How can Civil War sites offer a usable past during a time of war? (Part 2)



I finished my M.A. in 1997 and then went off to study something completely different for my Ph.D. There were moments when I still felt blind-sided by American military culture – I remember weeping and pounding the steering wheel on my way home from work the day of the Columbine school massacre in 1999, listening to the President saying on the radio that we needed to protect our children from such violence, and then in the very next clip defending the decision to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Even if the NATO air strikes were the right thing to do, couldn’t he see the direct line that connected a sense of strength and power with the use of deadly weapons, and the way that connection worked on the psyches of too many young men? A few voices tried to raise that question after Columbine, as they did again a few months ago after the horrendous school killings in Connecticut, but debates over pop culture, mental illness, and gun control drowned out the attempts to focus on weaponized masculinity itself as a fundamental part of the problem.[4] Seeing those processes at work was still troubling, but by and large, I felt I’d settled my thinking about the big questions at the root of them, and I moved on to other things.

Then came September 11th, 2001. The towers fell, the first shock wore off, and the Bush administration declared “War on Terror” – war that might not end in our lifetimes – and began to make a case for “regime change” in Iraq. There was no real evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11th attacks or that Iraq posed any kind of imminent threat to the U.S.; on the other hand, the evidence that this was a welcome pretext for getting rid of a troublesome former ally was very strong. But Americans’ emotional need to strike back, to feel powerful again, to do something, proved even stronger. The September 11th attacks were re-cast as Pearl Harbor; Saddam Hussein reprised his role as Hitler; the invasion was framed as a search for weapons of mass destruction and a mission to liberate an oppressed people. Those who suggested that the script was far more reminiscent of Vietnam than of World War II were branded as disloyal or worse.

And I realized that in spite of understanding more now about how this American rush toward war worked, nothing had actually changed in my own response to it. I could see how histories and memories of past wars were being manipulated and how that played into national and personal mythologies about being the liberator. I recognized the compulsions that were at work, and they made a certain kind of sense in the wake of the collective trauma of September 11th. But the kind of sense they made wasn’t rational, and it was still terrifying to be in the midst of so many people who were acting on compulsion rather than critical reflection. It almost felt worse now that I had a clearer sense of how that process worked and how it had been used to whip up popular support for wars for well over a century.

Two things were different this time around. First, I’d been in the U.S. long enough, had clarified my own thinking enough, and was angry enough that I couldn’t stay silent this time. And second, there were a lot more people who felt the same way, which created a much broader anti-war movement than had happened with the first Gulf War.

By the time the invasion of Iraq actually took place, tens of millions of people had taken to the streets around the world to protest. We were told by the President that we were essentially just a very large focus group whose opinions helped him with his decision-making process, and the invasion proceeded according to plan in the spring of 2003. But it helped to know that so many other people were publicly willing to question the rationale for war.

The protests often felt stuck in a 1960s template (whenever there was singing at a demonstration, things quickly reverted to “If I Had a Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome”). But it also helped to feel that people were drawing on a deep tradition of American dissent that I hadn’t previously felt a strong connection to. It was also clear that for everyone who was willing to stand up with a sign, there were many others thinking the same things but not quite ready to go public. Since I knew what it was like to be one of those people, I came to feel almost a responsibility to take that next step, and to represent the things that were still too difficult for many people to say openly.

I say “it was clear” that those supporters were out there because it was actually possible to see this process in action at the peace vigil that I joined when I came back home after finishing my dissertation research in 2002. The vigil started right after September 11th when a group of (mostly) women began standing in a park in Orange, Massachusetts for an hour every Saturday afternoon. They adopted the practice of staying silent as a witness against violence rather than making a more direct kind of engagement, and constituted themselves as part of the international “Women in Black” network that began in Israel during the First Intifada and currently exists in many countries around the world. The weekly vigil in Orange continued for seven years, and I was a part of it for six.

