Who does our history erase?

Laura Burch

Known as Veteran’s Day in the U.S. since 1954, Armistice Day, Nov. 11, commemo- rates the end of World War I, and honors military veter- ans of all wars. As this year’s anniversary approaches, I remember where I was on this day last year: the muddy banks of the Meuse in northeastern France, rais- ing a glass with 25 members of my extended family to my Uncle Ned’s grandfather, Staff Sergeant Edward “Bomp” J. Roche, 89th Division, 314th Engineers, Company C. After piecing together information from Bomp’s stories and the written history of his division,myuncle,aveteranhimself, organized his family’s return exactly 100 years later to the very spot on the Meuse where Bomp stood at 11:00a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918.

But on this trip, we didn’t just com-memorate my uncle’s family’s per- sonal history. We visited numerous sites, guided by a historian, to learn more about the region and the people affected by the war. The overwhelm- ing impression I had after being in these spaces was of the absolute hor- ror of war, especially trench warfare. But throughout our tour, I was also continually struck by the efforts to diversify visitors’ understandings of who fought, died and mourned in the Great War. The places we vis- ited (built and/or preserved thanks to the generosity of ordinary people, soldiers’ families, governments and wealthy donors) tell the stories of the thousands of French, Moroccan, Senegalese, Somali, British, Austra- lian, Thai, German, American and other soldiers who served and died in the Great War. The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery’s visitors’ center in particular gives faces and names to some of the over 14,000 American soldiers buried there. Almost life- sized portraits of selected soldiers sit at eye-level atop displays with short biographies describing their back- grounds, their ranks, divisions and details of their service. The museum highlights the service of Indigenous Peoples and African Americans, as well as the racism they and their families experienced after the war.

Lieux de mémoire, or realms of memory, is a term made famous by the French historian Pierre Nora. It refers to “the places in which the collective heritage of France was crystallized, the principal lieux, in all senses of the word, in which col- lective memory was rooted, in order to create a vast topology of French symbolism.” Nora’s work invites us to think about the ways the spaces we create to remember historical events shape collective memory and national identity.

I thought of my experiences in the Meuse-Argonne, of French histori- ography and of lieux de mémoire again onSep.11,2019asIlookedatthe Kauke south lawn, which an anony- mous student group turned into a temporary lieux de mémoire for the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks. A small American flag staked into the ground represented each victim. I looked and I wondered: what happens to our collective memory when we homogenize, under the (not uncon- troversial) symbol of the American flag, the diverse identities of 9/11’s victims? What happens to our col- lective memory when we remember only that day’s victims, forgetting about the thousands of victims of bigotry and war from 9/12 onward? What happens to our collective mem- ory when efforts are made to anony- mize the organization(s) behind cam- pus memorials like this one?

Who shapes our spaces/memo- ries? Whose stories do we remem- ber? Whose do we erase? Who do we become through this collective re- membering and forgetting? Is it who we aspire to be?

As a campus promoting global en- gagement, diversity and social justice at the core of its curriculum, our ap- proaches to campus lieux de mémoire should be informed by our answers to questions like these.

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