Defense One Radio, Ep. 82: “Robert E. Lee and Me”

Ty Seidule, a retired Army brigadier general, talks about the Confederacy, and inclusive changes throughout the recent history of the U.S. military.

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This episode we speak to Ty Seidule, who recently retired as a U.S. Army one-star. His new memoir is “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

Find a transcript below.

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Watson: Gen. Seidule, welcome to Defense One Radio. 

Seidule: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the invitation.  

Watson: Thank you, I appreciate you speaking to me about these issues, because a lot of these things are familiar, I grew up in western Kentucky. And that state itself, I feel like there was some similarities between your background and Alexandria almost being a border region almost. So anyway, there were some ways in which I was kind of emotionally sympathizing with some of the issues that you wrote about in your book. So I wanted to know, you grew up in different parts of the South. I wanted to know, can you tell me about how you began to feel and how you responded and coached yourself through like some of the stomach-turning stories you unearthed as you dug into the past of towns where you grew up in Virginia and Georgia?

Seidule: Yeah, well, thank you. What I figured out was that history is dangerous, and because it goes after our myths and our identities. And when we figure that out, that the stories that we grew up with as children, that they either weren't true, or that they covered up other parts that we didn't learn — it's a wrenching experience. And, you know, for me growing up as a kid in the South, I mean, I revered Robert E. Lee, I revered all these people. And then when I was much later in life, that I started realizing that in fact, these were lies. And they weren't just lies; they were lies with a pernicious purpose, which was to create a society based on white supremacy to keep the boot on the neck of Black America. And that was tough. It was tough to write about the lynchings; it was tough to write about these things, because it's gruesome, it's terrible. But that's who we are. And I firmly believe that the only way that we can get beyond it, that we can ensure a better future for ourselves, our children or grandchildren, is to first come to terms with our racist past. And that's what I tried to do in this book is just using my own experience, is to go through each part of my life, and each place I lived — you know, Alexandria, Virginia; and Monroe, Georgia; and Washington and Lee University; and the United States Army and West Point — and find that all of them, every one of these places had a history of racism, of white supremacy, and even of racial violence. And when I did that, I knew that the only way to really tell this story that people would be able to listen to it without — well they're still going to be upset, but maybe more people would listen to it if I use my own story to do that, rather than just being sort of a know-it-all historian and writing in the third person, that if I wrote the first person maybe it would be more effective.

Watson: Yeah, I wrote that down in my notes, as I was reading your book, I wrote "Seidule might say just sharing your personal story is a great start." Because I was thinking a really hard part of all of this is there's a degree to which it seems, sometimes, that you have to have a receptivity to these ideas. But you wrote something that I thought felt was useful. You said, “We don't own the actions of those who were born before us.”

Seidule: No, it is. It's true. If somebody's born in 1860 or 1930, we don't own their actions. We’re not enslavers; we're not fomenting segregation. But the thing is that those things have long-term effects. And if we are honest about what happened during that period and the long-term effects that it created, then we are averting our eyes to something that is truly harmful. And it hasn't been that long since segregation was outlawed. I mean, I'm old enough that segregation was still around when I was born. The South of my birth was a racial police state. And I mean, that sort of language that we use is important there. And, and it's important to know that because it was a racial police state, and people fought integration, you know, for decades after that — that we have a responsibility to understand that past and be honest about it. But it's uncomfortable. I got that it's uncomfortable. But at this point in my life, I'm comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's okay to be uncomfortable. But it's worse to avert your eyes and not deal with it. We can deal with it. We Americans aren't made out of cotton candy. We defeated the Germans and liberated the concentration camps. We put an end to chattel slavery. You know, we can deal with the harsh truth of the past and get better. But if we don't deal with it, we're going to continue to be abused by the past, rather than be able to use the past to make a more just and equal society.

Watson: Well, I think often about generational questions, concerns and how they might vary age to age. I have three brothers and the oldest is 11 years older than me. So I sometimes think about, you know, relating to him in certain ways. I grew up in western Kentucky. The county next to ours was a deeply segregated county, well into the '90s. When I was in school, it didn't celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The high school near me, just one mile down the road, its mascot was a rebel waving the Confederate flag — up until 1996. They called it “rebel stretch,” the area of road between my house and the high school; people used to race on their way to school. The county courthouse (I was looking this up not long ago, because I don't remember it), but the county courthouse even today still has Johnny Reb standing tall on the front lawn. In your two decades of teaching at West Point, I'm wondering, were there any notable changes in attitudes among your Civil War students from say, the start of the century to the end of the last decade? 

