Monday, October 5, 2009

Our (lack of) Collective Memory

Columnist Chris Hedges has an interesting piece that is posted over at today on the topic of how society collectively thinks (or doesn't think) about war. Here is a clip:

War memorials and museums are temples to the god of war. The hushed voices, the well-tended grass, the flapping of the flags allow us to ignore how and why our young died. They hide the futility and waste of war. They sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires. There are no images in these memorials of men or women with their guts hanging out of their bellies, screaming pathetically for their mothers. We do not see mangled corpses being shoved in body bags. There are no sights of children burned beyond recognition or moaning in horrible pain. There are no blind and deformed wrecks of human beings limping through life. War, by the time it is collectively remembered, is glorified and heavily censored.


A war memorial that attempted to depict the reality of war would be too subversive. It would condemn us and our capacity for evil. It would show that the line between the victim and the victimizer is razor-thin, that human beings, when the restraints are cut, are intoxicated by mass killing, and that war, rather than being noble, heroic and glorious, obliterates all that is tender, decent and kind. It would tell us that the celebration of national greatness is the celebration of our technological capacity to kill. It would warn us that war is always morally depraved, that even in “good” wars such as World War II all can become war criminals. We dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis ran the death camps. But this narrative of war is unsettling. It does not create a collective memory that serves the interests of those who wage war and permit us to wallow in self-exaltation.


The detritus of war, the old cannons and artillery pieces rolled out to stand near memorials, were curious and alluring objects in my childhood. But these displays angered my father, a Presbyterian minister who was in North Africa as an Army sergeant during World War II. The lifeless, clean and neat displays of weapons and puppets in uniforms were being used, he said, to purge the reality of war. These memorials sanctified violence. They turned the instruments of violence—the tanks, machine guns, rifles and airplanes—into an aesthetic of death.

These memorials, while they pay homage to those who made “the ultimate sacrifice,” dignify slaughter. They perpetuate the old lie of honor and glory. They set the ground for the next inferno. The myth of war manufactures a collective memory that ennobles the next war. The intimate, personal experience of violence turns those who return from war into internal exiles. They cannot compete against the power of the myth. This collective memory saturates the culture, but it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I think Hedges makes some very interesting points about collective amnesia. The late folk musician Utah Phillips has a quote that always sticks in my mind where he states that the most radical idea in America is a long-term memory. I think that there is a lot of insight in that quote and this article by Hedges speaks to one reason why the collective memory of this country has the ability to not only forget historical lessons, but create mythical memories of more complex events.

The brutality of war is often more understated than it is represented accurately. Take a look at the recent example of the war on Iraq in 2003 to see a prime example of this. Newscasters focus on the "awesome" technological advancements of warfare all while sanitizing images of bloodied children and refusing to air the images of coffins returning back to the United States. While this strategy may be easier on the eyes and conscious of the American public, it does not represent reality.

Just as the news coverage of war often does not take into account essential elements that would paint a more realistic picture, war memorials are guilty of the same. They help to sanitize and perpetuate myths about soldiers and about the very nature conflicts that are far too complicated to capture in an inscription. While war memorials may help us collectively feel better both about the actual conflicts as well as the sacrifice of soldiers, they do not help to portray a realistic account of said conflicts. Myths then are perpetuated and society ends up with a much different recollection of the events than actually happened at the time.

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