Monday, 31 May 2010

Make Love, Not War

I have always had a soft spot for other countries' national holidays and/or other important dates. I find that they tell an awful lot about any given society's values and attitudes. Today is Memorial Day here in the United States, and all I really knew about it beforehand was that it had something to do with war, and that you are not supposed to wear white shoes before it. It turns out that Memorial Day is the day when Americans remember those who have died while in military service since the Civil War.

The tombstone above is of a young man who fell (alongside 600 000 others) while fighting in the Civil War. As important as it might be to remember those who fought (as it is to remember any person who ever lived), I often find war-related national celebrations quite literally macabre. Independence Day in Finland, for example, celebrates not the actual peaceful process of gaining independence in 1917, but maintaining it with the help of war later on. It almost goes without saying that countries ought to celebrate their victories in war: no one confesses to liking war, but it is in our societal make-up to admire and remember them once they are successfully concluded. Hungarians even celebrate wars they lost, probably because they haven't done much winning in their 1000 years of existence as a nation. Win or lose, all nations dwell in their violent pasts. Wars and their interpretations can shape an entire nation's understanding of its history, or its very existence. (An interesting example is the commonly used Finnish term "torjuntavoitto", or "victory through repelling". With the help of the term Finns have grown to think of the Winter War of 1939-40 as a victorious one, even though Finland lost the war.)

War is destructive, and it makes people do horrible things. The values we attach to war range from the emotionally-jam-packed term 'independence' in Finland to the equally elusive 'freedom' in the United States. We rarely stop and question what these words have come to mean to us, and take them at face value instead. If we look closely, we might realise that these words don't really mean an awful lot, and that they are cultural constructs instead. They tend to exist as a backbone to our patriotic feelings of belonging. We feel comfortable remembering the lives we have lost in war because these words help us do so. They make us feel noble and proud while facing suffering and loss of the past.

I struggle with the idea that some wars are necessary, and that good things can come out of war. I fundamentally reject the Hobbesian characterisation of man as a creature of violence. As people in this country go about their family picnics and perhaps visiting a cemetary today, I hope that their thoughts are with peace, not war.

Dress: Liberty of London for Target
Shoes: F-Troupe / Beamhill
Vintage earrings / present from Chris


Charlotte said...

You look ready for a Memorial Day picnic yourself, Waves.
Finland's history as a possession of Sweden and Russia certainly gives a special meaning to the idea of "victory through repelling." I would imagine that being a possession inculcates a sense of resistance that runs strong and deep through the national psyche.
Wars are the most common way of organizing history in the U.S.--the period of war, the period between War A and War B--as if war is the single major milestone, our preferred way of telling time. What other markers could be chosen, that don't have war as the primary reference point? You raise a very good question.

chiara said...

What you said - and what Charlotte said. But I'd like to add something.
I think we somehow tend to "romanticize" the idea of war because right now the last one we had "at home" is well behind us. In my case, I am thinking about Second World War (I am in Italy), and if I recall correctly, that's the last one which hit the american land directly (may be excluding the Sep 11th attack...).
So, we don't remember and don't know what it really meant to be in war. We kind of see only the heroic gestures of the war.
I remember my granma telling me when her sister and her went out in the fields to look for their dad, and they found him accidentally killed. Or my granpa telling me of when he was in prison in Germany, surviving on potatoes skins (!!!!). That's a less romantic side of war we do not celebrate, but it's the real one!

mirattes said...

It is a perfect post! Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Great post hon! (As always!!) Waves and I had a day of remembering those cows who gave their milk so that we could enjoy an ice cream on a VERY hot national holiday!!! oxox, CR