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.
The Iwo Jima memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia, commemorates the U.S. Marines.
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,
“Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles”–thus begins one of the earliest works of Western literature,
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.
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
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
An illustration from the Anglo-Norman poet
Because most medieval authors assumed that their audience would be familiar with the
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.
Such a relatively neutral vision of war also predominated in the monuments created in England to commemorate
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.
Even greater, however, is the growing desire to remember military defeat. The
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.
Art and Warfare
Film and Warfare
Ideology and War
Literature and Warfare
Music and Warfare
Religion and Warfare
Television and Warfare