Seidule: Yeah, well, I think first of all, I think you're doing exactly what everybody should do, which is to go study the history of where they are, and understand who they are. And what you've just done by doing that is to understand yourself a little bit and understand why you are like you are, and what is your hometown doing and that in Western Kentucky. And that's why I think it's so important for all of us to do that. Because when we do that we gain empathy, and understanding of both ourselves and others and why things are like they are. I’m a big fan of — obviously, as a historian, I’m a big fan of that. And I saw that at West Point. So yeah, but when I first started talk teaching there in 1994, and we were using a text then that barely mentioned the fact that the Civil War was about slavery. I mean, it just had one sentence, and it didn't talk about the cause except to say, ‘The Civil War was about slavery and states’ rights.’ It was written in the '70s. And by the time I ended there, we created text on the civil rights movement; we created new text about the Civil War, there's been a whole chapter talking about the purpose. We used to not, when we went to Gettysburg, we used to not talk about the purpose;  so it was just the X's and O's of the battle. Now, we clearly talk about that. I can see it in the Gettysburg Visitor Center that talks about slavery. So yes, and we also talk about gender, about what it's like to serve in uniform as a woman, and what it was like in Vietnam or World War II. So absolutely. I've seen a huge change in the way we've done that. The thing about America is it changes very slowly — until it changes really fast. And we're in one of those areas right now, where the idea of, where the history is changing. Remember, history is always changing, because there is no one spot where you go, ‘Okay, this is the spot — 1912. And we're never going to change from what we thought in 1912.' Of course, in 1912 was a change from what we thought in 1865, which was the change from what they thought in 1850. So the ideas are always changing. And, you know, I think the other important part of that is that the percentage of black cadets went from 6% to 15%; the memorialization changed. I mean, we had — there was a statue of [Ulysses] Grant that was put up there, right before I left we changed the name of the change. The name of the latest barracks or dormitory is named after Benjamin Davis, Jr, the great Black leader of Tuskegee Airmen. So yeah, it absolutely changes and it's ready to change again. 

Watson: You mentioned a couple different historical key years, a moment ago, and it did make me wonder. Last year, there was a congressional hearing on domestic extremism. This was in like March or April, this is, you know, that would have been like 10 months before the failed insurrection of January. But there was a researcher from the Anti-Defamation League, Mark Pitcavage. Last year, this congressional hearing on domestic extremism. He said, “Each time the white supremacist movement has surged in the United States, that surge has been mirrored by a similar increase within the armed forces”. Do you think that that resonates with the history that you were familiar with? 

Seidule: Well, I mean, I think that the idea that, that that first, of course, you know, we represent the American people, we are the American people, and, and we get people in America, we bring it just in the army, we bring 10,000 people a month into the army, and they're 18 million veterans. So between the 2 million that serve in uniform now and the 18 million that are veterans, I mean, we're gonna find some people that are doing the wrong things, in all walks of life. Having said that, remember, Timothy McVeigh was a veteran who blew up the Oklahoma City [Alfred P. Murrah] Federal Building. And there have been, you know, with veterans who have been part of these things for a long time. And I think that's why we have to look at it and we have to figure it out. What does that mean? Where are they coming from? What is it that they're doing? And I think [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin, who I'm a big fan of, did the stand down day to try to figure out what is it that’s going on? And what can we do about it? And part of it, I think is I mean, as a historian, just that people understand who we've honored, why we've honored them — is one part; and what the U.S. Army stands for, [what] the military stands for, to make sure that they understand as well. One thing that I tell people often is about the oath that we take. So you know, the oath is — I'm so proud to have taken that oath so many times, and I’ve given it so many times, gave it to my son. And it's to ‘support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ Well, who are those domestic enemies? Well, the oath was written in 1862. It's an anti-Confederate oath! And we all take that oath. Everyone in Congress takes it. Everyone in the federal government takes it. And I know you've taken it as well. And it's important for us to realize the context of that, which is it was about an insurrection. And anytime we're you know, the Constitution clearly says we can put down an insurrection. So I think it's some of it is education; some of it is culture within the military that we have to make sure of; and we are representative of the country, so we have to make sure we understand that. Another part is, we're in the character development business in the Army. We're in the culture business. At West Point, our mission was to educate, train and inspire leaders of character, with service to the nation through the values of duty, honor [and] country. That character, that word character, but character changes over time. And we got to make sure everyone in the force knows that. You know, five years ago, you could say all women can't be in infantry. And you'd have been right, and even though that’s sexist, because it was a law. Now, women can be everywhere. So everybody who's in service needs to get with the program on that. Ten years ago, you could be a homophobe, and that was okay because the Army didn't allow you to serve honestly. Now, you cannot be a homophobe, and we're not going to accept you in the military if you are. So we have to make sure as a military that we are educating and training our force to understand what the values that we have, that they are non negotiable. And part of that is with this extremism. It's non negotiable; you cannot be an extremist and be in uniform serving your nation. It is such an honor to serve your nation.

