U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reckoning with Memorial Day

As many of us—myself included—are enjoying a nice late-Spring long weekend, I thought it worthwhile to think about what Memorial Day might mean for historians, whose daily business it is to forge memories. I would like to suggest that historians, particularly US historians, view this day as our yearly day of reckoning. Indeed, as David Blight showed in his masterful analysis of the trajectory of Civil War memory in America, Race and Reunion, Memorial Day has its origins in Decoration Day, when the legacy of the Civil War was still highly contested. It later also became a sight for consolidating these competing legacies, as White Americans forged a new compact on the back of non-White Americans. American historians, as we well know, were highly complicit in this project.

In the last few decades historians and theoreticians of nationalism have explored the many ways in which temporality underscores the project of nation building. While Benedict Anderson, for instance, stressed how nationalism mirrors religion in its particular emphasis on the future—its eschatology if you will—Eric Hobsbawm put more emphasis on the role of historical myth making.(1) Indeed, according to Hobsbawm, nations always rely on contrived memories and have harnessed compromised forms of history writing to sinister ends.

Furthermore, as historians of memory have shown, nationalist projects of constructing memories are not only categorically skewed, but they also hinge on the no less important act of forgetting. Such blends of well-honed memory and forgetting are usually designed to achieve the national consolidation of a newly contrived group at the expense of another, differently contrived, group of “others.” In the case of American history, as historians such as Blight and more recently Ari Kelman have made clear, American projects of remembering the past have figured prominently in the political project of constructing the American polity in a white image.(2) In the case of the post-Civil War era, the atrocities of racial oppression and slavery and the displacement and genocide of Natives were swept under the rug to usher in a rejuvenated and romanticized national identity.

Thus, Memorial Day proves as good a day as any to ask ourselves if we have done enough to illuminate the past in ways that do justice to people in the past, but perhaps no less so to those who live in the present. For memories of the past have very real consequences for us in the present. As Blight has argued, the transition from a more contested memory of the Civil War to a more abstract notion of heroism ascribed to Union and Confederate soldiers alike facilitated the end of the pursuit of justice for freed people. Likewise, contemporary notions of the past have the capacity to perpetuate or disrupt injustice.

As US historians, however, we face quite a predicament. How do we write and teach US history in ways that are not complicit in the American nationalist program? Does not the very premise that the “taxonomy” of history fields conforms primarily to the framework of nation-states reify the idea of the state as a “natural” or “primordial” entity? Is not the conviction that so many historians in America must first and foremost teach US history surveys part of the nationalist project itself? Can we really hope to defuse the violence of American nationalism from within?

In The History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently called into question our priorities as historians. Do we write for our own edification within a well-established comfort zone, or do we seek to participate in more meaningful and approachable discussions of the past? As less students seem interested in traditional historical frameworks should we not entice them with a more passionate call for history as action in the world by revamping both our scholarship, but perhaps no less so our curriculum? Is it really more important for students in the US to be familiar with the “nuts and bolts” of US history before they learn about the global history of slave rebellions or a comparative study of same sex relationships?

I for one know what course I would have taken as an undergraduate had I such choices in front of me.

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (1990); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

[2] I’m referring to Kelman’s Bancroft prize winning book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (2013).

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Can we just allow Memorial Day to remain a day for remembering and thanking those who gave their lives in what they believed to be righteous causes in the service of the Republic? Can we keep our focus on them and forget ourselves and our egos and our comparatively petty needs and goals? We have our own time in which to accomplish those things and we need to make sure we don’t rob them of any of their time. A day is not much compared to a life. I think we owe them no less than that.

    We need, as well, to respect and remember them as the people they were when they died – men and women of untapped potential whose sacrifice enabled us to realize our dreams. I’m sure none of them wanted to die. They wanted to live their lives and pursue their happiness like everyone else but fate intervened.

    We sully their memories, however, when we work out our arguments and squabbles on their backs. They have carried enough for us already, and we should be ever mindful of that no matter what anyone of us thinks of the conflicts in which they served.

