The Reinvention of Historical Memory

As Americans take to the roads for a long Memorial Day weekend, eager to get out of the cities and out of their routines — and more than ready for a little rest and relaxation — the origins and meaning of this holiday are lost – or, at least, hardly anyone thinks of them anymore. Formally, it is a day reserved for the remembrance of our war dead: historically, it was meant as a day of reconciliation in the wake of the Civil War. In reality, however, it is just another excuse for Americans to get out their barbecues, invite the neighbors over for a party, and forget about their troubles.

With three wars going simultaneously, and a few more in the hopper, Americans are sick and tired of war: they don’t want to remember it – and who can blame them? Indeed, Americans don’t care to remember much of anything, these days, least of all the disastrous wars that have plagued us in recent years. Inundated with problems that seem insoluble, convinced they can have no effect on the course of events in any case, most Americans have acquired a case of advanced historical Alzheimer’s out of sheer self-protection.

For example, how many recall their President’s recent statement that US participation in the NATO attacks on Libya would last for “days, not weeks”? I see that Matt Drudge is reminding us of this, with a headline near the top of his page – but, really, how much difference does that make?

How many recall those “weapons of mass destruction” that were supposed to be the reason we went to war with Iraq? Where are they? Where were they? Nobody seems very bothered that they never existed. Certainly there have been no investigations or hearings into the matter, and – naturally – not a single public official has been held accountable.

And what about those promises made by the current occupant of the White House, clearly articulated during the last presidential campaign, that he’d get us out of Iraq and put an end to a war that – he and his supporters maintained – was fought under false pretenses? That these promises go unfulfilled, even as the President begins his campaign for a second term, is not even noted by his Republican enemies, let alone his Democratic supporters.

And what of the Kosovo war – does anyone recall that one? The arrest of Ratko Mladic, a Serbian general accused of war crimes, has reignited that issue in Europe, but here in America most ordinary people draw a blank, or only vaguely recall it. Yet, for a few months – not all that long ago — the American news media was focused on the Balkans like a laser, and the power and prestige of the US government was predicated on a “victory” that never came. Well, yes, the Serbs “lost,” and we and our NATO allies “won” – but nothing much changed in the contested territories, except that the people exchanged masters and one gang of thugs was replaced by another.

The tides of history wash over us and are forgotten even before they begin to recede: it’s a defense mechanism, one that protects us from being overwhelmed by the tragic sense of life so inimical to our heritage as Americans. We’re a “forward-looking” people, always looking to reach that bend in the road ahead that glitters with so much promise – or is that just a stop sign glowing in the sun?

Going further back in our time machine, we revisit older conflicts whose legacies have faded into near imperceptibility, like portraits left out in the rain: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Korea – all names that conjure visions of a world divided between East and West, the “Free World” and the Soviet bloc, the Bad Guys and the Good. Yet the memory loses its distinctiveness, for– long after the Bad Guys of yesteryear are but entries in some dusty encyclopedia — we are still trapped in that world. The specifics have changed – the Bad Guys are Muslims, now, not commies – but the general principle remains fully operative, and it is this: we are always the Good Guys. About that there can be no debate.

The war dead are honored, and yet the real reasons for their sacrifice are entirely forgotten, or – worse – mythologized into their exact opposite. We fought two world wars to “make the world safe for democracy” – not to save the British empire, or to establish its American successor. We fought the commies for the same reason – not to establish Western hegemony over the entire world. The history books say so, and so they must be right: who but marginal cranks can doubt these basic lessons of Official American History 101? After all, both liberals and conservatives agree, and since “politics stops at the water’s edge” that’s the only view we get to hear, and, therefore, the only one worth knowing.

Human memory is the War Party’s deadliest enemy, and that’s why they do everything to either make us forget, or else lead us to believe in some fictional version of the past, one that obscures the utter failure of all our past wars to accomplish what its authors said they wanted to achieve.

