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Memorials

Senie, Harriet F. Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. p. 261.

How we remember and memorialize events has always been of interest to me.  My specialization in American History is up to Reconstruction.  Consequently, much of what I have studied has been mostly Civil War related:  David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American MemoryBeyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War, Timothy Smith’s The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park, Jim Weeks’ Gettysburg: Memory Market and an American Shrine, Caroline Janey’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, and of course, Edward Linenthal’s Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields all adorn my bookshelves.

In introducing Memorials, Seine discusses national memorials in relation to national identity, something that the United States has always and continues to struggle with.  History is not always pretty and many are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable with the uglier side of American history.  (For example: the issue of slavery is contentious when presented as part of national memory and national identity as debates over the “Confederate Flag” or blog posts such as this one demonstrate.)  Consequently, modern memorials, Seine points out, become more a memorial to the victims a la a private cemetery.

One common thread Seine identifies in the four memorials presented in this book is the heroic status conferred upon the victims and a lack of a greater historical narrative to give context.  She sees this as a “camouflage” of history with the result of defining the, “United States as a nation of victims”.  She argues that memorials are created to both remember the deceased AND the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Seine does a good job of presenting her argument.  For each of the memorials presented she discusses “immediate memorials” (flowers, notes, teddy bears left at or near the site of the tragedy) as well as the evolution of the permanent memorials constructed.  Each chapter closes with a summation of what each memorial highlights as well as what each leave out.  This helps build her case that the larger more complicated historical narrative is missing.

Memorials will certainly get the reader thinking about national memory, the historical record, and how the two should connect.

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