[H]ow can the memory of the colonists be reconciled with the memory of the colonized?
—Sadri Khiari, “The People and the Third People,” in What Is a People? (trans. Jody Gladding, Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 99)
There is something questionable about lumping all veterans together as all equally deserving of honor. Many pointed just that out, to give one relatively recent example, when President Ronald Regan accompanied West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a commemoration service at the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, thirty-one years ago this month, in May of 1985, to honor the German war-dead buried there. Unfortunately. the German veterans buried at Bitburg included even members of the Nazi Waffen-SS—despite the fact that the entire SS had been deservedly judged a “criminal organization” by the Nuremburg Tribunal at the end of World War II. Reagan’s remarks on that occasion in 1985 suggested it was time by then to let bygones be bygones. Even though some of those buried at Bitburg had served in a criminal organization of a regime that murdered millions in gas chambers, Reagan apparently thought it fitting, after so many years, to let all the dead be honored equally. Unfortunately, however, to honor the memory of murderers equally with the memory of those they murdered is to dishonor the latter—and to join the former, if only symbolically.
In the same way, to honor Confederate soldiers equally with Union soldiers and all other American veterans who died while serving in the United States military, as we have long done on Memorial Day, is to paper over the differences between the Confederacy and the Union. And in the process it is to dishonor the millions of African Americans who were sold into the very slavery over which the Civil War was fought in the first place. It is to forget their bondage and its toll of misery, and to forget who was responsible for it—which was by no means the Confederacy alone, be it added (a point to which I will return in my next post).
Forgetting also occurs under the appearance of remembrance when all U. S. veterans whatever are lumped together by robbing Armistice Day of its original significance and turning it into Veterans Day. That change involves the expropriation of the very day originally set aside in memoriam of what Woodrow Wilson was benighted or vicious enough (he certainly betrayed both character-traits) to call “the war to end all wars,” and appropriating it instead for the purpose of glorifying all U.S. military service of all times, even if that service consisted, for example, of dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or torturing Iraqi captives, and not just such non-controversially good deeds as liberating Paris from the Nazis or inmates from Dachau. What happens in such appropriation is the erasure and expropriation of the suffering of all our wars’ greatest victims, just as honoring all German war dead equally, including even Waffen-SS, dishonors those millions of Germans who died while serving honorably in their country’s armed forces.
Remembering the dead is a certainly a debt we owe them, one that should be honored and paid in full. Official memorializing of their deaths, however, is all too often a way of reneging on that debt, and failing to honor it. That is what almost always happens when memorializing is mandated by official state decree, as opposed to springing up spontaneously by popular action. The former is most often in the service of coercive power, helping to strengthen that power, or at least to maintain it. The later expresses the desire to honor those who call out to be honored in remembrance.
In a riven society, memory is also riven. To be genuine, mourning must honor the rift. The discord must be heard and remembered, not drowned out and covered over, for real healing to occur. The wounds of division must be kept open. They must be acknowledged and mourned, if a truly single and united community—inclusive of all as true equals, rather than preserving privileges for some who remain always “more equal” than others—is ever to be formed among those who remain.
Whether “under God” (as Congress mandated only in 1954) or not, the society of the United States today is “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” only in its own official Pledge of Allegiance. In reality, the society of the United States today continues to be riven by a variety of deep, longstanding social injustices it has never yet properly mourned.
Just this morning (May 16, 2016), The New York Times carried an article concerning one relatively recent instance of such a still unhealed wound of national division. The article addresses the controversy that is currently surfacing again as President Obama prepares to visit Vietnam soon, the third U.S. President to do so since the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in 1975. The rekindled controversy repeats that of old divisions generated by the United States war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. We as a nation have yet to face and to mourn what we did in that war, and what it did to us.
Slavery and all its consequences of ongoing discrimination and persecution against African Americans down to the present is perhaps the most obvious other example, and the one I have discussed most in this current series of posts. Unfortunately, there are many other examples as well. The oldest one goes all the way back to the genocidal warfare on which this country was founded, and the consequences of which continues to afflict American Indians to this day.
The list could be continued.
At any rate, what are the odds that we as a nation will ever be able to mourn such old yet still destructive divisions, and truly begin finally to heal them? The odds are not at all good, for reasons I have touched upon in my earlier posts in this series, and will address more directly in my next one, which I intend to be the last of this series on our own national capacity—or lack of it—to mourn.