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Memorials and memories


Memorial Day weekend is like a starting gun, launching us into the marathon of summer. The snow blowers have vanished from in front of the hardware store to be replaced by barbecues, the plastic-wrapped boats are being unpacked and returned to the harbor, and respectable citizens can be seen wearing shorts in the streets. The fantasy of life outdoors has taken hold despite deer ticks, mosquitoes, and deadly ultra-violet rays. Fun in the sun starts here.

The original purpose of Memorial Day tends to get lost in all this springtime optimism, which is not surprising. We are anticipating the future, not remembering the past. In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, a school teacher remarks that “There is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it” – a clever paradox that I take to mean that formal commemoration takes the pain out of memory by turning it into a painless ritual. It’s not hard to think of examples.

War not the only thing we commemorate, of course. Poets, artists, composers, religious leaders and even politicians have been honored in this way. But Memorial Day specifically commemorates the dead of past wars, or at least the wars within living memory. Time moves on, and history with it, and we must make the most of the memories and memorials we have before we forget why we had them.

Physical memorials like statues and monuments carve a tiny heroic slice out of the past. They try to overcome the fragility of human memory, but it’s hard to fix memories forever, even in granite, or indeed to find enough granite for them all. How many war dead can we possibly commemorate? War has been the primary hobby of the human race for tens of thousands of years, and the victims of all those wars must add up to billions.

So, our memories and our memorials are necessarily limited in time, and vulnerable to political fashions. Some will be torn down and replaced by the latest heroes, or heroines, as statues of Stalin were in the old Soviet bloc or Confederate heroes in the south. This seems inefficient and wasteful.

Perhaps our future memorials will consist entirely of videos and movies —or erased when the political winds change perhaps they already do. These have the advantage of being easily fictionalized, or erased when the political winds change, and history is rewritten by the winners. There is certainly something impressive about a solid monument. It has psychological as well as literal weight. But it has nothing like the impact of a movie showing John Wayne capturing Iwo Jima or Brad Pitt storming the walls of Troy.

In each generation our personal memories necessarily grow fainter. I think I can remember some fragmentary images from WII when I was a child, and more about Vietnam. But for all the other wars in history I must rely on books, paintings, and Hollywood fantasies, which are not real memories at all but shadowy sound bites from an imagined past.

A memorial is not a lesson, although we like to think it is. The philosopher Hegel said that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. History has proved him right and is still proving him right at this moment. History really does repeat itself, and there’s not much you or I can do about that except look the other way. It’s barbecue time.

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.