There’s a bill currently under consideration in the Arkansas Legislature’s House committee on State Agencies and Public Affairs: HB 1229, An Act to Create the Arkansas Military Heritage Protection Act; and for Other Purposes.

There’s a bill currently under consideration in the Arkansas Legislature’s House committee on State Agencies and Public Affairs: HB 1229, An Act to Create the Arkansas Military Heritage Protection Act; and for Other Purposes.


On its face, this bill has noble intentions, namely preservation of our history and honoring the military service of many Arkansans. Unfortunately, it’s also chocked full of potential latent consequences.


The bill begins by defining what a monument is: "Monument’ means a statue, a memorial, gravestone plate, nameplate, plaque, historic flag display, school, street, bridge, building, park, preserve, or reserve that: (A) Has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of, a historical military figure, historical military event, military organization, or military unit… ."


The bill then goes on to enumerate a list of 17 specific monument types that may not be "relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated or otherwise disturbed."


To be sure, the service and sacrifice of Arkansans should be properly memorialized, but this bill sets up a situation where a given memorial is more than just set in stone.


Human frailties being what they are, heroes are easy to elevate, but the lens of time doesn’t always support that ascendance. Do we really want to create a situation in which we forever lionize a person for deeds of the day, only to later discover that the hero of the moment had faults that outstripped their heroism?


Not that any Arkansan would, but it is possible that a person could perform an act of great bravery in the heat of battle and also commit war crimes; or be a member of a terrorist group like the Ku Klux Klan. Most people are complex constructions. Sometimes that complexity contains dimensions that don’t accord with a permanent and immutable memorial on the courthouse lawn.


There are also less socio-political reasons this might be an unwise law. Towns grow. Their spatial needs change. Some monuments occasionally need to be relocated — for their own protection or greater veneration.


This bill would prevent that. A monument once crowded into the back of the courthouse parking lot might be better honored if it were the centerpiece of a public park. This bill is deaf to that potential.


Many supporters of this bill believe that hippie liberals want to erase important aspects of our shared history. These same foes of heritage want a sanitized, revisionist telling of our common story. Maybe some do, but the vast majority likely just want an acknowledgment that history is pliable. History is a matter of perspective; and perspective changes across time.


An example of this can be found in Greenwood, South Carolina. There a tempest is brewing over a small plaque on a World War I memorial. The soldiers are listed as either white or "colored." The well-intentioned mayor (and others in the community) want to change the plaque to "integrate" the names. A backlash has ensued.


As historians, National Park Service interpreters and many activists have noted, that separation speaks to an important aspect of the time the memorial was erected. It shouldn’t be undone.


South Carolina has a law almost identical to the Arkansas bill. As the Associated Press reports, its purpose was to appease people who worried 15 years ago that Confederate memorials and street and park names in honor of generals would be torn down in wake of the Confederate flag being removed from the Statehouse dome and being put in front of the South Carolina Capitol alongside a Confederate soldier monument. The flag is still a sore point for the NAACP and other black leaders.


What the people of South Carolina are figuring out and what Arkansas legislators need to learn is that history is a mighty river. You may dam it. You may control the flow. But ultimately it controls itself; we don’t.