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Friday, April 22, 2005

the soldiers in the trenches

The anti-Japanese riots in China – however they might have been instigated by the government for its own purposes – demonstrate the attraction of historical traumas. Attraction, that is, as a site for ceremonies of memory, for obsession, for re-enactment, for anxiety, and for that element of forgetting that goes into what one chooses, at any particular moment, to imbue with the energy of recollection. Memory has an opportunity cost.

There’s a review, in History and Theory (Winter, 2005) of UNDERSTANDING THE GREAT WAR, by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker. According to the author of the review, Ann Louis Shapiro, who teaches at the New School, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have taken it upon themselves to “demolish” the historiography of World War I. Underneath the rhetorical heat, that means two things: a., expanding the focus of the war to the civilian populations that were entrained in it – not as spectators but as participants; and b., understanding how the soldier in the trench became the ‘protagonist’ of the war.

According to Shapiro:

The architecture of this narrative, with its iconic anecdotes and mythologized references, was laid in place early in the postwar period. In part, the rapid embrace of a relatively codified narrative was the result of the popularity and authority of war novels that provided canonical understanding of chaotic and unprecedented, even unassimilable, events. In France, Le Feu by Henri Barbusse, published in 1916, and Les Croix de bois by Roland Dorgelès, published in 1918, provided templates for interpreting the war for soldiers and civilians alike. Le Feu was read aloud in military hospitals and in the trenches (apparently even
among German soldiers), and soldiers wrote to Barbusse to tell him that his book had helped them “to see anew and feel more clearly their own memories,” noting that it was the novel that allowed them to see the war fully,3 while a mother whose sons were at the front wrote to say that “it seemed as if her child’s very
life had been made to pass before her eyes.”4 Perhaps most telling, the military doctor/novelist Georges Duhamel noted in 1933 that “if his former patients were to read today their own stories, they would rarely recognize them,” having deliberately adapted their memories to conform to the version presented by Duhamel in his war fiction: “If one is offered a good mirror,” wrote Duhamel, “one will not refuse.”5 Such war novels, including Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, were, in effect, fiction/memoirs, testimonies of former soldiers that served both as personal exorcisms and documents that ostensibly might provide a corrective to discredited official accounts. They reflect, collectively, a pervasive belief that only eyewitnesses could apprehend and convey the reality of a war that was, in its details, ineffable and beyond words—a reality that emerged exclusively from “that great confessional” of the trenches.”

Of course, there is something a little confused about a process that is labeled postwar and that begins in 1916 – which is midwar. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the image of the “mirror” does have a distorting effect upon memory – a mirror registers images, while memory seeks to grasp sequences. Or at least sequences are given to memory to grasp. That the sequences have no particular pre-determined aspect is what must be overthrown by art and politics and societal norm, which all reject that degree of freedom.

What is interesting, here, is what one discovers if the soldier in the trench isn’t the protagonist – if he is a part of a larger collective that is not primally divided between soldier and civilian. This is where the war was experienced as “the matrix event of the twentieth century”, to quote Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker. So far, so good. However, we wonder whether we really require a demolition job to achieve this end. We especially find the introduction of dubious categories from therapy suspicious:

“Because of what was effectively a “hyperamnesia” with regard to the trench soldiers and a “general amnesia” with regard to everyone else, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker argue, historians have been unable to move past persistent blind spots that have occluded understanding of the causes of the war, its duration, and its cultural/historical consequences.”

This sounds all to much like repressed memory syndrome, about which the best one can say is that it gave various therapists a chance to release their own nightmares upon the already scribbled upon tabula of their various unfortunate patients.

We are on firmer ground when, dispensing with the amnesia vocabulary, we get to the positive acts and excitements of the war:

“The approach of Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker is synthetic, drawing upon research mostly from the past ten years, organizing and reassembling it so as to demonstrate the consequences of the particular kind of warfare that emerged in the Great War. More specifically, they argue that the most significant effects of
the war are revealed when the experiences of civilians are fully restored to the narrative in all their detail. By examining the varied experiences of civilian populations, they seek to draw new meanings from a familiar history and reassess the ways in which the war bled in to the history of succeeding decades. They
divide their study into three sections—violence, crusade, mourning—the topics most notably underexamined in the dominant narrative of soldiering. Foregrounding these themes, they draw several large conclusions: that the radical extension of violence to civilians and others—in short the brutalization of behavior during the war—set the template for succeeding totalitarian regimes; that soldiers
and civilians shared, with religious fervor, a culture of war that presaged its outbreak and caused whole populations to acquiesce for years in a pointless slaughter; and that the scale of death and suffering produced a pervasive but unacknowledged experience of “interminable mourning” that was transmitted
across generations, with (only vaguely specified) effects into the postwar period, especially among the defeated nations.”

This schema (save the interminable mourning, a controvertible unit of analysis) could very well be extended to modern Chinese history. The imbrication of civilian and soldier was institutionalized in China, via the Communist party, to a degree that was matched only by Nazi Germany. But in the case of China, the war with Japan was never, psychologically, dealt with – it was merely abruptly replaced by a devouring class war, and Mao’s ferocious attempt to preserve a peasant-socialist autarky.

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