World War I was fought to “end all wars” – and, instead, led directly to an even greater bloodbath. World War II was ostensibly a crusade against “fascism” – and yet we see that the State-worship and mass murder that characterized those bogeymen of German and Italian extraction have hardly vanished from the earth. Indeed, our victory led to the expansion of one of the most murderous regimes in world history – one that bore an eerie resemblance to the regimes that died in the ashes of Berlin and Hiroshima. This new Frankenstein monster quickly devoured Eastern Europe and gobbled up much of the rest of the world – giving the War Party a convenient new enemy.

Indeed, the Frankensteinian analogy is the leitmotif of our more recent wars: look at how many of our former friends have undergone the transformation into our most fearsome enemies. “Uncle Joe” Stalin [.pdf], once depicted in the “mainstream” American media as a benevolent despot with a heart of gold, was heartily supported by the US government and its journalistic courtiers during World War II — and more accurately depicted as human monster by many of the same people when it became expedient to do so.

If we fast-forward our time machine from Lend-Lease to the Berlin airlift, we arrive at our destination in the blink of an historical eye. Yet the former was already forgotten by the time the latter leaped into the headlines, except by a few Cassandras whose voices went largely unheard and unheeded.

Those were in the days before the Internet, before the era of instantaneous communication and universal interconnectedness, the great advance that keeps memory alive and immortal in cyberspace. The Cassandras of the present era can be heard, and, even if they’re not always heeded, the evidence of their prescience is recorded and preserved by the great god Google, whose sacred algorithms have given us the modern equivalent of the sibyl’s oracular power. We can connect to the past with a few strokes of the keyboard, and not just call up the Official History but all versions of history as recorded by both the victors and the vanquished, the Court Historians and the Cassandras – and, in the process, glean some hint of what the future holds. The invention of the Internet augurs, perhaps, the reinvention of historical memory.

No, the Internet is not a panacea: there is no technological determinism that will automatically free us from the grip of tyrants and warmongers. Yet it is a very effective weapon in the peacemakers’ arsenal, one that could spell the effective end of the intellectual and political monopoly enjoyed by the War Party up until this point in the development of the human race. The playing field has been leveled, somewhat, by the introduction of this liberating technology, and yet … and yet we still face a lot of the same strategic and tactical disadvantages that have given the War Party the upper hand in the modern era.

One big advantage is money. The War Party, in every era, is never at a loss for funds: they always find the means to flood the media with war propaganda and whip up emotions to such a fever pitch that rational debate is hardly possible. The Peace Party, conversely, is nearly always outspent by a margin of at least 100-to-1, and this is true by the very nature of our political process, which privileges the rich and powerful – those most likely to profit from war in some way — over ordinary folk.

Antiwar.com has always depended on ordinary folk to survive, because that’s who our readers are: we don’t get contributions from big corporations, big foundations, or, indeed, big anything. Our average donation is $50 – and we need an awful lot of these kinds of donations to get by. That’s why we deem ourselves lucky to have a few donors who have put up what is, by our standards, a huge amount of money — $25,000 – on the condition that the rest of our readers and supporters match it.

As many of you know, this fundraising campaign has been difficult: we’re about halfway to our goal, and I fear that thermometer on the front page is going to take even more time to get to the top as it took to get halfway. What this means is that we’ll have to start making radical cutbacks quite soon – sooner than I dared imagine a week ago.

For fifteen years, we’ve been harnessing the power of the internet to fight the War Party on every front: exposing their lies, reporting on their atrocities, and offering our readers a vision of American foreign policy as it might be and ought to be. In all that time, we’ve hardly taken a step back: we’ve been constantly expanding our presence, perfecting this site, and giving our readers more rather than less. We don’t want to make cuts, but we may be forced to do so – unless you respond to our appeal for help.

You can make a difference – and, believe me, your contribution, no matter what the amount, does makes a real difference – but only if you act now. We don’t have a lot of time to take advantage of the matching funds provided by three very generous donors – our creditors are already knocking on the door, and we must pay our bills or go under.

This Memorial Day, let us hope for a rebirth of memory, so that the ghosts of our war dead can finally rest in true peace. In honor of them, and of the truth that their deaths have only so far obscured, make your contribution to Antiwar.com today.

Read more by Justin Raimondo

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].