Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

11 thoughts on “Memories of War

  1. Although I agree with most everything written above, something you posited before, about “..people not having a reason to care…,” leaves me continually dispirited. That is to say, that meaningful, intraspective writing, does little more than ‘sing to the choir,’ as it were. How can we break through the strengthening forces of hyper partisanship? If citizens are unwilling to care about the ongoing wars, what will words do? I ask only rhetorically. By no means do I condone giving up.

    If only we could somehow get people to care as much about their country as they do their favorite sports team or television programs? And if people did pay attention? Would we have less war, or more? Once upon a time I believed the answer was clear. Today, not so much.

    Thanks for the book recommendation! I’ll pick up a copy soon.

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    1. Yes. I’d say first that the choir needs to hear preaching too. Why go to church every week if we’re already “saved”? Because there’s meaning to the repetition.

      Second, I’d say that even in our hyper-partisan times, you never know when and where your seeds might take root and grow. We need to keep scattering our “seeds,” hoping they’ll take root, even among the thistle.

      Finally, I’m amazed at how the parables of Christ have stayed with me, but that’s because I learned them when I was young. So maybe that’s the way forward: educate our children in the ways of peace, and perhaps as adults they’ll do better than us at avoiding war. Thanks.

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      1. I don’t know if I mentioned to you that I have been teaching history for the first time this year. I’m
        Currently on a bus returning from Washington with 250 8th graders. We also spent a day in Gettysburg. This is my 6th trip and each time I grow more conflicted about traipsing 14 year olds through monuments and cemeteries with insufficient context and a tour guide who solemnly intones, “and all these people died for your freedom.” Well, no. A lot of them died for imperialism and wrong-headed notions of whatAmerica means. A lot of them were young and poor and died to defend the money of rich, old white guys. I, too, am moved to tears at these places where the sheer waste of life can barely be conveyed. It’s hard to get them to look up from their phones to think about any of this.

        I noticed that what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie” is inscribed on the amphitheater near the tomb of the unknown soldier: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” I’ll teach that poem in the coming week and encourage them to question, as I always do.
        For right now, the rain, the Trump hats, the New Jersey turnpike, and the memory of the fatuous tour guide have all got me feeling more than a little discouraged.

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      2. Hi Katie: Such a great comment. Thank you.

        In 2008, I wrote about my own experience visiting Gettysburg. Here it is:

        Visiting Gettysburg

        Last week, I finally made it to Gettysburg, site of the great three-day battle between Union and Confederate forces in July 1863 that ended with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee’s army. Walking the battlefield was a sobering experience. I found myself on Little Round Top at 5:00 PM, just about the time of day that Union generals rushed men to reinforce the hill against a determined Confederate assault at the close of the battle’s second day. Earlier, I was at the Angle, just when, almost a century and a half ago, Pickett’s Charge failed to pierce the Union center, sealing Lee’s fate on the third day.

        As these events played through my mind, I marveled that I had the battlefield largely to myself. Not that I was alone, mind you. Tour buses circled; cars, trucks, and SUVs whizzed about, but many, perhaps most, Americans who visit Gettysburg get surprisingly little tactile or sensory experience of its difficult topography. Yes, a few kids (and fewer adults) joined me in clambering about the huge, claustrophobically placed boulders of Devil’s Den, and I did spy a couple of guided tour groups on foot. But at the site of a bloodcurdling, distinctly septic nineteenth century battle, most visitors were clearly having a distinctly bloodless, even antiseptic, twenty-first century experience.

        That day, I learned a lot about Gettysburg the battle — and maybe a little about us as well. As surely as my fellow tourists were staying in their cars and buses, we, as a people, are distancing ourselves from the realities of war. As we seal ourselves away from war’s horrors, we’re correspondingly finding it easier to speak of “warfighters” and to boast of having the world’s best military.

        As we catch a glimpse, from the comfort of our living rooms, of a suicide bombing in Iraq or an American outpost attacked, then abandoned, in Afghanistan, are we not like those tourists in buses at Gettysburg, listening to sanitized recordings telling us what to see and think about the (expurgated) reality in front of us? And who dares challenge the “expert” commentary? Who dares turn off the canned talking heads and stare into the face of war?

        But if we are to end our militaristic, yet curiously sanitized, “warfighter” moment, if we are ever to return to our citizen-soldier ethos and heritage, this is just what we must do.

