The Memory of War

Last Sunday was the feast of St. Maroun, a fifth-century Syrian monk who is claimed as the founder of the Maronite church. I was invited to celebrate with Maronite friends from the university. We went to mass at the single Maronite church in Jerusalem, and afterwards, as one does, we had lunch in Jericho.

Over lunch, we talked about President Obama and the Pope, obesity in America and Israel, how close Toronto (where their daughter lives) is to Chicago (where I always say my parents live, since no one has ever heard of Atwood), and the superiority of fruits and vegetables in Jericho over what you can buy in Jerusalem.

We also talked about memory. My friends are both “from” a village in the far north, near the Lebanese border. It’s a familiar story here: in 1948, Israeli soldiers came to the village and told everyone to leave for just a couple days. They may have taken some clothes with them, but left everything else behind—after all, they would be back soon. Sixty-six years later, they are still waiting to return.

The original residents and their descendants are allowed to be buried in the village cemetery, and the living can visit once a year to care for the cemetery. But they cannot enter their homes, and an Israeli kibbutz now owns the village’s farmland. My friends said the kibbutz makes wine from their families’ vineyards, but they will never drink it because they don’t want to pay for what should be theirs. They still long for their land, for a garden to grow their own vegetables—even though they were both born long after their families had left the village behind.

My friends commented that they have had to learn to remember and forget at the same time: to remember their past, but to forget their anger. It’s easy to remember here. On the way to church that morning, I passed by an old guard tower, now a war memorial, on Hebron Road, and one of the vivid blue plaques commemorating one of the battles in the post-1948 battles over Jerusalem just outside the Old City. On my way home that night, I walked past one of the refugee camps in Bethlehem, and crossed over Martyr Street (named for those who died during the most recent Intifada). A number of recent battle sites have been turned into parks, some with installations representing the battles fought there; in the Golan, you can drive through villages destroyed in the Six Day War in 1967; the blue plaques commemorating various battles won by Israeli forces are scattered all over Jerusalem; you can still see the scars of bullets and bombs on houses, buildings, the walls of the Old City. Even the casual visitor can’t escape the wars of the past sixty-six years, let alone the local residents.

Of course, war memorials are not unique to Israel. It’s possible to tour battlegrounds all around the world, and plaques and statues and monuments commemorate the war dead in parks, along highways, even in churches. Memorials like these keep history alive. Historians and schoolchildren and tourists can study the sites to understand the progress of wars, and survivors can honor the dead. I have mixed feelings about war memorials and preserved battlegrounds, though. Why are soldiers commemorated, but not “civilian casualties”? Do these memorials warn of the horror of war, or do they glorify it? Do memorials keep hatred and enmity alive along with the memories of the dead?

The problematic elements of war memorials are exacerbated here, where the “war” is still going on. I have often wondered how those ubiquitous blue plaques in Jerusalem affect the people who pass by. They present a rosy, one-sided picture of battle, summarized in just a few lines focused on the grandeur of victory—they beguile the casual visitor with the romance of the Israeli cause. I can imagine that these plaques would mean something very different for current soldiers; the commemoration of past battles provides an inescapable memento mori, reason to hope—or fear—for their own opportunity to be glorified in the same way. The plaques teach Israeli children, the future soldiers, to glorify those who die for their country: the children are inculcated into a war culture. Local residents, Israeli or Palestinian, might find that these plaques make it impossible to forget the hatred and enmity, to forgive or even simply to move past the wars.

I find these blue plaques very disturbing. They seem so innocuous, just another layer of history in an ancient city. But they only commemorate Israeli victories, and they leave out the necessary context (and after all, context is key). These plaques present a dangerous view of war as glory rather than destruction—and they all too easily become part of the continuing conflict, marking out the “heroes” walking past in their army uniforms, and the “enemies” going to market or work or school. I wish these plaques commemorated cooperation instead: on this site, an Israeli soldier helped an elderly Palestinian woman cross the street; a Palestinian kid gave an Orthodox Jew directions; a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew drank coffee together. Not as thrilling as war, but so much more important.