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How do We Memorialize Responsibly?

October 30, 2009

A few weekends ago, my Dad came to visit me in Washington D.C. We did a number of the free touristy things that make DC such a great place to visit, including the Native American Museum, the temporary Solar Decathlon and the World War II Memorial. The WWII Memorial is one of the newest additions to the Mall and it sits in a prominent position between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

There are always many visitors at the Memorial and it conjures up a feeling of grandeur when one enters because it is set down below the level of the reflecting pool so that a visitor looks up at the pillars that encircle it. The design is reminiscent of the United Nations building and assembly hall, a positive development out of the ruins of the war, but as I stood there observing other people experiencing the Memorial and taking stock of my own reaction I couldn’t help but feel a dilemma about the act of commemorating a war at all.

I understand that many people have loved ones who fought in WWII (my grandfather) and even more who have fought and died in wars since then. It is logical to me that people want to commemorate those lives and the sacrifice they represent. And yet there should be a way to do that without glorifying the war itself. Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial is probably the best example of a national memorial to a war that doesn’t glorify the war itself, but rather strikes a thoughtful note about the lives lost. And yet her design was hugely controversial when it was first chosen (If you are interested in the background of the design, the controversy and how they eventually decided to compromise, check out a great documentary called A Strong Clear Vision by Freida Lee Mock). I have heard many say that the Vietnam Memorial is the most emotionally touching memorial; and yet I still wonder how the physical construction of a memory in the nation’s capitol warps its intention and instead embeds war into our nation’s psyche.

At various times in my life, and even more since I have started working at FCNL, I have wondered why our nation constantly seems to hunger for war. Maybe a deeper exploration of what it means to memorialize might begin to touch on a possible answer. People don’t want to believe that lives were lost in a mistaken war, or even a war that wasn’t as altruistic as was once thought. No average U.S citizen wants to admit that a loved one might have died to protect the right for wealthy people to become even wealthier. It is far easier to tie war to more lofty ideals like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “victory”. But that rhetoric places our nation in the impossible position of constantly validating war in order to redeem the past.

The WWII Memorial in particular catalyzed these thoughts for me because there seems to be a nostalgia among many Americans for that kind of war—a war between distinct nations and one with a moral imperative. Recently, a former Marine serving in Afghanistan as a Foreign Service Officer resigned his post because of a fundamental opposition to our presence there. His resignation has caused an uproar; the Washington Post hosted a live blogging session where people could ask him questions. One question reflects a clear desire for the old kind or war, the kind that people understand:

Cumberland, Md.: Don’t you think that our over-emphasis on collateral damage and nation building is harming our effort to wage war effectively as we did in WW II?

Matthew Hoh: This isn’t WWII and there shouldn’t be a comparison. No one can kill better in this world than the US military, however, if killing was the means to victory we would have “won” this years ago. This is primarily a political fight.

To read Hoh’s resignation letter click here:
To read the question and answer session click here:

This brings me back to the difficult question of how to commemorate lives lost without memorializing and thus venerating war itself. Like Matthew Hoh said, WWII is in the past and Afghanistan and Iraq are totally different beasts. Looking to the past won’t give us a blueprint for the conflicts of today.

I would be interested to hear what others think about the difficulty of remembering without venerating an institution with which there is a moral conflict. Is this something that can be done on a national stage? Or should remembering necessarily be done in private to prevent such cooption? I still grapple with this question, as you can see. What do you think?

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