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From patriotism to peace: the humanization of war memorials.

Paul Fussell opens his anthology of modern war, The Bloody Game, with a look--in Thomas Hardy's words--at the worst:

The propensity of the twentieth century to generate wars

more extensive, destructive, and cruel than any in history

must shake the confidence of those like economists and

other social scientists, city planners, public health authorities,

jurists, legislators, and actuaries, whose work

obliges them to assume that people are rational, by their

nature free of the urge to self-destruction.... One need

not be a cynic to understand that modern history delivers

very different news.

Who can deny the host of evidence of our culture's self-destructive conditioning in preparation for wars? Since the end of World War II alone, there have been a dozen or so invasions of sovereign nations--from Libya and Guatemala to Panama and Iraq--by the United States.

But humankind needs little conditioning. Traditionally, we glorify war and warriors instead of peace and peacemakers. In my county in Arkansas, a dozen parks, battlefields, monuments, murals, and cemeteries memorialize war and warriors; none celebrate peace. A similar indoctrination for war instead of peace culturally prevails in all counties of the United States. It is no wonder that Fussell doubts our species' progress toward toleration and nonviolence.

And yet it does require cynicism to deny the evidence of peace and peacemakers--the Gandhis, the Kings, the Jane Addamses, the Joseph Rotblats, the Quakers--even though subordinate and obscure in the twentieth century. It does require cynicism to disregard the critical interpretations of writers who enable us to commence the struggle for a world in which memorials to peacemakers occupy public spaces at least equally with warriors. By x-raying the official heroic euphemisms and pieties of war cenotaphs and cemeteries--which are, in Fussell's words, partly the consequence of "the hysterias of runaway nationalism"--an alternative truth reveals itself.

A glance back in time illuminates this small voice unsilenced by the bloodiest of centuries. In earlier times, memory exalted leaders. Consider France as an example. Between 1808 and 1836, a triumphal arch was erected on the Place de l'Etoile to honor Napoleon's 660 generals and 128 battles: the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile exemplifies the glorification of the nation's heroic military might at the height of power. In the United States, a typical traditional war monument combined the expression of patriotic national unity with praise for the dead. Inside Cleveland's Soldiers and Sailors Monument, dedicated on July 4, 1894, was carved the names of the nine thousand county residents who had served in the Civil War, along with the images of Ohio war governors and generals cast in bronze. And on top of its shaft, a statue of the "Goddess of Liberty" signified loyalty to the nation. A similar monument was constructed in Indianapolis in 1902.

After World War I, the shift to an emphasis on the rank and file was complete. Between 1920 and 1925, every municipal council in France erected a memorial to its local dead--36,000 monuments composing a collective cenotaph in memory of the 1.5 million French soldiers killed in World War I. Also during that time, in 1921, a monument to the unknown soldier was added to the Arc de Triomphe.

Although this shift is surely a significant moment for the democratization of memorialization in military cemeteries--with their disciplined rows of identical crosses--it signaled no decrease in nationalistic patriotism and, in fact, strengthened it, for thenceforth all soldiers were glorified. Yet the enemy remained unseen; just as the industrialization of war (the advent of machine guns, tanks, mines, and airplanes) depersonalized the enemy and made them psychologically easier to destroy, so did the monuments. In France, they became the national focus for patriotic ancestor worship--with ever-increasing names. Not only did they add subsequent casualties from World War II, Indochina, and Algeria but also the dead from the War of 1870.

While these monuments were originally dedicated to victorious soldiers and their sacrifice for their nations, they have acquired a different meaning for some. The flowers which bedeck them at every public festival express the loss of loved ones, the terror of war, and the horror of meaningless slaughter. Despite the numerous ferocious wars in recent years, the ideal of "manliness" in the myth of the war experience and the cult of the war dead as part of nationalistic patriotism has weakened.

