War and Memory

Westmount war memorial

Although it might seem contradictory, a central part of remembering the past is also forgetting it. If today blacks march alongside whites during Civil War reenactments, it is to challenge the enduring narrative that continues to erase them from their struggle for emancipation. At the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, in front of thousands of white Yankees and Confederates, the Chairman of reunion exclaimed “it matters little to you or to me now what the causes were that provoked the war,” what was important was how the nation’s collective memory and amnesia served America’s current war aims.

….never forget…what? The statement seems purposefully vague so as to encompass a multitude of ideas. Rituals and places of pilgrimage unite public memory with an individual’s own private memory. Yet absent from solemn Remembrance Day ceremonies are the stories of racism and resistance that were very much part of the experience of the First World War.

Contesting the dominant narrative of war remembrance and the reverence of “fallen heroes” is met with resistance. For example, recently there has been some outcry over people sporting a white poppy instead of the traditional red one.

The other day I asked an eight year old I work with why she was wearing the red poppy and what she thought it meant. She said it is to remember “our soldiers who went to make peace for our country, to keep us safe. We think about all the soldiers who died for us, fighting for peace.”

Name one soldier, I asked…

Previous to the Great War, military-themed monuments marked a battle or glorified a single military leader. Then during WWI, there was a concerted effort to erect more democratic lieux de mémoire as a means of drumming up support for an increasingly unpopular war.

These stone monuments can be seen in public squares, parks and in front of town halls across the island, so ubiquitous they become invisible; names appear without military rank thus leveling the battlefield —all were rewarded and remembered equally in death.

Who is remembered has changed as much as how we remember.

While the tradition of naming fallen soldiers has endured, the intended purpose of the monuments has shifted: from patriotic hero-worship to therapeutic healing and reflection. In Maya Lin’s words, when visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with (this) loss. For death, is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained with this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.” The reflective black granite, submerged into the ground and into which over 58 000 names are inscribed is a far cry from the Thiepval Memorial‘s towering majestic arch and its chiseled  72 000 names, which served as its inspiration.

If wars are divisive, so too are the ways in which we chose to remember them. Today anthems, flags, and memorials are the equivalent of a secular religion whose symbols and meaning need to be constantly reinforced.

“Ah not this marble, dead and cold,” lamented Walt Whitman in 1885 upon the completion of the Washington Monument. Perhaps the best way to understand our nation’s past is not to repeat slogans or sport a plastic flower, but to crack open a book or three. Better yet take the time to sit down and talk to a veteran; that will surely be a day to remember.

* Westmount Cenotaph photo by Mario Melillo

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