Tag: memorials

The 2003 Iraq War will not be forgotten

The killing of Osama bin Laden allows political leaders to further disentangle Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole war on terror concept; to wind down some operations and refocus others; to bring some stories to light and push others aside, to be forgotten. But how do those who served in these wars feel about this? In today’s New York Times Captain Shannon P. Meehan, a US veteran of the 2003 Iraq War, published a powerful statement of alienation on this matter. Meehan felt no closure on hearing of bin Laden’s death. It only brought a sense of distance and disconnection. It reminded him he had been part of the bad war, the war whose meaning is already settled in what he calls the ‘shifting public memory of war’. And he must live with the severe injuries he suffered regardless. He writes: 

So, as much as I want to feel a part of this moment, to feel some sense that I contributed to it, I do not. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I do not feel entitled to any sort of meaningful connection to this achievement. Years of political and public criticism of the Iraq war has pushed me to believe that I did not fight terror, but rather a phantom.
With all the physical, mental and emotional pains I still have, I feel like a dying man who fought in a dying war, and that my body braces and hearing aids serve as a reminder that my greatest “achievement” in life will be remembered as a mistake.
This same week the last British male veteran of WW1 died. Claude Choules, who went on to spend most of his life in Australia, also seemed to remember his war with critical distance. In its public notice of Choules’ death, the UK Ministry of Defence noted, ‘Despite his impressive military career, Mr Choules became a pacifist. He was known to have disagreed with the celebration of Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, Anzac Day, and refused to march in the annual commemoration parades.’ Although WW1 is settled in public memory as the ‘Great War’, Choules resisted this interpretation. What is interesting, today, is that Meehan is publicly reflecting on such a settled narrative. His challenging article is in mainstream media and being spread through social media. Choules had no such opportunity in his day. The new media ecology seems to accelerate both the creation and the contestation of war memory.
But memory is not just about media. Meehan draws attention to his physical pain, to injuries that remind him daily of the Iraq War. In Diffused War Andrew Hoskins and I explored Jay Winter’s concept of ‘embodied memory’ as something that is shared by the body of the sufferer and the gaze of the onlooker. If we have an obligation to remember, we must also look at veterans’ bodies and not just war films, news photos and milblogs. War memory is inscribed on bodies, and there are a lot of bodies from Iraq.
The killing of bin Laden and drawing back from Iraq won’t make the Iraq War disappear. The US and its allies will have to decide how they want to remember it, what memorials will be built, and how to deal with the ambiguities and divisions within the shifting public memory of the war.

7/7 five years on: Conflicting memories make an official record difficult

Aldgate station plan, London underground

A month into the official inquest into the ‘7/7’ London bombings of July 2005, it is clear that the governmental imperative to arrive at a clear, authoritative and final account of what happened on the day might prove impossible because of the unreliability of human memory. This was an event in which cameraphone footage from the scene was reaching the BBC within 20 minutes of the first of four explosions, and iconic images and memorial rituals were in place within days and weeks. Yet it took police four months to take witness statements and now five years for witnesses to testify in court. It is no wonder that discrepancies emerge. Not unlike 9/11, there are significant differences between sweeping media- and politically-driven narratives of national mourning and the local, particular perspectives of those involved.

An official record would offer some certainty to survivors, grieving relatives, and allow for objective assessment of how well emergency services performed. The inquest must be comprehensive and include as many voices as can offer salient information, it must be precise, and it must offer consensus and closure.  At a symposium, ‘Conflicts of Memory’ at the University of Nottingham last week, my regular co-author Andrew Hoskins, who has been following the inquest, talked about the inconsistencies emerging between individuals’ testimonies and even within individuals’ own accounts. One ambulance worker said he had drawn a diagram of where bodies were in a carriage on the day of 7/7; he now can’t remember where he drew the diagram or even whether it was someone else who drew it for him.
We can see this for ourselves; witnesses’ transcripts and the evidence in court are available online, the kind of transparency our new media ecology makes so easy. For instance, we can compare witness testimonies with visual representations of what they had seen. Survivors must now try to reconcile what they thought had happened with all of the conflicting verbal and pictorial versions being put before the court now.
For Hoskins, it is only by following how, over a long period, events become stretched and extended through complex relations and layers of objects, people and rituals that we can see how consensual memories may be formed. This is not dissimilar to Latour’s argument that law (and science) are merely a set of mediations which enough people can agree to go along with for pragmatic reasons. The result, as with the 7/7 inquest so far, is imperfect. Would it be better for the inquest to settle on a definitive set of technical drawings and edit out inconsistent testimonies in order to reach an official record? This might upset survivors who feel the memory they genuinely hold, and which they have lived with for over five years, has been crossed out as a mistake.
Alternatively, the British state could allow for a loose plurality of often-ambiguous accounts to stand together. There would be costs. But with the testimonies, diagrams and other evidence archived and publicly available online, they could decide to turn it over to the public to make connections and draw conclusions themselves. Inclusive but never definitive: judgement 2.0?
Cross posted from: https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

Remembering Professor Fred Halliday

In April of this year I noted the death of Professor Fred Halliday – a noted scholar of nationalism, the Middle East and International Relations generally. He was something of a giant in British IR and I know his work was well known throughout the Middle East as well. I was fortunate enough to be in one of his last MSc International Relations courses at the London School of Economics in 2001-2.

There are a number of things being done to commemorate Professor Halliday and his work. For London readers, there will be an event at the LSE on 3 November (tickets required). Additionally, Alejandro Colás and George Lawson have written an article in Millennium Journal of International Relations (made freely available by SAGE) reflecting on his work which may be of interest to blog readers.

