How America Remembers: An Introduction

The Vietnam Memorial Plaza in Chicago (Ilford Delta 400) © Matthew Friedman

He came down the stairs on the right: a man in his late-60s, or early 70s, passing slowly, with a slight stoop. He passed along the long stone slab bearing the names of the fallen from right to left, from West to East, from 1973 back in time, pausing briefly two or three times before stopping before the names for 1967. He stood there, lost in thought, for several minutes before turning and exiting up the stairs to the left.

I was on the Chicago Riverwalk to photograph the Vietnam Memorial Plaza, moving outward in widening circles. The man had waited until I was as far back as possible, giving him a few minutes of privacy in a highly trafficked public space, alone with the names etched in stone. Or at least one name in particular; I went down to the wall after his exit. He had left behind a folded photocopy of an obituary from 1967, for one of the engraved names

That scrap pf paper marked the intersection of numerous narratives with history and geography: the cold, black-and-white newspaper report of a death from a half-century past, a personal memory of the life cut short, the enormity of the loss of thousands of American servicemen and women, the conflicted emotions of patriotism, guilt, anger, pride, that are still evoked in the memory of Vietnam. The war was a historical event – a fact of history – and the memorial is at a specific location – the convergence of coordinates – in the physical world. But what happened at that moment was more profound than place and history.

Public memorials, like Chicago’s Vietnam Memorial Plaza, are places where the pasts of memory and history meet. As Pierre Nora writes in Realms of Memory, history and memory are, in many respects, opposed. “Memory is life, always embodied in living societies, and as such in permanent evolution,” he says. “History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.”[1] Yet what is, and what is no longer are inextricably linked, memory and history are mutually constitutive. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again,” Walter Benjamin observes. And that image – and the seizing of it – is memory.[2]

Memory structures history. It determines which events, people, values and ideas are included in the historical narrative, and elides others. Consequently, a public memorial is a profound, permanent, articulation of power. Often built and maintained with public funds, occupying public space in heavily trafficked, or economically important locations like the National Mall in Washington, or the heart of New York City’s financial district, they stand in the way of passersby, and enjoin us to remember. Memorials inscribe memory, and therefore structure history, physically and geographically. They interpellate space and individuals in a communal narrative:

A memorial exhorts us to remember, but to remember in a specific way.

In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Jay Winter observes that the war memorials constructed in Europe after the First World War – the first great period of modern European memorial building – were initially intended to be public places of private grief. But once “the moment of initial bereavement had passed, once the widows had remarried, once the orphans had grown up and moved away, once the mission of veterans to ensure that the scourge of war would not return had faded or collapsed, then the meaning of war memorials was bound to change.”[3] Indeed, a subsidiary meaning of these memorials, as “sites of symbolic exchange, where the living admit a degree of indebtedness to the fallen which can never be fully discharged,” became dominant.[4]

The novelist and poet Victor Hugo had cast that exchange in nationalist terms in 1872, following the disastrous defeat of the French Empire in the Franco-Prussian War, and the birth of the Third French Republic. In his poem “Nos Morts” – “Our Dead” – he reflects on the war’s human cost. He writes that dead of 1870-1871 “lie in a terrible and lonely field” stained with their blood, before rising in a vision that Abel Gance would evoke cinematically in his 1919 film J’Accuse! Yet, Hugo’s poem is not an accusation; it is an expression of nationalist belonging and debt. He concludes, “O morts pour mon pays, je suis votre envieux.” – “Oh my nation’s dead, I envy you.”[5]

The memorial practices of the Great War explicitly mobilized “nos morts,” and “our glorious dead” in a powerful expression of national belonging.[6] There is no “nos morts” without a “nous.” We can only commemorate “our glorious dead” by first defining who we are. Thus, pubic memorials perform a kind of dialectical alchemy, interpellating the community in memory to structure its history, while authorizing the very existence of that community by its history.

This has been at the root of the controversies over Confederate Civil War memorials in the United States over the last few years, as Karen L. Cox noted in the Washington Post this summer. The fact that torch-bearing American neo-Fascists are willing and able – in substantial numbers – to march, and perhaps even kill to defend the public commemoration of a failed, treasonous, white supremacist rebellion says a great deal about American history. That those memorials were constructed at all, and maintained with public funds, in public spaces for decades, if not a century, says much more.

