Following the last entry questioning why we study history, I would like to use this one to explore the reasons we have for remembering.
This in itself is quite a broad thing, what are we remembering, or who? To me such a question opens up two avenues, it seems we are either remembering an event (VE Day, The Norman Conquest, Martin Luther King giving that speech) or we are remembering a person (King, Winston Churchill, a soldier in the First World War).
So is remembrance equatable to ‘celebration’? Are we celebrating the events when we remember them? I do not mean ‘celebrating’ as in party hats and cake, but instead ‘celebrating’ as in we are remembering the good things about each event rather than the bad. Do we only remember the things which resulted in something positive happening? Is there a tendancy to ignore failure or defeat? (At this point, I am going to unapologetically explain that the course of this will concern WW1, but the wider issues should be considered in relation to other historical events)
On the contrary I would argue. I would suggest that as the twentieth century progressed, remembrance necessarily took the form of ‘negative remembrance’ which could be termed as mourning. 11 November is the prime example of this. Remembrance day is a time to remember the futility of war, originating after WW1 to respect the troops who had laid down their lives. It now encompasses thinking of those who were killed in WW2, or the Falklands, or the Gulf Wars. Remembrance in this case is about mourning the dead. It was meant to be indicative of the point that WW1 was the ‘war to end all wars’. These men had laid down their lives to stop another conflict happening again.
We remember things such as July 1 1916. Such as Passchendaele. Such as the sinking of the Titanic. Such as Pearl Harbour. Such as the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Such as the Holocaust. We remember the disasters of mankind much more easily than we remember the successes for example I would suggest. This, it seems, is equatable to a more general humanistic instinct, that for ‘bad news’. There is more to say about bad news than there is about good news. A rather simplisitic analogy would be football. People are quick to criticise after a defeat, but are rather more stuck for words following a win. It is easier to comment upon what went wrong than what is going right. This, I believe, is part of human nature.
So should it be any surprise that we ‘remember’ the negative things? Should we be keen to put a positive slant on things? Or will we get chastised for saying such a thing? Should we remember the loss of 20,000 men on 1 July 1916? Or should we look at the bigger picture, of tactical improvements, of learnt lessons, of victory?
The answer is obviously both. We should never forget these men, but we shouldn’t let that cloud our memory of the eventual outcome either. In a recent article on Douglas Haig, Britain’s Commander-in-Chief for much of the war, the author, Geoffrey Norman, compared Haig to Napoleon, Hannibal and Robert Lee (a general in the American Civil war who suffered at Gettysburg). The title of the article was “The Worst General” in reference to Haig, who is widely percieved as the ‘butcher of the Somme’ by modern audiences, and the article played up to the modern stereotypes of Haig (bumbling, uncaring, single-minded, unable to plan without the cavalry). The trouble with the comparisons Norman makes (away from the other tripe written in the article), is that the men he compares Haig to, all eventually lost their respective battles. Haig didn’t.
Is this remembrance then? Remembering the wrong thing? Is it better to remember something wrong than not remember something at all? In my opinion certainly not. If you are going to remember, make sure you remember for the right reasons. By all means commemorate the fallen soldiers in the cemetaries around Belgium but do not forget that all these men were killers. Reluctantly, maybe, but killers nonetheless. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Remember then their bravery, their suffering and the things that they may have had to endure. But remember the whole picture. Remember not just the Mona Lisa’s smile, but the whole portrait.
To return to the question then. Why do we remember? Is it more complex than saying we remember to avoid making the same mistakes again? Is it remembering because society says so? Do people remember because that is the standard thing to do. They are expected to do it? I will quickly relate to you the story of one of my housemates a couple of years ago. Whilst a couple of us were sat in silence at 11am on November 11, he came blundering in and asked why we were in silence. As we ignored him and continued our silence, he took offence. When he asked us later as to why we were in silence, we explained. To which his response was that if we had said, he would have shut up. Almost as though if he had had it explained to him he would have conformed. Almost as if people need to be told to remember at this time on this day.
Remembrance, I would argue then, is as much to do with conforming to what society expects as it is actually thinking about those men and women who have died in conflict. I wonder how many people actually think about the war dead at times other than on this date? Not as many I would be willing to guess.
This is wrong. Remembrance shouldn’t be a chore, it shouldn’t be something we need to be reminded to do. It should be something we actively do, something we want to do, and something we have no qualms over doing. We should remember things because they mean something to us, not because we are told to do so by social norms.
I would suggest that we remember to preserve. To preserve memories of these men, or to qualify actions, wars, or battles; and to some extent to stop the same things happening again. This is a hugely unsatisfactory answer to give though. The truth is we remember for a multitude of different reasons, each individual, and unique. However, I would suggest that for nearly everyone, social dictation is one of the contributing reasons for actively remembering.
There is so much more to say on this subject, but, I will refrain for fear of getting boring.