    I was an opponent of the Vietnam war and did not serve (got lucky). It was a tremendous waste and we should never have gotten involved. Still I have the utmost respect for those who served and fought in that conflict. Good soldiers bad war is the way I would put it.

    So on the next Memorial Day when you are enjoying a nice late Spring long weekend remember those who didn’t have the same opportunity you do. Remember as well these are human beings we are talking about and not mere data or statistics or the fodder for an intellectual battle. Put your personal projects away for the day. They’ll still be there on Tuesday.


      • Gently put? What about the assumption behind the “remember those who didn’t have the same opportunity you do”? There’s little way to take that line as other than, well, condescension. Seriously? Why would one assume that Eran is NOT taking that gift seriously? As Robin noted below, writing this post is, in fact, serious engagement with their act of sacrifice (willing or no). – TL

      • Yes, “gently put.” Anyone who’s spent much time on the Interwebs and is familiar with the way dissenting comments often go–especially where issues of war and nationalism are concerned–should be able to recognize a gentle objection when they see one.

        As for “serious engagement” with those who have offered the ultimate sacrifice, I don’t see that. Serious engagement with questions of nationalism, commemoration, the curriculum, sure.

        Publius’ contends that the fallen disappear in this piece, just as they disappear behind the waving flags and nationalist chants of the jingoists. He’s right.

        When your meditation on Memorial Day ends with the conclusion that we need more courses on comparative same-sex relationships, you may be doing exactly what the contemporary academy finds comfortably and predictably edgy, maybe you’re right, but no, you’re not engaging with the difficult topic of war and sacrifice, and how we should think about it.

        You’re saying, Let’s all think about something else.

      • In a way John, yes, he’s saying let’s think about something else — or really, something in addition to.

        Because if you decide to accept the premise that Memorial Day should be about “who have offered the ultimate sacrifice” you’re actually limiting the scope of your empathy, not expanding it. Because according to traditional practice, who are we remembering and honoring? American soldiers and American lives. But what about those Vietnamese mothers who lost their children? Did they not also make the ultimate sacrifice? What about the brothers and sisters of Iraqis and Afghans; why, in baseball parks and schools and public spaces, do we not invoke their memory as well? Since we’re instructed to only empathize with fallen Americans and value their lives more than the lives of others — both citizens and not — we are validating so many lies that ultimately contributed to their deaths.

        For example, here you say “the ultimate sacrifice”? But sacrifice for what? Our freedom? Which war, whose freedom? I know you think all that matters is it is what they thought they were doing. But what if they did not actually feel that way? What if they did not so much choose to make the ultimate sacrifice but were collared into a situation out of desperation and limited options that, once they were there, they felt no purpose in? What if even some of them volunteered for all the wrong reasons? We can still mourn their mother’s grief then, of course, but don’t all mothers grief deserve to be mourned? Why a national holiday for these in particular?

        Finally, if the internet has so lowered our standards that someone being overtly rude and condescending can be considered gentle, well I suppose Jonathan Chait might have had *some* tiny point in that article of nonsense he wrote.

      • “. . . you’re actually limiting the scope of your empathy, not expanding it. Because according to traditional practice, who are we remembering and honoring?” and etc.

        I think I’ve already addressed that in my comment below.

      • Not really though. You note everyone deserves empathy, but you still don’t explain why it is valid to have a national holiday that singles out one particular group, and one particular group only, for empathy.

        I get that you think you take the opportunity to imagine the lives of the non-Americans who fought and died in these wars as well; but that’s not at all what the holiday as it is practiced is really about. And, as Eran has pointed out several times, by validating that there should be a particular holiday for American soldiers in particular — rather than all who have died from violence, in and outside the country — you validate a nationalist project that is the source of so much awfulness and suffering.

        I don’t celebrate Memorial Day because I don’t believe the grief and dying of soldiers is any less, or any more, tragic than the death of anyone else. I’ll mourn their deaths and the grief of their families on my own time, in my own moments — not according to the rhythms of a nationalist project built on lies.

      • check you egos at the door folks (except for john haas who seems to get it.)

        what about veteran’s day.

        I also think that those freed from the camps and liberated in nations such as france, poland, china, korea, phillippines, greece, italy, the balkan nations, etc., would think world war ii a considerable exceptions as well.

