Days Gone By, Days to Come: Monuments and the Politics of Peace

Monument le Mort-Homme, erected at one of the most hotly contested sectors during the 1916 Battle of Verdun.
Monument le Mort-Homme, erected at one of the most hotly contested sectors during the 1916 Battle of Verdun.

By Matt LaRoche ’17

Monuments may or may not represent the facts of a battle. They are, after all, post-facto by design. They may or may not have anything to do with the specifics of a conflict or its combatants. Many make a statement focusing not on an aspect of the suffering of a past war, but on an aspect of the peace that the survivors and their descendants hope to foster. They are not just memorial—born out of memory—but also political. Just as the future is fully malleable, so too is what we tell ourselves about the past. The images and ideas that a monument invokes are often designed, and how they are designed can reveal much about the builders and their aspirations.

For example, I once wrote a piece on the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ monument here at Gettysburg. Rather than reiterate, let it suffice to say that it caught my eye because it was unusual. A granite tree for a monument? Even one shattered by shellfire is unorthodox. Embossed with a metal dove and a nest full of lively chicks seems even odder. I would argue that in building that unorthodox monument, the regiment’s survivors hoped to make a statement. They hoped not just to draw attention to themselves—not just to claim fame with a physical mark. They wanted to tie their toil and tribulation to something positive rather than negative. Rather than dwell on the bloody math of men lost and yards won, they attached redemptive imagery to their physical mark on Earth.

That is telling. To me, it speaks volumes about the need for those who witness war to heal and, in time, aspire to more beautiful things. But other monuments convey other meanings. Perhaps one of the most striking monuments on Earth stands over the battlefields at Verdun. At the aptly named La Fôret du Mort-Homme, which was one of the most hotly contested sectors during the 1916 battle, there is a breathtaking statue of a skeletal Death, standing unbowed, bearing the flag of France up above the field below. Despite the doom and gloom about the actual sculpture, the inscription is resoundingly lively—and defiant. “ILS N’ONT PAS PASSÉ,” “they did not pass,” the fulfillment of a promise uttered by French General Robert Nivelle before the battle was decided.

"Le Mort-Homme: Monument élevé à la mémoire des soldats de la 69e division." Wikimedia Commons.
“Le Mort-Homme: Monument élevé à la mémoire des soldats de la 69e division.” French postcard c. 1930.
Wikimedia Commons.

To immortalize this statement in stone requires a certain kind of politics. First, one’s side must have won, or at least have sufficiently won the following peace to earn the right to say such a phrase. Secondly, one’s side must have no qualms about identifying its enemy, and standing opposed to it—must make no bones about poking the foe with a stick for the rest of time. The nation must be sure it was in the right. Post-WWI France clearly had its politics aligned as such for such proud, defiant memory to mark its memorials.

Thus, it is interesting that one does not see such a proud, defiant monument at the High Water Mark, nor at any other line the Union Army toed and held during the Civil War. Certainly, the lack of such a monument during the veterans’ lifetime speaks volumes to the desire for national reconciliation in the post-war years, and perhaps a need for soldiers to bury the hatchet. But 150 years on, such a monument might aid in the new chapters of the Civil War that will be written throughout our lifetimes. A monument that identifies the Confederacy as an aggressor and the champion of an undesirable cause—one with slavery and a disregard for the democratic process squarely in its heart—might cause a stir able to shock average Americans out of their assumptions of the war; that it is over, that it was a brother’s fight and not a war, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, where “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest” that clearly “was somehow the cause of the war,” or that it was a war that saved one of the last bastions of democracy worldwide at the time. A bold monument that calls a spade a spade—and the Confederate cause an enemy of freedom and democracy—might finally force this country to reexamine just what the war was all about, and what the next 150 years of peace should look like. Such an admission might affect a great change.


Sources:

Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address.” 4 March 1865. Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington 1789 to Richard Milhous Nixon 1969. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1969. Accessed at <http://www.historytools.org/sources/lincoln-second.pdf>

Stamp, Gavin. “France: Monument le Mort-Homme.” Twentieth Century Society. <http://www.c20society.org.uk/war-memorials/france-monument-le-mort-homme/>

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