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The controversial nature of iconic images in history

Iconic images have and will continue to shape history and the world we live in. However, at the same time iconic images and symbols will often represent very different ideas depending on the perspective of the observer. This solution offers students the explanation of how a symbol can mean very separate things to different peoples. As historians it is important to understand the diverse meanings that a symbolic illustration can evoke in order to better understand the impact of the image.

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Symbols and iconic images are both a fascinating reflection of history and an integral part of historical study. Symbolic images from aboriginal art in Australia to Stonehenge in the United Kingdom allow historians to access information about cultures that disappeared thousands of years ago. I would argue that symbolic or iconic images are as important to the study of history as archival research or oral traditions.

In the modern era symbolic images are no less powerful or useful for researchers. The iconic picture of Nelson Mandela in 1990 as he walked to freedom after 27 years imprisonment on Robben Island and the scenes of jubilant East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989 both inspired and representative of social and political movements towards freedom and democracy.

However symbolic or iconic images can also mean very separate things to different peoples. The image of Yasser Arafat is a symbol of national identity for many Palestinians and represents their struggle for a homeland but for Israelis he represented terrorism, nepotism and corruption. In this solutiion I will examine three well known iconic images; the Alamo, the Confederate Flag and Custer's Last Stand. I will use these examples to illustrate to students how iconic images can in many cases be viewed in dramatically differing ways.

On March 6th 1836 the army of the Mexican leader Santa Anna broached the walls of the old mission know as 'The Alamo' in San Antonio, Texas after 12 days of fighting. Virtually all the defenders of the Alamo including William Barrett Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett are killed during the battle or executed.(1) It was however a pyrrhic victory for Santa Anna as his forces were exhausted and six weeks later he was defeated decisively at San Jacinto by Sam Houston's Texans who allegedly went into battle screaming "Remember the Alamo".(2)

For white Texans and many Anglo Americans the Alamo is remembered as a moment of valor where a small but determined group of courageous heroes sacrificed their lives for liberty and freedom from Mexican oppression. Richard R Flores noted that for most Texans the Alamo is a "bastion of Texas liberty and memorial to brave men."(3) For many there is also a mythic aspect to the battle, it is a 'Texan Thermopylae' where a band of great warriors took a stand to protect their civilization against a far superior force.(4) The defenders of the Alamo, like Leonidas and his Spartans knew that it would cost them their lives but sacrificed their lives to give their nation ...

Solution Summary

An explanation of the controversial nature of iconic images in history through a discussion of The Alamo, the Confererate Flag and Custer's Last Stand.