The Remembrance of Wars

Last weekend my wife and kids and I went to visit the National World War Two Memorial that now stands on the Mall in Washington between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We hadn’t been before, and since both of our grandfathers served in WWII, we though it was kind of appropriate for Memorial Day weekend. I don’t quite know what we were expecting; I’d heard some of the press about the site’s sterility and its nineteenth-century throwback architecture, but if I’d seen a picture of the memorial before I’d managed to flush it from my mind somehow. I know a fair amount about World War Two because of my professional scholarly work, so I was mainly curious to see how the conflict had been memorialized.

My wife, I think, was specifically looking for something that might connect her to her grandfather, who died about ten years ago and was one of the survivors of the 19 March 1945 attack on the U.S.S. Franklin – Big Ben the Flattop – in which 724 people died when the ship was hit by two armor-piercing bombs. Poppa was a gunner, and should have been on deck when the attack happened, but for reasons that he never really explained to us he was below decks doing an extra KP duty shift when the bombs hit. (Presumably he’d gotten in trouble somehow, since people don’t usually volunteer for more KP duty.) Had he been on deck he would almost certainly have been killed. Poppa survived the war, but passed away about ten years ago, and a memorial to the war in which he served might have made a nice symbolic link to his memory.

Both of us were disappointed in the memorial, for reasons that stem from the strategy chosen by the memorial’s designers – a strategy that we might call the “just war” strategy of remembrance. The memorial celebrates a victory rather than calling to mind the sacrifices of those who died in achieving that victory, and as such legitimates the whole operation in decidedly moralistic terms. This is the same legitimation strategy that we see at work in today’s War on Terror, in which a morally “good” goal justifies morally questionable means that involve killing other human beings. And it’s a dangerous strategy, one that we ought to be much more skeptical of than we often seem to be.

The first thing that we found rather disappointing about the memorial was the virtually complete absence of any individual or personal images. There are no statues of soldiers, no images of any specific people at all; instead, there are stark towers inscribed with the names of locations where battles were fought and the twin labels “ATLANTIC” and “PACIFIC,” along with column-like slabs featuring the names of U.S. states and territories. Apparently these are the names of al of the places in the United States that contributed troops to the war effort, but this is not indicated on the memorial anywhere. The overwhelming effect is somewhat daunting; one gets the sense of some kind of massive collective endeavor, but none of the specifics.

The one place in the memorial where individual deaths are directly commemorated is a wall of stars above a reflecting pool. The pool’s border bears the uninformative legend “HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM,” and apparently each of the 4,000 stars on the wall stands for 100 American deaths. (Again, you’d only know this if you’d read the website of a guide book; the symbolism of the memorial itself is quite opaque unless you have this interpretive key.) But here again, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the individual – the message seems to be that lots of people died, but not that any particular individuals died.

Indeed, the point of the whole installment seems to be that these deaths of nameless, faceless people was justified. The dominant motif of the memorial is the victory wreath; each of the state-and-territories columns bears a wreath, and the two towers each contain sculptures of majestic eagles bringing a wreath as though to crown the winner of the conflict. It’s not a memorial that promotes reflection and remembrance as much as it is a celebratory monument to a good and glorious campaign. People have brought individual remembrances – photographs, letters to dead relatives, etc. – and placed them at various points around the memorial, but they look oddly out of place because there is no obvious location for an individual to fit into. The state from which they came? The name of a battle in which they fought? Although these personal testimonies were to me the most interesting part of the memorial, they seemed overshadowed – both literally and symbolically – by the dominant victory motif.

Now, if there’s a war in the twentieth century that could accurately be classified as a “good war,” the Second World War would probably be it. Fascism bad; fascist Europe and a fascist Pacific Ocean bad; victory for the democracies good. I’m not quarreling with the notion that it’s definitely a better thing that the Allies won; a world dominated by the Third Reich would certainly have been worse than what we in fact got. And I’m not trying to argue that fighting the war was an unwise thing; Hitler wasn’t about to negotiate, and Nazism as an ideology didn’t have much space for peaceful coexistence with liberal democracies. Instead, what I am objecting to is the very notion of a “good war” in the first place. Wars might be tragically necessary, but I’m extremely skeptical of any attempt to legitimate them in terms of some kind of universal morality or “infinite justice” – which, let us not forget, was the name of Operation Enduring Freedom before someone in the Bush Administration finally realized that the original name was almost as offensive to Muslims as calling the War on Terror a “crusade” would have been.

The dangerous part of this “just war” strategy is that it enables precisely the kind of framing that Dan calls attention to in this post: governments around the world keep using notions like “radical Islam” and the transcendentally just character of defending against it as a way to legitimate all manner of repressive tactics. The logic is very simple: because the goal is transcendentally good, virtually anything is justified in pursuit of it. And arguing against such a framing is very difficult, because it puts one into the uncomfortable position of questioning something that is taken to be absolutely good and right.

I’m not sure that there are good wars, or just wars, or wars that are somehow morally right. Any war, even a war undertaken in pursuit of a desirable end, nonetheless involves putting soldiers in harm’s way and causing death, mayhem, and destruction; the “just war” strategy minimizes these inevitable costs by holding up the morally good character of the goal. And that strikes me as problematic – not because we should never fight wars, but because we shouldn’t glorify that fighting, or sanction it in the name of some sort of divine or universal moral imperative. Given the present organization of world politics, wars may well be tragic necessities, but whitewashing them as “good” seems to me as dangerously misleading now as it did to Mark Twain when he wrote “The War Prayer” a century ago.

As for remembering wars, I would argue that we ought to place more emphasis on the sacrifices of individuals than on the presumptive justice of the cause for which they died. I hope that designers of future war memorials take more of a cue from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial than from the WWII Memorial.

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[cross-posted at Progressive Commons]


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