Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Future of Culture IV: War Memorial


In the Radiolab episode "New Normal" that I talked about in the last Future of Culture installment, the episode began with a discussion of changing cultural attitudes toward war. Specifically, it was about a man who was surveying people about whether they thought war would ever end, whether there would ever be World Peace. He says that in the early 1980s, the answer was overwhelmingly "Yes." And today, the answer is overwhelmingly "No."

This seems indicative of the modern cynicism about everything (although the early 1980s still exists in that post-Nixon, post-Vietnam era that I at least consider the modern cynical age), but what's interesting to me is that this mindset flies in the face of certain evidence.

Actually, before we go on, I want to quibble about the question -- the question should be more realistically phrased as "Will we ever reach the point where wars are rare, abnormal events." In other words, I don't know if we'll ever reach that asymptotic event, but I do think it is an asymptote--I think we will get closer and closer to having "no" wars.

Somewhere between 1900 and 2000, war left the cultural norm in Europe. In 1900, war was considered a measure of strength of nations. By the end of World War One, we were praying that this war was the "war to end all wars." It wasn't until World War Two that this seemed to be achieved in Europe. Now, World War Two is not the complete end of War in Europe -- there were some near-wars, such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary and of the Czech Republic, and two genuine wars (the last genocides of the former Yugoslavia), but those were considered to be abnormal, and in the case of the latter, Europe actually interceded and brought an end to the war.

I was thinking about this for a very specific reason. This Sunday, I walked through Grand Army Plaza at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the plaza, pictured above, is the grand triumph arch, topped with what I feel comfortable in assuming is Nike, goddess of Victory. I feel comfortable in assuming this because nearly identical arches can be seen at the Brandenburg Gate, in Brussels, and throughout New England and Europe. Every one is a memorial to victory, a triumphal memory of war.

And that's what gives me hope: we don't build those arches anymore.

If you compare post-WWI memorials to pre-WWI memorials, you'll note that they suddenly become not memorials to Victory, they become memorials to loss. Lists of names or headstones. Nearly universally in Europe. It's a sudden, 180 degree shift of our cultural conversation about war.

Even if we were to win in Iraq--win in the most unequivocal terms; a stable democracy, no car bombs, Al Qaeda surrendering in one moment "on the deck of a battleship," as they say, etc.--even the most incredibly fantastical of victory scenarios--there will be no arch of triumph. We will simply erect a memory of those we have lost.

This is just one aspect of our cultural conversation about war. There's also Rush Limbaugh, and Band of Brothers, and the Medal of Honor games, and the coverage out of Iraq. But I find it interesting that what once was a common, "cultural" expression of memory of war has suddenly shifted. It gives me hope.

1 comment:

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Joan Stepsen
Computer geeks