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Remembrance

INTRODUCTION

War remembrance is a particularly salient issue, of course: as we are marking the centenary of the First World War, we—descendants of those who lived through that war and fought and died in it—are repeatedly told that we ought to commemorate it and are given instructions on how we should do it. Above and beyond episodic moments such as centenaries, war remembrance is central to the construction of political identities.1 When we erect monuments and crosses for combatants who died in war, lay wreaths in their memory, put up commemorative plaques for murdered civilians, turn battlefields into places to visit and build military museums, we typically mean to remember something about ‘us’, either as distinct from ‘them’, our erstwhile enemy, or as transcending communal divisions brought about by war so as to be a new and better ‘we’.

Decisions about which conflict to commemorate and which to ignore, about whom to commemorate (‘great’ generals? ordinary combatants? ordinary civilians?), how, and why, are normatively laden. Consider the following two literary extracts in which we are presented with diametrically opposed ethical stands on war remembrance. As George Eliot would have it,

We see human heroism broken into units and say, this unit did little—might as well not have been. But in this way we might break up a great army into units; in this way we might break the sunlight into fragments, and think that this and the other might be cheaply parted with. Let us rather raise a monument to the soldiers whose brave hearts only kept the ranks unbroken, and met death—a monument to the faithful who were not famous, and who are precious as the continuity of the sunbeams is precious, though some of them fall unseen and on barrenness.[1] [2]

For Siegfried Sassoon, however, whose poem On Passing the Menin Gate is a classic of First World War poetry,

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Was ever an immolation so belied As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.[3]

Whereas Eliot enjoins us to raise a monument, literally and metaphorically, to ordinary combatants, Sassoon denounces that act as a futile and hypocritical attempt to occlude the horrors of war. Where, then, should we stand?

Those practices have long attracted the attention of historians, sociologists, and students of conflicts and peace processes. Contrastingly, political philosophers in general, and just war ethicists in particular, have shown scant and indirect interest in war remembrance. When they mention it, they do so obliquely. For example, they discuss it as a condition for reparations for historical injustices (which imply that one may or should remember wrongful past deeds). Or they construe it as a means to balance the conflicting imperatives of punishing wrongdoers (which also implies some form of remembrance) and reconciling communities divided by a legacy of conflict (which requires some form of forgetting).[4]

Those arguments justify war remembrance by appealing to the special relationship which binds together members of the same political community, or of political communities which were once enemies and who must now learn to live together. Moreover, it seems that it is precisely in so far as war remembrance is tied to such special relationships that it makes an especially powerful normative demand on us.

And therein lies the problem—at least, for a cosmopolitan account of peace after war. For if cosmopolitans are right that national-cum-political borders do not in fact have the moral status and importance which war remembrance confers on them, what space is there for the claim that we have compelling moral reasons to commemorate wars? It would seem that a cosmopolitan will have very little to say, qua cosmopolitan, about war remembrance.

At the same time, however, the wars which we (at least in the West) perhaps feel the most impelled to commemorate are the two World Wars and events within wars which shock the conscience of humankind. Whereas standard justifications for remembrance duties appeal to the moral features of the particular relationships which we have with other individuals (whether alive or dead), many of our remembrance practices seem also to make sense, intuitively at least, when addressed through the lenses of universally humanist and individualistic moral principles.

Or so I shall argue. My aim in this chapter is to offer a justification for war remembrance which transcends national and political borders and yet is appropriately sensitive to the specific historical and personal importance which the remembered war has for those who commemorate it. In s.10.2, I explain how I construe war remembrance. In s. 10.3, I argue that, notwithstanding their strengths, standard justifications are not sensitive enough to the interplay between individual and collective memory, to the diverse fabric of the supposedly homogenous community which engages in remembrance, and to important moral features of war. In s.10.4, I offer a justification which avoids those pitfalls, and defend war remembrance both as a way to honor the memory of war victims and as a vehicle for discharging our general, relationship-independent duty to bring about peace.

