Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, imperialism, journal articles, memorials, military, Vietnam War, WWII

War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism

Doss, Erika. “War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism.” Memory Studies 1, no. 2 (2008): 227-50.

Doss asserts that war memorials are flourishing around the country, especially those dedicated to the memory of WWII. In this article, she examines why people feel such a need to say thank you to those who fought over sixty years ago. Doss claims that “memorials embody a ‘cultural turn’ toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension.” (229) People want to experience history.

Importantly, Doss compares Alison Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memory” to Joan Scott’s understanding of experience. Landsberg claims that new forms of public cultural memory and mass technology enable anyone to personally experience the past, no matter how remote or distant or traumatic. Whereas, Scott contends that “discourses of experience are both illuminating and highly problematic.” (229) The people who have an experience understand it as authentic. But we must realize that these people are subjects who are constituted through experience. Memorials help to fabricate public subjectivity. Memorials are, to paraphrase Ann Cvektovich, “a public ‘archive of feelings’ which is encoded in their material forms, narrative content and ‘practices that surround their production and reception.’” (229) Doss points out that these affective experiences do not foreclose possibilites of social or personal transformation, but we need to understand “how and why (and which) feelings shape historical moments, concepts of citizenship, and understandings of self and national identity.” She argues that we need to understand how they work to mobilize and maintain contemporary American war memory.

WWII was always celebrated as the Great War and memorialization began almost immediately. Doss details many projects over the years, but focuses primarily on the WWII memorial on the National Mall. She discusses the many contributors and the design, noting its imperialist qualities. Doss contends that “the National World War II Memorial is not simply to say ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, but to dramatically reconfi gure contemporary understandings of national purpose and identity. Its privileged location in America’s capital city helps promote its cause.” (240) Surprisingly, Doss shows that not everyone supported the building of this memorial. Some veterans thought that it ruined the Mall. (242) Other veterans felt like they were trying to erase the “dangerous memory” of the Vietnam War.

Doss ends by stating, “Framed by saying ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, the National World War II Memorial is a blatant example of the manipulative dimensions of war memory.”

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, tourism, Vietnam War

Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials

Beckstead, Zachary, Gabriel Twose, Emily Levesque-Gottlieb, and Julia Rizzo. “Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials.” Journal of Material Culture 16, no. 2 (2011): 193-213.

In this article, the authors use the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Worcester, MA to explore how the various memorial ‘objects’ guide the way the memorial is experienced, understood, and related to. They question the socially mediated meanings inscribed or encoded in the war memorial to see how they relate to messages about the war. In particular, they examine how these material and symbolic objects evoke feelings as part of the meaning-making process.

Citing foundational memory scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, the authors make the case that social and individual memories meet through interacting with forms of objectified memory as can be found in memorials and monuments. War memorials, in particular, work to perpetuate remembrance through incorporating “hard, long-lasting materials such as concrete, brick and mortar.” (195) Traditionally, war memorials emphasize themes of ‘honor’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘common good’, which offers some form of redemption and meaning for the loss of life. War memorials become sites of memory “where national and social myths are mapped and group and individual identities are created.” (196) Through pilgrimage and commemorative rituals, visitors imbue memorials with personal and social meaning.

Feelings play a large role in the meaning-making process. The authors show that even though each visitor has a personal reaction, that response is regulated through cultural quotes and symbols that are familiar to the visitor, for example, “freedom is not free.” In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial in Massachusetts, or any other memorial to the Vietnam War, society has not come to full agreement that the loss of life was worth the cost. (201) The authors then discuss the Vietnam Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin and the public’s initial and later responses to it followed by a fuller discussion of how the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial works to make meaning.

The way the memorial is constructed enables individual identity to be subsumed within the larger socially mediated discourse, “overwhelming the perceiver, wstrengthening a culturally prescribed emotional response.” (206) The authors claim this memorial was designed to provoke a cathartic experience to allow healing. Monuments promote a particular narrative and social order, memorials offer a more therapeutic experience. (210)

Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, civil religion, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, religion, tourism, WWI, WWII

Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire

Ebel, Jonathan H. “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire.” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 183-214.

In “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Jonathan H. Ebel examines twenty-three American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries as American sacred space.[1] The cemeteries are dedicated to fallen soldiers and war workers of World Wars I and II and stand as “powerful symbols for America’s commitment to peace overseas.”[2] By first discerning the fused Christian and American symbolism and their related theologies and mythologies, which are embedded within the memorials and markers, Ebel revealed tensions between these sacred narratives and the histories they contain and conceal.

