Commemoration of War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Commemoration relies on objects (such as monuments) and rituals (such as parades) that function as catalysts for remembering specific events.


Commemoration relies on objects (such as monuments) and rituals (such as parades) that function as catalysts for remembering specific events. The selection of these catalysts for collective memory depends largely on the values and beliefs of the particular society as well as the nature of the events to be remembered. In the case of war, commemoration has always been challenging, as it is difficult to balance the desire to celebrate victory and martial valor with the equally strong desire to mourn. Modern scholarship on the commemoration of war reflects this age-old challenge, but it also illustrates the radical changes that have taken place in the interpretation of war and shows how those changes have altered the ways in which war is remembered. Personal narratives of remembrance have come to be favored over official state interpretations, as remembering war has come to be understood as the act of memorializing a shared sense of loss.MemorialsCommemoration of warfareMonumentsMemorialsCommemoration of warfareMonuments


The Iwo Jima memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia, commemorates the U.S. Marines.

(©Richard Gunion/

An examination of the evolution of war’s commemoration is essential to an understanding of the modern perspective regarding war, as the two are inextricably linked. In ancient and medieval times, war was seen as a positive good, and this was reflected in the ways societies chose to remember wars. The Romans named the month of March after their god of war, Mars (god of war)Mars, and the culture of medieval England incorporated warfare into the fabric of society through the code of Chivalrychivalry. It was not until the modern period that the view of war as either a necessary evil or the greatest of all disasters came into being, a factor that radically changed how wars would be remembered. The brief and selective history of the commemoration of war that follows shows a few key moments in this process of evolution in both the understanding and the remembrance of war.

History of the Commemoration of WarAncient World

“Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles”–thus begins one of the earliest works of Western literature, HomerHomerHomer’s Iliad (Homer) Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611), which also happens to be a commemoration of war. Documenting events that took place during the Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e.) Trojan War (c. 1200-1100 b.c.e. ), the Iliad is a written artifact from an earlier Oral traditions oral culture. In oral cultures the Poet-priests[Poet priests] poet was both a priest, serving as an intermediary between the gods and humanity, and the keeper of cultural traditions. War was remembered in oral cultures as part of a larger set of norms and mores that were reinforced with each telling of specific tales.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., contains the names of American soldiers who died in that conflict, engraved into a wall of polished black marble.

(Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

As writing began to replace storytelling, the commemoration of war moved away from ritual retellings of cultural truisms to fixed objects of remembrance. One example of this change can be found in ancient Rome;historyRome. The Aeneid (Vergil) Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1553), created by the poet VergilVergil Vergil (70-19 b.c.e. ), pointed back to an earlier oral culture that was connected to the ritual commemoration of war. At the time Vergil wrote his epic, however, Roman culture was experiencing a massive transition, not only from a republican form of government to an empire but also to a form of memory that relied heavily on public monuments. Although monuments had been part of the communal remembrance of war during the Roman Republic (527-509 b.c.e. ), it was not until the early years of the empire and the reign of Augustus (27 b.c.e. -14 c.e. ) that they were gradually separated from social rituals. Triumph was transformed from an event into an object. Whereas in the Roman Republic the Triumphal marches triumph was a procession of the victorious army through the capital with the spoils of war, in the empire triumph was presented as an accomplished fact. The Column of Trajan Column of Trajan (113 c.e. ), which was built to commemorate the victory of the emperor TrajanTrajan (Roman emperor) Trajan (c. 53-c. 117 c.e. ) against the Dacians in what is now Romania, does not require participation to create its meaning. Trajan’s victory is already interpreted for the viewer, whose only job is to see and agree with its message. Movement from a republican participatory remembrance of war, however, to the more passive approach of the empire did not lessen the Roman obsession with victory. Like most ancient cultures, Rome saw little use for the recollection of defeat unless it was that of its enemies. Roman commemorations of war were thus designed primarily to put the state’s power prominently on display.

Medieval World

Unless churches are considered to be monuments, the medieval world contained few public memorials of war. Most of the objects of war commemoration created in this period took the form of hand-illustrated books or interior decoration of churches and castles. Also, with the notable exception of the Bayeux tapestryBayeux tapestry (c. 1077), which depicts the Norman Conquest (1066)Norman invasion of England in 1066, early medieval remembrances of war focused on ideal warriors and the chivalric code by which they lived rather than on specific real-world wars and battles. Consequently, many commemorations of battles from ancient mythology and history or the Bible were created. For example, a wall painting in the church of San Pietro al Monte, Civate (San Pietro al Monte) Civate (c. 1100) in Como, Italy, shows the archetypal Christian warrior, the angel Saint Michael, slaying the seven-headed dragon from the Bible’s book of Revelation. This image would have highlighted for the medieval viewer the necessary connection between Christian belief and martial valor.

An illustration from the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas de KentThomas de KentThomas de Kent’s work the Book of All Chivalry (Thomas de Kent) Book of All Chivalry (1308-1312) seems to represent a complete departure from the Christian iconography mentioned above. This work’s illumination shows a well-known historical scene, Alexander the Great fighting the Persian king Darius, but the text helps the viewer interpret the scene properly. Alexander becomes evidence of the classical roots of the Christian warrior’s sense of self, which in turn suggests the universal and timeless appeal of the chivalric code.