Literary Responses to War Memorials

Experience of war has primarily impelled some shift from glory to grief, but writers have contributed to the growth of this subordinate perception as well. Instead of assuming that the veneration for these sacred monuments is essential to national survival, writers examine the origins, consequences, and meaning (or meaninglessness) of war by competing for the interpretation of powerful events and myths. Monuments are part of the system of official control of belief, and writers offer stories alternative to official and popular versions. By their very past--in contrast to such honored places as Niagara Falls or Yosemite--war monuments invite challenge and dispute over such questions as the morality of war and the efficacy of sacrifice. While those who sought to preserve George Washington's Revolutionary War headquarters could write that "the flame of patriotism [will] burn in our bosoms when we tread the ground where was shed the blood of our fathers," and some visitors to the Gettysburg battlefield have felt they were ascending the rugged heights of Calvary, poets and novelists and dramatists have performed their cultural work of asking questions subversive of martial awe. They do us the service of understanding that war monument building, like patriotic rhetoric, is designed to sustain allegiance to established power, entrenched orthodoxy, and national resolve through force and violence. For this reason, they are feared and sometimes censored for seeking to discover the truth about the sacrifices of the past and the warriors of the past and future.

The mass slaughter of French and German soldiers during World War I inspired many anti-war literary responses. One of the most notable is Miracle at Verdun (1931) by Austrian writer Hans Chlumberg, who fought in Italy, including the last battle of the Isonzo. The idea of the play occurred to him suddenly in the form of a question: "What if the soldiers who died in the World War were to rise from their graves and return to the world they died to redeem?" The play begins at a military cemetery in the Argonne Forest composed of a large burial ground of crosses--so many they "continue out of sight." In the center of the cemetery resides a mass grave of both French and German dead, identified by a stone cross rising to the height of an average man. As the play describes, "On the base of the stone cross lie two enormous wreaths tied with ribbons in the colors of the German Reich and the Tricolor." A group of babbling tourists arrive after closing and engage in a quarrel with the caretaker but are allowed to enter. After the tourists depart, perhaps aroused by their voices, the soldiers climb out of the graves. The French march to Paris, the Germans to Berlin, to demand recognition and peace in the world. On the way, one soldier returns to his village, only to discover his wife is remarried and he's now an almost forgotten embarrassment. Some of the soldiers attend an international conference of French, German, and British leaders but, disheartened by the petty acrimonious debates and preparations for war, they soon depart. The world in general regards them as unwelcome pensioners come to further burden an overtaxed economic system. At the end, the ghosts trudge wearily back to their graves. The play brings to life the dead soldiers and measures their bloody sacrifice against the egregious greed of the world.

Another illustration of a writer's horror over the war as focused on monuments is the poem "On Passing the New Menin Gate" (1927-1928) by the British writer Siegfried Sassoon. On this cenotaph are inscribed the names of 54,889 killed at Ypres, a historically contested area in Belgium. During the Somme Offensive of July 1916, Sassoon fought with such conspicuous courage that he acquired the Military Cross and the nickname Mad Jack. Later, however, after being wounded in the chest by a sniper's bullet, he grew disaffected with the war and, with courage equal to his combat bravery, he publicly protested the war in statements and poetry as an act of aggression and conquest by old men responsible for the miseries and murder of the young. His poems are notable for their evocation of the horror of combat and for their satirical bite. "On Passing the New Menin Gate" ends with these two lines: "Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime." In contrast, General Herbert Plumer, who fought at Ypres during World War I, greeted parents visiting the gate in 1927 with these words: "He is not missing. He is here."

