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Celebrating Slaughter: How War Memorials Help Us Forget the Horrors of Violence

War memorials and museums sanitize the instruments of death that turn young soldiers into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan into hellish bonfires.
 
 
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War memorials and museums are temples to the god of war. The hushed voices, the well-tended grass, the flapping of the flags allow us to ignore how and why our young died. They hide the futility and waste of war. They sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires. There are no images in these memorials of men or women with their guts hanging out of their bellies, screaming pathetically for their mothers. We do not see mangled corpses being shoved in body bags. There are no sights of children burned beyond recognition or moaning in horrible pain. There are no blind and deformed wrecks of human beings limping through life. War, by the time it is collectively remembered, is glorified and heavily censored. 

I blame our war memorials and museums, our popular war films and books, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as George W. Bush. They provide the mental images and historical references to justify new conflicts. We equate Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler. We see al-Qaida as a representation of Nazi evil. We view ourselves as eternal liberators. These plastic representations of war reconfigure the past in light of the present. War memorials and romantic depictions of war are the social and moral props used to create the psychological conditions to wage new wars.

War memorials are quiet, still, reverential and tasteful. And, like church, such sanctuaries are important, but they allow us to forget that these men and women were used and often betrayed by those who led the nation into war. The memorials do not tell us that some always grow rich from large-scale human suffering. They do not explain that politicians play the great games of world power and stoke fear for their own advancement. They forget that young men and women in uniform are pawns in the hands of cynics, something Pat Tillman’s family sadly discovered. They do not expose the ignorance, raw ambition and greed that are the engine of war.

There is a burning need, one seen in the collective memory that has grown up around World War II and the Holocaust, to turn the horror of mass murder into a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit. The reality is too unpalatable. The human need to make sense of slaughter, to give it a grandeur it does not possess, permits the guilty to go free. The war makers—those who make the war but never pay the price of war—live among us. They pen thick memoirs that give sage advice. They are our elder statesmen, our war criminals. Henry Kissinger. Robert McNamara. Dick Cheney. George W. Bush. Any honest war memorial would have these statesmen hanging in effigy. Any honest democracy would place them behind bars.

Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, fought against the mendacity of collective memory until he took his own life. He railed against the human need to mask the truth of the Holocaust and war by giving it a false, moral narrative. He wrote that the contemporary history of the Third Reich could be “reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality.” He wondered if “we who have returned” have “been able to understand and make others understand our experience.” He wrote of the Jewish collaborator Chaim Rumkowski, who ran the Lodz ghetto on behalf of the Nazis, that “we are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit. His fever is ours, the fever of Western civilization that ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums.’  ” We, like Rumkowski, “come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.” We are, Levi understood, perpetually imprisoned within the madness of self-destruction. The rage of Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son Casey in Iraq, is a rage Levi felt. But it is a rage most of us do not understand.

 
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