Peace, War, and Memory
The ways in which a society remembers its wars and considers its peace speak volumes about its proclivities.
In the village park in
What makes war seem more compelling than peace? Why can we recognize the names of many warriors, such as Julius Caesar, Chinggis Khan, and Ulysses Grant, but few peace activists? A.J. Muste and Mairead Corrigan are hardly household names. Why is the call for peace seen as weakness at best and treason at worst? Throughout history war has been justified as the means by which societies are “cleansed,” “purified,” and indeed “resurrected.” This was true of many European countries on the eve of World War I. In Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “Peace,” he thanks God for “wak[ing] us from sleeping” to rejuvenate through war “a world grown old and cold and weary.” In commemorations of war people learn of the “glorious dead” who died “heroically” on the “field of honor.” But because the focus is on those who died, we don’t ask the harder questions of why they died and whether their deaths have actually achieved peace (or freedom or democracy) in any meaningful way.
War fills our calendars. Memorial Day began in 1868 as Decoration Day, a solemn day of reflection and mourning when survivors “decorated” the graves of Civil War dead. Today it is a day to celebrate courage in war but never to question war itself. November 11 was initially called Armistice Day; the first observations were festivals of peace celebrating the day World War I ended. Now renamed Veterans’ Day, it is a holiday to celebrate the military throughout
A different, though equally significant, transformation has occurred with Mothers Day. Originally envisioned by Julia Ward Howe as a day to encourage women to stand up against war, vowing not to send their sons, husbands, fathers, and sweethearts to be killed, it has become a completely nonpolitical (and banal) holiday for the flower and greeting card industries; one that celebrates a traditional view of women as homemakers far removed from the male preserve of combat. In the metamorphoses of these four holidays we see the elevation of war and
We also link war to the sacred. George Mosse has discussed the ways the “fallen soldier” was portrayed in memorials in post–World War I Europe either explicitly as Christ or being cradled in the arms of Christ. More recently, in 2003 President George W. Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas: “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam.” With this viewpoint, war becomes not only essential but also sacred.
The wording on monuments serves to justify and glorify war in a peculiarly vague way: “To those who made the ultimate sacrifice;” “To those who died so that we might be free.” Monuments invite us to mourn and honor the dead, but without getting into specifics. Sacrifice for whom? Free from what? And who, exactly, is free? “Dying for one’s country” is a bit like “national security”—a phrase of great emotional power, but no clear definition.
Memorials offer heroic images of war or solemn images of remembrance, but they rarely portray any sense of real war—the dirt, pain, boredom, anxiety, the gruesome deaths. They reaffirm the values of the country for which the soldiers died, but they do not question whether the war was fought for those values or for other reasons. Nor do they question whether those values actually were preserved, or whether these ends might have been achieved by less violent means.
When war monuments and celebrations create a past in which national identity comes only from war—in which violence is redemptive, in which freedom and justice can be achieved only through conflict and sacrifice—then war becomes not simply inevitable, but also worthwhile, even sacred. And peacemaking becomes at best unrealistic and at worst dangerous, unpatriotic, and treasonous.
Deborah Buffton is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse. She specializes in Chinese and French history and in peace, war, and society. She is a member of the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Speakers Bureau. This essay is based on a speech she gave at Ithaca College as the annual guest in the Marjorie Fortunoff Mayrock Lecture Series in History.