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Celebrating Slaughter: War and Collective Amnesia

Posted on Oct 5, 2009
AP / Caleb Jones

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial was based on the iconic Iwo Jima photo that was eventually used to sell war bonds. Correction: An earlier caption claimed the photo was staged. It was not. Much thanks to Greg Lewis for pointing this out.

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. 

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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 They provide the mental images and historical references to justify new conflicts.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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A war memorial that attempted to depict the reality of war would be too subversive. It would condemn us and our capacity for evil. It would show that the line between the victim and the victimizer is razor-thin, that human beings, when the restraints are cut, are intoxicated by mass killing, and that war, rather than being noble, heroic and glorious, obliterates all that is tender, decent and kind. It would tell us that the celebration of national greatness is the celebration of our technological capacity to kill. It would warn us that war is always morally depraved, that even in “good” wars such as World War II all can become war criminals. We dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis ran the death camps. But this narrative of war is unsettling. It does not create a collective memory that serves the interests of those who wage war and permit us to wallow in self-exaltation.

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By Folktruther, October 5, 2009 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Montana, I was very interested in your posts because you seem to me to exemplify a common strain in the US.  You appear to be a ideological psychopath.  The ambivilence you display in your posts for and against war appears due to that the fact that you don’t much care whether other people live or die.

Your views are determined entirely by esthetic standards.  You like ALL’S QUIET and DAS BOOT apparently in equal meansure because they are artisitically good books and pictures, in your judgement.  That one is pro-peace and one pro-war apparently is largely irrelevant to you, you recommend them both.  So that whether people are slaughtered or not is dependant, for your support, on whether the next film that comes out meets your atistic standards, and what it advocates, peace or war.  Mass slaughter or not will rank second in your view.

I looked up DAS BOOT.  The plot glorifies and legitimates war even while it states that it is hell.  The function of a submarine, Montana, is to destroy cargo and war ships, and drown everybody on board that is not massacred by the origninal explosions.  This is not instilled clearly in people’s consciousness; indeed it is concealed and downplayed as much as possible to disguise the anti-people horror that you appear to identify with. 

Apparently your anti-people consciousness also includes thinking of Americans as losers and anti-Semitic resentment at denying you really good war movies.  And I think your view is common in the US, and may soon come to power.  And although I am Jewish, let me assure you that I am not one of your Hebrew friends.  Have a really lousy day, Montana.

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By Curt, October 5, 2009 at 8:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Paddy Chayevsky’s “The Americanization of Emily’ expresses these exact sentiments…I won’t say better, but it’s a surprisingly underrecognized work of anti-war art, right up there with Dr. Strangelove…

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By Guy Montag, October 5, 2009 at 8:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“War is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics and of troops by politicians.”                                                  —Chris Hendges

Three years ago, shortly before the 2006 mid-term elections, Kevin Tillman wrote his eloquent letter “After Pat’s Birthday” (Truthdig 10-19-06).  He asked, “Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country. ... Somehow this is tolerated.  Somehow nobody is accountable for this.” Kevin had hoped that a Democratic Congress would bring accountability. 

But, just as with warrantless wiretapping,torture, etc. those responsible for the cover-up of his brother’s fratricide have not been held accountable by the Democratic Congress. 

In his book, “Where Men Win Glory,” Jon Krakauer blamed the Bush administration.  However, the cover-up has been a thoroughly bipartisan affair.  The Democratic Congress and the Obama Presidency have protected General McChrystal from punishment for his central role in orchestrating the cover-up.

Shortly before the August 2007 Tillman hearing, McChrystal was dropped from the list of witnesses.  Sometime after his April 2007 hearing, Congressman Waxman got the word the “fix” was in, to lay off McChrystal.  Perhaps because of McChrystal’s covert contribution to the “surge” in Iraq? 

Senator James Webb conducted a secret “review” of McChrystal’s role.  On May 15th 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee (headed by Levin and McCain) held their secret “executive session” where McChrystal testified about his actions “in detail.” Shortly afterwards, the Senate promoted him to Director of the Joint Staff. 

Like Pat Tillman, James Webb has been a maverick and a fascinating character.  I’ve read his novels for thirty years.  If anyone in Congress should have cared, it would have been him.  But, as an old man and politician, he’s turned into exactly what he once reviled as a young combat Marine!  Senator Webb’s betrayal of the Tillman family cuts me the deepest. 

On May 12th 2009, despite McChrystal’s role, President Obama handpicked McChrystal to be his new commander of the Afghan War and for promotion to the Army’s highest rank.  Ironically, on the following day Obama gave the commencement address at Arizona State University inside Sun Devil Stadium without once mentioning Pat Tillman! [Note:  see “Text: Obama’s Commencement Address at Arizona State University” (May 13, 2009 NYT) and Bob Young’s “Obama’s Big-Time Fumble” (Arizona Republic 5-17-09].

