Blog Post

'Some Men': Memorializing War

"Now, war ended, all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth. Men die. Fear hurts and humiliates. It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is. Dead human beings are heavy and awkward to carry, things smell different in Vietnam, soldiers are dreamers, drill sergeants are boors, some men thought the war was proper and others didn’t and most didn’t care. Is that the stuff for a morality lesson, even for a theme?"

How does one memorialize a war? How does one represent the confusion, carnage, love, hate, terror, boredom, disillusionment, happiness, and fluidity of humankind's endeavour in killing? What mnemonic devices can we use: art? Architecture? Music? Poetry? The prefacing quote expresses the American author and veteran Tim O'Brien's early attempt to make sense of his experience during the Vietnam War. For him, fiction memorialized the unexplainable experience in Southeast Asia of his youth. Through fiction, O'Brien explores the truth of his experience. This raises the question: what do we mean when we memorialize war? I believe there is no specific example. O'Brien's lesser-known method of using fiction is an exmaple of the variety of memorializing experience. Yet, to stick with the Vietnam example, we typically imagine artistically creative, government initiated memorials inscribed with the names of the dead or missing. These memorials usually draw deep sentiments and emotions, often simply by their facticity, that is of what they represent: there is a two-fold experience between their being and our perceptions and appropriations of experience. The Vietnam War Memorial, for instance, is a simple black wall with the names of over 58 000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. In itself, it is just a wall of names, yet when one knows the history - the purpose - of the memorial, it becomes heart-wrenching - to see the names of all those humans who died in a conflict that, in popular memory, was almost meaningless. I will mention poppies as well. Every November, these representations of those red flowers are used as mnemonic devices to represent one's personal method to memorialize the war. Yet that poppy has no meaning in-itself. We appropriate the meaning. Such is the importance of studying history - to continually develop and evolve our understanding of the past, namely history.

It begs the question: what does memorializing mean? We see memorials, like the Vietnam example, that attempt to arrest a feeling within us. Others use detailed sculptures to romantically portray an endeavour or struggle in war. Names, too, are integral to many memorials: those simple denotative markings that represent a person - a single inscription that works with artistic merit of the memorial to give some meaning to the person who held that name in their particularity. Yet how can a single name represent the complexity of a human's experience. With names in tandem with the artistic or intentional aspect, a memorial seeks to represent an experience as a whole. It seeks to show, among other things, that in death war creates equals. Yet is this necessarily true?

I came across this simple project by CBC today  that holds so much promise for historical representation but also memorializing. The project maps the homes of Ottawa soldiers who died in the First World War. Using a simple Google Map, the creators have researched the addresses of those soldiers killed in the war and mapped them digitally. Representationally, I can see this as a useful tool to historians studying local issues about the Great War. For instance, how was that space transformed by the death of a member of the community? However, I propose to view it as a mnemonic device. Issues arise. One may argue that the map, specifically in its setting, makes mnemonic representation impersonal. But does a memorial have to be personal - must it arrest you in emotion? Barring the fact that the sheer numbers of death viewed in the map could inspire an emotional response, how can one judge a mnemonic device on its ability to inspire emotion? In fact, by clicking on each red dot, one can read the name and other biographical information about the soldier killed. Is this not similar to current memorials that include the names of the dead? We have amazing digital tools to expand our worldviews and histories and this simple project by the CBC has propogated such a new method. The possibilities are out there waiting to be discovered.

Thus, I leave the question open ended: what are memorials for? It is open ended because memorials are appropriated, historically at least. We project our experiences and personal understandings upon them. Memorializing is not separated from personal beliefs. Yet it is important to understand why and how other individuals memorialize. Many do it to simply remember a tragedy, others to celebrate life, some to attempt to make sense of an event. There is no set method to memorialize.

Reflect on the memorials around you: look at them in-themselves and learn about them - always ask yourself if what you are interacting with is a memorial in some way. Learn new ways to memorialize. Memory is what makes us human. We should not let it go unconsciously lightly.

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2 comments

If you're interested in this topic in more depth, you might check out Kirk Savage's Monument Wars. He was my MA advisor and his work on monuments and public memory is really good and widely respected.

Hilary

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This is wonderful, thank you!

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