Ebel presents a concise, consistent, and coherent argument throughout the article. He opens with a quote from a sermon presented to the congregation of Astoria, Oregon’s First Methodist Church by Reverend Aaron Allen Heist on Christmas Day 1919, which compared the Christian incarnation to soldiering. Ebel infers, “Soldiers were to America as Christ was to God: the suffering, serving incarnation of the divine will.” This analogy, connecting Christ’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, can be seen throughout the article. In the first three pages, Ebel presents his main thesis, outlines the physical sites he will analyze in order to argue his points, and then explains how he will complicate his argument. His main thesis is that the ABMC intentionally developed these cemeteries as sacred space on foreign soil as a way to legitimize both Christian and American sacrifice. His arguments and evidence show how this organization accomplished their goal. Ebel’s final section explores “spatial and narrative challenges” to the ABMC’s claims of sacrality and their implications for future American sacred spaces.[3]

Ebel, who is a religious history scholar, interpreted the symbolism and landscape of ABMC’s cemeteries through primary source materials provided on their official website. Supplementary primary source materials were gathered from Stars & Stripes; a daily United States military newspaper, an unpublished manuscript written by Major General Thomas North, who served with the ABMC for over forty-five years; War Department (now the Department of Defense) reports; documents found in several archives of personal papers; and PBS’s 2009 documentary, Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries. Ebel’s secondary resources include some of the most important works in this field, which include Ed Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefelds (1993), Ed Linenthal and David Chidester’s American Sacred Space (1995), Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifce and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999), and Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009).

The article is divided into seven distinct sections. The first section establishes Ebel’s thesis and the intended approach to his argument. Within this section, he offers an overview to established scholarship. Section two, “Burying the Dead, American Style,” outlines the history of ABMC’s policy development for burying American soldiers on foreign soil. Ebel emphasizes two very important observations at the end of this section. First, he notes that “the ABMC marked the graves of unknown Great War soldiers with crosses or Stars of David in proportion to their rates of service, the graves of all unknown World War II soldiers—with a single exception in Manila—are marked with crosses.”[4] This assertion supports his claims that these American memorials on foreign soil increasingly act to legitimate Christian sacrifice. Second, Ebel claims that eight ABMC World War I cemeteries were dedicated twenty years after entry into the war, acting to reassert America’s greatness for “anyone—French, English, Belgian, German—who might think the American war effort unimpressive.”[5]

The next three sections offer case studies of specific ABMC cemeteries located in France: Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery, and Suresnes American Cemetery. Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is a World War I cemetery and Normandy American Cemetery is from World War II. Suresnes American Cemetery, which houses the war dead from both wars, is unique in that it has been dedicated three times by major American voices: President Woodrow Wilson, American Ambassador to France William C. Bullitt, and General George C. Marshall.

Ebel complicates ABMC’s sacralizing mission in the sixth section, “Ideals, Bodies, and the National Sacred,” although, he moved far too quickly through this section. He mentions various examples of people buried at these sites whose stories do not fit the overarching narrative. However, I was left with more questions than answers. The article’s conclusion calls for a more expansive understanding of these cemeteries and the soldiers buried in them. Ebel points to the heroism and saintliness expounded at these site, but he notes that “the graves hold the bodies of particular people whose own narratives of war may or may not validate this saintly narrative.”[6]

It is interesting that the article appeared in Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, a journal whose mission is to “explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts.”[7] Ebel’s article does indeed focus on religious symbolism, but it strongly concentrates on nationality, government process, and the military. Searching the journal’s online portal, numerous articles that address issues of war, the military, and soldiers have been published in this journal. If I had read this article without knowing where it was published, I would not have considered this particular journal; however, after further consideration, I am not sure that a journal dedicated to military history or religious history would publish content containing a strong symbolic interpretation such as this article.

[1] According to the ABMC’s official website, they are responsible for 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar; three of the memorials are located within the United States. “Cemeteries & Memorials,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed February 1, 2017, Ebel’s research focuses on the twenty-three cemeteries that were under the ABMC’s jurisdiction as of 2012.

[2] Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries, directed by Robert Uth (PBS Home Video, 2009).

[3] Jonathan H. Ebel, “Overseas Military Cemeteries as American Sacred Space: Mine Eyes Have Seen La Gloire,” Material Religion 8, no. 2 (2012): 188.

[4] Ibid., 195-96.

[5] Ibid., 196.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Journal website:

Posted in civil religion, commemoration, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, myths, religion, rituals

Monuments of Civil Religion

Caterine, Darryl. “Monuments of Civil Religion.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, edited by John Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.