After a pro forma June 2nd hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate (begged by Senator Reid) confirmed McChrystal’s promotion on June 12th.

It’s not surprising that after the initial fratricide cover-up fell apart, that Army officers and the Bush administration lied to protect their careers.  Reprehensible, but understandable.  But the Democratic Congress, after they took control of both Houses in 2006, could have gone after those responsible.  Or at least not promoted them!  Their hands are dirty as well with the betrayal of Pat Tillman.
Five years ago, Pat Tillman’s family were handed a tarnished Silver Star.  It was a travesty of justice that McChrystal was promoted to the Army’s highest rank, and handed his fourth star.

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By AnHistorian, October 5, 2009 at 7:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima was not staged.  When the photographer was asked if the image was staged, he replied that it was, but he was referring to a photo he took of the marines lined up for a publicity shot. 
The iconic flag raising was the second raising of a flag, but it was not staged.
The is not to detract from the article, it is just a correction.

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By no mans land, October 5, 2009 at 7:13 am Link to this comment

Mostly, I’d have to agree with Mr. Hedges on his take. We often anesthetize the experience and in doing so, create a romance that almost ensures that mistakes will be repeated. Having served now in two wars myself, one of my biggest challenges has been to try and bridge the gulf that exists between my understanding of the experience and that of people back home on, both the left and the right.

However, I would have to disagree with him on a couple of counts. First, he ignores the huge controversy surrounding the Vietnam memorial that took place over its symbolism when it was being developed. The artist, Maya Lin, chose a very deliberate theme. For the first time in history, a memorial endeavored to humanize and communicate the cost of war. The wall itself is built into a hillside and when viewed from above, stands as a permanent black gash in the face of earth—forever a reminder of that dark chapter in our history. While it is certainly not all encomapssing, I could not ever say that the Vietnam memorial glorifies or romanticizes war in any way.

The second point I take with Mr Hedges is that of film. Yes, as a young man and Soldier I admit that I bought into the “Hollywood” romanticism of war. Cheesy as it is now, Red Dawn had a huge impact on me at the time. It played on our Cold War fears and gave us a sense of empowerment. Today, though, that film is celebrated more as a cult comedy than a serious war film.

I find that most successful war films all have an inherently antiwar thread running through them and stand as mini memorials that try to speak truth to myth. We can thank WWI for that. That conflict effectively ended the Romantic era in literature, which consistently depicted war as the most positive and noblest of endeavors. As writers like Sassoon and Owen began to capture their experiences on the front, as the casualties mounted and as the home fronts were stretched to their breaking points, the war which began in very much a “tally ho, let’s go” fashion quickly became the “war to end all wars” due in no small part to the writers of that era. Literature and pop culture would be permanantely altered.

The 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven Oscars and for its time, pulled no punches when depicting the awful toll the war took on returning veterans. 7 Oscars at a time when the country was still reeling in the euphoria vicotry. Saving Private Ryan, in its own way, stands as the very type of memorial that Hedges longs for in its brutality, gore, and young kids “crying for their mothers.” Though I do admit that the film does say that war is sometimes necessary, I cannot say that it is “pro war” either.

To blame memorials, whether museums, film, or monuments, as the driving force behind the romanticism of war is to ignore the forest for the trees. When taken in its entirety, the complete lexicon of war memeorials is about as accurate a depiction as we can achieve without recreating the experience in a 1:1 fashion. No, rather I believe the problem lies more in the interpretation of the memorials themselves. A more accurate description of them is to see them a Rorschach tests for society and individuals. People take what they want from them and, quite unfortunately, often ignore the rest.

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By Ouroborus, October 5, 2009 at 5:32 am Link to this comment

montanawildhack, October 5 at 7:58 am #

Yup, knew that. Books beat movies 99.999%. The only
movie I’ve seen to match the book was Vonnegut’s,
Slaughterhouse 5. One more movie I forgot was the
seminal, A Walk in the Sun. I think it was the first
post WWII anti-war movie. Books are the best, but today
I think most of the younger generation will only watch
the deathtube or movies. Peace

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By montanawildhack, October 5, 2009 at 4:58 am Link to this comment


Hopefully this doesn’t come as news but “all quiet on the western front” was a book before it was a movie…  And reading the book is the ONLY way to appreciate it… And the greatest war film ever made was the German film Das Boot!!!  (also a great Book!!!)  It wasn’t well received in America by our Hebrew friends because it presented the Germans as human beings!!!!  Of course, it’s best to let Spielburg spoon feed us our collective history of WWII….  Have a super day!!!

