Postnational Memory, Peace and War

Postnational Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts Beyond Borders. By Nigel Young, Routledge: 2019.

By Stephen Harold Riggins | 2021-12-31 20:00:00

Recently, I assisted two people in writing memoirs about their experiences of war. One had fought in Italy in the last years of World War II. The other experienced the destructive social engineering of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Also, from a distance I have been observing the gradual opening of a small museum with a room commemorating the strength and service of local residents in the armed forces. Consequently, I read sociologist Nigel Young’s Postnational Memory, Peace and War: Making Pasts beyond Borders not for the originality of his contribution to scholarship but for the advice that could help the public in the creation of anti-war memoirs. I will try to make the author’s basic framework more explicit.

Young’s topic is 20th century collective memory work related to war. I will substitute a term that is more concise: collective remembering. Remembering is not simply passive recall. It does require work both at individual and institutional levels. Remembering is a product and a process. Common sense seems to suggest that what people remember is a product of their psychology, but that social forces are too distant to have much impact on their memories. Common sense is misleading.

Individual remembering requires that the past remain alive in the present. Public commemorations, rituals, and art serve this function. The social conventions of cultural meanings, ideologies, artistic genres, and permission to mourn are not the labor of isolated individuals.

Institutions and populations that have a stake in conflicts influence other people’s memories. Anti-war movements can also be understood as new memory movements. In addition, “reputational entrepreneurs” shape how the public remembers other people and times.

Premodern collective remembering of war, according to Young, is the perspective of victors, political decisionmakers, and ethnic elites, although it may incorporate some folk or communal elements. An imposing tall edifice of light-colored stone, realistic statues, plaques explaining the incidents the memorial represents, and celebratory military symbols are the common features of war memorials from this era. Soldiers are heroes worthy of attention. Conveying the message that military service is noble and patriotic requires minimizing the horrors of conflicts.

Modern collective remembering is the perspective of witnesses, victims, survivors; left-wing journalists; as well as historians and museum curators, who seek professional autonomy. It is a “transgenerational cultural vision of peace: a democratizing, political aspiration to transcend war and militarism that has matured over a century.” Modern collective remembering often originates in personal experiences dating from adolescence and early adulthood that individuals feel obligated to share for ethical reasons. The information is assumed to be therapeutic for society. Advocates of modern collective remembering strive for universal empathy. This is the past beyond borders in Young’s subtitle. It requires identity with perceived enemies (the correct term is: the opposition).

Young’s modern memory-work timeline begins with Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s paintings of traumatic incidents in his life. Munch’s brutal frankness about trauma is the modern element. Except for isolated precursors, the aftermath of World War I is the institutional beginning of this new era. The war resulted in the loss of a traditional past for many people and the loss or reconfiguration of six empires (British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman). No earlier war has been documented by so many articulate spokespersons on each side of the combat.

Modern collective remembering appears as waves related to generational experiences. Young calls the crests “memory booms” and identifies three such moments, approximately 1928-34, 1952-64, and 1975-84. Troughs of relative silence follow the booms due to some combination of self-censorship, collective amnesia, government-imposed amnesia, and the collaborative false-consciousness of opponents. Following every conflict, some witnesses and victims, with wishful thinking, conclude that silence is therapeutic. Witnesses and protesters lose motivation to communicate when the public shows little interest in learning about the realities of conflicts. The task of postnational memory work, Young writes, “has been to break a wide range of silences…to name the nameless, the victims of total war and genocide; and, where possible, to give them voice. But beyond that, modern memory also has the longer-term responsibility to reframe, re-contextualize and demythologize representations of the past.”

The terms premodern and modern are unfortunate because the first term appears to represent something old-fashioned and on the way out. For war, this will be a long process. We live in an era which, from many points of view, is both premodern and modern. Premodern and modern remembering should be understood as contemporary competing discourses. Since World War II, a shift towards the conventions of the modern discourse has occurred, but the media exaggerate the degree of change according to Young. Today’s dominant discourse remains premodern because militarism is strongly supported by vested economic interests and the public tends to be culturally conservative. The counter-discourse is the opinion of a minority. For instance, by wearing red, white, or purple poppies, we can make political statements about Remembrance Day, November 11th. This autumn, I did not see a single person wearing a white poppy, representing pacifism as the lesson of World War I, or a purple poppy symbolizing the loss of life of animals in wars. Military museums are common, peace museums rare (see Joyce Apsel’s book Introducing Peace Museums).

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, can serve to illustrate these competing discourses. Lin’s memorial honors American soldiers declared dead, missing in action, or accidentally killed while in service in Vietnam between 1956 and 1975. It consists of two black granite walls sunken into the ground and which meet at an angle like a deep cut in the earth. The walls taper in size from ten feet high to a few inches. Columns of personal names individualize human sacrifices. Military ranks are not given. Nothing explicitly presents death in battle as heroic. No horrifying events of war are represented. Restricting names to Americans is the feature most consistent with the nationalism of premodern commemorations. The names of the Vietnamese dead, communist or anti-communist, and civilians are absent. The public was unhappy about the absence of a flag. One was added. Many critics regretted the absence of realistic statues. Two were added, one of male soldiers (of different races) and one of female military nurses.

The complicating factor in relating these features to the two competing discourses is that some modern features are a result of commemorating a controversial war, which the U.S. Armed Forces lost, rather than commitment to the conventions of modern remembering. A large percentage of the American public would have been offended by premodern celebratory themes of military valor. The committee overseeing the competition for the monument requested that the competing artists submit an essentially apolitical design that honored the soldier, not the cause; and that the monument hug the ground. Arguably, Lin exceeded the preference for something quiet and contemplative.

What are the lessons for peace activists in Postnational Memory, Peace and War? The essential lesson is to realize that there are always diverse and competing narratives about any violent conflict. Truth is partial. If your aim is civic education and therapy, reflect on the potentially valid ideas of your opponents. Is it possible that your truthful memories will cause more pain than therapy? Is your work likely to provoke revenge by the victims? Are you inadvertently promoting nationalism? Modern collective remembering should have the characteristics of a good argument, something rare in today’s debates among politicians. You are presenting both sides of a dispute while identifying with one side. Therapy requires that you accept your obligation to present the opposition as accurately as possible. One sign of a good argument is that the opponents learn something about their own ideas. For more information about how to argue fairly, see Douglas Walton’s One-sided Arguments: A Dialogical Analysis of Bias.

Postnational Memory, Peace and War is an exhaustive study of modern remembering of war that offers new information to all readers, even those already familiar with the author’s topic. Readers of Peace Magazine might want to search for information about the protest art of four visual artists that Young admires: Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Iri and Toshi Muruki.

Reviewed by Stephen Harold Riggins, a retired professor of sociology who taught at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador

Peace Magazine January-March 2022

Peace Magazine January-March 2022, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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