In this chapter, Caterine presents religious and national notions of memorial space as distinct. He bookends his argument with Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay on American civil religion to show that the Puritan-derived national mythology has not unified the nation. According to Caterine, “Bellah hoped that by directing public attention to the mythic core of national identity—an amalgam of biblical ideals inherited from the Puritans—scholars of American religion could lend a hand to the cause of national reconciliation.” (393) But memorials since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have “enshrined dissent as the unifying ideal of the citizenry. (Bellah’s essay was written at the height of the Vietnam War.) These memorials speak to American pluralism rather than a unified identity.

Caterine describes the creation of the National Parks Service and Washington, D.C. as national tourism spaces. As a transportation infrastructure developed, tourism provided Washington with a new way of conceptualizing and showcasing national memory. The National Mall became the memorial hub of the nation with the Washington Monument at its center. War memorials, which commemorated and sanctified the ultimate sacrifice that citizens undergo for their nation, “come closest to traditional religious monuments—analogous to temples of human sacrifice dedicated to the gods, or shrines built to house the holy remains of martyrs.” (388) Sacrifice is venerated because it is through sacrifice that the nation continues.

Caterine notes that during the 1960s, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the mass protests against the Vietnam War, the National Mall was transformed from “a memorial space of unity into a theater of protest.” (390)

Interestingly, he also points out that national unity was originally undercut by the Republican ethos of political decentralization and individualism. He states,

A striking example of this perspective was reflected in the proposal made by John Nicholas, a Virginian congressman and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, during the first debates over how to memorialize George Washington. Rather than building a crypt or erecting a statue, Nicholas suggested leaving a plain tablet in the nation’s capital, upon which each citizen could express what the Revolutionary hero meant to him. Further, the ambiguous meanings of Civil War battlefields, as interpreted alternatively by Northerners and Southerners during the heyday of national consolidation, offers a precedent for the political battles over national memory in the late twentieth century. (391)

Posted in commemoration, historical reenactments, material culture, military, photographs, resistance, rituals, Vietnam War

Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?

Apel, Dora. “Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?” In War Culture and the Contest of Images, 47-76. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

(This post focuses on only one aspect of Apel’s book.)

Public performances, such as anti-war demonstrations and guerrilla theater, continue to be powerful vehicles for raising social awareness and producing significant instances of counter-memory. In War Culture and the Contest of Images, Dora Apel investigates how photography and other visual practices (including public performance) can be used to create a culture of social consciousness and encourage people to question the world in which they live. She argues that, depending on context, images can critique the reality of war as easily as they can reinforce the practice of romanticizing it. Apel contends that America’s perpetual state of war cultivates a militarized society. Her work explores ways to interrupt this mindset. Claiming that art and war occupy the same space, she argues that contemporary artists are uniquely positioned to engage in social justice activism.

When performing historical reenactments, individual experience outweighs historical or political meaning. Apel notes that the reenactor-soldier “allegorically embodies the uniform he wears.” [1] Reenactments provide access to a particular quality of manliness consisting of “virtue, courage, and the sublimation of personal needs to a higher purpose” that are forged only in the heat of battle.[2] In other words, the primary goal of reenacting is to generate meaning for the participant rather than to reinforce or challenge public memory.  Reenactors wish to experience the “intensity and intimacy of male bonding” that occurs in real wars. Apel emphasizes that over eighty percent of reenactors have relatives who served in the wars that they reenact.[3] Soldiers are traumatized by war and then share that trauma with their families and communities upon their return. Reenacting is a way for family members to find meaning through performance and to connect with relatives who are unwilling or unable to communicate their experience.

Most reenactors are civilians with no desire to experience real war, and veterans of real wars generally do not participate in reenactments because they have little desire to reconnect to their traumatic past.[4] This is true as well for African Americans, who show little interest in engaging in activities that revisit painful memories of enslavement or segregation. Their image of previous wars is not nostalgic. Whereas, white Civil War reenactors tend to mythologize the war and reject its real historical implications.[5]

Apel claims that it is possible to use reenactments to deconstruct official histories and to study our own biases.[6] Rather than performing passion plays or historical pageants of earlier times, reenacting events from wars, such as Vietnam, allows us to reexamine traumatic histories and myths that shape contemporary social and political realities. Apel’s studies reveal how performances can “reframe [the] past from the perspective of those who were silenced or obscured.”[7]  In Apel’s study, “Vietnam in Virginia: An-My Lê,” a group of Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia allowed Vietnamese American artist An-My Lê to photograph them on the condition that she also join them as a participant.

