Mis-Remembering the Civil War

May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory.  Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans.  While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.

Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape.  But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war.  It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.

Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24.  I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga).  I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this.  We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.

Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background.  My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.

The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union.  And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many.   Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery.  And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights.  Both are wrong.  The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners.  But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863.  Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.

To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder.  This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.

I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it.  Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865).  But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country.  But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.

Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities.  That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart.  There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.

It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction.  And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political.  For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact).  This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.

Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves.  Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men.  Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves.  In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men.  They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.

And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy.  It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle.  It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.

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The Spanish Civil War: On Memory and Forgetting

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

photoI have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936.  Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies.  I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.”  Um, yeah, true. No kidding.  But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.

Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed.  Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War.  He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain.  This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War.  He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.

Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state.  And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936.  While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works.  Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:

Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.

But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting.  As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget.  Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.”  In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.

I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting.  We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways.  In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public.  Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid).  Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers.  Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.

Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War.  Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him).  Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to).  The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate.  San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power.  Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.

My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war.  But he was traumatised, deeply.  He suffered silently, primarily by drinking.  And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war.  By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather.  It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal.  He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war.  I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War.  He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.

So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed.  It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories.  Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting.  Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.

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