Memory and Forgetting


Most of us understand only in an abstract way that war means violence. May our numbers grow. But isn’t one of the responsibilities of citizenship, especially in a country that so often goes to war, to make that understanding as visceral as we can without having experienced it? We have seen the photographs of the dead, going back 150 years to the first images of soldiers killed in the Civil War, and museums like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum educate us about the horror of genocide and the importance of never forgetting. We offer in this issue a startling essay by Robert Hahn that follows a similar imperative in a W. H. Auden poem, to “find what occurred at Linz,” the Austrian hometown of Adolf Hitler. At Linz, the horror began within days of the 1938 Anschluss and continued until Allied troops arrived in 1945. There, memory and forgetting still wage a battle that Hahn only reluctantly begins to understand if not condone.

Abu Ghraib, despicable as it was, was not Auschwitz; neither are the black sites where we outsourced our torture. Violence has its scale, and torture isn’t genocide. But our obligation to understand and condemn violence should not have a scale, and we seem to be losing our own battle between memory and forgetting as those who ordered, abetted, or performed torture in the war on terror go unpunished. Further down the scale of violence are the random acts soldiers commit without sanction, the crimes or near-crimes that happen when we put groups of young armed men in tense, dangerous situations for prolonged periods. Our Marines urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters is a recent example, easy to condemn, hard to understand. But shouldn’t we try to understand?

Two pieces in this issue, one fiction, one nonfiction, help us to do just that. Nathaniel Rich’s Rashomon-like short story, “Kalawar,” in which an American intelligence agent kills an Afghan informant, makes visceral the cultural confusion in which Americans operate in a place like Afghanistan. Neil Shea’s “A Gathering Menace” tells of his experiences as an embedded reporter with a platoon of soldiers chasing insurgents in central Afghanistan. Shea does not tell the usual war stories, of firefights, of killing and being killed. He focuses on smaller acts of violence, a dog that has been shot , “house searches [that] had become demolition parties,” the “clatter of brutality and homoerotic jokes.” As the tension grows, Shea focuses on one alpha sergeant who rouses those around him to mischief and worse. Near the climax of the piece, Shea, who has been covering Afghanistan and Iraq for years, can allude to the case of the urinating Marines as not “too surprising. … Beginner’s foolishness.” In most contexts, his remark would be offensive. Here, we begin to understand.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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