I am conflicted about war. To me some wars seem justified; others do not. I am not conflicted, however, about war memorials. Whenever I travel, I’m drawn to war memorials. Some are monumental like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and others are modest like the simple obelisks with inscribed names found in small villages throughout Canada and Europe.
I’ve heard the claim that by building monuments and setting aside a day each May to memorialize our war dead we celebrate war. I don’t agree. War memorials make us confront a very uncomfortable reality—that the cost of war is very high, not only for those who died and suffered, but also for their families.
Phil Ochs’s lyrics always play through my head when I stand before a war memorial. He wrote:
“It's always the old to lead us to the warOchs’s question hangs in the air whenever conflict is possible—is a war and the death of soldiers and civilians worth it? That’s a question worth pondering before we enter another war. To negotiate the future, we need to reflect upon the past.
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all.”
Walking the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, you’ll encounter a collection of war memorials that bear witness to the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers and their families. Some of the memorials may upset you, but they will also impel you to reflect. “I do not need to be told to remember,” writes Veteran Brian Humphreys. Many of us, however, do need to be told to remember.
The Minnesota Humanities Center has been helping all of us remember through its many programs focused on Veterans. Veterans’ Voices brings together Veterans in dialogue with each other and with literature through shared inquiry. I was privileged to write curricula focused on the memorials at the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, which are available to all at no cost via the Humanities Center’s website.
The humanities enable all of us to engage with the meaningful questions of our lives—why we remember the past, why we go to war, how we, as a society, treat our Veterans. Through civil discourse and a shared examination of literature, history, and the arts, together, we can tackle fundamental questions and begin to understand each other.
This Memorial Day, I encourage you to listen to Veterans’ voices. Take the time to visit a war memorial, drive along Victory Memorial Parkway, listen to the strain of ”Taps,” visit a museum, read a poem or book, or watch a film. Pausing to remember by engaging with arts, literature, and history can help us to build a more thoughtful future.