      • I think I’m having a hard time really appreciating these objections, and I suspect it comes down to the idea that there’s a traditional or general practice that has some kind of authority in defining what Memorial Day means.

        I’d have a problem with that on general principles.

        But when you define it this way: “Since we’re instructed to only empathize with fallen Americans and value their lives more than the lives of others — both citizens and not — we are validating so many lies that ultimately contributed to their deaths.”

        I’ve never received those instructions and, if I did, I would assume that the very act of delivering such an absurd message invalidates any pretentions the messenger might have to having a clue, certainly about what Memorial Day should be, perhaps about anything.

        Once we learn to treat that kind of nonsense with the disregard it deserves, I think most of these other objections fall away.

      • John, the very definition of the day — that, as Wikipedia puts it, it is “a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces” means it instructs us to direct our attention to a particular group of people to think about and appreciate them, not just anybody, and not war victims in general, or victims of violence in general. So, there is that; I’ve been arguing, repeatedly, that this is not valid, because I don’t think nationalism is valid. Apparently you do, which is fine, but you haven’t made an argument for why.

        Second, if you haven’t received that message in school, in baseball games, football games, cable television montages, neighborhood Memorial Day parades, and a million other outlets of the public, I would strongly suggest you are not listening close enough.

        I get that your definition is different, and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with how you understand Memorial Day. But this discussion is not about what individual people think — it is about how it operates, by and large, in the culture. And by recognizing it as a legitimate idea at all, you end up reinforcing things you might not really agree with. That’s not up to you. Your personal act of redefinition is not that powerful, and will be put to ends for which you do not mean it to, because most people will interpret with the nationalist lens that governs political discourse in this country. That’s why I think the most powerful way to challenge its problems is to reject it altogether as a dictate for how I will remember the dead.

      • Robin, I get the idea that Memorial Day is a day of memorializing (remembering) the American war dead.

        Surprisingly, perhaps, I have no problem doing precisely that while remembering a whole host of other things too–things often quite at odds with whatever projects hyper-nationalists would like to promote.

        Wikipedia and baseball games notwithstanding.

      • may the baby jesus shut your mouth and open your mind. it’s not about you, it’s
        about them. such arrogance and hypocrisy.

  2. A couple of things to the commenters.

    First, how is questioning the ways we celebrate and remember Memorial Day equivalent to “robbing” the fallen of their time? You can’t just assert that it is – for couldn’t it actually be the opposite? Couldn’t this be the best, most serious way of honoring their memories? That judgment call is not obvious but inherently political.

    Second, referring to fundamental questions of imperialism, race, and colonialism as “squabbles” is extremely problematic, to put it very “gently.” This, too, is political.

    Third, did these sacrifices really enable all of us to “realize our dreams”? Who is “us” in this formulation? All Americans? How did the Mexican-American war enable the Mexican Americans of today to realize their dreams? Because since we conquered half of Mexico some of them can now more easily provide white America with stigmatized low wage labor? (That’s not a good answer, btw.) What about the American Revolution? How did that turn out for enslaved people for the next 180 years? Unless you think black people all have Jefferson to thank for their freedoms. (Also, not a good answer). What about all the soldiers who died committing genocide against Native Americans? How did they help today’s contemporary tribes, a more invisible and poverty stricken minority in some places than even African Americans, realize their dreams?

    All these questions and all these answers engage politics. It’s unavoidable, and all Eran is doing is asking us to engage them honestly, and with an eye to the fact that no national celebration, no national ritual or holiday, can detach itself from our political notions. You’re posturing here as though you’re free from this, and those who insist otherwise want to dirty the waters of your pure appreciation for those who fought and died with their “politics” — yet I say that such delusional self-regard will only lead to more of them dying, and if anyone is getting in the way of honoring their memories by making sure none of them fight in pointless or awful wars fought for pointless and/or awful ends (the Civil War being a considerable exception), that it is the politics inherent in *your* comments that actually do the disservice.

    • Robin Marie: I won’t talk for Publius, but I will offer a few comments on why I liked what he said. Please forgive the length.

