I never thought much about war memorials. They’re pretty ubiquitous in the United States, and most of the time they claim to express a politically neutral message in honor of American soldiers who lost their lives during the war in question.
Then my friend expressed distaste for the Tufts Memorial Steps, which honor Tufts alumni who served in the armed forces from the Civil War to Vietnam. I started to wonder what these seemingly innocuous memorials really represent, and what — and who — they ignore.
Take Vietnam, for example. Seventy-six percent of the Americans who served in Vietnam came from lower-middle or working class backgrounds, and enlisted blacks suffered disproportionately higher casualty rates. In addition to the eight million tons of bombs the United States dropped on Vietnam, American forces used approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides to reduce jungle foliage in Vietnam, causing serious ecological damage throughout the country and still afflicting children growing up in Vietnam today with various diseases and disabilities.
The casualties go beyond innocent civilians and ecological disasters in Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos, a country that arguably posed no threat to the United States, as part of a secret proxy war. As a result, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, and because up to a third of these bombs did not explode initially, they continue to injure and kill civilians. There are over 100 casualties from latent bombs in Laos each year.
War memorials also ignore the gendered violence in which war often plays out; they discount not only the women who became breadwinners for their families while their husbands fought or died, but also the primarily female rape and abuse victims who suffer during too many conflicts.
Though there are some pacifist war memorials that commemorate civilian casualties or the injustices of war, war memorials in the United States rarely reflect the sobering, unjust statistics behind the conflicts to which they allude, whether they are commemorating soldiers who fought in Vietnam or in Iraq. On the contrary, they promote the military-industrial complex, nationalism, colonialism, neocolonialism and patriarchy.
Having grown up privileged in the United States in an ostensibly “liberal” family, I never felt displeased or uncomfortable by the existence of war memorials until looking into the issue more closely. My stepbrother and both my grandparents served in the armed forces, and perhaps it was initially difficult for me to denounce something in which people I know and care about participated.
And yet, we as a nation and as a global society let the military and anything done in the name of defense and security off the hook when it comes to issues of environmental and social justice. For this reason, the environmental damage and civilian casualties caused by the military — particularly powerful militaries like the American one — are not seriously scrutinized.
For example, a study conducted by students and faculty from Complutense University of Madrid, Indian River State College, Sonoma State University and St. Cloud State University, published in “Project Censored,” found that the U.S. military “is responsible for the most egregious and widespread pollution of the planet, yet this information and accompanying documentation goes almost entirely unreported.”
While the obvious problem is not the war memorials but the wars themselves, my friend’s point rings true: these memorials represent for more privileged Americans innocuous commemorations of American soldiers, but their meaning ignores the experiences of colonized peoples, of blacks, Hispanics and people of color, of low-income Americans and of women. Therefore I hope this column does for you what my friend did for me —reconsider and criticize the symbols we have been taught to accept, even those as seemingly harmless as war memorials.