“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” – Adrienne Rich
Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:
“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”
Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.
The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once told a story of someone who was conducting a sociological study of equestrian statues in New York. There seemed to be a relationship between the number of feet the horse had in the air and the status of the rider. One foot in the air connoted something different than two feet or zero. One observer lamented that the study was complicated by the fact that people didn’t ride horses anymore. Because horses were largely obsolete, societies were less restrained in how they could consider and present them. To which another observer replied, “It’s true that people don’t ride horses anymore, but they still build statues.” The building of monuments is therefore couched within the values of a society.
So what do we value? Gusterson wondered whether monuments in the U.S. might be able to adopt some of the ethos of the Holocaust Memorial by emphasizing the suffering that war causes and the dignity of its victims, rather than strictly glorifying the combatants. Symbols have power. Even the full name of the Holocaust Memorial (“The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”) carries weight. The inclusion of the word “murdered” leaves no ambiguity. Those people weren’t merely unfortunate victims, the impersonal, collateral damage of war. Other human beings deliberately killed them. Therefore, the memorial makes suffering and dignity front and center. Other monuments, tangentially related to conflict, perform similar acts by recognizing dignity of certain groups or all of humanity. One example is the sculpture “Dignity” in South Dakota, which honors the culture of the Lakota and Dakota tribes there.
Military personnel make enormous sacrifices. They put their lives and safety on the line for other people, and they should be recognized for their bravery. Still, our memorials tell stories about history, and those stories are usually incomplete and framed in certain ways. How might we react if war memorials intoned that while war may sometimes be necessary, it is always regrettable? Further, the reality of war is that the majority of its victims are noncombatants. In the Tao Te Ching, chapter 31 cautioned against feeling too triumphant in response to a military victory: “The death of a multitude is a cause for mourning: Conduct your triumph as a funeral.”
Would public monuments of martial reluctance, or on the suffering of all people involved, have any impact on the way a society perceives war? Could they reinforce Adrienne Rich’s lament that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political?” Perhaps they could, helping to shift our consciousness.