During our visit to the special archives, there was one phrase that struck me harder than all the other objects we encountered; it produced a very weird ambivalence in me, because I found myself oscillating between irritation at the group of words, as it seemed to be bringing up an issue that had little relation to the events that took place in 2007, and catching a glimpse of a profoundly disturbing framework in our country that needs to be addressed now more than ever (maybe I am a bit hyperbolic here, but I think it worth the risk). The phrase to which I refer is “why not have a wall for the 3000 soldiers too?”
At first I was reactionary, quite offended at the need to bring up an unrelated issue to the grief that was being so felt at the time. It was like someone talking about their dead relative at their friend’s funeral. I soon realized this was an inadequate analogy to whom ever’s little objection on Virginia Tech’s wall of grief and mourning. The phrase’s placement simply would not mean what it does without the writer having accepted the risk of vexing the mourning of others. A political statement is only ever effective if it ruptures.
One wonders what source of pain that person harbored to express their sense of neglect in such a way. Could they have been a soldier who lost a friend or perhaps a mother who lost a son? Maybe the writer was a victim of rape, and although their body survives, they never really came back from the betrayal they endured in Afganistan at the hands of their comrades. Death visits us in many forms, but only one we don’t experience.
At any rate it seems to me deducible from the relationship between spontaneous memorials dedicated to civilians killed in their everyday activities and those to dead soldiers that they do not mean the same thing. Spontaneous memorials arise much like the events that lead to their emergence: unexpectedly. My use of the term “unexpectedly” here has deeper meaning than just surprise. The system of civilization itself precludes from our everyday symbolic network of relations that terrorist attacks will happen; we cannot expect them, or our days would be banal nightmares (perhaps they are now). And my point is not that we know our civilization creates the conditions for so called American massacres. This is common knowledge. Our symbolic framework is such that our proliferation of domestic firearms is symbolically inscribed into the maintenance of our safety. The point is that violence such as that which was seen on April 16th 2007 was not part of normal violence. It was not inscribed into the corporeality of United States civilization.
What I mean by normal violence is the kind that registers on our collective psyche as necessary or at least expected in relation to the activities the victims were taking part in or even by nature of who they are. Many kinds of people might be included under this category. As brutal as it sounds, I think we must admit black male deaths are by and large included in this category, although this is maybe changing. Black males are expected to be more violent, their bodies more open to violent forces. It is common knowledge the white understanding of black males assumes them criminal in nature, in their activities. This brings me back to the phrase left by the bereft soldier or perhaps parent of the soldier. There seems to be some special value held to spontaneous memorials and shrines that is not conferred on those institutionalized and reserved for soldiers because of the nature of soldiers and their activities.
It is not to say that spontaneity does not happen in institutionalized war memorials; the Vietnam memorial is an example of such a one where people leave seemingly random objects for the dead. However, there is at least an emphasis on claiming and reappropriating space in spontaneous memorials that is not present in institutionalized memorials for soldiers. Their (war memorials) very mode of institutionalization, for me, provides the first clue that soldier death is inscribed into the fabric of our civilization in a special way: it’s expected. We know going to war will provide us with dead soldier bodies. Soldiers go to war for the defense of our country’s interests, its national security, and the safety of its citizens. Soldier death is normal. There is always talk of duty and honor when it comes to soldiers. These terms lay justification over the effects of illegitimate institutional behavior.
Is this not the inverse of those institutionalized memorials for civilians? Soldier memorials frame the deaths they memorialize as having been given. A civilian victim figure never gives its life. These frameworks start to break down, however, when a political rupture happens such as that which I think happened with the little complaint of neglect on the wall of mourning. It hits the point at which the value we Americans put on death becomes hypocritical. Take the fact that a United States soldier is an employee under contract. This is what gave Trump the ability to say “he knew what he was getting into” to a bereaved mother of a soldier KIA. In an incredibly brutal way, Trump was right: dying for duty is impossible in our armed forces today. Our soldiers are informed and give their consent. I think this also gets at what the complaint on the VT wall of mourning was about.
It seems to me that there may be a profound hypocrisy and injustice to war memorials. First, the claims to duty and honor are clearly not possible, since duty and honor are more closely associated with conscription rather than a job with a paycheck. Second, war memorials valorize, in general, the collective activities of our country’s endeavors abroad, activities which are usually regarded as heinous by those whose countries we invade. An exception to this trend is found in the Vietnam memorial, which is maybe completely devoid of value judgements. The spontaneous monuments we have briefly studied seem to tap into an energy that at least starts to participate in both mourning and the raising of issues central to the understanding of why the event/events took place. This is what the complaint was about. Those surviving the death of their beloved child-soldier know the betrayal given to them by our government, and an institutional monument is insufficient. It wreaks of hypocrisy, to claim honor in despicable acts. Perhaps spontaneous monuments need to change or grow in scope to include more general critiques of culture, while maintaining a certain aim or gravitational pull. One would not criticize the beef industry on a wall of mourning for a church shooting.