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By Ouroborus, October 5, 2009 at 4:17 am Link to this comment

Well, this group is all on the same page. My nit to
pick is Hedges statement; “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.
War memorials/museums should remind us of the horror
of war and have now morphed into some twisted symbol
of war’s glory. That is also forgetting such films as
All Quiet on the Western Front, the German film The
Bridge, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and on and
on. My view is no longer through the lens of America
and in my view from here; we aren’t much different
than the rest of the world and therein lies the rub.

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By montanawildhack, October 5, 2009 at 3:54 am Link to this comment

Blah, blah, blah…. Hedges tell us something we don’t know…. Gosh, Kissinger and Bush are war criminals???  And we’re sold wars like we’re sold cars and TVs and cereal????  Does this guy actually think he’s being enlightening and original??  After wasting your time reading Hedges pick up a copy of “johnny got his gun” by Dalton Trumbo…  Then read “all quiet on the western front.”  “All Quiet” was banned and burned by Hitler in Nazi Germany and “Johnny” was banned and burned by Roosevelt in America….  Good old America…  So long losers!

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By Bubba, October 5, 2009 at 3:46 am Link to this comment

godistwaddle: I’m still wrapping my head around the idea that a U.S. pilot who drops bombs from 30,000 feet on an Afghan wedding party is a “hero,”...

You are right.  It’s the bombs that are the heroes, facing as they do, the danger of colliding into some Afghan child’s kite!

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By ardee, October 5, 2009 at 3:36 am Link to this comment

godistwaddle, October 5 at 6:07 am


I cannot help being reminded of the comment of Bill Maher, directly after 9/11, the one that cost him his job in fact.

He stood before a national audience, one still rocked from the attacks upon world wide capitalism and the military might that enforces their rapine and said;

“I wonder who the real brave ones are, those who stand twenty miles offshore and lob artillery shells at their enemies or those who fly planes into buildings.”

This may not be the exact words I must note, but damn close enough.

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By C.Dale, October 5, 2009 at 3:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

NO SERIOUS DISCUSSION can take place on nuclear arms
reduction and non proliferation until full exposure
takes place of the massive, secret ISRAELI nuclear
arms arsenal in the Negev desert, that is currently
completely outside of IAEA inspection.

To do so and ignore this ‘giant elephant in the
room’, would simply be nonsensical.

It would lead to a situation whereby not only US
foreign policy lies with the Israeli lobby but also
global military and political control. Such a
decision would be indefensible.

There is an absolute imperative to control NUCLEAR
WEAPONS and their proliferation.

The immediate danger that President Obama has to face
is the reality of the fact that his immediate
predecessor helped built Israel into possibly the 3rd
most powerful nuclear state on the planet - the
agenda for such totally irresponsible action, being

To have made Dimona in the Negev the largest secret
nuclear weapons store anywhere, cannot have been to
ensure the safety of America, or Europe or the Middle
East - but it has virtually ensured that, under the
control of a political system that has little
integrity, there will inevitably be a nuclear weapons
strike in the region within the near future.
The region is now so unstable and the politics so
unpredictable and the hatred so fierce, in the
aftermath of the massacre in Gaza, that it is a
merely a matter of time. That is the danger we face,
in the UK, in Europe and eventually in the US and the

It will then not be a matter of oil or carbon
footprints but of human survival on a planet blind to
the dangers it faces and the absolute imperative to
control nuclear weapons and the ambitions of those
who will kill without compunction in order to achieve
their aims. I have no doubt that Mr Obama is more
aware of these dangers than I am - the point is, how
far will he be opposed by the powerful, Israel lobby?
Iran is not the huge elephant in the room. Whilst
America, Russia, France, China and Britain are
considering reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles –
Israel is increasing hers.

Whilst the UK is proposing to reduce its nuclear
strike submarine fleet to three, Israel is reported
to be increasing its nuclear strike submarine fleet
to five!

Where is the logic in this Kafkaesque scenario?

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By godistwaddle, October 5, 2009 at 3:07 am Link to this comment

I’m still wrapping my head around the idea that a U.S. pilot who drops bombs from 30,000 feet on an Afghan wedding party is a “hero,” and a patriotic Afghan who ties explosives to himself and takes out a U.S. Army outpost is a “terrorist,” or an “insurgent.”  Is not that Afghan a self-sacrificing hero of his country?  How is dropping artillery shells on Samarra from 10 miles away heroic?  Was Colonel Tibbitts a hero for vaporizing 100,000 people from the safety of his cockpit?

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By Leighton C. Stein, October 5, 2009 at 2:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You have introduced me to a perspective, I’ve never
been acquainted with, something new and startling,
and unsettling. It raised the bile in my throat—war
being filtered through this temples, sanctuaries for
the wretchedness humans can breed: war.

So I just wanted expression my appreciation for you
article. Not often, I recognize a piece of journalism
as art, this article can be classified as such.
Something transcended and candid, the words arranged
here deconstruct an ignoble institution and offer a
stark reality.



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