On Memorial Day in small-town New England we clean the graves and decorate those of the old soldiers with the flag. Since I moved South I have wondered what I am supposed to do down here, decorate Confederate graves?
Well, why not. The rebels lost their bid to break the Union, extend slavery not only west but south, indeed all over the world, and after one hundred years they lost Redemption and Jim Crow too.
My favorite Civil War statue is in Memorial Park in Nashville, a park started with a convention for the holiday, to promote reconciliation. Tennessee had a hard war, split, and the man in the statue sits, facing South, looking tired.
Most Southern war memorials went up later, in high Jim Crow, and stand facing North with a rifle. I only know about the one in Nashville because I was visiting, at the Vanderbilt libary, the only known copy of a novel by a French soldier who died in Ha Noi.
There is a street named for Jules Bobillot in Paris and most French cities, and still in some of the former colonies. He died a week after being shot in the neck, I expect from a sniper, after fighting like a tiger against 10,000 Chinese at Tuyen Quang in 1885.
It was one of those loony colonial things where 200 held off an army. It was a battle of no importance, impossible to explain even in terms of France conquering Viet Nam. Bobillot was fighting alongside Vietnamese against Chinese whom Beijing considered bandits.
He was a writer from the streets of Paris, who joined up out of poverty, whose publishing friends brought his feats – fighting in siege tunnels with dynamite – to the world. My grandmere’s schoolbook from 1914 has a page on Sergent Bobillot.
But the schoolteachers who came back from WWI decided they didn’t want heroes any more, and you would be hard pressed now to find a French citizen outside of the Foreign Legion who can tell you about Bobillot, even though his name is stamped in metal on a street in most cities of France.
I have great affection for the man, wish I liked his novel more, and am grateful to him for bringing me to the tired soldier – Rebel? Union? – in Memorial park. The people who erected that statue genuinely wanted to reconcile.
A hundred years later we have done it. My country now is largely populated by people who came after 1965, born on third base. I will never decorate a Confederate grave, but my nieces and nephews and the children of my Vietnamese students may well.
What of Jules Bobillot? They changed the name of his street in Ha Noi – it runs by the opera house – and I don’t know what happened to his statue and grave there. The statue in Paris seems to have vanished in the German occupation.
I would like to revive his literary reputation, but he was a writer for his time, not the ages. He was neither a hero or a villain of the French conquest. The people who remember him are in the Legion, useful men to have around, but deliberately at odds with normal life.
They chant a poem written the day after Bobillot was shot, by Captain Borelli to a man who had died for him. Some of it is pious tub-thumping, but the living tone is contempt, worth learning, if you don’t already know what soldiers often think about everyone else.
One way to wrap this up would be to point to Viet Nam, with its public commemorations of war that bore everyone stiff. Once I made a polite remark about Dien Bien Phu day at a government office in Ha Noi and was stared at like I had suddenly dropped 100 IQ points.
Then I could point to the lively and rich family and community commemorations, for relatives on their death anniversaries and for ghosts at their wayside shrines. The public and the private come together at places like the stark monument at Kham Tien street to the victims of the Christmas bombing, with colorful votive jars with incense around the edges, as Americans leave stuff at the Wall.
That would all be true. But since it is Memorial Day, in the spirit of my tired Civil War soldier in Nashville, I would like to point to my hero Bobillot, the writer, the dead combat engineer.
No one is going to start reading him again but what he published in his lifetime was read to tatters. No one can explain why he was fighting at Tuyen Quang because no one there could have either.
But no Vietnamese is going to hate him for enslaving them, since the nation has long since freed itself, and no European will scorn him for inspiring the young to march into the trenches.
Everyone who felt that way is dead and soon everything that exercises me will take more explanation than I will have strength for. Just something to remember.
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