Before I begin, some clarificatory remarks are in order. First, although I have a few things to say about remembrance in the immediate aftermath of conflict, I am particularly interested in moral reasons for commemorating wars of the distant past, whose participants are dead or will be dead before too long—in Remembrance Sunday or the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate itself in 2015 rather than in the mid-1920s. Accordingly, my aim is not to show that remembrance can assist in reconciliation here and now.[5]

Second, as we saw in chs. 7 and 9, war crime tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions have an important role to play in recording the individual memories which, together, constitute shared memories of violence. Although they serve remembrance, they do not (or, at any rate, ought not) have it as their primary aim. My focus in this chapter is on practices which are about remembrance itself, and which I briefly mentioned at the outset: to name but a few, erecting memorials, holding commemorative ceremonies, building museums dedicated to war, organizing a two-minute silence.

Third, when I write that individuals have compelling moral reasons to commemorate wars, I mean that they have compelling moral reasons to engage in those shared practices. I do not mean to say (e.g.) that they have strong compelling moral reasons to call into their mind what they know about this or that war once in a while in the privacy of their home. In so far as the verb ‘to remember’ tends to denote purely private acts, I refrain from using it and resort instead to the verb ‘to commemorate’. By that token, to the extent that the practices I seek to justify here are both shared and public, the noun ‘commemoration’ might be a better fit than ‘remembrance’. In the United Kingdom however ‘remembrance’ is firmly associated with the commemoration of wars, and I therefore use those two nouns interchangeably.

Fourth, so far in this book I have used the language of rights and duties. In this chapter, however, I shall speak of compelling moral reasons (to commemorate wars). Readers may wonder why. War remembrance, I shall argue below, may well be one way in which we discharge our duty to bring about peace, and it is to that extent that we ought to engage in it. At the same time, there might be other, indeed better, routes to the same end. Moreover, it is not clear to me that the beneficiaries of our remembrance practices always have a right that we should so act, even when it is the case that we should. More generally put, the conclusions I reach here with respect to war remembrance are less verdictive than the conclusions I reached with respect to, e.g., military occupation or reparations. Yet the language of rights and duties is particularly verdictive—more so than the term ‘compelling moral reasons’: I use the latter, therefore, to denote that war remembrance is something that we morally ought to do pending arguments to the contrary, and that absent such reasons failure so to act would warrant opprobrium. That said, I shall on occasion point out that such reasons can sometimes be so stringent as to ground a duty. Readers who hold that the language of rights and duties is always appropriate in this particular context can easily replace ‘moral reasons’ with ‘duties’ as they go along, as the arguments I criticize and those I construe do not depend for their soundness on the adoption of this, or that, vocabulary.

  • [1] The following collection of essays provides a fascinating study of the ways in which differentcommunities have used acts of remembrance as a way to express and buttress their identity: J. R. Gillis(ed.), Commemorations—the Politics of National Identity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,1994). In the UK, the two-man silence which is routinely observed on 11 November at 11 a.m. hasbecome an important part of this country’s annual remembrance ritual. It was not always thus, though.See J. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006), 141—3; and A. Gregory, The Silence of Memory-—Armistice Day, 1919—1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994).
  • [2] G. Eliot, Felix Holt the Radical, ed. D. Thorold (London: Wordsworth, 1997 [1866]), 158.
  • [3] S. Sassoon, ‘On Passing the Menin Gate’, in The War Poems. ed. R. Hart-Davis (London: Faberand Faber, 1983 [1928]). Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the Estate of GeorgeSassoon.
  • [4] I have found only three book-length philosophical treatments of the normative issues raised byremembrance and commemoration: J. Blustein, The Moral Demands of Memory (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2008); Blustein, Forgiveness and Remembrance; A. Margalit, The Ethics ofMemory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004). For a brief discussion of reparativeremembrance, see Waldron, ‘Superseding Historic Injustice’.
  • [5] To my knowledge, the best account of the role of remembrance for reconciliation is Blustein,Forgiveness and Remembrance. Incidentally, I find it absolutely fascinating that the decision to establishthe Imperial War Museum in Britain was taken by the British Cabinet in February 1917, at a timewhen the war not only was ongoing but was far from being won (the US, remember, only entered thewar in April of that year) and when, one might think, those leaders had more pressing things to worryabout than the way in which future generations would remember the war. I am deeply grateful toMyfanwy Lloyd for this particular point and, more generally, for enriching discussions of the issuesraised in this chapter.
 
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