It may seem that I’m straying a long way from Civil War battlefields here, but bear with me. My experience of years of silent vigiling helped me turn another corner in my thinking about American military culture and memory. I eventually arrived at quite a different sense of how battlefields, monuments, and other commemorative sites might be put to use, and how they might help us move toward not just healing or reconciliation but a transformation of the impulses and compulsions that seem to prompt so much of American war-making and the masculine self-images associated with it. I want to explain what that corner was and how I turned it, and to do that I need to tell you more about the vigil.

First of all, it took place in a particularly resonant setting. When the town of Orange erected a World War I memorial statue in 1934, it commissioned a sculpture that captured the ambivalence many Americans felt about militarism in the interwar period.

The statue simultaneously honored the town’s servicemen and warned against the horrors of war. It shows a seated doughboy, still in uniform but with his sleeves rolled up, speaking to a young boy. The boy’s fist is clenched, and the inscription on the base of the statue reads, “It Shall Not Be Again.”

People interpret this in different ways – all the way from “America should always be willing to go to war to prevent tyranny” to “All war is wrong.” In a wonderful essay about this statue in his book Sense of History, David Glassberg points out that it represents what James Young has called “collected” rather than “collective” memory – “the design,” Glassberg writes, “embodied a compromise but not a common vision.”[5] This has meant that over time, the statue and the park have been able to accommodate competing, even contradictory ideas about this war and all wars. And despite the man who drove by the vigil one day and yelled at us that he was a veteran and we were defiling his park, those of us in the vigil knew that it was also our park and that our message had as deep a history there as the Veterans Day ceremonies or the occasional counter-protestors who stood with us – or against us – on Saturday afternoons.

So the ambiguity and polyvocality of the site was one important feature of the vigil. But even more important, for me, was the silence. Our agreed-upon rule was that if someone wanted to engage us in conversation, the person at the end of the line would step out for a moment, hand out a card explaining why and how we were vigiling, and invite the person to come back at the end of the hour. Otherwise, we didn’t speak during the time we stood there. Our signs said what we wanted to say (and there was plenty of speech, not all of it entirely peaceful, in the process of reaching consensus on the wording!); we were there to witness and remind, not to argue or convince.

This meant that when people responded to our presence, we simply stood there and absorbed whatever they said or did, positive or negative – and we got the entire range and a lot that was in between. There was the man who drove by every week in the early years of the vigil and called us Communists, apparently unaware that Communism had been replaced by terrorism as the great evil. The conservative son of the conservative editor of the local newspaper also came by every week and never failed to make it clear in word and gesture that he hated everything we stood for. Quite a few people thanked us; others told us we made them sick. A lot of people shouted stock phrases like “Support the troops” or “Freedom isn’t free” or “If the Army wasn’t over there, you couldn’t be here.” People gunned their engines or squealed their tires or honked their horns, a kind of strange automobile discourse that got me started thinking about car culture and its many entanglements with war, masculinity, and American memory. We saw a very wide range of hand gestures, and one time we were mooned. People often told us that they had family members serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; we live in an area where that’s true of many families. On one very cold winter day, a woman brought us all pocket hand-warmers.

Standing silently for an hour is surprisingly hard to do, and people in the vigil passed the time in various ways. Some of them counted responses, and we would have a little debrief afterward about how many positive and negative gestures and calls there had been, and what some of the more confusing ones had meant (was honking the horn friendly or unfriendly? was the “rock on” sign sincere or ironic? how to interpret the car where a man gave us the middle finger out the driver’s window while the woman in the passenger seat flashed the peace sign?). Support waxed and waned in very clear relation to the news of the moment, the price of oil, military surges and setbacks, election campaigns, even the weather and the time of year.

I started out counting things, too, but over time, I found it was more interesting to pay attention to my own reactions to what was coming back to us from other people. At first I would construct arguments in my head proving why the people who yelled at us were wrong – of course we weren’t only able to vigil because the U.S. was fighting in Iraq; free assembly was a Constitutionally guaranteed right, and so on. And then I started being able to pay attention to those impulses to rebut and refute – in short, my own need to prove I was right; my own need to win.