Because most medieval authors assumed that their audience would be familiar with the Chivalrychivalric code, few texts from the early medieval period discuss the code with any consistency or at any length. It was not until the late medieval period that explanations of the chivalric code began to appear. One such text is Christine de PizanChristine de PizanChristine de Pizan’s (c. 1365-c.1430) Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, The (Christine de Pizan) Le Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410; The Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, 1489), which was provided as a guide to the French king Charles VII (1403-1461) and his subordinates. Written at a time when the chivalric code was in a state of decline, this text was intended to ensure not only that wars would continue to be fought in the proper (that is, chivalric) way but also that they would be remembered correctly. Great changes in military science, along with a rising sense of historic consciousness, doomed Christine’s project from the start. War was changing dramatically, and so were the ways in which it would be remembered.

Modern World

Memorials to state power and to ideal warriors did not immediately disappear from modern commemorations of war, but the rising sense of historical consciousness that marked the birth of the modern period led to a greater interest in remembering specific wars and battles rather than timeless ideals. The understanding of history as a force for permanent social change also led to the belief that the names and deeds of ordinary soldiers should be remembered alongside the causes for which they fought. As a result of this specificity, the creators of commemorations of war soon became involved in clashes over the interpretations of particular conflicts.

After the American Civil War (1861-1865);commemorationAmerican Civil War (1861-1865), former slave, abolitionist, and orator Douglass, FrederickDouglass, FrederickFrederick Douglass (1817[?]-1895) argued that the Civil War should be remembered as a struggle to free the slaves from bondage. Among the white population of the United States, many Northerners saw the war primarily as an action taken to preserve the nation’s political union, while those living in the defeated South thought of the war as the tragic destruction of an entire way of life. A new war over how to remember the Civil War had suddenly replaced the conflict on the battlefields. Over time, however, a compromise was reached. Statues commemorating the common Civil War soldier began to appear in town squares, parks, and cemeteries throughout the United States. These statues largely refrained from interpreting the war; instead they reflected a shared national language of sacrifice.

Such a relatively neutral vision of war also predominated in the monuments created in England to commemorate World War I[World War 01];commemorationWorld War I. “Official” (that is, state) monuments included the Whitehall Cenotaph Whitehall Cenotaph (1920), located near the seat of Parliament in London; the Cross of Sacrifice Cross of Sacrifice (c. 1918), designed by the Imperial War Graves Commission for cemeteries near the European battlefields of the war; and the Port Sunlight Memorial Port Sunlight Memorial (1921) in Liverpool. These monuments were designed to celebrate English valor and patriotism, but the names of the dead engraved on them remind the viewer that they are also sites of mourning. This juxtaposition of individual suffering and loss with martial valor represents in itself a great change in the nature of modern war commemoration.

Beams of light shoot up from the sites of the twin World Trade Center towers as a temporary memorial to those who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

(©June Marie Sobrito/

Even greater, however, is the growing desire to remember military defeat. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) in Washington, D.C., commemorates a highly unpopular war that ended with what many Americans viewed as a humiliating defeat. A list of names of the fallen greets the viewer at this site; the names, arranged chronologically in the order of death, are carved into a wall of black marble that is set slightly below ground level. This memorial, designed by Lin, MayaLin, Maya Maya Lin (born 1959), powerfully displays the human cost of war, but the creation of meaning is ultimately left up to the viewer. The memorial, ironically, represents a move away from monuments and other objects of remembrance and back to a much older participatory form of commemoration.MemorialsCommemoration of warfareMonuments

Books and Articles
  • Ashplant, T. G., Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper, eds. The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration. New York: Routledge, 2000. Collection of essays focuses on the commemoration of modern wars and discusses how official narratives often conflict with the memories of minority groups who have experienced the same conflicts.
  • Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Examines the divergent ways in which the American Civil War was remembered by those who experienced it and, in the process, makes visible the fractures in collective memory at the war’s end that made any authoritative national commemoration difficult if not impossible.
  • Dillon, Sheila, and Katherine E. Welch, eds. Representations of War in Ancient Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collection of authoritative and accessible essays focuses on the Roman state’s relationship to war, including how it chose to commemorate past victories.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpen. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Traces the movement of the Civil War dead from the battlefields to their final resting places, providing some interesting observations on how Americans in the years following the war attempted to mourn the dead and at the same time make sense of the conflict.
  • King, Alex. Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance. New York: Berg, 1998. Examines the various types of war memorials constructed in Great Britain at the end of World War I and shows the difficulty faced by the English people in balancing the desire to present the nation as triumphant while at the same time mourning their war dead.
  • Strickland, Matthew. War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066-1217. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Discusses the relationship between the chivalric code and the waging of war in the early medieval period as well as the impact the code had on how wars were remembered by the Anglo-Norman people.
  • Winter, Jay. Remembering War: The Great War Between History and Memory in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Focuses on how World War I has been commemorated by the different European nations that took part in the conflict. Offers an examination of both the official national remembrances of the war and the counternarratives of particular minority groups.
  • Winter, Jay, and Emmanuel Sivan. War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Collection of essays highlights the various minority-group counternarratives that undermine authoritative national commemorations of war.

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Categories: History