Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How We Remember War

There's really no objective reason to connect these two things I'm about to compare. It might be nothing more than an accident that I happened to, on the same day, read a The New York Times story on the day after it was published and watch an Israeli documentary first released in June 2008. But the topics are similar (and, more important, distinct) and I'll take advantage of the happy coincidence of running across them on the same day, in order to think through how we remember war.

I find war monuments to be just about the most interesting things in the whole wide world. They reveal in a very tangible, very visible way how these major human events are thought of, in retrospect. That would be interesting enough in its own right, but, I posit, war memorials do more than that. As times passes and first-hand knowledge of these wars fades, these memorials play a huge role in determining how the wars themselves are remembered. That's why I found this The New York Times article about a dispute over the inclusion of a bronzed representation of a South Vietnamese fighter in the Veterans Memorial Park of Wichita, Kansas so interesting. Some American veterans want to maintain the American identity of the Park. Some Vietnamese-Americans want to have their cooperation in the war effort remembered. And according to The Times, "after long, tense talks, a compromise emerged last month at City Hall: the monument will sit just outside the John S. Stevens Veterans Memorial Park (named for a former local official and veteran), set apart from the rest of the memorials by a landscaped, six-foot earthen berm, with no sidewalk between."

I'm not sure which side is in the right here. The important point is that this decision matters, and that the players involved (in addition to Monica Davey and the editorial staff of The Times) recognize that, more than 34 years after the last of the American personnel was evacuated from Vietnam, we're still struggling to come to terms with how our official memory of this event will be formulated.

The 2008 Israeli documentary Waltz with Bashir follows director Ari Folman as he attempts to overcome the official memory of Israel's 1982 Lebanon War. This film has gained a measure of notoriety for being an animated documentary. The animations and illustrations are routinely breathtaking--especially the repeated use of a toxic yellow, hinting equally at the trauma of the original event and the danger in remembering. But the documentary is important for reasons far beyond the decision to offer the tale in an animated form. At the start of the film, Folman finds himself unable to recall his involvement in the war. His memory is stirred through conversations with friends and fellow-soldiers, and he slowly pieces together what happened in Lebanon and what he did or did not do. The film contains conversations with psychologists and trauma experts who explain that the human brain can turn off, in a way, certain disturbing memories. The psychological basis of Folman's memory outage is fascinating, but I can't help but think that the official Israeli policy of embarrassment and silence contributed to the difficulty with which an individual soldier finds himself able to remember what happened. This is a case of an individual digging through the standardized national memory, in order to arrive at a more personal--and, perhaps, more authentic--memory of an important event.

1 comment:

JoSF said...

wow so i haven't read your blog in a while, i dont remember it being about such serious topics