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 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 anti-war movements, censorship, material culture, military, myths, photographs, propaganda, resistance, Vietnam War

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Traditionally, Americans have shown their appreciation for soldiers returning from war, believing that they all deserve a warm welcome for their sacrifice.  Newspaper columnist Bob Greene collected accounts from Vietnam War veterans about their experience of returning home in his 1989 book Homecoming.  Many of these recollections involved stories of hippies and other anti-war activists spitting on them as they arrived stateside. In Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke investigates the myth of Vietnam War veterans returning home only to be spat upon by representatives of the anti-war movement. His research reveals that no evidence exists to support that such incidents ever occurred.  Barry Romo, who was the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and an active collector of Vietnam War historical materials, literature, and oral accounts, confirmed that no news source documentation (such as photographs) exist to validate this myth.[1] Contemporary newspaper reports and police records document no such incidents. If soldiers had been spit on, someone would have collected photographic evidence showing the alleged perpetrators.[2] Lembkce contends that the myth was propagated by government officials in order to demonize anti-war movements and the political Left in order to gain public support for current and future wars.[3] He shows how this myth and PTSD diagnoses worked to stereotype Vietnam War veterans as mentally unstable.

Few people realize that World War II veterans were early demonstrators against the Vietnam War and instrumental in reaching out to Vietnam era soldiers and veterans.[4] Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war and developed tactics, such as burning draft cards and returning military medals in mass, which became emblems of the anti-war movement.[5] Lembkce argues that the anti-war movement established credibility with drafted and enlisted men, which helped form tight relationships between veterans and anti-war activists by 1970. Many veterans of previous wars, however, were openly hostile to the anti-war veterans and were the source of much of the grist for the myth.[6]

Lembkce explains that stories about war veterans being spat upon frequently occur in modern histories around the world. Many stories involve, on one hand, soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war and, on the other hand, their abusers who were traitors to the national cause. For example, following Germany’s loss in World War I, Fascists spread similar rumors to incite public anger against groups and individuals who had opposed the war. Some historians claim that images of abused veterans were critical to Nazi propaganda that fanned the flames of patriotism to lead German masses into World War II.[7]

According to Lembcke, it was extremely important for the Nixon administration to discredit the anti-war movement, so the government worked with Hollywood and other popular cultural media creators to propagate this false collective memory. To discredit anti-war veterans and mobilize support for the war, the administration drew a distinction between “good” pro-war veterans and “bad” anti-war protesters who symbolically spit on brave and loyal fighting men. The figurative symbol became a literal reality for the American public. Years later, the Bush administration exploited this anti-American image to gain public support for the Gulf Wars, convincing Americans that not supporting the troops was a fatal mistake of the Vietnam War. However, both administrations had enormous stakes in depicting the anti-war movement as anti-veteran. In order to achieve this goal, the true collective memory of protesters demonstrating at induction centers while recruits and draftees went off to war was rewritten into a story of protesters demonstrating at airports when the worn veterans returned home.

Recent analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War in American culture has revealed that the primary focus of Vietnam veterans’ stories is how they were treated after their return from the war, rather than their experiences in the war.  Lembcke notes, however, that most documentation of abusive behavior against Vietnam veterans show that pro-war people acted against anti-war veterans.[8]  In several interesting revelations, Lembcke argues that members of conservative veterans’ groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, rejected soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.[9] Claiming that Vietnam was not a “real war,” Vietnam veterans were excluded from participating in veterans’ parades and treated as second-class citizens in veterans’ hospitals.[10] When VVAW conducted its march and guerrilla theater from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1971, pro-war members of the VFW publically harassed the marchers.[11]

[1] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] We can see from recent events in the United States how powerfully “fake news” can influence public opinion.

[4] Lembcke, 4.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 76-83.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Posted in censorship, film, Korean War, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, Vietnam War, WWII

Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era

Huebner, Andrew J. Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

In Warrior Image, Andrew J. Huebner challenges a common perception that American soldiers were depicted differently in World War II than they were during the Vietnam War. He argues that the contrast between the virtuous soldier of the “good war” and the “degraded and damaged” soldier of the Vietnam War is not as stark as many people believe. Even though early images of World War II portrayed soldiers as disciplined, brave, and patriotic, darker images reflecting the horrors of war began to emerge before the war ended. By the end of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, soldiers were depicted in the media as “frustrated, disillusioned, isolated, and embittered.”[1]  Yet, each of these wars began as a good war and its soldiers had been perceived as virtuous warriors, but events destroyed those images.

Huebner argues that images of foot soldiers in American culture from the 1940s through the 1970s have evolved over time, but warriors in all three wars have been portrayed as both heroes and victims. News photography, advertisements, propaganda, films, magazines, novels, and poetry all contributed to these changing images. His book features only males, most of whom are white. He uses terms such as soldier, veteran, warrior, serviceman, and GI broadly to include members of all military branches, but ignores airmen, seamen, medics, and those who served at headquarters or behind the lines because most of the war-related imagery in this period featured the infantry.[2] Huebner’s interpretations of how American warriors have been characterized comes primarily from depictions of soldiers and veterans in Hollywood films, but also in popular novels, magazines, television, and advertisements.[3]

Huebner contends that the most important element of war imagery relates to how these images elicit public sympathy for and identification with the soldiers, rather than how they work to promote the war effort. He writes, “The primary role of the media in wartime in the Anglo-American world has long been to maintain the ties of sentiment between the soldiers in the field and the home front.”[4] However, audience emotions can be manipulated for various purposes.

The OWI (Office of War Information) worked to influence popular publications’ portrayals of wounded soldiers by discouraging the public from pitying disabled veterans.[5] In an article published in Ladies Home Journal in July 1944, women were warned against sentimentality, “Men allowed to pity themselves will, in time, be disqualified from normal life and will end their days in veterans’ hospitals.”[6] Typical wartime photos that were published in magazines and newspapers showed beautiful women kissing and embracing their severely wounded fiancés, which reassured soldiers that such affection would be the reward for their sacrifices.[7] Advertisements in popular magazines followed suit. For example, an ad for Pullman sleeping cars showed cheerful wounded soldiers on trains being waited on by attractive nurses.[8]

However, the OWI changed their standards according to their needs. Huebner shows that censorship was loosened when public attention began to wane. Beginning in 1943, the government began releasing grisly photos to motivate the public. These photos had previously been consigned to the War Department’s “Chamber of Horrors” file.[9] OWI even requested that advertisers include images of dead U.S. soldiers to help raise money for the war effort even though depictions of fallen soldiers challenged the image of manly invulnerability. Huebner notes Christina Jarvis’ discussion of wounded soldiers in The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II, “War produces alternative or ‘abject’ masculinities that exist alongside and in opposition to dominant cultural representations.”[10] In other words, even though Americans visualized soldiers, nation, and manhood to be invincible, war made them confront more sobering and realistic images.

[1] Andrew J. Huebner, Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 11.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] For information on Hollywood and the military, see David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004); Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture (Boulder: Paradigm Pub., 2007); Matthew Alford and Michael Parenti, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter, Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[4] Huebner, 11. The book does not provide any information about public attitudes toward war, which would have helped to solidify his points.

[5] Ibid., 26-29.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 29-32.

[10] Ibid., 32; Christina S. Jarvis, The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004), 88.