arch-peace editorials

18 June 2006

Monuments to Peacefulness

Monuments to Peacefulness
By Matthew Bond

When you walk into the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C. in the USA you are met by a huge US flag. This flag, one of seemingly thousands visible all over the US capital, was draped over the damaged section of the Pentagon (headquarters for the USA’s military organisations) in the wake of the attack on 11th September 2001. It is an appropriate introduction to the museum, a significant section of which is devoted to chronicling wars and battles in which the USA has been involved, right from the days of the violent separation from Great Britain to the current invasion of Iraq. Outside the museum Washington is full of monuments remembering – glorifying? – US involvements in wars around the globe. No doubt the line between ‘remembering’ and ‘glorifying’ war is broad and ill-defined since so much is determined by the perspective of those who view the monuments and the events related to them. This in turn highlights the pivotal importance of how we educate ourselves about the wars waged on our behalves.

Figure 1: Smithsonian Museum of American History. Source: University of San Diego

The Smithsonian museums house a wonderful collection of art and artefacts and, providing free access to the public, are very well patronised (the Air and Space Museum declares itself the most visited museum in the world). Visitors are poorly served, however, by the Museum of American History’s display on the USA’s involvement in war, not least in its misleading title: ‘Americans at War – the Price of Freedom’. Looking at the material about the War of Independence, one could be forgiven for thinking that this involved a group of American patriots repulsing a force of foreign, British occupation. There is little sense that this was just two groups of foreign invaders fighting amongst each other. Whilst it is possible to view the material presented from the perspective of sedition, treason and, dare it be said, terrorism, such an interpretation would rely upon visitors bringing that perception with them to the museum. Rather, the display on the War of Independence sets up the idea of killing for a just and noble cause which is echoed throughout the Americans at War section of the museum. Having walked through scenes from the Civil War, Great and Second World Wars and the Korean War, one arrives at the Vietnam War. The displays there identify some of the controversy surrounding that particular war and show that after years of killing some people of the time thought that it was bad idea to be involved. There is little cause to linger with those thought however, because visitors are led directly into a display about the terrorist attack on New York and Washington. Familiar images of violent destruction render the need for further thought unnecessary. No questions are asked as to how and why this might have constituted an act of war. Neither do the curators see the need to make explicit any rationale for including these images in the Americans at War exhibition. Rather the material links visitors effortlessly into displays on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, seeking to justify these acts of aggression without giving rise to any awkward questions. The exhibition ends with a video showing modern day soldiers engaged in the business of shooting at ‘foreigners’ around the world in the promotion of US interests. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is read aloud over these video images just in case the pictures were confusing – “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...” Hence, visitors who might have missed the museum’s message and started to wonder whether all this killing was worthwhile were given a reminder as they left. The ultimate sacrifice for personal freedom – who could argue with that?

A few hundred metres away is another Smithsonian museum, the Museum of the American Indian which has a remarkably different approach. It presents history not as a collection of facts but as a point of view – a point of view which changes with time, is influenced by the context in which it is written and by the ideas of those who wrote it. Visitors to this museum are explicitly invited to question the material and the point of view presented. They are asked to ponder, interact with, challenge, reflect upon and learn from what they see. If the Smithsonian wanted to promote peace through its display on war, the approach taken by the Museum of the American Indian should have been adopted for the American at War exhibit. Visitors should have been invited to consider the patriotism, heroism, courage, sacrifice, greed, selfishness, narrow mindedness, aspirations – in short, the full humanity – of those killing and being killed in the many wars waged by the USA as part of its ‘price of freedom’.

Figure 2: Photo by TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Is it likely, however, that a country which has become accustomed to waging a ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’, and to which its economy is thoroughly enmeshed, will place much value on the notion of peace? If public space in the national capital is anything to go by, the answer appears to be no. Monuments to all manner of warriors, battles and wars abound, from tributes to 19th century South American ‘liberators’ to memorials to the Korean and Vietnam excursions, many proudly bearing the US flag. Public space in the ‘capital of the free world’ (as an radio advertisement on the United Airlines flight into Washington declared it to be) is populated by monuments which glorifying killing and waging of war. Combined with the current security arrangements – armed police seemingly on every corner, security guards and metal detectors at each monument and government building, police sirens wailing throughout the day – the startling, overall impression is of totalitarianism.

How ought we struggle to promote peace in this type of environment? Certainly it is difficult to celebrate or commemorate peace in a similar manner to the way we celebrate war, since peace is usually marked by the end of whatever war happened to precede it. It is even harder to imagine governments funding monuments to wars and conflicts avoided. That, however, is a struggle worth pursuing for those of us concerned about peace. If we are to build peaceful cultures, nationally and internationally, we need to find new ways of promoting and celebrating peace and peacefulness. These we can add to our protests against war and conflict.
Celebrating peace creatively is perhaps easier to do outside the USA, mired as it is in its current ‘war’ on a stateless and next-to-invisible enemy. Before peace can be commemorated there, perhaps protesting against war will remain the priority. For those of us unfortunate enough to live in countries which support, or are subject to, the USA’s military aggression in its pursuit of unipolar status, let’s redouble our protests against these wars. While we protest, perhaps those lucky enough to live in countries leading the pursuit of peace will show us new ways to celebrate it in our public spaces and national museums.

The author is member of Architects for Peace and travelled recently to Washington DC. He is currently working with Oxfam Australia on their Humanitarian Response Program in Timor Leste.


filter kaapi said...

well-written n more importantlt thought-provoking.
but i hav a feelin dat d war-museum was presentd in dat way cos it is generally believed dat if u question war n its ethics, u r doin injustice to d soldiers who fought n lost their lives.
though dis can b contradicted by statin dat not-wagin wars can save d lives of thousands be it d soldiers or innocent countrymen in other countries but then "power" is a blind weapon.

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