An-My Lê participated in historical reenactments of the Vietnam War in Virginia over the course of four summers in order to photograph the experiences. The relationship was two-sided: the reenactors hoped to win her sympathy and she hoped to win their trust.[8] She often played a North Vietnamese army soldier or Vietcong guerrilla. The reenactors would often construct elaborate scenarios around her character, which Lê describes: “I have played the sniper girl (my favorite—it felt perversely empowering to control something that I never had any say in). I have been the lone guerrilla left over in a booby-trapped village to spring out of a hut and ambush the GI platoon. I have played the captured prisoner.”[9]

Lê found that her participation in the reenactments reawakened childhood memories from Saigon of night explosions, screams, and the trauma of finding dead bodies in the streets. Apel notes that Lê’s desire to interrogate those experiences can be seen as part of her desire to photograph and reenact the Vietnam War.  Small Wars (1999–2002), the resulting art exhibit, has been shown in major art venues across the country.  Unlike the violent photographs of the real war that “implored the viewer toward a moral stance,” Lê’s photos are “quiet, lush, beautifully printed silver gelatin prints” that were produced with a large-format camera and tripod, similar to those used by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan for the studio of Matthew Brady during the Civil War.[10]

Apel explains that due to Lê’s respect for the reenactors’ “complicated motivations,” the photos selected for the show rely less on drama and focus more on a feeling of quiet introspection.

[S]he concentrates on moments of anticipation or reflection, such as two soldiers taking a break to write letters or read the newspaper (Stars and Stripes), resting in the grass (GI), a misty forest opening with the blurred movement of soldiers (Ambush I), or the trails of sparks captured with a slow shutter speed of an explosion in the forest (Explosion). The quietude of the scenes is underscored by the middle-gray scale of the photos that downplays the dramatic, instead shifting the focus to the immersion in the landscape, which takes on a mythic quality and becomes a character in the scenarios, almost overshadowing the dwarfed soldiers in frozen tableaux.[11]

The resulting photographs of American soldiers in Vietnam offer another image of the warrior. Unlike most of the teenagers drafted into the war with Vietnam, these noncombatants volunteered to participate. Not much information is offered about the reenactors. We only know that they were men who did not fight in the war, but claimed that they wanted to. They felt a need to connect to the enormity of that experience. One reenactor had lost a brother and the fathers of two others had fought in the war.[12] Apel provides an image of the warrior’s extended family and a civilian survivor.

[1] Dora Apel, War Culture and the Contest of Images (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 66.

Posted in civil religion, commemoration, religion, rituals

Civil Religion in America

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 40-55.

In “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy to argue that American civil religion is distinct from traditional religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc., although it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of those religions.

The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: 1) the existence of God, 2) the life to come, 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and 4) the exclusion of religious intolerance. Bellah points out that Rousseau was a contemporary of the founding fathers, pointing specifically to Benjamin Franklin.[1]

Bellah notes that most Americans are familiar with certain stories and archetypes, which originate in Judeo-Christian traditions, regardless of religious affiliation. Some of these ideas include the Exodus story of Moses and the Hebrews leaving Egypt, the concept of a promised land (found in multiple incarnations throughout the Old and New Testaments), and act of sacrificial death and rebirth to make way for a new world. Bellah writes,

Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.[2]

The important turning point for America’s civil religion was the Civil War. This is when “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion,” according to Bellah. [3] This change is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address became the “New Testament” of the civil scriptures. Bellah asserts that Lincoln, “our martyred president,” became linked to the war dead, “those who ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’” [4] He also notes that the “theme of sacrifice was indelibly written into the civil religion” through physical and ritualistic expression. Bellah writes,

The great number of the war dead required the establishment of a number of national cemeteries. Of these, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery. Begun somewhat vindictively on the Lee estate across the river from Washington, partly with the end that the Lee family could never reclaim it, it has subsequently become the most hallowed monument of the civil religion. Not only was a section set aside for the Confederate dead, but it has received the dead of each succeeding American war. It is the site of the one important new symbol to come out of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; more recently it has become the site of the tomb of another martyred president and its symbolic eternal flame.[5]

America’s civil religion incorporates many of the same types of religious elements found in traditional religions: beliefs  and events that seem to reveal God’s purposes (most notably the American Revolution and the Civil War), prophets (especially Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln), sacred places (shrines to wars and presidents), sacred texts (such as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), ceremonies (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day celebrations, etc.), and rituals (prayers at public events and saluting the flag).

Bellah wrote this essay in 1967, near the height of the Vietnam War (and a year before the Tet Offensive). He reflects on the dangers of a country that feels that it answers to no one: “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”[6]

[1] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 43.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 54.