narrative.

A statue of a woman representing the “American South” holds a laurel wreath, plow stock and pruning hook encircled by 14 shields representing the 11 Confederate states and border states Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. Of the 32 figures engraved into the pedestal, two appear as slaves and an inscription pays tribute to the idea of the Southern states’ war as a “lost cause.”

Confederate Memorial in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, July 13, 2020.

Confederate Memorial in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, July 13, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

Sculptor Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish-American Confederate veteran and Virginia Military Institute cadet, is buried at the base, according to a the cemetery’s page for the structure.

“They have been weaponized against the dead, including a dead Jewish Veteran, mirroring the rise in antisemitism we are seeing around the nation and around the world,” Defend Arlington told the DCNF.

The Army and the ANC said the process of taking down the monument will start Dec. 18 and is expected to take four days, during which all but the concrete base of the statue will be removed to prevent disturbing the graves of Confederate fighters encircling the monument, according to court documents.

DOD argued that whether or not the monument should be removed is not a question under the suit Defend Arlington has brought to the courts in a statement opposing the stay, and that Defend Arlington’s stance that relocating the bronze elements of the monument would cause irreparable harm are “purely speculative.”

“To the extent Plaintiffs’ claims are even ripe or actionable, they are meritless, given, among other things, they ignore that the removal action is nondiscretionary; in other words, whether the Memorial should be removed is not a question this lawsuit can answer,” the response stated. Defending Arlington’s true argument is with Congress, DOD said.

The harm to the defenders is “irreparable and deep,” Defend Arlington said in a Dec. 5 rebuttal. “The act of removing and eliminating the century-old historic Memorial, even if it were restored at a later time, will have long-lasting consequences that cannot be compensated for by any type of remedial action.”

Defend Arlington accused the Army and ANC of deliberately skipping over required steps to hasten the monument’s removal. But DOD, in the Dec. 1 rebuttal, said that it wouldn’t matter — the Army is still legally required to take the action prescribed by the Naming Commission.

Congress’ 2021 defense bill, passed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ensuing race riots across the United States, mandated the Naming Commission to review all DOD assets — including military bases, unit insignia, ships and more — for Confederate references and develop ways to remove or rename the assets. The Army has renamed nine bases in the U.S. to comply with the commission’s report.

The Naming Commission, after examining the reconciliation monument, determined that “contextualization was not an appropriate option” and called for its removal, according to the final report. DOD was required to carry out the Naming Commissions’ recommendations.

The Naming Commission’s final report recommended removing the bronze upper and leaving the granite base intact to avoid disturbing graves. The Army published a draft finding that the monument removal would have no major environmental impact on the site on Nov. 17 and was supposed to have published the final finding by Dec. 8 after a brief public comment period.

The finding also disavowed the Army’s responsibility for any change to “cultural resources” removal of the monument would trigger. Any cultural impact is the fault of Congress for mandating the removal, the draft document stated.

“The Army has no discretion to keep the Memorial in ANC,” the document stated. And since non-discretionary actions are not required to undergo the NEPA process, “therefore do not affect the overall finding of no significant impact,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, wrote in the finding.

That determination invalidated the Army’s plan to submit an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), according to a federal notice posted on the ANC website — and the public comments received during an Aug. 23 scoping meeting where citizens with an interest in the monument’s fate largely advocated against its removal.

A review to ensure the removal takes place in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) is expected to conclude on Dec. 14 after the Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation and Virginia State Historic Preservation Office requested an extension to review the Army’s evaluation of how the removal could adversely impact a historic property, according to a statement from Durham-Aguilera filed as part of the lawsuit.

Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources had warned that removing the monument would create adverse effects on the cemetery and associated sites in a Nov. 20 letter. ANC should “take necessary steps to minimize the potential effect to the Confederate Memorial, the possible memorabilia box, and surrounding area during disassembly, transport, and storage” and consider public comments, the letter stated.

The Army, which oversees ANC and the Confederate monument’s removal, declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation. The Department of Justice did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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