In class today, my students are researching the poetry of World War One and comparing and contrasting it with the blogs of soldiers from the recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historians and literary analysts agree that the poetry of the first world war demonstrates a melancholia, a sense of loss, and a profound disillusionment with the purpose and aims of war that indicates a shift in national attitudes. Whereas the wars of earlier times had been glorified as opportunities to show might, courage and devotion--this war, with its beastly technology and the appalling conditions of trench warfare, instilled a deep disappointment in the limited ends and extraordinary costs of war. In the 100th commemorative year of the "Great War" it is important for us to remember it wasn't great for most, and that it wasn't the war to end all wars by a longshot.
This brings me to the point of remembrance. How do we remember? Memorialize? Commemorate? Celebrate? Pay homage? Pay our respects? What is appropriate for one situation may not be applicable to another. Some people want to be reminded of victory, history, tragedy--others are traumatized by it. What is in good taste? Is good taste necessary, or does it keep us from looking reality in the face? Is remembrance best accomplished in ceremonies, services, parades, monuments or exhibits? When you start to deconstruct all of these facets, you realize just how complex remembrance is as both a cultural and personal practice.
As far as public remembering goes, in the twentieth century there has been more ambiguity, ambivalence, and controversy surrounding the subject of memorialization. War became less glorious, and in some cases, governments less comfortable, with erecting huge monuments in commemoration. There have been exceptions, of course. I can't help but think of my trip to Rome this summer where the almost vulgar monument to Victor Emmanuel II towers atop the city. Completed in 1925, with the goal of celebrating Italy's hard-won nationhood, ancient and medieval areas had to be destroyed in order to make room for the large white sculptural monstrosity. It feels old-fashioned and overdone in a city that contains such a rich history of antiquity, accomplishment and beauty. Despite the fact that Mussolini's fascist government lauded the project, controversy surrounding its erection and the monument's inappropriateness serves as a source of wry discussion to this day.
Other monumental projects have also fostered dissent and conflict. Vietnam War veterans had to wait until 1982 to have the initiative for a memorial pushed forward. Maya Lin's winning design for the wall memorial immediately generated conflict as some people saw the plain, black wall as nihilistic and embarrassing. While it flies in the face of the "monumental standard" in that it does not pretty things up or glorify, it seems to me that it reflects our national discomfort with the Vietnam War and is an appropriate response to that ambivalence. The wall has been embraced by tourists, families of soldiers and veterans who continue to visit the wall in droves leaving mementos for those killed. At Kent State University, where four were shot dead by National Guard Reserve members, it took decades for a true memorial to be erected and controversy over that design ensued as well.
Most recently, many have questioned whether or not the building of One World Trade Center is an appropriate response to the tragedy of 13 years ago. A wall and reflective pool have been installed, much thoughtfulness and research put into including the names of those killed, and a nearby museum that examines the events of that day built. Is it all commemorative, or morbid? Should that prime real estate space have been left more or less empty? Is this a way of moving on or just crass commercialism? These are important questions that relate not only to how we regard our national history, but also our personal history. See Adam Gopnik's article below if you're interested in pursuing this further.
Some thoughts on what we can take away:
- Do you use memory constructively or destructively? In other words, do you try to learn from past mistakes, or use them to beat yourself or others up with recriminations?
- Do you dwell too often, and too firmly, in the past? Are you still trying to look like you did back in high school or have you matured your look? Are you engaging in the same behaviors or have you matured your outlook?
- How do you celebrate life events? Birthdays, anniversaries, etc.? Are these moments of joy or sadness or indifference? Extravagance or restraint?
- Do you take time to think about the sacrifice of others on Veterans Day and Memorial Day? Why or why not?
- When you visit other places, and perhaps the monuments there, what is your reaction?
Artfully yours, Lisabeth