Remembering War

One of the unfortunate things about war memorials–whether they involve a day set aside for observances, or depictions in popular culture, or even physical monuments–is that they tend to be captured by jingoists who seek to project the glories of past wars into a justification of present or future conflicts. Those who do not share the consequent blood lust and the desire to white-wash war’s horrors tend to ignore war memorials, or drain them of any special meaning, much like unbelievers turning a religious holiday into a shopping or recreational opportunity.

It’s an understandable impulse, but one that should be resisted. We should all remember the wars fought by our countrymen (and increasingly, countrywomen), not in the soft focus of patriotic nostalgia but in the hard light of historical knowledge and the urgent desire to learn from it.

I say this in part because in my own short lifetime my country has fought two major wars now widely regarded as mistakes. We are often told (most recently by Jeb Bush) that acknowledging the mistakes somehow casts dishonor on those who served in these wars. I’d say this represents an effort to use the sacrifices of the troops to cleanse the consciences (and avoid the consequences) of those who sent them into harm’s way recklessly or even thoughtlessly. The only proper way to honor the fallen in war is to spare their descendants war’s horrors to the maximum extent possible, and that means commemorating the folly as well as the glory.

So not being a veteran or anyone particularly touched by war is no excuse for conceding Memorial Day to those who have forgotten or willfully refused to recognize war’s lessons. Even the “best” wars are failures of diplomatic skill and imagination. Even the great victories have repercussions–often in the suffering of the vanquished–that offset the spoils. And even the most stirring acts of self-immolating heroism from women and men in uniform can only be redeemed by looking directly into the crucible of warfare, as they did, and having the courage to face the truth.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.