Desecration of Missoula war monument stirs debate between county, veteran community

The Doughboy statute honoring those who fell in World War I was vandalized with paint and a desecrated American flag in June, opening a debate in Missoula about who is to blame and what elected officials should do to protect the city’s war monuments. (Missoula Current file photo)

The desecration of a downtown Missoula monument erected in 1927 to honor those who died fighting World War 1 has prompted some to ask Missoula County to install signage warning vandals of the penalties under federal law.

Commissioners on Tuesday opted not to take such action, saying a sign would not have deterred vandals from desecrating the Doughboy statue, and that existing state law provides other tools that could be used to prosecute anyone who does so in the future.

But the debate runs deeper, touching on current politics and other issues facing the nation.

“We too have invested heavily and care deeply about this Doughboy statue,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “In no way, shape or form is anything that we are contemplating by not placing signage condoning anyone from destroying the thing.”

Those angered by the monument’s desecration, including members of the veteran community, have asked the county to place signage noting an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, which called for the full prosecution of anyone who “destroys, damages, vandalizes or desecrates a monument, memorial or statute within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property.”

Trump signed the executive order on June 26 at the height of the Black Lives Matter protest. While those demonstrations were largely peaceful in delivering their message, certain fringe groups took it upon themselves to carry out acts of violence and vandalism.

The nation’s statues and monuments became targets.

“Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust and have sought to impose that ideology on Americans through violence and mob intimidation,” the president’s order reads. “Key targets in the violent extremists’ campaign against our country are public monuments, memorials, and statues.”

While monuments honoring heroes of the Confederacy have been removed in recent weeks – some by local governments and others by angry mobs – monuments with an otherwise benign history have also become targets.

The president’s executive order notes a number of them, including a North Carolina veterans memorial painted over with symbols of communism, and a memorial in Boston commemorating an African-American regiment that fought in the Civil War.

In Missoula, the Doughboy statute honoring those who fell in World War I met a similar fate. Vandals spray painted the statue’s base in blue pain in early June and wrapped a desecrated American flag around its neck.

Some placed the blame on the downtown demonstrators who occupied the block for weeks and gathered daily at the monument’s base. But county commissioners on Tuesday were quick to defend the demonstrators, saying the vandals haven’t been caught and therefor no particular group could be blamed for the act.

“I’m thoroughly unconvinced that the people who did deface the statue had anything to do with the Black Lives Matter protest or anything else,” said Slotnick. “We have no idea. It’s a giant leap there. I’m satisfied with things the way they are.”

Strohmaier offered a similar view.

“As opposed to what some folks might be insinuating, I want to decouple the Black Lives Matter demonstrators and demonstrations from whatever vandalism may have occurred,” he said. “It’s an erroneous assumption on some folks’ part that it was the demonstrators who did the vandalism, and we have no idea who did it.”

Dennis Gordon is one of many outraged by the vandalism, calling the culprits ignorant in their inability to “tell the difference between a stature of a soldier honoring Missoula’s war dead” from a statute of something else.

Gordon has asked the county to erect signage at the statue warning future vandals of the potential penalties under federal law – and in accordance with Trump’s executive order, which urged “prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”

But commissioners on Tuesday described the president’s executive order as “inflammatory in nature,” saying they disagreed with its language and tone. Rather, they said they would follow state laws if a vandal were ever caught.

Gordon in a recent editorial questioned what he sees as a lack of response from Missoula’s elected officials regarding the vandalism. He also questioned the county’s commitment to the veteran community and the city’s war monuments.

“Our elected officials stand strangely mute in condemning this desecration,” Gorden wrote. “By not condemning these despicable acts, our elected representatives disrespect all veterans and may be providing a green light for future acts of vandalism.”

Commissioners have ordered the placement of signs prohibiting overnight parking in East Missoula and parking along several roads near popular recreation sites on the Clark Fork River.

But on Tuesday, they said too many signs would make all other signs meaningless. Placing a sign at the Doughboy statue would not have prevented the vandalism, they said.

“I’m grateful that the people who put that statute up chose a Doughboy statue and not just something horrible and heinous,” said Slotnick. “Or we’d have to take the statue down.”

In his executive, Trump said the federal government would withhold federal support from state and local law enforcement agencies that fail to protect public monuments and memorials from vandalism and desecration.

“Unwillingness to enforce State and local laws in the face of attacks on our history, whether because of sympathy for the extremists behind this violence or some other improper reason, casts doubt on the management of these law enforcement agencies.  These law enforcement agencies are not appropriate candidates for limited Federal funds that support State and local police.”