279 No thanks for the memory

The commemoration of war victims provides a measure of closure for the pain of war. It may not feel that way, but it forms an important part of war itself. Rather than eliminating memorial days, Schwartz argues for the extension of mourning to cover all victims of war, down to enemy, civilian and psychological casualties. Such a practice would aggravate rather than ease the emotional burden of war, bringing it closer to the point where it becomes unbearable.

My late friend George Adoff said it. I met him at New York University, where I started studying in September 1956. He was in his second year. George was about ten years older than I. He was in college on the GI Bill, having served in the US Army in Europe in the mid-fifties. No one ever pronounced a place name with as much love and longing as George could put into Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

George and I at my mother’s garden party for my marriage to Loekie on 26 April 1968. George was my best man.

I learned a lot from George, but one thing in particular has stuck in my mind. He hated war and militarism, and had a particular idea about how to make them less acceptable to people. “Pacifists harp on the nasty side of war,” he said. “But everyone agrees about that, and still it doesn’t keep them from going to war. What pacificists should be undermining are the things about war that make people feel good. The camaraderie, the feeling that what you are doing is more important than what civilians do, the adrenalin, the heroism. Take these things away from war and there will be a lot less of them.”

On this Memorial Day, when people are visiting military cemeteries with a lump in their throats, his admonition comes again to mind. The aura of sanctity we convey on the war dead is surely one of the things that resign people to war. Even the inevitable incantation “They did not die in vain” is a form of justification for new violence. That feeling is easily harnessed by war-mongers. Yesterday the American ambassador in the Netherlands, Roland Arnall, did this at a World War II commemoration service at the Netherlands-American cemetery and memorial at Margraten. Speaking to a crowd of people filled with piety and gratitude for the sacrifice of life brought by America in the liberation of the Netherlands, Arnall compared the Taliban to the Nazis.

Every year on May 4th, the Dutch Memorial Day, the country goes through a nearly ritual revalidation of the commemoration in the form of public opinion polls. It always emerges that a majority is in favor of indefinite continuation of the memorial. This year the discussion was overlapped by events in Afghanistan. On April 20th the first battle death in the Dutch mission to Afghanistan was announced, a 21-year-old corporal who was killed by a roadside bomb. The government was quick to express stately mourning while insisting that this would not compromise Dutch resolve to see the mission through.

One thing about the response to this sad occurrence struck me as deplorable. The young corporal was called the first Dutch soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, but he was not. Five other youngsters before him had been killed, though not by the enemy. Three died in accidents, one was hit by friendly fire, and one committed suicide. Their deaths did not give occasion to devout pronouncements by the government. Why not? The conventional answer lies in the sanctity, the martyr’s role, reserved for those killed by the enemy. A less unctuous reason is that responsibility for death by accident, friendly fire and suicide lies closer to the doings of the Dutch than the Taliban.

Ending memorial services for the war dead is not feasible, and even if it were I could not bear to argue for it. Could a similar effect be achieved by expanding the practice to all war casualties? If prime ministers and ministers of defense were obliged publicly to mourn every loss of life resulting from their decisions, every civilian killed in collateral damage, every girlfriend attacked by a deranged veteran, even every enemy combatant killed, there might be fewer wars. The victims would then indeed not have died in vain.

© 2007 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 28 May 2007. Not published in print.

The P.S. to Schwartzlist 278 led some readers to think that the column had come to an end. This is not so. I intend to continue, whether or not I find a way of deriving payment for the pieces.

At the beginning of the month, Loekie and I spent a week in Los Angeles – Beverly Hills, yet – on the invitation of Galerie Michael. I opened a sales exhibition of Rembrandt etchings with a talk on shifts in the criteria for value in a Rembrandt etching.

At the end of next month, I will be lecturing once again on Rembrandt, this time in Tehran, for the Dutch embassy. You might think of the two places as the opposite ends of the axis of civilization, but I do not. Los Angeles has the largest number of Iranians of any place outside Iran, and we kept running into them and eating their terrific food. Who knows if these recent immigrants are not destined to be remigrants at the next turn of the screw?