      1. You–and Eran–are certainly correct that there is no realm free of politics, and even if there were, commemorating Memorial Day would definitely not be it.

      Publius’s complaint that maybe, just on Memorial Day, we could focus on the sacrifice and pain endured by the fallen and their families is not apolitical–not by a long shot. Exploring the political and moral issues raised by America’s wars is never far from any discussion of anything having to do with our military, even whatever complicated feelings we may have about the loss our wars entail (on all sides).

      2. Politics is good, and necessary. It’s how we as a nation discern where to go, what to do, who gets what. It’s inescapably moral. If we, as a nation, decide that “they” get bullets and bombs, that’s political, and commemorating the loss of those that were bringing “them” the bullets and bombs is political, too. Forgetting–intentionally or unintentionally–what national project the fallen were engaged in when they fell, is also political.

      We cannot be good citizens–let alone, moral people–if we neglect our duty to think about these projects. Eran is certainly right that US historians have a particularly intimate relation with these projects, one that deserves constant re-thinking, questioning, etc. Our day-to-day work involves telling stories about these national projects, and we need to be thinking hard not just about what we say, but about what is implied by the very telling of the stories we choose to tell–why this one and not that, who are we leaving out, how’d this story even happen, who decided it would and why, and etc.

      3. But while it’s true that everything has a political dimension, it’s not true that every dimension of anything is only political. So, imagine a dinner table, and a family, and an empty chair. The family is looking at that chair, and it’s the first dinner they’re eating in the knowledge that that chair will never be filled again. It doesn’t matter what country we’re talking about, or which war, or whether it was a just or a wicked war, or if the soldier gone was noble or monstrous in his actions: We can still, if we wish, acknowledge what that family is going through at that moment. We can bracket what we think about the nation, the war, or the individual fallen soldier, and focus on the reality the family is enduring, recognizing that their experience transcends politics. It’s the basic human experience of loss and bereavement and uncertainty and fear and maybe anger that families know whatever the political project may have been that resulted in that loss. And we can go further–rewind the tape to that moment when the soldier died, and we can acknowledge that as a basic human experience, and feel whatever we feel about it. We can rewind again, and live that day with him, and feel with him whatever he felt: loneliness and concern for his family, sorrow and anger for the loss of friends, the desire for revenge against an enemy, patriotism maybe, fear going forward into battle, and so forth. We can keep rewinding as far as we want, and we can keep–again, only if we wish–acknowledging the human dimension of those various experiences, the ones that all soldiers experience, whatever the justness or morality of the national project that delivers those experiences into their lives. Acknowledging those human things in no way precludes passing whatever judgments we believe we must pass on the national project.

      4. I’ve been watching CNN a lot these past weeks, something I never do, and they were covering the release of the bin Laden documents. Whichever anchor it was, was marvelling at the letters bin Laden had written to his wives and sons, and how very human they are. She shook her head in amazement, and asked the experts how this could be, and they seemed shocked too, admitting it was a hard thing to explain or believe, but there it is, he was human too. I was just a little taken aback by their amazement: Doesn’t everyone know by now that there are no monsters, just humans doing monstrous things sometimes, and that human beings remain human beings? No, everyone doesn’t know that. We rarely pause to just observe the humanity of others, let alone to meditate on that and reckon with what it means. We marvel that bin Laden loved his family, just as we marvel at the footage of Hitler frolicking with his dogs. Perhaps some Iraqis that have joined ISIS are marvelling at this moment that Obama can love his family while he’s ordering up air strikes against them.

      5. Why do we marvel? Is it because we’ve reduced these people to abstractions–because we’ve stopped thinking of them as human beings, and instead only considered them as elements within a political project? Because we consider that political project monstrous (rightly so, in many cases), and so have thought no further, and assumed every part of that project must be monstrous too? Because all we’re thinking about is politics?

      6. Recognizing the human elements that transcend politics that exist within political projects is political, too. It’s an act of moral imagination–a refusal to reduce human beings to abstractions. That effort transcends the nation-state, and so often incurs the anger of patriots. They (rightly) see the exercise of such imagination–call it empathy–as subversive of the nation-state’s project. That exercise of imagination distracts from, and perhaps even puts into question, the national, political, project. Refusing to only think politically is a political act.

