Yale historian Dr. Jay Winter spoke at the U of C about how we remember last week as the keynote speaker for a conference about the popularization of war.
Vivian Leung/the Gauntlet

Remembering in the 21st century

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Four days after D-Day in February 1945, Joe Rosenthal climbed the volcano on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima with his camera. Rosenthal's photograph of Allied troops raising the American flag, taken at the peak of the mountain, became an enduring symbol of the Second World War, immortalizing the mixture of feelings during that triumphant moment and earning Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize. In Virginia, the photograph was transformed into a larger-than-life memorial. Over half a century later, people still come to touch the bronze soldiers' boots.

Each November in Canada, leaves die as poppies bloom on lapels. Yet after the passage of so many decades since the World Wars, the way we remember war has changed, largely due to technology.

Yale historian Dr. Jay Winter spoke at the University of Calgary early this week about war remembrance and the impact of the World Wars on the 21st century. Winter was the keynote speaker at a conference on the popularization of war, hosted by the U of C's Center for Military and Strategic Studies.

According to Winter, we are in the midst of the third global memory boom. He said that while the waves of remembrance have kept coming since WWI, the way we engage in the social activity of remembrance has changed.

We remember war in three different ways, said Winter. We remember as a family, ritualizing photographs and calendar dates--such as the death of a soldier son.

We also use liturgical remembrance, a declining mode of commemoration based on a calendar associated with sacred acts, where the dates singled out have religious or holy significance.

Historical remembrance was the final form Winter discussed in his lecture.

"This is a contested field," he said, referring to the challenge of deciding which dates should symbolize days of commemoration on the calendar. "Citizens engage in the moral responsibility of taking part in the past."

The Great War, which resulted in the first memory boom, fused these three forms of remembrance due to the extreme casualties.

"Crossing of the three vectors led to the sacrilization of remembrance," said Winter. "Roughly one out of nine soldiers who put on their uniforms [in 1914] were casualties of the war."

The deaths of millions destroyed families across the world, said Winter. Thus, world history and family history were brought together and the sacrifices soldiers made were sacrilized.

"World War II remembrance turned into a moral act," said Winter, adding this moral act has changed since then.

We differ from those prior experiences in four ways: in politics, business, aesthetic redemption, and rituals.

The World Wars resulted in the significant input of veterans into how their experiences would be remembered and honoured. Today commemoration has become politicized and is state-organized.

Winter said that remembering today is influenced by business, and unlike the early parts of the 20th century, civil society provides funding for commemoration. For example, museums are often privately funded.

"Aesthetic redemption reconstructs the symbolic meaning of peace," he said, noting art in the aftermath of the World Wars was figurative and realistic, using war memorials to humanize slain soldiers. Today, abstraction reflects loss, and this aesthetic form is remote and alien from the first generation's images.

Rituals, Winter's fourth element of remembrance, express what people do in front of sites of remembrance and how they act.

Winter argued that in the past ritualistic remembrance was typified by solidarity and a sense of community, such as two people standing in front of a memorial, under the darkened sky with rain pouring down.

"Neither of you want to be there, but you know you have to," said Winter.

Today this sense of solidarity has dissipated.

"With commemoration on the Internet, the act becomes isolated," said Winter. "With the Internet, there is the loss of solidarity. There is no symbolic exchange with those who you are with and those who are gone."

Despite his negative assessment of the Internet's effects on commemoration, Winter said rituals are far from extinct.

"They will continue because the intersection between family remembrance and historical remembrance will continue," he said. "This intersection cannot be broken."

"The point is remembering individuals," Winter said, leaning into the lectern. "Individuals symbolize what you've lost and what you haven't. Ultimately, that realization that we haven't lost all allows us to heal. Hence, all acts of remembrance ultimately fail. Remembrance is a quixotic act. It always fades away. People who engage in remembrance fade away, they die."

He called this the tragic element of remembrance where, as time passes, we forget the names of those who sacrificed their lives for a cause.

"Ultimately the impossibility of the act of remembrance is an acceptance of our mortality," said Winter, noting we remember the dead to appreciate what still remains and to remember that we too will die.