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MEMORY AND WAR REMEMBRANCE

Roughly put, a memory is a thought about a past event, a past utterance, or a person from the past. In order to have a memory of some event E, I need not do anything, whereas in order to remember E, I need actively to call Einto my mind. Not only, thus, is the act of remembering volitional: it also aims to track some feature of the world as it was. If I claim to remember having a banana for breakfast, and if it truly is the case that I do remember that fact, then it truly is the case that I had a banana for breakfast. To the extent that war remembrance is built on memories of past, it too is truth-tracking. And to that extent, it implies that there is such a thing as historical knowledge. I shall not defend that assumption here. Let me simply note that, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, we may well have divergent interpretations about the facts of the past, but we cannot (on pain of jeopardizing the very possibility of our survival as rational and moral agents) claim that those facts actually happened when they did not, or that they did not happen when they did. As she reports it, when former French Premier Clemenceau was asked some years after the First World War by a German official how future generations would view the question of who was responsible for the war, he is alleged to have replied, ‘This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded

Germany’. To the extent that there is such a thing as historical knowledge, one can speak of the truth-tracking value of remembrance.[1]

Not only can I remember E only if E happened: further, I cannot be described as having a memory of E unless I experienced it: since I was not born in 1914, I do not have a memory of the start of the First World War. However, I might be described as remembering that the First World War started in 1914, where what I mean is simply that I know that this is when it started. In ordinary language, one can remember that E happened without having an experience and therefore a memory of E happening. This distinction—between episodic and semantic memories—is crucial. Although I shall on occasion say something about recent wars whose survivors are numerous in our community, I am mostly interested in remembrance practices which are built on semantic memories.[2]

Further, my concern is with shared practices of remembrance. Those practices are typically carried out by individuals acting on their own initiatives and in a private capacity, as well as by a public official acting on behalf of the community to which those individuals belong. This raises two issues. First, to argue as I shall do presently that individuals qua members of a particular group have a strong moral reason to engage in shared remembrance of a given war presupposes that there is what some have called ‘a community of memory’ about that war.[3] The question, then, is who constitutes that community, and whose individual memories are pressed into the service of constructing and nurturing the community’s shared memory. Second, to hold that those individuals qua group members have reasons to do x is to imply that each of those individuals has a reason to act in such a way that she, together with fellow group members, does x. The question, then, is that of how those individuals should act. In the present context, the claim that individuals qua group members have reasons to engage in war remembrance might be read in the following ways: that they merely have reasons to support institutional commemorative practices by not disrupting them, or by voting for parties which promise to allocate budgetary resources to their conduct, and so on; or that they have reasons to do all of that and in addition actively to engage in acts of remembrance in a private capacity, for example by wearing a poppy and attending commemorative ceremonies, or observing a two-minute silence at 11 a.m. on 11 November. Just as there are institutionalist and individualist approaches to justice, there are institutionalist and individualist approaches to remembrance. Here, as when discussing reconciliatory practices, I shall lean towards the individualist approach.

Finally, war remembrance has emotional and moral valence: its constitutive practices are usually meant to induce us to mourn those who died and, particularly though not only in the case of combatants, feel gratitude for their sacrifice; sometimes they are also meant to induce us to condemn much of what was done in the prosecution of a war, or on the contrary to celebrate it. As we shall see, this moral and emotional expectation is sometimes problematic. Nevertheless, when I speak of remembrance, or use the phrase ‘to commemorate’, I shall mean the active recalling to one’s mind of wars of the past through shared practices, accompanied by the requisite emotional and moral attitude. Although ‘commemorate’ and ‘commemoration’ are usually endowed with positive valence (or so I am told by many native English speakers)—such that one commemorates the end of the First World War but not its beginning—I shall use those words in a value-neutral way.

  • [1] See H. Arendt, ‘Truth and Politics’, The New Yorker, 25 February 1967. I am grateful to JeremyWaldron for reminding me of that passage.
  • [2] For the distinction between episodic and semantic memories, see, e.g., Blustein, Forgiveness andRemembrance, 75.
  • [3] Margalit, The Ethics of Memory.
 
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