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History

I enjoyed this week’s reading on the significance of the Buffalo Bill mythology to constructing a communal memory of the American past, and particularly the Old West. The article argues that, both for good and bad, people tend to romanticize the past, and those ‘memories’ can become the basis for co-creation of an often imaginary past. Of course, our nostalgia for the past isn’t always based in apocrypha, and it tends to be stronger when it isn’t. At any rate, it seems clear that our reality today is not as direct a consequence of the objective past as is usually assumed; broad swaths of our modern identity are assembled through the filter of a common subjective past.

It’s important to critically consider artifacts from the past in order to prevent prevailing sentiments from overshadowing actual history. The reading tells us that it’s often inaccurate to depict these accounts of history as “revisionist”, though they may often be simply misunderstood.

Pictured here is button from my grandfather’s dress uniform. The Essayons (French, meaning “let us try”) button is an emblem of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in which my grandfather served during World War II. I heard very little of this while he was alive. What I heard after he died was that he had served in the Battle of Anzio, during which period he refused to carry his service rifle, preferring to die than to kill.

In the modern American conception, World War II is often blithely remembered as a victory, of ‘us’ over ‘them’, of freedom over oppression, of good over evil. While it may have been all of those things, I think too often that sense of ‘victory’ supplants the recognition of the awfulness of that period, that if it was a victory for America it was still a defeat for humanity. I think physical artifacts can help us remember what happened in the past, but they can never tell us what it was like. A lot of dangerous mythology can be generated when we confuse one for the other.

The text on the Auschwitz exhibit slides refers to Santayana’s admonition that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, amending it with the claim that it’s the past we do remember that we’re most at risk of revisiting. Personally I’ve always found Vonnegut’s take on the quote more accurate; it doesn’t matter what we do or do not remember, we’re doomed to repeat the past because that’s what it means to be alive.

Nikolas

Comments

Alexandra
Reply

My grandfather served in World War II as well in the Navy so I enjoyed your post! Also, I liked how you took the picture of the artifact on a black background. It brings an insane amount of focus to the shiny piece and that’s what caught my attention.

Natalie
Reply

Your take on this was very insightful. Your story of your grandfather really emphasizes the idea that it’s harder to take something so large as a World War as seriously as you should without having lived it. Without ever having experiences, it’s tough to consider it as such a vague thing, similar to how the Auschwitz reading notes that though how much death occurred there is shockingly large, it is almost to large to comprehend with the amount of impact it should have. Personal experiences make the massive scale of these occurrences feel so much more real.

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