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War Memorials: Picturing Peace or Graphic Reminders

of Violence

They were arranged in neat rows, one on top of the other. Each was a

dingy greyish color, not the bright sun-bleached white you often see in the

movies. Row upon row they were stacked up, reaching to the ceiling at the

top of the pagoda, maybe 20 or 30 feet above my head. It was, in essence, a

sacred cathedral constructed of discolored human skulls.

Should I take a photo of them? Should I stand in

front of the pile and ask someone to take a photo with

me in it? Certainly this wasn’t the right time for a

“selfie.” That was beyond the question. But what is

the right thing to do at a place such as this? Some of

those around me were crying, but the overwhelming size

of this pile of skulls was quite numbing, leaving me

feeling strangely dumbfounded.

When Cambodia’s government authorities decided to

build this Killing Fields Memorial to the victims of

Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime, how exactly

did they want me to respond as a first-time visitor?

More importantly what do the souls who formerly

possessed these skulls think about this monument? After being beaten,

tortured, and beheaded, are they happy to contribute to this massive jigsaw

puzzle, or to they feel doubly victimized to be publically displayed for

the purpose of shock and awe? Is this the proper way to memorialize the

dead, and if not, is it justified to use them to educate others, forcing

them never to forget?

As a professional historian, I am fascinated with the ways in which

politicians, journalists, film-makers, and museum curators seek to preserve

the past and teach appropriate lessons for those who will follow. For

better or for worse, I have visited and studied many war memorials around

the world. Some, such as the World War II memorial in Washington, are

celebratory and triumphalist. Others, including its neighboring Vietnam

memorial just a stone’s throw away, are serene, somber, and quite literally

reflective. Many, including the memorial in Cambodia, are graphic,

disturbing, and even nauseating. Like the Killing Fields pagoda, the Rape

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