Anthropology / Everything Human

Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War

Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War

Cities in the southern U.S. are currently under pressure to take down statues of Confederate leaders, whose publicly sanctioned presence is a constant source of injury to many. In just one of numerous examples, Levar Stoney, the African-American mayor of Richmond, Virginia, recently announced that, while he doesn’t think his city’s Confederate memorials should be removed, a commission has been formed to consider how best to “set the historical record straight.” Stoney said these monuments form a “narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago.” Such memorials populate our built landscape with stories, telling us whom to honor and whose sacrifice should be invisible.

I recently took a trip to Germany, and over the course of a day I spent walking around Berlin I found myself reimagining what might be done with official memorials in the U.S. As I looked at the ways Germany’s traumatic history has been publicly memorialized in its capital city, something seemed strange. And then I realized what it was: Unlike any other city I know, most of Berlin’s war monuments memorialize the victims of German militarism—not the country’s own fallen soldiers.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin represents Germany’s acknowledgement of its history—and its collective grief over the genocide committed by the Nazis. Orator/Wikimedia Commons

The most famous of these monuments is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also known as the Holocaust Memorial)—a massive expanse of rectangular concrete blocks of varying sizes, reminiscent of tombstones, arrayed in undulating rows. There are 2,711 blocks in all. In some places they loom over visitors, creating claustrophobic tunnels that dwarf individual people; in others, visitors sit on the blocks and chat, as if they were park benches, or kids jump from one block to another and play hide and seek. Below ground are the names of roughly 3 million Holocaust victims. Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.

Not far away is a small park with a reflecting pool that is a separate memorial to the Sinti and Roma (also known as Gypsies) killed by the Nazis. And just around the corner from that is another memorial, to the gays and lesbians killed in the Holocaust. It features a dark concrete cuboid with a window through which visitors can watch looped video footage of gays and lesbians kissing—a voyeuristic peek into the forbidden way of life the Nazis sought to extinguish and a salute to its resilience.

War memorials - This reflecting pool memorializes the Sinti and Roma people who were murdered by the Nazis.

This reflecting pool memorializes the Sinti and Roma people who were murdered by the Nazis. Hugh Gusterson

Unlike classic war memorials, these are abstract and modern in their design: no figurative sculptures of suffering soldiers or bereaved mothers, no triumphant generals on horseback, and no giant stone crosses engraved with names. I did find one war memorial in Berlin in the grand classical mode: the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten Park, which features a massive bronze soldier standing atop a pedestal bearing the words, “eternal glory to heroes who fell in the struggle against the German fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union.” But even that monument is a memorial not to Germany’s own soldiers but to the victims of German militarism—in this case its Soviet victims, who are too easily forgotten in the West. To my astonishment, the German soldiers killed in World War II are publicly invisible in the nation’s capital.

Returning from Berlin, I looked with fresh eyes at Washington D.C., the city where I live. I thought about whose suffering and heroism are made visible and invisible in Washington’s public monuments. Drawing on Berlin’s example, I could suddenly imagine a different monumental landscape.

In addition to the iconic Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial) and the World War II Memorial (which was characterized accurately by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher as “a hodgepodge of cliché and Soviet-style pomposity”), is there a way to memorialize the non-Americans, many of them civilians, who perished in a war of extraordinary ferocity and scope? This might include those killed by American atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—an acknowledgment of the unprecedented nature of the atomic attacks and a reminder that, whether or not we believe the use of the atomic bomb was vital in ending the war, we should strive never to use such weapons again.

War memorials - The famous Marine Corps War Memorial, or Iwo Jima War Memorial, does little to recognize the many non-American civilians who suffered and died in World War II.