The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature write that the poets of the two world wars strove to warn about official lies and human beings' inhumanity toward each other by disclosing the realities of war. Charles Causley and Peter Porter are two World War II poets--the first British, the second American--whose truth-telling was inspired by cemeteries. Causley has written that the defining event of his life was the death of his friend, lost in a convoy to Russia in 1940, while he himself survived those years aboard a destroyer and aircraft carrier. In the conclusion of his poem, "At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux" (Bayeux, in northwest France, experienced fierce fighting following the Normandy landings in June 1944), the speaker prays in "syllables of clay" and asks what gift "shall I bring now," to which the dead reply: "All we ask/Is the one gift you cannot give." In "An American Military Cemetery in Tuscany," Porter echoes Chlumberg's satire of the shallowness of tourists, who find the headstones "disagreeable presences," while underneath the headstones men from Oregon and Minnesota are learning to be as green as a pine tree and to understand that the mystery of past and present is "not fulfilled, it is only done."

The literary response to the Vietnam War has perhaps equaled that of World Wars I and II. In one novel, In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., provides the focus for the plot. Organized into three parts, the first and the third give an account of a journey to the memorial by a Vietnam veteran, Emmett, his niece Sam (Samantha), and her grandmother Mrs. Hughes (Mamaw, the mother of Sam's father killed in Vietnam). It is a journey of reconciliation on many levels: the veteran seeking to come to terms with his grief and his guilt by saying goodbye to his dead comrades in "a V in the ground, like the wings of an abstract bird, huge and headless"; the niece/daughter seeking to learn more about her uncle and father by confronting the "black gash in a hillside," the "black boomerang, whizzing toward her head"; the mother/grandmother seeking reunion with her son, bringing him a pot of geraniums for his "hole in the ground." To Sam, the wall reflects--with an ambiguity toward the nation depicted throughout the novel--both the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument "at opposite angles." (Ambiguity was not, apparently, the intention of the designer, Maya Lin, who said she chose that angle "to create a unity between the nation's past and the present." Because many people protested that a monument about ordinary people with ordinary emotions failed to inspire national patriotism, a heroic statue of three soldiers, an American flag, and the inscription "God Bless America" on the monument were later added.)

The Washington Monument, particularly, is mirrored to Sam, "reflected at the center line. If she moves slightly to the left, she sees the monument, and if she moves the other way, she sees a reflection of the flag opposite the memorial." But to her "both the monument and flag seem like arrogant gestures, like the country giving the finger to the dead boys." She and her grandmother climb a borrowed ladder to touch the name of father and son, Dwayne E. Hughes. Mamaw strokes the name "affectionately, like feeling a cat's back." Sam, up on the ladder, "feels so tall, like a spindly weed that is sprouting up out of this diamond-bright seam of hard earth." Emmett finds the names of his dead friends and sits in front of the wall until "slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames." Although some who come to the memorial feel the patriotic nationalism that the older monuments explicitly sought to inspire, and others value it for its warning against war--"so people won't forget, and we won't have it again; it was such a waste"--Mason's characters visit for its healing power. The title of the replica of the memorial that travels around the country reflects this latter response: "The Wall That Heals." It is a place where people grieve as individuals and collectively. Ordinary people seek the names of their loved ones lost in a possibly meaningless war. In trying to represent the human pain and sorrow of war instead of the valor and glory of warriors and nations, Mason imitated the wall as it has been perceived perhaps by the majority of visitors.

While most writers about the Vietnam War have similarly explored the ambiguities of the war and its aftermath within a perspective limited to the United States, a few have extended their imaginations to include the enemy. One of these writers is Larry Rottmann, whose collection of poetry, Voices from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, offers perspectives from both sides of the conflict. "A Visit to the Cu Chi Military District Cemetery" gives voice to a returned U.S. soldier addressing the dead Vietnamese soldiers: "You, finally at rest/I, still not at peace./Our chance of becoming friends lost forever." In "Cemetery Architect," General Dong Si Nguyen, designer of the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route Memorial Cemetery, explains why so few headstones represent so many dead: so that visitors during the war "would not be disheartened/by the excessive number of actual casualties." And in "Cemetery Superintendent," the superintendent of the Truong Son Cemetery declares that the "actual cemetery" stretches throughout the Ho Chi Minh Trail: "So many died/that you can't stop anywhere along the trail/without standing on a grave."


