Thoughts on War Memorials

Given my recent work researching names on War Memorials, I have been thinking about the history of War Memorials themselves.

Of course, they are important – anything that helps us remember the sacrifices of generations past cannot be a bad thing. But then again, are there aspects of the war memorial in popular culture that, in a non-intentional way, limit our remembrance? Are they a convenient way of shoeboxing remembrance? Are they a relic of Victorian and Edwardian fascination with grief?

Think about it. A certain place in a town is the place where we remember fallen heroes. Does that mean that we don’t remember them anywhere else? I guess its like Armistice Day – why should we only remember them one day a year out of 365? Does that mean that they don’t matter for the other 364?

In another sense, there is also something quite limiting about war memorials, in that very often they only show the name, or in some cases, only initials. And of course, unless you knew them, can lists of unknown names really be ‘remembered’? Does it encourage us to think ‘thats their names, they’re remembered’ and leave them there, when in actual fact, we can’t remember them if we know nothing about them in the first place?

Of course I’m not suggesting that we tear down war memorials. They are a part of our heritage. But in the modern world, with technology and no end of information at our fingertips, why limit remembrance to names in stone? We say ‘we will remember them’, and that they won’t be forgotten, but surely if all we know is someone’s name and thats about it, then they’re virtually forgotten anyway?




Filed under debate, Remembrance

2 responses to “Thoughts on War Memorials

  1. John Erickson

    I like war memorials for their geographic significance (and I’ll explain that cryptic phrase). There is a small town near us called Keene, Ohio. It is too small to even have a post office, much less a town hall. It is nothing more than a place where 3 roads meet, and an elementary school with a dozen or two houses in the immediate area. At the “triangle”, there is a memorial with plaques for the US Civil War, WW1, WW2, Korea and Vietnam. (I haven’t been there recently to see if they’ve added plaques for Iraq and Afghanistan). To see dozens of names, including threes or fours of the same last name, is a profound experience.
    Another shock I had was when the “traveling Vietnam War” wall came to Chicago. Though a small portable version of the real one (1/6th scale, I believe), it filled Grant Park in Chicago. That, to a native Chicagoan, was stunning. All those names in one place, showing the scale and scope of the losses from that conflict.
    Memorials do, at least for me, lend a pseudo-religious significance to memorials, much like “going to Mecca”. It’s a special time to remember people on a special day. The rest of the year, well, that’s why I fly my US flag EVERY day. (And the Union Jack and Maple Leaf, once my replacements arrive.)

    • James Daly

      I do like war memorials, at the end of the day, a world without them would be a real problem (unless it meant that no one ever died in war, which we can only hope might one day happen). I enjoy the social history behind them, and the architecture. I’m just more and more convinced as time comes by that they shouldn’t be the panacea of remembrance, rather more a gateway, or time capsule.

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