The famous Marine Corps War Memorial, or Iwo Jima War Memorial, does little to recognize the many non-American civilians who suffered and died in World War II. Wally Gobetz/Flickr

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is rightly honored as the most aesthetically bold and emotionally powerful memorial in Washington. But imagine if, in addition to the 58,000 names of American soldiers lost in Vietnam, the memorial found some way to recognize the even greater suffering of the Vietnamese people, who may have lost 2 million of their number in the war (with some estimates going over 3 million; exact numbers will never be known). Many of the Vietnamese who died now have relatives who are U.S. citizens.

And does Washington really need 18 different monuments to the North’s victory in the Civil War, many of them statues of military officers whose names would otherwise long since have been forgotten? You might think from the statues dotted around the city that the Civil War was fought entirely by Union officers on horseback. I’m not saying we should erect statues of Confederate officers for balance. But aren’t there other ways of broadening the Civil War narrative etched in stone and bronze? Could we not, for example, create a space to memorialize the city of Atlanta, which was razed to the ground by General William T. Sherman? And how about a statue of a liberated slave fighting to keep his freedom? And is there no way to remember all of the 600,000 soldiers on both sides who perished during the Civil War? They were all Americans, after all.

It’s time to think afresh about war memorials. Wherever you live, look around and imagine memorials that might be. Memorials, like Berlin’s, that go beyond glorifying the heroes of one’s own side—that make real the suffering as well as the heroism that is the reality of war.

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  • Fred Bohrer

    Good points all, but there’s hope. When so many of our most egregious monuments went up, Berlin was an outpost of West Germany, not the capital it is today, and not a natural place to put up war monuments. You can find plenty elsewhere in Germany. But beyond the Vietnam memorial in DC there’s the monument to those in the Japanese internment camps, to Letelier, the victim of Argentine assassination and others. As to slavery, the Lincoln memorial is all about it, even though the creators of that monument tried to write it out. There’s also the Freedmen’s monument to Lincoln (in Lincoln park) which does show an actual slave. But I too wonder if there’s a future for monuments in Washington.

  • Kathy Barker

    Agreed. We honor those who kill, and so propagate the glory of war. Our memorials should commemorate those who died for leaders’ cruelty. Let this be the first step to mitigating militarism and preventing war. Yes, fellow sapiens, we can.

    • ( )

      The Wall is such a monument.

  • Mike Reagan

    To be true to our profession , as social scientists, we need to think beyond appeasing current popular opinion. I would like to suggest we need both memorials and perhaps more. Memorials to the damage we created as a nation and a tribute to those like myself that were conscripted and sent to Vietnam to do the damage. In 1966 when I was sent to Vietnam, like many other young men I had little understanding of the impacts of our actions. Our primary concern was staying alive and surviving to go home. So our citizens of today need reminders of these lessons from the past. We need reminders of our history. So you can take pictures with your “smart phone” and remember what we did wrong. We need memorials to Native Americans and soon Afgans and Iraqis and all the others we have destroyed. But we also need the images of the leaders and their generals who must share the responsibilty for our successes and failures. Destroying statues and memorials place us in the same class as ISIS. Denying our history however ugly it is!

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      Poland is now considering the removal of Soviet monuments to Heroes of the Soviet Union, erected in Poland during the occupation of Poland after the end of second world war. Of course those monuments do not honor Polish dead but rather serve as a reminder of a brutal occupation.

      And Putin’s rhetoric would seem to justify those removals. I am quite sure that Poland will never forget the Russian boot heel. Do they really need to be reminded daily of the destruction of their country, first by Germany and then by Russia?

      And one last point, where the Iraqi’s wrong in removing monuments to Saddam Hussein?

  • ( )

    The United States Government is now considering widespread use of Private Security Contractors or Mercenaries from companies such as Xi, Garda and Triple Canopy instead of the US Troops from the Army, Air Force, NAVY or Marine Corps to continue the War in Afghanistan.

    How would those casualties be honored?

    They wouldn’t be. They would be anonymous deaths. They are killing and dying for $600 per day, not for honor of their country.

    Should they be honored?

    Is this a good thing?