[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and for this series I’ve highlighted and analyzed others, leading up to this special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On how and why we’ve managed to forget one of our most visible communities.
Given the amount of news and media coverage dedicated to the American military, it would seem preposterous to suggest that we have in any way forgotten that national community. But in his extremely impressive recent Atlantic cover story “The Tragedy of the American Military,” writer and journalist James Fallows makes the case that we have in some key ways done just that. To quote the start of his first main section, “This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not.” And shortly thereafter Fallows ties this argument to both the specialized nature of our current volunteer military (noting that many more Americans now live on farms than serve in the military) and, most relevantly to my mind, the distant nature of our 21st century wars. “As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.”
The whole piece is challenging, provocative, and well worth your time, and I wanted to use this weekend post to link to it. But I also wanted to suggest a connection between my week’s series and these current acts of collective forgetting or elision. That is, it seems highly relevant to me that we tend to remember well—or remember at all—those wars for which we can develop relatively clear and coherent narratives, and that can make us feel good about their outcomes and effects in the process: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II. The obvious and definite exception is the Vietnam War, which forced its way into our collective consciousness for a variety of reasons—the innovative media coverage it included, the protests and divisions it spawned, the generation of filmmakers it inspired—and has remained there. But while Vietnam narratives certainly don’t tend to make us feel good, I would argue that they have likewise become clear and coherent, a shared set of images and stories through which we understand that conflict. Whereas when we have not developed such a set of narratives, as I would argue we have not for any of the wars on which I have focused this week—and, perhaps, we have not for our contemporary wars—we have a far more difficult time remembering or engaging with them at all.
So am I suggesting that what we need is more established narratives of these forgotten histories, past and present? I’m not—if anything, as I’ve written elsewhere, I think our established narratives of wars like World War II themselves need challenging and complicating. No, I’m suggesting the opposite: that if we better remember the messier past wars, the histories that can’t be reduced to images or narratives nearly as easily or neatly, it might well make it more possible to remember and engage with our contemporary messy wars as well. And thus, to come back to Fallows’ main point, to remember and engage with the lives and experiences of all those Americans who have participated in those wars—not just in the sweeping and superficial “Support the troops” way, but in all their more complex, messy, and human stories and details.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?
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