Barnabe F. Geisweiller: Vestiges of War: How We Choose to Remember





[Barnabe F. Geisweiller, a Canadian, is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of Journalism. More of his work can be found at www.barnabeg.com.]

As a child my grandmother took me to the coast of Normandy so I could learn about the Second World War and see for myself the landscape and bunkers fought over at the cost of so many lives. Across the world, war is memorialized. Victories are celebrated and defeats bitterly remembered, and often even the most humiliating of losses are distorted into triumphs with tales of heroism and resistance in the face of pure tyranny.

We erect monuments and recite poetry—In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row—in memory of wars waged and to souls lost. Often, in our efforts to pay tribute and to never forget, we sanitize the infamy of warfare into something aesthetically sterile but incredibly moving nonetheless. Those who have laid eyes upon the identical rows of white crosses that populate the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer cannot help but be stirred by their sheer number. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. is equally poignant because of its seemingly endless list of names.

In our concerted effort to remember we often also try to absolve ourselves of our wrongdoings. Those accused of committing massacres point to others who have equaled or outdone their own. Those whose crimes are too monumental for the national psyche to absorb without precipitating an identity crisis often choose not to recall at all and to move on. Thus no genocide was committed against the Armenians at the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were no worse than others committed during Lebanon’s protracted civil war....

In Syria, during the war of 1967, the town of Quneitra, situated in the Golan Heights, was captured by the Israeli army. They occupied the city for six years until it was briefly recaptured during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Israelis repulsed the Syrians in a counteroffensive and held onto it until 1974 when a disengagement agreement was signed. However, before withdrawing, in what amounted to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Israelis systematically stripped the town of any valuable goods or materials which were sold to Israeli contractors. Bulldozers and tractors subsequently went to work. Every building, shop, bank, restaurant and the town’s hospital was destroyed....

How we are so alike! We cannot bear our dead to remain nameless or the pain of loved ones lost in vain. We cannot accept defeat so death, through a desperate metamorphic process, becomes righteous. We attempt to make of war a dignified affair. We swear vengeance in the face of injustice but justify injustice if done on to others by our own hands. And it is a charade we never tire of....

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