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

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