How do we remember war?
According to Kent Gramm, the worst thing you can do is present war—in this instance, the Civil War—in terms that might make it attractive. (Or fun. Or honorable.) That would open you up to his accusation that you are living in a world of “fantasy, myth, and entertainment.”
According to Stephen Cushman, we have forgotten the “reality” of the Civil War to such a startling degree that we can happily read Killer Angels—about a battle that resulted in fifty thousand casualties—on the beach.
I put “reality” in quotes up there not because Cushman did, but because it’s not clear to me who decides what’s real. I’ve been editing an entry on the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. The memorial features statues of men wading ashore at Normandy and a facsimile beach littered with destroyed machinery. The artist, Jim Brothers, researched soldiers’ accounts and obsessed over the details: the wedding ring on a guy’s finger, the number of grenades visible on the sand.
The idea was to achieve a realistic sense of what it was like to be there. But what does that mean? I’ve said this before about reenacting: if there aren’t bullets flying, if people aren’t getting their heads blown off, how realistic can it be?
So I wonder if what’s at stake here is not whether we can approximate what it was like to land at Normandy. We can’t, obviously. Instead, what we’re doing with things like the D-Day Memorial is making an argument about what war means to us.
How do we remember war? With a long black wall or with a seven-foot statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower? And what does that mean?
Perhaps “realistic” representations will remind us of death, although a wall with names does that, too. So maybe the D-Day Memorial reminds us of the moment, which is a different thing. That emphasizes fear but also courage and honor, and also perhaps cowardice. Is cowardice accounted for? Probably not. Or what about the “insanity” of war, to borrow from E. B. Sledge, a Marine who fought in the South Pacific?
The problem is that as much as D-Day was a shared experience for the GIs, everyone lived it differently. There is the Band of Brothers version, where the distinctions between good and evil are generally pretty clear. Or there’s Sledge, where the distinctions are sludge. I favor Sledge, but that’s just me.
Last year I discussed this issue, in the context of World War I, with Edward G. Lengel, a University of Virginia professor and author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. “Not having experienced the First World War, or combat in any form, I think it would be the height of arrogance for me to impose my views on the subject, or to decide which veterans’ accounts capture the true meaning of war,” he said.
Which is admirable. But it’s also a problem if you’re Jim Brothers and it’s your job to make those decisions.
Instead I try to approach each account with respect, allowing the veterans to tell the story themselves. That’s the answer, also, to your question on how I depict battle. Rather than pretend I was there—to paint a portrait, so to speak, of something I did not see or experience—I try to tell it in as raw a form as possible, as from the mouths of the soldiers themselves.
How do we remember war? Well, we—meaning me, probably you, certainly Jim Brothers—don’t. We weren’t there.
And yet, of course, every time we visit the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, we do.
IN ADDITION: Read my entire conversation with Lengel.