        At this link: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174957/william_astore_generation_war-fighters

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  2. Perfect — thank you. I had just read This a Republic of Suffering– which definitely help banish any “curiously sanitized” notions from my head. I guess you can’t really blame anybody for making a living, but the stores full of tchotchkes and fudge are distasteful to me. The battlefield guides used to be pretty good about getting the kids out of the bus and moving over the landscape, but this year we mostly stayed in the bus– don’t know why. Thanks for giving me a place to process all this as we ride home.

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  3. Perfect — thank you. I had just read This a Republic of Suffering– which definitely help banish any “curiously sanitized” notions from my head. I guess you can’t really blame anybody for making a living, but the stores full of tchotchkes and fudge are distasteful to me. The battlefield guides used to be pretty good about getting the kids out of the bus and moving over the landscape, but this year we mostly stayed in the bus– don’t know why. Thanks for giving me a place to process all this as we ride home.

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  4. I once took a group of high-school freshmen to visit the Huntington Library in San Marino (near Pasadena), California. I can’t say what the kids got out of the trip, but for me, I happened to take notice of a decorative plaque prominently displayed on a wall of the room in which we found ourselves. It read:

    “Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakenly meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    How timeless and approprate that observation. I especially recall Emerson’s words whenever I think of memory and memorials. Memory exists in living biology, especially human animal consciousness, whereas memorials consist of dead rock and wood fashioned by human hands into something deliberately suggestive of something else. But what the memorial — or any material artifact — suggests to us depends critically upon what individual human memory and experience we bring to the viewing of it. In our books and memorials we read something reflected — much or little — of ourselves.

    For years I put off visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because I had so many mixed emotions about my own “war” and what I remember of it. I kept thinking that I would go see it once a sane and competent American administration took power and brought our many serial Vietnams to an end. But then I realized that this would probably never happen in my lifetime. So I finally made the pilgrimage along with my wife, two sons, and a high-school classmate and her husband (also in D.C. at the time). I could tell that everyone expected me to feel sad, and I tried to put on the appropriate mask for their benefit, but the whole scene really only made me angry. They brought themselves to the wall and thought they heard it say something about sorrow and weeping; but I brought me, and I heard nothing but lies, screams, and curses. The good memory makes the good memorial, and I have a pretty good memory.

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    1. Really well put, Mike. I didn’t have your sense of anger at the wall; I was far too young to have served in Vietnam, and knew no one who had died. What I did get from the wall was a sense of loss, a sense of waste, a sense of sorrow.

      I recall a scene from “The Empire Strikes Back,” as Luke prepares to enter the cave where the Dark Side is strong. He asks Yoda, What’s in there?, and the Jedi Master replies, Only that which you take with you.

      And so it proves, as Luke confronts the shadows of his own dark destiny, a destiny he barely averts by refusing to submit to hate and anger.

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      1. Speaking of memorials and America’s War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos),
        I remember once coming out of the front gate of Tan Son Nhut Airbase on my way into downtown Saigon. While waiting to catch a xyclo (motorscooter taxi) ride, I noticed a little plot of ground off to one side of the road, overgrown with weeds and coated with the choking dust kicked up by all the passing traffic. Upon closer inspection, I realized that I had stumbled upon a tiny graveyard, with tombstones tilted or falling over amidst the rank tropical vegetation. Then I saw a rusted sign, itself leaning over at a crazy angle which proclaimed (in English): “The Vietnamese people will never forget the sacrifices of the brave French legionaires,” or words to that effect. Yeah. Sure.

        In later years, when I read Barbara Tuchman’s fine book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, I had the perfect image in mind as I read her summary sentence: “In the end, China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.” I realized then that, like the French in Southeast Asia before us, we Americans had some weed-choked, long neglected memorials of our own in store for us in many a forgotten corner of our rotting, collapsing “empire.” And who knows, but perhaps — after the sacking of Washington D.C. that surely lies not too far down the road — our surviving descendants will see such ruined memorials in our own “homeland” as well, with no one alive who can read the rusting words or remember what all the delapidated junk once represented. I can see this all as plain as day. I have seen it. I can hear it whisper, too: the empty echoes of a great desolation, as Shelley once spoke of it in “Ozymandias”:

        I met a traveller from an antique land,
        Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
        Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
        Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
        And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
        Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
        Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
        The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
        And on the pedestal, these words appear:
        ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
        Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
        Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
        Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
        The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

        We hear it said that “Time waits for no man.” Yes, but its vast forgetfullness does lie in store for us all. In the meantime, while we live and breathe and can think anything at all, our own little minds and memories will have to tell us what to make of our memorials.

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