Memorials are Useless

I have seen a lot of memorials in my life. I have seen every memorial at the mall at Washington, D.C. – some of them twice. In eighth grade, I searched the black granite for previous Hollingers. Men that I never knew and to whom I was probably barely related. I stood on the ground at Hiroshima where the first atomic bomb was dropped. I was under a hundred feet away from where nuclear fission was started for the sake of destruction. I have seen many of the little statues and walls that sit in small town squares expressing the loss during some such war to some local squadron. I have seen so many combinations of black stone, marble, water, flags, names, fire and loss. I have seen so many that I am very doubtful that memorials work.

Memorials can be defined as something designed to preserve the memory of a person or an event. Well, technically all of the memorials I’ve mentioned fit that definition. So, that should mean they all work right? They are doing what they are designed to do. My biggest problem is that we are wasting the memory that we are taking the time to preserve. I’ll drop the famous quote by George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Does erecting a glorious statue teach us anything? Nuclear weapon proliferation continues despite the memory preserved at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did the names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial try desperately to teach us not to go to Iraq? Do the home-town memorials remind young men not to enlist in the army? We design these great monuments to show the loss and cost of war. Yet, we never actually seem to get the lesson.

The WWII monument honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the U.S. during World War II. The Vietnam Memorial contains 58,256 names. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial reminds of the almost 140,000 killed by the bomb and subsequent radiation poisoning.

Doesn’t anyone else think that a much better way to honor those lost is to stop losing more? A science fiction book I read proposed that the President of the United States should have to walk through each of the memorials before he ever decides to involve American troops in combat. Think about the repercussions that could possibly have! Wading through the names and using the memory the stones preserve, perhaps the President will give diplomacy that extra week, that extra month, that extra year. That little extra chance that could save hundreds and thousands of new names.

Now, I’m not saying war isn’t necessary at times. War is normally the last effort against oppression. “All oppression creates a state of war,” said Simone de Beauvoir. Perhaps, though, I hold too much hope for humanity. I always wish for the day that we are beyond throwing stones. Violence of any kind makes no sense to me. The world is big enough. Humanity does not have to agree on everything. We can still share. We can still use diplomacy. Getting everyone to agree is likely more impossible than limiting full-scale wars.

There is a poignant Calvin and Hobbes comic on war. They decide they can’t play Peace because there are too few role models. When they finally play war, the rules are simple: the side that gets shot by a dart loses. They start the game. They both get shot. They both lose. It concludes with Calvin deciding “Kinda a stupid game, isn’t it?”‘

If we are going to take the time, effort and money to erect giant monuments and memorials for our fallen soldiers, why are we just going to waste that preserved memory? Just use it as a tourist attraction? Why don’t we actually use that memory to better ourselves and our society?

  • October 2, 2008