War and Memory
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War and Memory
From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, Randall Fuller. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier's Experience in Iraq, Stacey Peebles. Cornell University Press, 2011.
War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914, Cynthia Wachtell. Louisiana State University Press, 2010.
Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900, Martin Griffin. University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

Going to war entails an imperative to remember: Remember the Spartans! Remember the Alamo! Remember the Maine! Yet the exhortation to remember on the part of those who issue the call to arms is coupled with an implicit injunction to forget. War cries command us to forget the world as we know it, to erase history, to agree that nothing will ever again be the same. This rhetoric surfaced in the US in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, but war has always extended a double-edged invitation to memory. Alexander the Great reportedly envied Achilles's good fortune in having a Homer to immortalize his battlefield exploits, yet The Odyssey discloses the ghost of Achilles swearing he would rather be an anonymous "dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive" on earth than a celebrated king of dead heroes in Elysium (557).1 Alexander might have countered that this was a boast only the hero of the Iliad could afford to make.

The Greek name for what Alexander wanted and Achilles got is kleos, usually translated as "glory" or "fame"—literally, "what is heard" (and, so runs the implied promise, what might continue to resound across the centuries). The ancient medium of kleos was the epic and, to a lesser extent, the lyric odes of Pindar. An emblematic example of its potency is the despairing hero's redemptive encounter with his own story engraved on the temple walls at Carthage in book one of Virgil's Aeneid: "This fame," Aeneas tells his miserable fellow exiles as he gazes on images of Trojan battles, "[i]nsures some kind of refuge" (630-31). It is the recognition that his story has become a legend, "now known throughout the world" (620), that gives "hope" to Aeneas "for the first time" (612). [End Page 864]

Faith in the consolations of commemoration materializes in various forms in the Western tradition. One of its more celebrated incarnations is the bombastic promise of enduring fame with which Shakespeare's cynical Henry V motivates his outnumbered, demoralized troops before the battle of Agincourt: "This story shall the good man teach his son, / And Crispin Crispian shall n'er go by / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be remembered" (4.3.56-59). It can also be heard, in attenuated form, in a context as different as the New Yorker correspondent A. J. Liebling's account of the enthusiastic reception he received from the soldiers he accompanied to Omaha Beach in 1944: "A man who thinks he may have to be a hero is consoled by the thought that his friends may read about it" (828). In other words, even a reluctant, resigned, or temporary soldier might still take some measure of gratification at the prospect of a magazine column's circulation of his kleos.

Liebling's knowing tone betrays an elemental modernity. In the aftermath of World War I and of Freud's association of that "terrible war" with an increase in cases of traumatic neurosis, the relationship between war and memory that had dominated the Western tradition for millennia was essentially redefined. The current definition of post-traumatic stress disorder in the DSM-IV does not differ so very much from Freud's account of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920): "A condition has long been known and described which occurs after severe mechanical concussions, railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life," Freud writes; "it has been given the name of 'traumatic neurosis'. The terrible war which has just ended gave rise to a great number of illnesses of this kind" (10). Subsequent reconsiderations and repudiations of Freud and his theories notwithstanding, the conceptual...