Remembering History, Creating The Present

The USS Massachusetts, Fall River, MA. Photo taken by the author.

Past wars have their own months, where due to the dates of their critical events, the wars themselves are remembered and memorialized. World War I has August and November, marking the beginning and the end of the War To End All Wars, that, sadly, didn’t. The US Civil War has April (Shiloh and Appomattox) and July (First Manassas, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg).

World War II, still within living memory, has four months: August (the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-J Day), December (Pearl Harbor, The Battle of the Bulge, the siege of Moscow), May (Blitzkrieg in the Low Countries and France, The Battle of the Coral Sea, V-E Day), and June (Dunkirk, Germany’s Invasion of the Soviet Union, The Battle of Midway, and D-Day.)

In 2017 we’re halfway through the seventy-fifth anniversaries of World War II. From September 1, 2014 we’ve been treated to the diamond jubilee of battle after battle; a process that continues until August 15, 2020. This is the last major anniversary of the war that will be witnessed by more than the barest handful of those who fought it. On June 6, D-Day veterans gathered in Normandy with their families and various dignitaries to memorialize the battle and the lives lost there.

Though its ultimate military significance pales compared to the Soviet victories at Stalingrad, Kursk, and elsewhere, D-Day was spectacular both in scope and execution. Three airborne and six seaborne divisions, numbering over a hundred thousand men, were transported from bases in Southern England and across the Channel by thousands of planes and ships and landed in France on D-Day. The American troops of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions, coming ashore at Omaha beach, faced complex fortifications made of reinforced concrete and studded with artillery and machine guns and took heavy casualties, but nevertheless overcame resistance by the end of the day.

This year, as most years, D-Day, like the anniversaries of other major battles, are remembered in ceremonies large and small, in the US and at the battle site itself. Certainly battles like this should be remembered. But not remembered uncritically.

No participant in World War II was perfect. In Europe, if the Allies, consisting of a brutal colonial empire, a totalitarian dictatorship, and an apartheid state, can be considered the good guys, it’s only because the bad guys, the Nazis, were so very bad.

To remember these battles without recognizing the complexities and crimes of their participating nations on both sides does both the history and the present a disservice. World War II is central to the myths America tells about itself –a democracy destined to save the old world from itself, a nation of the. hardworking and brave, who proved it again and again on the beaches of Normandy, the skies over the Ruhr, and the deserts of North Africa.

And the stories we tell are overwhelmingly white and male, because the participants were overwhelmingly white and male. But remembrances of these battles include the white men who were there, but rarely, if ever, tell the why. Why were they white, why were they male?

I’ve wrote about this before, talking about war movies, here:

And about history in movies more generally, here:

Without telling the why, or depicting how that was maintained, we harm the present. It’s no accident that Making America Great Again resonated with those who feared or hated diversity — the great America they remember is the America of World War II, of brave white men fighting for and winning freedom and glory.

In New Orleans and elsewhere, Confederate monuments to the U.S. Civil War are finally coming down, in belated recognition of the vileness of the Southern cause, the flawed history those memorials preserve, and the political uses of those memories in the preservation and extension of white supremacy.

At least in the formal sense, the America that fought World War II was no longer a slave state. But it was racially segregated as a matter of public policy. Out of more than 160,000 troops crossing the channel, only 2,000 African-American soldiers came ashore on D-Day, and they were limited to support support roles, such as the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion (though they did come under and return fire during the battle).

Memorials of D-Day and other World War II battles fought under segregation that don’t recognize America’s apartheid past, like Civil War memorials that ignore or obscure why the war was fought, preserve that shameful past uncritically. As it’s past time for Confederate memorials to come down, it’s past time for all America’s wars to be remembered honestly, accurately, completely, and not merely in ways that serve the political goals of white supremacy.

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