Monumental History

May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments

I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.  It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story.  Of course, that is bloody obvious.  But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US.  He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War.  The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.

He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War.  And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC.  He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.

And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory.  There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts.  But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials.  Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative.  They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.

sieur_1In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal.  This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance.  And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man.  In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.1280px-Exploit_de_la_Place_d'Armes

The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then).  Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.

800px-National_Famine_Monument_with_Croagh_Patrick_in_the_backgroundAn example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52).  The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million).  It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland.  The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo.  But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.

But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event.  And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event.  How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen?  Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland).  So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?

I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.



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§ 19 Responses to Monumental History

  • I’m currently reading The Sympathizer by the same author. I’ll have to look at his nonfiction work as well.
    For me, the only reasonable point of monuments is to memorialize the dead and give the living a place to grieve and reflect.
    This is a timely post, considering what is going on in New Orleans now with the statues of the confederacy. What was the purpose of those statues? Recovery of pride?

    • The Sympathizer is most excellent. I read that last fall. Stuck with me, too.

      This book was up and down, he makes some frankly stupid claims in it, and he over-generalizes the United States too much, as compared to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which may have been his intention, but it rather undercuts his larger arguments. But it’s a good read, at least until the epilogue.

      As for monuments, I agree. I am not really a fan of the celebratory monument, even though I love the aesthetics of the one in Montreal. Have you ever been to Indianapolis? There is essentially a 5-city block long memorial park there to the American war dead from the Revolution to WWII and Korea.

      As for the Confederate monuments, every city and town in the South, pretty much, has them. They’re usually in public parks, outside the court house or city hall. Birmingham is also taking down its. The weird thing about Civil War monuments is that if you got the battlefields, they are there for both sides. But the ones in the towns and cities are all Confederate. I think the initial reason was simply remembrance, but that is also mixed with a toxic bit of Confederate-nostalgia. I actually will have something along these lines on Monday in this space.

  • Judith&David Schurman says:

    Too bad your site refuses to let me log in but what the hell…life goes on.

    Excellent post and applies to many monuments..

  • I gather the date 1945-1952 should be 1845-1852. And just for fun, nine miles = 47,520 ft. The DC memorial would then have to be 316.8 times as long as it is now.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    You mention of one possible example of seeing both sides: Civil War memorials which represent both sides. And yet that raises a problem in itself: how do you represent both sides? A lot of Civil War memorial making was part of the attempt to bury the war beneath a haze of nostalgia and regret, so little things such as slavery dropped out of it.

    • But the Civil War monuments, at least those around here, don’t represent both sides. They represent one side or the other. Every town and city in the South has a Confederate Monument outside Town/City Hall or the State courthouse. On the actual battlefields, there are any number of monuments to each and every single battalion that fought there. And of the Civil War Monuments I can recall up North, they, too, are American, i.e.: The Union. Am I missing one?

      • Brian Bixby says:

        I was referring to their coexistence on battlefields, as you yourself did.

      • Ah, dig it. But those are still separate monuments, and they exist in different universes from each other. The fact that they’re all identical, too, is another matter. I can’t remember the name of the architect who is responsible for the bulk of Civil War memorials.

  • Scott Pilkington says:

    I watched with horror a decade or so ago as the Taliban destroyed sides of mountains to erase the prior dominant religion of the region. Statutory remembrances of any sort are only as good as the positive memories of those in the future. As relatives die off and new cultures take place it doesn’t mean the same to a new generation in the same way that we remodel our houses or even paint a room a different color. Just as whole cemeteries are moved to make room for roads or modern buildings so will current public power thinking change any monument that stands in the way of the current zeitgeist .

    • That was indeed horrible, what the Taleban did. Mind-numbingly so, like most everything of its régime. Similarly, the Khmer Rouge, had it had its way, would’ve destroyed Angkor Wat. But, yes, you do raise an interesting point of cultures and remembrance, one that is overlooked, I think, in the larger discussion amongst historians and other academics about memorials.

  • Robert Weir says:

    All of this raises an intriguing question. There are increasing demands to build more Vietnam War memorials, but what is it that will be memorialized? I have argued (in print and in lectures) that the idea that we memorialize the dead is based on a lie. We tell ourselves “We will not forget,” but that’s exactly what we do. The memorial becomes the final word on the subject. We have fulfilled our “duty” and we turn the page and forget. Only rarely–Confederate war memorials, for example–do we rethink memorials and even then it takes a seismic political shift for that to occur. Tow years ago, I did an experiment at Smith in which I photographed a series of monuments they passed all the time. Only a handful recognized any of them and none could tell me the slightest thing about who or what was memorialized.

    • When I first studied memorials, way back in grad school, I found it fascinating that these things I passed all the time actually meant something, hence my long-time fascination with the Maisonneuve monument.

      And while I think you’re right to a large degree, we build monuments and walk away, that isn’t the case for all monuments. Gettysburg or the Vietnam War Memorial, are examples of ‘live’ monuments, where people go to see and to pay their respects. But that’s the minority, obviously.

  • GP Cox says:

    Coming ‘of-age’ in the Vietnam War era meant getting drafted and going overseas – never to be seen again.

  • […] via Monumental History — Matthew Barlow […]

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