Veterans’ Day: 21st Century Remembrance

Time for a Recasting?
a post by Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933

As another Veteran’s Day approaches with tragic losses in Afghanistan and Iraq mounting, shouldn’t we be asking how, when, and where the nation will commemorate these sacrifices? Why wait years after the last body is returned home before we initiate a public discourse on remembrance? Are we assuming continuity of tradition—following an instinctive impulse to chisel more names onto another national monument on the mall or, are we waiting for state-centered initiatives? Is it our intention to fill every inch of ground at Arlington or to construct new cemeteries to address the eventual space deficiency? In other words, is it appropriate for Americans to observe the same 19th century commemorative rituals for our 21st century conflicts?

Are we complacent, or do we as a nation, find value and comfort in those familiar observances that stem largely from the Civil War and its 1917-1918 succedent? Perhaps we fear the same lack of consensus that ensued after that other contentious war, the one to end all wars—World War I, when heated debates raged across America as disparate factions wrestled with the ideal way to honor their deceased. Despite the extraordinary developments of the past ninety years, methods of honoring the war dead have remained essentially unchanged. Does this continuity help us remember effectively?

I suggest that the recent conflict in the Middle East warrants a new approach. Take a stroll through Arlington where the most recent casualties have been laid to rest. One sad distinction soon becomes apparent—the increasing number of large, multi-named headstones marking the burial of comingled remains. Here, individual identity has given way to eternal unity in death. We are reminded that the loss of even one soldier affects us all. Honoring our connectedness may be the best memorial we can offer the future.

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