Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorializing, Not by Rote

World War II Soldiers

In his thoughtful article in the New York Times on the most recent crop of books discussing World War II, Adam Kirsch poses the question, "can this war still be considered the 'good war'?" As he says, the "passage of time changes the contours of history," and these books are detailing aspects of the war's prosecution by the Allies that are decidedly less than noble, thus attempting to call into question the extent of the moral compass that has hitherto been so exact.

Not that history has shied from the war's dirtier stories. The firebombing of Dresden, the fact that Stalin was at best a complex and worrying ally, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have all been explored at length for decades. But with the exception of those who believed that we should instead have been allied with Hitler against Stalin to suppress the threat of communism (expressed by a repugnant character in the 1946 film 'The Best Years of Our Lives', representing the vocal minority), there has never been any cogent reason for any member of an Allied nation to feel anything less than pride for having fought and won the war.

Even as more stories of Allied ruthlessness are given a spotlight, it does not – nor should it – lessen the pride in the fight. The British and other European nations can regret not taking a harsher diplomatic stance during the 1930s, and the Americans can be remorseful about not entering the war at once to stand with our friends, but understanding more about the nature of the fight only gives us a clearer sense of both the present and the past.

As Kirsch says, we turn events into myth for the purposes of memory.  "We need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them." Where we fail history, both in its truth and in our understanding, is in romanticizing the prosecution of war. Even when causes are just – the impetus of the Union in our Civil War; the Allies in World War II – the battles themselves are still ugly. It's David's paintings and Wilfred Owen's poetry that are beautiful. The poetry of the first world war in particular reminds us of the humans who were conscripted into the great inhumanity. Most wars throughout history have been the attempt of humans to destroy other humans for the sake of human gain. World War II forced humans to destroy other humans to preserve humanity – a point acknowledged by the former enemy as well.

Which is perhaps why the Allied side of this war, as opposed to many before and since, has virtually escaped being satirized. The stances and policies of the 1930s are subject to jokes, as are American neutrality and, of course, the Axis powers, especially the Nazis. These points were made the subject of criticism through comedy at the time and are still done so today.

Frank Adu and Woody Allen in 'Love and Death'
World War II remains an untarnished memory because of its clarity. Kirsch states that "the present is always lived in ambiguity," but if a war is going to be fought successfully, the combatants actually require certainty. Otherwise, there is no means of justifying the action. The attempt to do so without a tangible and unambiguous enemy is what has prompted jokes, such as Woody Allen's point in his 1975 film 'Love and Death,' satirizing the Napoleonic Wars (among other things). The squad leader explains "If we kill more Frenchmen, we win. If they kill more Russians, they win." Allen's character - a proudly unwilling soldier - asks "what do we win?" The answer is nonsensical, the question quickly dismissed. Although it is not discussed, it is easy to imagine that Allen had Vietnam in mind as he chronicled the silliness and ultimate pointlessness of the combat.

In Alan Bennett's 2004 play 'The History Boys,' a character who treats history as an opportunity for show and personal gain opines that "there's no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it" – meaning that in honoring the dead, people don't recall the facts surrounding any given war. The character's approach to history is irresponsible, but in this sense he has a point. Memorial Day should not be an excuse for forgetfulness or detachment. Our present is always bound in our past, and understanding the past in full is the only means by which we can guide ourselves in the present and thus into the future. We honor the dead, but history lives.

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