Not-So-Great Wars and Modern Memory

Why we shouldn’t think of Memorial Day as a day that’s only for veterans


“…daily life could be said to commemorate the war still…”

Paul Fussell opens his The Great War and Modern Memory by writing:

This book is about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the trench experience itself. Indeed, if the book had a subtitle, it would be something like “An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life.” I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably transect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life. And I have been concerned with something more: the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical, and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.

Fussell brilliantly elucidates throughout his book the ways in which war leaves a stain not only on the veterans who fight the wars, but on all of us. War inhabits and infects society in ways that are both visible and invisible, whether in the form of flags at half mast on Memorial Day or in the form of reading this on a network that was originally designed by the military. Indeed we have become so accustomed to using the passed-down relics of war (e.g., the Internet, cell phones, GPS, tank tops, slang like “SNAFU”) in our everyday lives that we are blind to how much of peace owes its origin to war:

The whole texture of British daily life could be said to commemorate the war still. It is remembered in the odd pub-closing hours, one of the fruits of the Defense of the Realm Act; the afternoon closing was originally designed, it was said, to discourage the munitions workers of 1915 from idling away their afternoons over beer. The Great War persists in many of the laws controlling aliens and repressing sedition and espionage. “D”:-notices to newspapers, warning them off “national-security matters,” are another legacy. So is Summer Time. So are such apparent universals as cigarette-smoking, the use of wristwatches (originally a trench fad), the cultivation of garden “allotments” (“Food Will Win the War”). So is the use of paper banknotes, entirely replacing gold coins. The playing of “God Save the King” in theaters began in 1914 and persisted until the 1970's, whose flagrant cynicisms finally brought an end to the custom.

It is this intertwining of war and peace, this bleeding together of wartime practices with peacetime habits, that can today be witnessed perhaps most surrealistically by visiting Arlington West Santa Monica.

Arlington West/Santa Monica

The Santa Monica Pier represents the American Dream.

Stretching out into the Pacific Ocean, the pier offers not only amusement park attractions over crystal blue water, but also encapsulates everything intended by Horace Greeley’s well-known invocation, “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” When you’ve reached the pier you’ve reached the end of America, a dream come true, a place where people all over the world come to feel free.

Imagine then the effect of first happening upon the pier on a Sunday. For every Sunday…

…from sunrise to sunset, a temporary memorial appears next to the world-famous pier at Santa Monica, California. This memorial, known as Arlington West, a project of Veterans For Peace, offers visitors a visually powerful place for reflection on the nature of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond.

“Arlington West” represents the American Nightmare.

Beside and beneath the fun and folly of the Santa Monica Pier lies a graveyard with no graves. While Arlington National Cemetery is a place of mourning, a place where Americans go to pay their respects, it is most importantly a place set off from the rest of America. “Arlington West” is not-so-conveniently out of the way, requiring a Metro trip and a long walk through hallowed grounds, but is instead on the beach, requiring that one at the very least walk around it while trying to enjoy what the Santa Monica Pier has to offer.

The shadows of the fallen are in the shadows of frivolity. A visitor to the Santa Monica Pier on a Sunday can try to ignore the veterans both present and represented, but to do so requires that one has already become aware of it, that a day of fun for the family has already become tinged with a reminder of all the days lost for the fallen. It would come as no surprise therefore if those who happen upon “Arlington West” would not only try to ignore it, but would resent it, wishing that it was somewhere else, somewhere where it belonged, somewhere like a Metro stop in Arlington, VA.

“Thank you for your service, now please go away”

This of course parallels the situation of veterans, veterans who are likewise “supported” and “thanked,” but otherwise treated on their return home by being asked to stay out of sight, out of mind.

Such treatment of veterans is typically done unintentionally and unknowingly. Though we love war movies, we hate hearing war stories. Though we consume violence, we avoid scars. Veterans try to tell us what happened to them (whether through words or through actions), and the more they try to tell us the more we listen only for the sake of diagnosing these “symptoms” of “trauma,” only for the sake of referring veterans to those “better suited” to listening to them, like the therapists at the VA.

As the recent VA scandal has made clear, this system is broken. But it is not broken because of “secret lists” and “lack of service.” It is broken because we do not listen to veterans for the sake of listening.

Memorial Day

When we “support the troops” with “thank you for your service,” we act not unlike politicians working a line of voters. We shake hands, nod, and then move on. We do not wait, we do not let the veteran open up, we do not share their pain.

By acknowledging what veterans have done without reckoning with what veterans have been through, we let war bleed further into peace without realizing it until it is too late. That veterans experience alienation and anxiety upon returning from war to peace should reveal to us not that there is something wrong with veterans, but that there is something wrong with peace. But rather than listen to what veterans are telling us about the nature of peace, we listen to what therapists are telling us about PTSD rates, and avoid interrogating peace by avoiding talking to veterans beyond giving them the phone numbers and websites that they should go to for help.

This is why Memorial Day is a day not only for veterans but for all of us, just as “Arlington West” is not only to commemorate the fallen but to “eduate the public.” So if you want to thank a veteran for her service, do so not with a handshake and a nod, but by letting her and “Arlington West” educate you about her service.

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