Watson: The windows in the lives of key Americans that you write about is fascinating. Like I didn't know about Harry Truman, you know, the executive order that he had signed in 1948. That I knew about; but I didn't know he was raised — that executive order, by the way desegregated the U.S. military — I didn't know he was raised by a woman who hated Lincoln. I probably should have known. But I didn't know that she admired William Quantrill, you know, the guerrilla who was shot in fact, on this day — I think, 1865 on this very day, May 10. I'm kind of proud; in Kentucky, I think it was where he was shot, and he died a couple days later. But this Harry Truman situation, what a background for someone so integral to the history of U.S. race race relations.

Seidule: Right? So Truman did that in reaction to two veterans who were lynched, really — one in my hometown of Monroe, Georgia, [where the veteran] was one of four people killed in 1946. I never knew; I grew up there and didn't know about it at all. And along with the blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard in Aiken, South Carolina, also in 1946, just just made him — and they were both veterans, one of the ones who was killed in Monroe, Georgia; and then, Isaac Woodard was actually in uniform, taken off a bus in uniform as he was leaving the service, and policemen in South Carolina beat him with the end of his nightstick until he broke his eye sockets and he was blinded. And that made Truman say, ‘This just can't happen,’ and ‘How could these people do this in uniform?’ Which is what was happening, people were lynched in uniform. And, in fact, there was someone lynched on Fort Benning in 1941 in uniform, a black soldier; and that caused [Truman] to look at this and execute Executive Order 99 — to start the Civil Rights Commission that led to the executive order. But we should also remember that the military (except for the Air Force), the other branches of the military fought that integration order to begin with. The Army did; the Marine Corps did; the Navy did. The Air Force didn’t because they had diversity because Benjamin Davis Jr. was in the Air Force and helped lead the Air Force to integrate. So yeah, that this is, this is who our history is, we often celebrate the Army, or the military's integration; but we don't remember that that the Army, including uniformed people, fought it until the the needs of the Korean War really forced us to integrate — because it's the it doesn't make any operational sense. So on the one hand, we have to look at our accomplishments as a military. On the other, we have to be honest about what we didn't do or what we did do, somewhat belatedly. But even then, even though we were belated, it was still far earlier than much of the rest of society.

Watson: Indeed, indeed. You remind me of a PBS documentary I saw recently called ‘Civilizations.’ One of the last episodes was called ‘The Cult of Progress.’ And it was just an interesting way of looking at progress. I hadn't quite thought of it as various people who might be saying, you know, ‘We should always progress!’ as those types of people being a cult, and how that might be a threat to somebody who's not feeling that way. It was just an interesting look at the evolution of different different civilizations in this case, you know, and how they kind of come together to form the whole marble that is Earth.

Seidule: Yeah, well, and we Americans think of ourselves as constantly getting better. This is sort of one of the myths of America is that we believe that things are always gonna get better. Well, they don't always get better. And it takes people working to make things, whatever it is that you're doing there. And every time you're doing something, no matter what it is, no matter who's on the political aisle, that there are going to be people fighting against that. And I'm not saying which is progress. And even the idea of what is progress, people are fighting over that. And that's what we as a society have always done, we've always done in this country is to fight over what is progress? What should we keep? What should we discard? What's going to change? You know, some people ask me, ‘Ty, are you trying to change history?’ when I look at these monuments that I write about. And I'm here, I'm not trying to change history; I'm trying to change who we commemorate, because who we commemorate is who we value. And I want to make sure that as a society, we value those things that that as a society we should. Not those particular Confederates who committed treason to preserve slavery; rather those that that represent the values of the United States of America today. And I hope that we can continue to recognize those values going forward.

Watson: That's great. You remind me of your own quote; you said, ‘The alternative to ignoring our racist history is creating a racist future.’

Seidule: Yeah, that's exactly it. I mean, that's why we have to study the past. Because we recognize it and acknowledge it because we have had a racist past. But just because we've had a racist past doesn't mean we have to have a racist future. But we will be there unless we acknowledge and work on what was a racist past. So yeah, I'm a firm believer that the United States of America can be what it wants to be. But the foundation of being the best we can be, is understanding our history.

NEXT STORY: Should We Care About That Letter?