First of May and the clouds weren’t blocking the sunshine in Belgium. What a difference from a couple of days ago when there seemed to be a war of moods going on in the sky resulting in hail, melting snow, rain, and sunshine to compete for attention above our heads. Not a bad day to visit the World War I memorials in the area of Ypres (Ieper), long overdue. Never before had I visited these specific places to my own surprise. Especially, considering I’ve spent most of my life in Belgium, and most of my friends have had school trips to remind them of the importance of the events during that time period for contemporary Belgium – and the world at large. To combat that I mobilized my parents to join me in this campaign.
What follows are flows of thought pivoting around possible experiences of wars and contested memories as they sprung up during the visit and subsequently. Questions ring much stronger than answers at this moment.
To begin with let me just quickly point to the term World War I itself. There are different words to point to this event, or more accurately a set of innumerable events, such as Great War, Global War and War of the Nations. Each set of words has a different ring to it with different associations to be made. But to my knowledge North Korea did not partake in this World War. Of course, the use of singular terms is meant to provide some analytical clarity and one might argue, correctly, that it’s not simply the physicality of war that is at stake here. This is already a reminder that interpretations are political and that any quest to talk about it will have to deal with this.
Be that as it may, let me turn to the Menin Gate in Ypres now. Walking from the central square towards this monument I got the feeling that this was meant to be impressing, and it was. The grandiose grayish triumphal arch greets you with the following words on the top beam: ‘To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no know grave.’ As with many of the memorials in this region the main focus lays on military casualties of the British Empire, later refashioned as the Commonwealth, but no less imperial.
Standing in the middle of the mausoleum the seemingly endless row of names is griping. So many names, all men, with so many life stories to be untold. Most of them carrying the lowest military rank of private. The lower stratum carrying the heaviest burden, this seems an oddly familiar historical lesson. As much as this visible war debris reveals, nevertheless there is at least as much hidden. What was going on with the family members, partners, friends, … back home? What about the approximately 1.5 million colonial troops and their experiences?
I was surprised to read the engraved names of soldiers from the Bhopal infantry, the Sikhs divisions, Burmese and Assam military police, and more. The explanatory plaques accompanying many of the monuments seem to highlight the diversity of people involved in these events, which is a good way forward to counter the whitewashing of history, but the road ahead is still vastly under construction. For example, how many of us who have gone through the primary and secondary school system in Belgium have learned about the wars in Belgian Congo, or for that matter, the vile colonial history of this country?
In psychological literature amnesia is regularly viewed as an adaptation of the mind to deal with troubled memories. In this sense it is a coping mechanism that can help a person from being confronted with painful experiences in the past. The problem of amnesia on a societal scale is that it renders reconciliation very difficult (yes, I know that the idea of reconciliation is a moral stance, but then again what isn’t). The flip-side is that by remembering some things while neglecting others one gets a powerful tool to (re)construct group belongings. A poignant example in this case is the Ijzertoren memorial in Diksmuide that commemorates the killed Flemish soldiers at the Yser front. As such it plays a big role for the idea of the Flemish independence struggle. This is just to state the obvious: dealing with the past is a highly contested power game. Who gets to tell the story is a big ass deal!
Back to the Menin Gate. As I walked up the stairs to reach the upper left side of the memorial I encountered rows of circular red rose formations with personal messages. Flowers and death are a common partner around the world. At burial ceremonies in Kinshasa, Jodhpur, Srebrenica, and Antwerp I’ve witnessed the use of flowers with context-dependent meanings. In this specific case it was the written message that got me thinking. A person with an experience in the Royal Army Medical Corps expressing their feelings about this place through charity funded materials. Morphing together contested past, present and future on a paper. One could distill different intended meanings here and result with a multiplicity of interpretations, but this is a reminder that “all of us (without exception) wallow in a phenomenological swamp of signs and symbols” (Bourgois 1990: 53).
The fogginess of this swamp should not inhibit us from taking a critical stance to question the powers that be. For example, when you reach the top of the staircases there is an etched plaque on the right side referring to the Australian involvement in the war. A part of the writing is explicit about the links between past and present. This is a portrayal that contemporary possibilities in life with a Belgium passport are influenced by these past events. Leading me to ponder about how much of war is related to a form of community-building.
Beneath, in the middle of this plaque, the phrase ‘Lest we forget’ pops out. A combination of words that I encountered at many different places during this visit. Something very similar is often said and written about Srebrenica: ‘Da se ne zaboravi’ (that it’s not forgotten). The idea of not forgetting seems to be an important part of making sense of violence. I’m not sure how much of it is therapeutic in learning to live with pain. This is very dependent on the context of the violence and personal involvements in it. How different is it to talk about reconciliation with the past form a viewpoint of someone who has lost their entire family due to war, and someone who’s idea of war is rendered through historical and televised images?
Let me finish by coming back to the title of this piece. Using the words memory wars is intended to highlight the continuity of material wars. But the danger exist that this implies rigid opposing views of a war. More accurate is to say that there exist many different conflicts of memory in any one person, and society at large. We can claim, rightly so, that fixed identities are an illusion and that violence is not simply a product of antagonistic identities. Thus that violence is exactly a way in which ideas of fixed identities are produced (see Appadurai 2006). But this does not take away that those varied senses of self that people cling on to are felt as illusions. So when I read on many gravestones that ‘death divides memory clings,’ it is a real expression of separation in flesh and connection in memory. However, Lest we forget indeed, wars are also an exercise in community-building (see Gourevitch 1994), and that, in a perverted way, death divides and unites alike. And contested memory is left to make sense of it all.