Shaping US memory

/ 8 September 2007

Ryan has an excellent reflection up at his blog on his visit to the the memorial to the USS Arizona (a ship that sunk during the Pearl Harbor raid). He eloquently wonders what the memorial is actually accomplishing — and in his wondering gives us all reason to think about how historical remembrance, how memorials in particular, shape current realities.

"As the film began, it immediately caught my attention. As the narrator was describing the attack, she described how ‘we were attacked’ and how Japan was a growing, greedy, imperialist power. Given that the theater was about 50% Japanese tourists, I began to wonder who “we” was supposed to be. Certainly a US naval base was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941 and it could even be called a military disaster for the US. However, Pearl Harbor is located in Hawaii which was not a US State at the time but rather a US Territory, having been annexed by the US in the late 1800s following a coup of the Hawaiian monarchy which led by business men and supported by US troops. It seemed to me to be a little disingenuous to speak of Japanese imperialism and to forget to mention how the US came to have a naval base in Hawaii in the first place.

So why then is there a memorial for the Arizona anyway? Why memorialize a symbol of a US defeat? And why is it important visitors’ voices should be hushed if used at all? It seems that the Arizona memorial is a holy site, a shrine for US civil religion, a way to develop and answer to the question: Who are we? For a nation that includes millions of people from all over the world, and spans thousands of miles, the memorial is a way memorializing who “we” are."

So who are "we" anyway? And why are we so afraid to look at ourselves, and history, squarely in the face? Why must we turn so often to the kind of ideological manipulation that serves only to advance certain powerful interests, rather than to come to grips with our human brokenness, and need for healing?