July 18, 2014

Collective Memory and the Danger of Forgetting

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A few years ago I wrote about the importance of collective memories following the centennial coverage of the sinking of the Titanic. Collective memories are societal-level memories, shared by regularly told stories, and are often events we might have intimate knowledge of even if we weren’t born when they occurred.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the 20th anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s “slow speed chase” and subsequent arrest. Why are these events part of our collective memories?

Among many likely reasons for recalling these anniversaries (not least of which being hours of programming on cable news that need to be filled), each represents a form of triumph. D-Day was a major turning point during World War II, the Civil Rights Act signaled the overt end to Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, and the Simpson chase reaffirmed the power of the justice system, as he eventually turned himself in. (Though Simpson was acquitted of murder charges, he is now serving a 33 year sentence for other crimes).

There are a lot of things we are encouraged to remember, anniversaries that mark the passage of time and allow us to look back at how these high-profile events have created social changes. But what about the things we forget? Some events might be too complicated or messy for packaging into neat documentaries. Even tragic events, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the attacks of September 11, 2001, can yield stories about national unity and resolve. But others are more difficult or diffuse to create into “memory packages,” running the risk of being forgotten.

The Vietnam War is one such event that is difficult to characterize. We might collectively remember the antiwar movement and the response to the war on college campuses, but the history and politics of the event itself is often lost. Most of my students have no idea why the war was fought or what the “domino theory” of communism represented and how it shaped public support for the war.

It is likely that the lack of collective memory around of this war contributes to the many struggles many of its veterans still face decades later. The lack of knowledge about what veterans experienced during the war, the military strategy and the political forces that led to U.S. involvement also makes us more likely to repeat mistakes that were made in the past.

Vietnam is certainly not the only war that has been largely ignored. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, history teacher Christopher L. Doyle writes of how many of his students have virtually no knowledge about World War I. He argues that understanding the complexities of that war—thought at the time to be the war to end all wars—is an integral part of citizenship and a chance to ask difficult questions:

How, for instance, could a relatively inconsequential act of terrorism committed by a teenage extremist from the margins of Europe drag the great powers into conflict? Why did trenches and a pointless war of attrition develop and persist for more than four years on the Western front? How did the bombing of cities, mass conscription, modern propaganda techniques, poison gas and the starvation of civilians by blockade come to be seen as acceptable, even essential, behavior? Were troop mutinies and pacifist activities justified? Were peace advocates heroes? How about official measures to stop them: Were they ethical? Were any higher principles at stake? Did good prevail? And, of course, how did the botched peace result in the rise of the Nazis?

Other complicated parts of history are easily overlooked or oversimplified too. In the past, children regularly died from a host of illnesses like polio, whooping cough, measles, mumps, typhoid, and scarlet fever, to name just a few. Because modern medicine has largely eradicated these diseases through antibiotics or vaccination, most people today—including most doctors—have rarely seen children fall ill from or die of these diseases. It’s tempting to think that we don’t need to worry about these illnesses anymore, and in some cases parents forgo vaccinating their children against them. But when outbreaks do occur, they can still be deadly. Stories of children dying in infancy are rare, fortunately, but collective memories about these deaths can protect others.

Fear of forgetting is part of what drives those who work to create collective memories. Human atrocities like genocide and slavery are part of collective memory in part to prevent such things from happening again.

We might ask in addition to what becomes part of our collective memory, what does not, and why? What are the potential consequences of forgetting?


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