It took a long time, but after maybe four or five years of standing there two or three Saturdays a month, things started to shift in my responses. I have a very clear memory of the day when a man yelled at us that we must have loved Saddam Hussein and instead of automatically arguing with him in my mind I was able, for the first time, to hear under the surface of his words the not-unpraiseworthy urge to go in and fix a bad situation, and even to see it as a duty imposed on the world’s military superpower.

I knew that not-unpraiseworthy urge was there – I knew it from my time with reenactors. And I knew everything that was wrong with it and how it had been manipulated and taken advantage of. But knowing it and knowing what was wrong with it were both different from being able to listen to it with any real emotional understanding. Like the park and the statue, I came to be able to occupy the same space as something I utterly disagreed with, and to acknowledge and even admire the good will that it might contain. I could see it more clearly, and I could put myself into a relation with it, something I hadn’t been able to do until I stopped talking and arguing.

I’ll tell you one more vigil story and then I’ll get back to the Civil War. I mentioned the newspaper editor’s son who was one of our most vocal critics in the early years of the vigil. In the winter of 2006, someone spray-painted over a sign that the Women in Black sponsored on the barn of one of our members, showing the cost of war in casualities and dollars. The newspaper editor’s son, who was a painter by trade, stopped by and offered to repaint that section of the barn at his own expense. Then he wrote a letter to his father’s newspaper that praised the Women in Black for having the courage to stand in daylight and make ourselves accountable.

He drew connections between the war in Iraq and Americans’ dependence on oil and pointed out the hypocrisy of eight-cylinder vehicles with “Support the troops” ribbons on them. Our group, he said, were the true lions of the community.[6] What I still find extraordinary about this is that like me, he’d clearly had a change of heart – literally, a changed heart, a shift that went far beyond just a rethinking of the issues (although it was also striking how much political common ground we turned out to have once his instinctive opposition to our presence had cleared away). The profoundly polyvocal, disjunctive, uncomfortable, resonant space and experience of the park and the vigil had enabled that in a way that no amount of speech-making or writing or cogitation probably could have done.

It wasn’t completely unlike the way that reenactors were able to work out conflicts by putting them into the framework of performance and debating them by proxy. The vigil and the park had some of the same performative characteristics, and some of the same liminality and not-quite-real-world qualities.

The two big differences were that the real-world political content of the reenactors’ quarrels – with feminism, with antiwar sentiments, with unstated issues around race – was always carefully set aside and buffered by a depoliticized language that focused on buttonholes rather than elections and oil supply. In contrast, the vigil was steadfastly political, and there was no getting around it.

And the second big difference was the refusal to argue. We accepted confrontation but refused conflict, in a way that actually seemed confusing and upsetting for a lot of people (including a surprising number in the antiwar movement). We weren’t following the usual template for protest or using our right to free speech to be as vocal as possible. We made a powerful statement but not an argument, and that’s what set the vigil apart from politics-as-usual, or from the vigorous but indirect debates of the reenactors, or – and this is where I finally get back to the Civil War – from the conventions of both scholarship and most commemorative and interpretive practices.

Scholarship and interpretation tend toward the argumentative, on the one hand, while commemoration and veneration have tended to depoliticize, on the other. And as I’m thinking about ways that Civil War battlefields can be usable in the highly militarized and politically polarized society of early twenty-first century America, I see the silent vigil as a model for a different approach that might let us walk a line between the two.





[4] See, for example, Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally, ” The National Conversation in the Wake of Littleton is Missing the Mark,” Boston Globe, May 2, 1999, p. E1 and Jackson Katz, “Memo to Media: Manhood, Not Guns or Mental Illness, Should Be Central in Newtown Shooting,” Huffpost, Dec. 18, 2012.

[5] David Glassberg, “Remembering a War” in Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), p. 53.

[6] Barney Cummings, Jr., “Opinion Expressed,” Letter to the Editor, Athol Daily News, January 12, 2006, p. 4.