It is not really remarkable that controversy has erupted over these memorials; what is remarkable is that it has only erupted now. It marks the breakdown of a national consensus on citizenship and belonging that had existed since the late-19th century. As David Blight notes in Race and Reunion, the process of national reconciliation following the Civil War, the recreation of national belonging, was founded upon the production of a “sentimental romance” that “imposed unity and continuity” on the war.[7] Gilded Age patriotism and citizenship recognized an equivalence of heroes. Men in blue and grey uniforms marched together at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “They were at once the embodiment of Civil War nostalgia,” Blight notes, “symbols of a lost age of heroism, and the fulfilment of that most human of needs—civic and spiritual reconciliation.”[8]

But this could only happen by the elision of African American slavery, and thus of African Americans, from historical memory and the national narrative. F.L. Barnett ruefully noted the absence of any mention of African Americans – let alone African Americans themselves in anything other than menial positions – at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition: “Theoretically open to all Americans, the Exposition practically is, literally and figuratively, a ‘White City,’ in the building of which the Colored American was allowed no helping hand, and in its glorious success he has no share.”[9]

The memorials to the dead of the defeated side of the War of the Rebellion (as the Civil War is known in official US government documents) explicitly exclude African Americans from a racialized American citizenship widely embraced throughout much of American history. How else to explain the Confederate war memorials in Franklin, OH and at the Finn’s Point National Cemetery in Pennsville, NJ?

The white nationalists and klansmen at Charlottesville were defending a lost privilege – racialized, white citizenship – articulated, indeed embodied in Confederate memorials. That they have become, instead, embodiments of an intolerable memory, a violent racism inscribed in our public spaces and body politic, is evidence of an important dimension of public memorials: They “have had no fixed meaning, immutable over time,” Winter writes. “Like many other public objects, they manifest what physicists, in an entirely different context, call a ‘half-life’, a trajectory of decomposition, a passage from the active to the inert.”[10]

Because their meanings shift, public memorials are enormously rich, if emotionally and politically fraught, historical texts. They exist not just at the juncture of history, public, and private memories, narratives of power and belonging, but at many different registers of intentionality and interpretation. They are physical, geographical intertexts that mark coordinates in physical space, but in shifting maps of intersectionality. Public memorials are both lenticular, presenting different views from different perspectives, and multidimensional, existing in a cultural space defined by history, memory and identity.

And they are everywhere in America. When I first came to the United States from Canada over a decade ago, I was struck by the ubiquity of public commemoration. We have memorials in Canada, of course, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Most communities of any size have a cenotaph, or war memorial, and my high school and university had plaques bearing the names of classmates I never knew who had died in the Great War, World War II, and Korea. But these were always collective memorials, for “War” as a universal experience, and an abstraction.

The United States marks public memory differently. The traumas of war, but also of disasters, tragedies, and loss in peacetime, are very specific, and very particular. There are eight public memorials, commemorating five different traumas, within one mile of my home in northern New Jersey. If I expand that radius by only two more miles, the number jumps to over a dozen. To walk in my neighborhood, or to go for a morning run in the nearby state park, is to continually interrogate the shifting meanings of American history, community, and citizenship; the American landscape itself interpellates all of us, immigrant and native-born alike, in a conversation with memory.


The Memorial Project aims to intervene in, or at least to document that conversation. It asks, “how does America remember?” – while recognizing that there is no single answer to that question. There can’t be; we remember differently at different times, and we enter the historical narratives that our memories seek to structure at different points. Yet we locate ourselves in that multidimensional space through the act of memory, at locations where we are enjoined to remember.

My methodology combines both a historical analysis of the numerous memorial sites in the United States with documentary photography. Public memorials are visual and spatial artifacts that we encounter as we traverse the physical geography of our towns and public spaces. While they are vastly rich texts, it is a richness that often beggars textual ekphrasis. And throughout this project, I have employed the medium of black and white film – itself an artifact of history, but also the conveyance of public memory, from the image of the last helicopter to leave Saigon in 1975, to the face in the obituary of a young man who died in 1967, but who is remembered.


[1] Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 3.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illumitations (New York: Schocken, 1968), 255.

[3] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 98.

[4] Winter, 94.

[5] Victor Hugo. “Nos Morts,” in L’Anné Terrible (Paris : Michel Lévy Frères, 1872), 94.

[6] Winter, 205.

[7] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2001) 4.

[8] Blight, 8.

[9] Ida B. Wells and F.L. Barnett, The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893), 79.

[10] Winter, 98.

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