      7. It is my own choice to make Memorial Day a day reserved for those acts of imagination. They start as they should with those I have the closest connections with–our soldiers, their families, my neighbors, my fellow Americans, those that share with me a role in pursuing our national projects–but empathy won’t be controlled by politics. It’s inescapably analogous. If left to pursue its natural course, it seeks parallels. It has no natural limits–only political limits. Those need to be imposed from without.

      8. So, yeah, I want to stop thinking politically for awhile on Memorial Day, and I want to focus on the human dimension, and let that focus run in all its natural directions. And I want others to do the same. I think we’d be a better nation for it. I think Publius is right: Those political projects will still be there. They’re pretty insistent. They won’t allow me to forget them for long, because they want me to enlist. They don’t even like mental reservations–they want me all in. I’ll get back to them soon enough.

      • I wish Memorial Day was really about the fallen, that it had a “human dimension.” But to assume that such is the case is dangerous. As it operates, it is a day in which the American nationalist project cynically harnesses death to perpetuate itself. And by participating in the assumption that it is really about the fallen we are complicit in a cynical celebration of death.

      • Thanks for this, I really appreciate this comment and agree with much of it. I’m still not entirely sure that the exercise of empathy itself “transcends” politics — how do we get to a point where can allow ourselves to engage in the project of empathy in the first place? Doesn’t that willingness (or unwillingness) engage with some deeply political instincts? Of course, I’m using “political” here in the largest sense possible. So to an extent it is just a matter of semantics, whereas the process you’re describing, we completely agree on. But I just don’t understand the desire to transcend politics, because politics is a huge part of what makes us human — animals love as well, but what they don’t do is struggle over the values that define their lives or their leadership (apes might be an exception to that, actually). But I do understand that genuine human contact that reorient or challenge those politics, and that’s certainly a good thing.

        Anyway, I’m just thinking aloud there. I would just add that Publius comment above participated in several tropes of nationalism — from “they died for our freedom” to “you are being arrogant to disrespect them with your petty political concerns.” I wasn’t down with that, but the sentiment you’ve expressed is much different from it.

  3. There’s an interesting question about causation here that frequently gets invoked (implicitly) when discussing death, soldiers, and political freedom. That soldiers are dying for “freedom” seems hard to substantiate from a scientific or philosophical angle. Historians might search diaries and memoirs to find out why a particular person chose to enlist, but then we’re dealing with the thorny issue of memory. Can one prove that someone’s death acted as a deterrent and not a catalyst for foreign conflicts involving the United States?

    What does this mean? I take it to mean that if soldier x had not gone over to country z, then “unfreedom” would commence; it would only be a matter of time before American democracy would crumble.

    I find this problematic, and I understand how criticism of military personnel who die overseas is viewed by friends and family as troubling; these people do not like to feel that their friend/family member’s death “was in vain.” Does this indicate a shift in how death is viewed? That physical dying can prevent future acts of physicality?

    From a cultural/intellectual standpoint, when did this idea of soldiers’ deaths translate into a physics lesson about primary causation regarding American safety and freedom? When did this public debate begin (in the limited sense above)? Is there something about the nature of post-Gulf War foreign policy that allows for making these types of claims? Is there a memo written by a state department employee that can be mined for understanding why/how the public can make this claim about death and primary causes?

  4. I wonder how Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letters_from_Iwo_Jima and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flags_of_Our_Fathers_%28film%29) fit into this discussion? On the one hand the project seems to acknowledge the costs of the battle on both sides; on the other hand the US film is, perhaps inevitably considering the structure of government and society in each nation, much more centered on the domestic front than the Japanese film.

      • True, but Hollywood isn’t necessarily known for following the written text. 🙂
        I was struck by the contrast between the need to obtain popular support for the war in the US, leading to the use of “heroes” in savings bond drives versus the ideology of dying for the emperor, the Son of Heaven. I think Eastwood did good by making a movie that was popular in Japan.

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