[The final post in the Memorial Day-inspired series, on cultural images of war.]
On the more and less meaningful, complex, and valuable ways in which we remember wars.
Michael Kammen, whose Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991) changed my life when I read it in college and remains one of the best American Studies books I’ve ever read (and is just one of many great books he’s written), has persuasively argued that we need at least two distinct concepts for public memory: remembrance, which would describe genuine attempts to remember the past in all its complexity; and commemoration, which would categorize those efforts that are more simplifying and mythologizing, and usually more tied to present concerns than to the past itself. Kammen goes into much more detail and nuance than that, as would I, but ultimately I do think there’s significant value to separating out such thoroughly distinct kinds of public (and at least potentially, for that matter, private) memory and history.
There are many applications for that two-part concept, but in following up yesterday’s post on the Tuskegee Airmen, and in thinking about Memorial Day in general, it seems to me that our memories of war are particularly ripe for this kind of analysis. I’m thinking especially about cultural memories, stories and representations of war in popular culture—like Lucas’s Red Tails, and like so, so many other war films, TV shows, novels, and more. I would argue that many, if not the vast majority, of those cultural representations are commemorative (which doesn’t have to mean celebratory); that whether the cultural sources seek to celebrate wartime heroism (as does Lucas’ film) to attack the brutalities and horrors of war (as does for example Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), or to stake out any position in between, they almost always create simplified and even mythologized depictions of war in service of their agendas and goals. They might incidentally introduce complexities and even contradictions (an ironic critique of American racism within the celebratory Red Tails; a positive depiction of soldierly comraderie in the cynical world of Jacket), but to my mind their overall construction of war is far closer to commemoration than to remembrance.
We do have models in our popular culture for remembering rather than commemorating war, though. One such model is when a talented artist builds on but deepens and amplifies his or her personal experiences of war and creates a complex and powerful text as a result—Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is one such text, as are the best novels by Tim O’Brien. Just as important, however, are those models that don’t depend on personal experience (at least not of the artist him or herself), and for that I would highlight two complementary films from one of my recent Memory Day nominees: Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. If we try to consider what a battle like Iwo Jima, or a war like World War II, would look like and mean for those fighting it on both sides, it seems to me that we’re a long way toward remembering war in all its complexities. And it doesn’t hurt that Flags itself focuses directly on the most destructive effects of an emphasis on commemoration, in that case in the post-war lives of the Iwo Jima flag raisers.
Commemoration has its value, as Kammen certainly acknowledges. But you know me well enough to know that I greatly prefer remembrance—even more so when it comes to a complex, dark, and crucial historical theme like war. More next week,
PS. What do you think? Any texts that are particularly good at remembering rather than commemoration war?