Memory, War, and the Memory of War

Memorial Day is meant to remind us of the hardship of war, and on this Memorial Day I find myself asking how we will remember the "war on terror." What will our children's children know about this period?

We choose in the present how future generations will remember the past. One of the great contributions of the human rights movement is showing that how we remember and memorialize trauma in the past -- torture under brutal regimes in Argentina or during the apartheid era of South Africa, the evil committed during the Holocaust -- can help prevent abuses in the future.

What does it mean to choose how to remember? Memories come flooding back, often unwilled, sometimes unwelcomed. The raw material of memory resembles dreams, uncontrolled and full of non-sequiturs.

But consider the terrible affliction of "Funes the Memorious,"a character in a Jorge Luis Borges short story. He remembers everything, every shadow on every leaf on every tree, and he is thus immobilized and must sit in the dark to avoid sensory experience. In real life, societies, like individuals, cannnot remember everything. We organize collective memory, purposefully or not.

Imagining the future, we may choose to remember the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, more in terms of heroism than error, since that is the tendency of all nations. We may remember the irreparable loss of life of those who went to fight, and we will think about their families and the suffering they endured. Our national memory may focus on the deaths of the Americans, in the same way that our memories of Vietnam focus largely on American causalities.

Will we remember that there was a place called Abu Ghraib on the dusty outskirts of Baghdad, and that torture took place there, for which we were responsible? Will we remember that we acquiesced to a terrible policy put forward by our leaders and with the endorsement of many -- Democrats, Republicans, journalists, legal scholars -- that allowed for us to ignore international and American law prohibiting torture?

If we care about the future, we must, first, clarify the truth. Second, we must find ways of clearly condemning torture wherever and whenever it was committed. Third, we must take steps so that we remember our rejection of those acts. Our thinking about future memory is one way of preventing torture in the future.

We need to know the full truth, including who among us was complicit in allowing this to happen, even if it means looking inward to our own communities. Why did not more of us protest more loudly and sooner? Why did so many permit government lawyers to pervert the law for dubious ends, making a mockery out of the idea of reasonable legal interpretation?

We must engage in a serious inquiry and introspection with the goal of accountability. Journalists and scholars should continue their investigative research and analysis of what has transpired. A nonpartisan commission of inquiry should also be a part of this picture, as should the continued declassification of government documents. We should also help others transform Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other sites of torture into sites of learning for the future. Seen from the perspective of memory, fair trials of those most responsible for wrong-doing are essential. The documents produced by trials would be vital elements of a true historical record. And trials are the strongest way of representing moral condemnation of wrongful behavior.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, identified three forms of history: antiquarian, monumental, and critical. The first sees history as quaint, curious, distant and irrelevant to our current lives. The second celebrates victory, heroism and tragedy in the past as precursors to current glory. The third suggests an engagement with the memory of the past, seeing the linkages between past, present and future and seeking to understand them.

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney is seeking to convince Americans that torture was justified. It is clear that he is interested in how this period is remembered; he is speaking both to us and to our progeny. He wants the history books and national memory to validate his time in office, and he is making active attempts to guarantee that they do. He wants to create a monumental history of the period.

If former officials succeed in making us forget that there was torture and that it was contrary to our values, they will establish impunity for the present and also for the future. That must not be allowed to happen. Extreme violations of human rights in any context, including a war, are too important to forget. We want future generations to remember that we insisted on accountability for them. Those are good reasons to have Memorial Day.