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.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"...And I Feel Fine."

Apocalypse, As Envisioned in the Middle Ages
The end of the world has been in the works for a while. The first recorded mention of it was on an Assyrian clay tablet, ca. 2800 BC, wherein the writer complained that "bribery and corruption are common" and so assumed that the world must be getting ready to call it quits.

The predictions of apocalypse are comparatively scattered until things really heat up in the middle ages. (One presumes the Greeks and Romans were too busy inventing things, writing literature and philosophy, and building aqueducts to think much about whether it was all going to get obliterated.)

Medieval life, however, was just about as rough as Hobbes supposed life without organized community would be, with: "no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" being more or less de rigueur for most people's existence. Faith was just about all anyone had, and though very few could read the Bible themselves, they understood that it mentioned a time when God would return to the earth and establish a Kingdom of Heaven there. For people constantly dealing with wars, diseases, and any number of hardships, this couldn’t happen fast enough.

There were those who tried to speed it along. Plenty who joined in the Crusades did so thinking they were fulfilling biblical prophecy and were in fact pilgrims to the Holy Land. The fact that nothing they did seemed to bring about a biblical apocalypse did not sway people from thinking it must be coming soon.

In 1184, a prediction of the end of the world appeared in the form of the Letter of Toledo, insisting that astronomical forces meant the world would end in September 1186. So certain were the believers of this prediction that, when October 1186 rolled around, they simply changed the date and other pertinent points and said the end would be coming soon enough. This lasted a good few centuries before enough new predictions took over to capture attention.

Oddly, there don't seem to have been any predictions of the end times as 1348 dawned, which seems a poor show on the part of the prophesiers. This was, after all, the year of the Black Death, when half or more of Europe's population was obliterated. Perhaps, as it got underway, it seemed obvious that this was the end of the world, and no one needed to be so tactless and redundant as to point it out.

After the plague, life actually improved for a lot of peasants – the shortage of labor meant they could negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions, although this process was not without a few snags. Likewise, the inability of clergy to stop the disaster, and the poor quality of the monks who were hastily recruited to fill badly depleted ranks, made a lot of people more cynical about religion. All told, it seems a recipe for the beginning of the end of end times predictions.

But this was not to be. The certainty of the end being nigh continued to flourish right alongside the Renaissance, although more and more Europeans were growing skeptical and much less willing to give the doomsayers an ear.

Ears were given to a British soldier, William Bell, in 1750. There was an earthquake in London, which was unusual enough, but 28 days later, there was another. That was enough for Bell, who took it upon himself to tear through the city announcing that in another 28 days, the world would go belly-up, London first. Widespread panic led to people leaving the city in droves (although exactly why they thought they would be safer in the countryside is unclear). The appointed day, however, saw no apocalypse and the city authorities made their own announcement: Bell was a nutcase and was tossed into Bedlam.

His fate did not dissuade other doomsayers. The world was supposed to end regularly throughout the nineteenth century, and the Jehovah's Witnesses were sure that World War I was the Battle of Armageddon. (reports from Ypres might almost bear them out)

And on and on and on until now. When Sunday rolls around and this current crop of believers finds that the world is still as they know it, they'll shrug and start making calculations to determine the next date of rapture.

Wonder what their high school math teachers would say?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Photos Be Damned

Roman coins with Sejanus's name erased after his execution

Amid the clamor for the release of the photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse – or perhaps video of the corpse-in-making – it might be noted that, to paraphrase Wilde, "the only thing worse than having one's death photos released, is not having one's death photos released."

Which is to say, let's let the Romans do something for us. In ancient Rome, there was a policy called damnatio memoriae, meaning "damnation of memory." If you were executed and this policy was passed upon you, it meant that every trace of your existence was wiped clean from the city. In a world where honor was the most important facet of being a citizen, this was a heck of a way to ruin your legacy. To render someone so unimportant as to warrant no physical remembrance of them was to dismiss all they did in their life on their route to ignominious death.

One of the most famous recipients of damnatio memoriae was Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a soldier and member of the equestrian class who rose to be prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the right-hand man of the emperor Tiberius until his runaway ambition finally tripped him up. He was not an easy man to conquer, having finagled matters so that he was as good as running the empire. He could arrange all the political downfalls he wanted, but was himself untouchable.

Until he got touched. When Tiberius finally received credible word of the threat Sejanus posed, he used craftiness of a sort Sejanus might have instigated to create confusion – sending a series of contradictory letters to the Roman senate that made those who supported Sejanus start to think otherwise and those who hated and feared him feel emboldened to act. A few more feints were made so that, soon after, Sejanus entered the senate thinking he was going to receive the sort of official power that might make him ruler, and was instead arrested.

As it happens, his death was public – that was the modus operandi of the time and since it was an easy matter to sweep up all his remaining supporters and dispose of them as well, it made for a convenient purge and impromptu public holiday.

The Romans, however, were long-term thinkers. They knew that what mattered most in the end was how a person was remembered. Someone who was honored, like the emperor Augustus, could be deified. But someone who had brought dishonor to the state could be expunged, completely removed from memory. To any decent citizen, this was the greatest punishment of all.

Thus was Sejanus wiped from record – his statues and coins destroyed, his name crossed out of papers. Obviously, enough existed here and there for historians to piece together the story, but it didn't do anything to make anyone think better of him, or want to emulate his means of gaining power.

Osama bin Laden wanted glory too. He wanted to establish and govern an empire, one that would be in the hands of his family for generations. He would have liked to have been honored after death, especially if he had been considered a martyr. Photos of him in death might satisfy morbid curiosity, cynical uncertainty, or the desire to shore up triumphalism. But for those so inclined, they could also create sympathy and a touchstone for a new movement. So while it would be historically irresponsible – to say nothing of impossible – to go full Roman and erase all evidence of his existence, we should definitely add a little dash more of "damn" to his memory by not viewing the evidence.