8 months ago


of Nanjing memorial in

of Nanjing memorial in China also relies on skulls and human bones to shock its visitors. By contrast, the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan uses life-size wax figurines of small children. Portraying the moments after the atomic flash, the flesh on these children drips from their arms, much like a melting candle. In the War Remnants museum in Saigon, curators display actual dead babies, floating in clear glass jars of formaldehyde. Their tiny deformed bodies are meant to be a warning — and a condemnation — against the US government’s use of the dreaded Agent Orange. Closer to home, American museum directors have also resorted to such methods when constructing their exhibits. At the National Holocaust Memorial in Washington, visitors enter a large room filled with old shoes. A poem on the wall reads: We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam, And because we are only made of fabric and leather And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire. 1 The use of such graphically violent symbols has all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. For those committed to peace, truth, and reconciliation, how should we feel about war memorials? Do they promote reconciliation, or are they counterproductive, producing feelings of disgust and even anger? Like me, the Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen has asked many of these same questions. Nguyen warns that war memorials are themselves implicated in power politics. Those with access to power — including politicians, film producers, and well-funded curators — continually seek to dictate the parameters of historical narrative and public memory. But power, Nguyen cautions, “even when carried out with the elevated intention of justice, incites rebellion from those below and suppression from those above.” Continuing, Nguyen argues, “As fraught as engaging with power may be, one must confront it and hope that one can manage it, and oneself, ethically. Our use of power must be done with the full awareness of our own humanity and inhumanity, our capacity for both good and bad.” 2 What should a war memorial look like? How can we picture peace if we remain committed to graphically portraying past violence? How do we account for unequal power relations in the construction and maintenance of war

memorials? Most importantly, how do we gain an awareness of our own capacity for both good and bad as we seek humanely to remember the past? While there are no easy answers to such questions, we must ask them of ourselves and others. After visiting the Killing Fields Memorial, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering somewhat aimlessly through the streets of Phnom Penh, contemplating the awful scenes I had witnessed. By the end of the day, I was hot, exhausted, and emotionally drained. Fortunately I found a wonderful ice cream parlor overlooking the beautiful confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers. As I ate my sundae and reflected on my day, I came to a banal yet provocative conclusion: the world needs fewer war memorial and more ice cream parlors. Until then, I will keep visiting these memorials, asking tough questions that defy simplistic answers. David Kenley | August 9, 2017 1 This is written by Moses Schulstein and the shoes were from prisoners in Poland’s Majdanek Concentration Camp. See Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 152. 2 Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 253.