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Written in stone

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Where do we look for our memories on Memorial Day? Tradition says that this federal holiday is observed to honor the dead of past wars. But how many wars, going back how far? Are we expected to remember Achilles and Richard III? And how are these dead to be remembered? With a generalized sadness, or with the painful specificity of names and dates?

The whole of recorded history has been filled with wars, and we can assume that pre-history was worse. War has been a human occupation — a hobby almost — for thousands of years. Every tribe wants to subdue or wipe out every other tribe, it’s in our nature. The most abundant artifacts found on ancient archaeological sites are not necklaces but arrowheads.

So, in every era, as one war followed another, memorials to dead heroes and leaders were created, sometimes in the form or heroic poems and songs, sometimes as physical statues or monuments. These can be impressive: the Giant Barrows or Tumuli from the Neolithic age, the Megalithic Dolmen built out of huge stones, or indeed the pyramids.

They provided a highly visible reminder of the glorious past, as long as anyone remembered which glorious past it was. The Romans were very fond of statues of emperors and senators, each one a futile grasp at immortality. But even stone isn’t eternal. We probably all remember from school Shelley’s haunting poem "Ozymandias", about the statue of a mighty king lying buried and forgotten in the sand. Even the greatest egos must sink into the sand eventually.

We seem almost to have lost the habit of putting up statues of famous individuals. For overriding ironic reasons, we no longer build triumphal arches either. A stone memorial is too vulnerable to desecration or destruction, unless it is something really big, like a pyramid or Mount Rushmore. The throwing down of statues has become quite fashionable recently: Confederate generals, slave owners, even Columbus who thoughtlessly discovered Watling's Island in the Bahamas. It’s happening in Ukraine right now, where statues of Soviet era heroes are being smashed. As the political wheel turns and the past repeats itself, they may soon be put up again.

The heroes and heroines of our time — presidents, billionaires, and YouTube celebrities — will probably never be immortalized in stone. Joe Biden won’t get a pyramid, or even a statue, just a trillion digital images that time will delete as surely as it deleted Ozymandias. What we create instead are generic memorials, like the Vietnam War Memorial or the Cenotaph in London, that preserve the memory not just of an individual but to the sacrifice of a whole generation, heroes and victims alike. This, in my opinion, is a great improvement, a small step towards honesty.

Now there is a real war in real time, and we see the thing in all its ugliness. New history overwrites our old memories. The millions who died in the two World Wars are already halfway to being forgotten. How much memory can we take? Perhaps what we learn from history is to beware of learning too much history.

Once- a-year reminders like Memorial Day strike just the right balance. The history teacher in Alan Bennett’s powerful play “The History Boys” explained it to his students like this: “It’s not so much lest we forget, it’s lest we remember.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.