This shift in moral consciousness is merely one step in the long evolution of awareness and ethics that, since the creation of nuclear bombs, has seemed more and more urgent to people throughout the world. Nations continue to glorify their war dead and the militarism and preparation for war that this glorification engenders. In the United States, memorials to wars proliferate on local, state, and national levels. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), the Korean War Veterans Memorial (1995), the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (1997), and so on--all replicated in various states and towns. The same martial spirit exists in many other countries. Japan's Yasukuni Shrine exalts the cult of Shinto nationalist sacrifice and covers up Japan's many invasions and war crimes. Despite its title, the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Kyushu, in author Ian Buruma's opinion, holds up glorious death for the nation as a thing of beauty bringing eternal life.

But a new, hopeful sign of a further shift in consciousness has recently appeared in the cenotaph on Okinawa called the Cornerstone of Peace (1995). Composed of 114 monuments spread out radially in a fan shape around the Peace Plaza and the Flame of Peace within the plaza, the memorial honors the 200,000 people who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa and other battles. The significance of this memorial, unique in the history of war memorials, is that it has in scribed on the monuments not only the names of all the Japanese soldiers who died defending the island but all the Okinawan residents killed in the fighting, the Korean and Taiwanese (mainly forced laborers), and the American and British soldiers as well. According to the Okinawa Prefecture's "Peace and Anti- Nuclear Weapons Declaration," the Cornerstone of Peace commemorates the end of the Pacific War and the Battle of Okinawa "to convey to the people of Japan and throughout the world the 'spirit of peace' which has developed through Okinawa's history and culture" and "as prayer for eternal world peace." Kufadesa trees have been planted throughout the memorial "to create an oasis under the trees where people can learn about peace." The declaration ends with these words: "We, the people of Okinawa, under the slogan 'Brothers at First Meeting,' wish to make this land a bridge between nations. In a sincere desire for everlasting world peace we call out this declaration for a peaceful nuclear-free Okinawa Prefecture." I have not yet found any writings in English about this memorial, but I anticipate widespread positive response when its existence becomes known in the world.

The Cornerstone of Peace challenges all other memorials to the war dead. If naming the ordinary soldiers was a leap forward over naming only the generals, the Okinawa memorial glaringly exposes the primitive tribalism still militarizing the more democratic memorials. It also functions as a standard for literary evaluation. The young heroine of Mason's In Country observes that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington "bears the names of so many who died, but she is wrong." The comment might have been accepted as true before 1995; all of the 58,191 dead U.S. soldiers are listed. Today, we cannot evade being aware that the "many who died" include perhaps two million Vietnamese, the dead Allied soldiers (Korean, Australian, and others), and the many who later died as the result of herbicides like Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorders, and other war-related causes (though these latter victims, these "lost veterans," are now listed in an album available at the site).

The Vietnam Memorial also contains something of Japan's memorial for the young, idealistic Kamikaze pilots: if the dead were heroic and their ideals pure, why should anyone conclude that war is bad? For a vision of a truly international society, we must look to Okinawa and to writers like Chlumberg and Albert Camus. In Combat, the French Resistance newspaper he edited, Camus wrote that "peace is the only goal worth struggling for" and that requires a world "in which the great powers will not have superior rights over small and middle-sized nations, where [nuclear weapons] will be controlled by human intelligence rather than by the appetites and doctrines of various states." Mason's heroine is beginning to understand this idea of a peaceful world when she remembers a Vietnam veteran's description of the Washington Monument as "a big white prick" that represents a nation that "goes around fucking the world." But her empathy, though large and expanding, is still restricted to her nation's small vision.

James R. Bennett is professor emeritus of English at the University of Arkansas Fulbright College of Arts and Science and has served as editor of several publications. Contact him via e-mail at
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Title Annotation:the type of war memorials being dedicated shows cultural tolerance and nonviolence
Author:Bennett, James R.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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