death wish: the unknown unknowns

Death is meaningless. At least when compared to the well-being of the collective. Is war remembrance just part of the death cult; just something more to remember, to save, what has been failed, and failed miserably? All these tombs of Unknown soldiers across the world each possessed by a kind of haunting quality, their anonymity, their negation of identity, their invisibility provides a destructive mechanism of the memory of those dying for the nation. Are they just cannon fodder for the military complex? But the opposite, to capture and preserve the individuality of the fallen soldier is also part of a profound cultural process, perhaps one that is equally reinforcing of the doctrines of war and the tenacity of the nation state that is complicit in their deaths. In any event, they symbolize an almost infinite capacity of the state to connect us to the anxiety of death and  extinctions.

So, dying for the nation gives your death a meaning, almost Byronesque,  that would be difficult to achieve for the commoner  in other ways. These dead are used as a regime  symbol and a form of invidious comparison among nations. In the example  of the Unknown Soldier we have a transcending and elevation of the death of its victims, one which negates the possibility of individual death,  the death of  particulars or identifiable groups which would give them a kind of immortal fame, and a divine nature. Since they are nameless, it is also easier to use them to mourn for us, permitting us to wallow in the melancholia induced militarized society.

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Rick Salutin: Remembrance days are for remembering, full stop. Remembrance Day itself arose after World War I, which was a controversial war. Antiwar poets wrote their poems from the trenches. But the Day is about the dead, not the war. They were innocent, even if those who sent them to die weren’t. Nov. 11 is theirs.

The memorial symbol that emerged after that war expresses this perfectly: the tomb of the unknown soldier. Nothing like it had ever existed. It spread throughout the world, there are now dozens, on all sides of all wars. It doesn’t recall a Nelson, Washington or Brock. The unknown soldier didn’t lead or decide. He simply died. I remember philosopher Hannah Arendt marvelling at the image, as if amazed at the ability to create something totally new in the long history of war. She was a German 14-year-old in 1920, when the first tombs were erected….

---Anderson himself comes close to acknowledging the uncanniness of the national imagination when he considers its striking icon, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Instead of producing the fantasy of organic unity, the void of the tomb--indeed, a fitting figure for the emptiness of historical time and the gaps of arbitrary language--turns the national imagination into something ghostly: "Void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly *national* imaginings."---Read More: image:

Then, the Unknown Soldier was a symbolic to overcome the possibility of individualism; and the Unknown Soldier is a desecrated object which permits a society to reaffirm its authority over the population and individual existence, a kind of invigorating of collectivism and the destruction of its idols into anonymity. A black hole of memory and a processes of depersonalization.

---Anselm Kiefer. Unknown Soldier. ----Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), 161: “The monuments to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ after World War I bear testimony to the then still existing need for glorification, for finding a ‘who,’ an identifiable somebody whom four years of mass slaughter should have revealed. The frustration of this wish and the unwillingness to resign oneself to the brutal fact that the agent of the war was actually nobody inspired the erection of the monuments to the ‘unknown,’ to all those whom the war had failed to make known and had robbed thereby, not of their achievement, but of their human dignity.” Read More: image:

….Poppies are a great symbol, too. They’re drawn from In Flanders Field, a poem by a Canadian doctor in that war. But they can seem diminished by the way politicians and news anchors sometimes wear them with an air of self-congratulation. You can’t diminish the unknown soldier. A politician who tried to exploit the tomb would be diminished by it, not vice versa.

…The tale of the 9/11 memorial on the World Trade Center site is especially unilluminating. There were raw conflicts over design, construction, input and money. U.S. journalist Amy Waldman wrote a novel based on it, The Submission, which feels dull and predictable compared with actual events that occurred, lik

e uproar over building a Muslim centre near the site….

Ultimately, a soldier is an unknown person, a serial number with a capacity to fight. If, on dying the name is commemorated, the known soldier, it may appear even desirable to lose life, a compensation by the state for those willing to lose life. But  then what can really be known about the person when a cog in an ideological state system?

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….There have also been efforts to turn remnants from the site into memorial symbols — like a charred beam which, some people claim, resembles a cross. Atheists objected to including it in the 9/11 museum. There’s a hangar at JFK airport that once lodged 1,200 objects salvaged from the towers. They appear in a recent book and in photography shows. They include an Elmer Fudd doll from a souvenir shop with the sign: That’s all folks.

This underlines what a brilliant invention the tomb of the unknown soldier was. It isn’t easy to make an inspiring statement about a meaningless war. In Spain, where I happen to be, journalist Giles Tremlett met a former member of ETA, the Basque terrorist group, who said the decades of violence there had been generated by mere “patriotic melancholy.” Novelist Don Delillo has a character say, “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past . . . War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” The dead deserve remembrance, not the burden of providing helpful hints to future generations about what their deaths meant and why it was all worthwhile….

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…Consider In Flanders Fields, which actually gives a voice to the fallen: “We are the Dead.” It’s always read (or sung) on Remembrance Day. But the third verse is a virtual call to continue the carnage: “Take up the quarrel with the foe . . . To you from failing hands we throw the torch . . .” That last line appears on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room, where it does no harm and possibly some good. But even Col. John McRae, the physician who wrote it, might have had second thoughts about that verse, had he survived the war….( Salutin) Read More:–salutin-at-the-tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier

Unknown Soldier tombs symbolize a country’s tendency to eliminate individual names, and, importantly, some profound relations with death.A religious element. The beauty of the “unknown” category, is its inflexibility, its rigid limitation to the sacrifice of none other than the soldier, limiting other narratives of national sacrifice to appropriate the meaning into broader categories of state cult worship.


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Michael Naas:The Tomb of the Unknowns thus stands at a kind of crossroad, a very literal no-man’s-land, between identification and non-identification, the technologies of life and those of death, between the interests of the family and those of the state, materiality and the symbolic, the corpse and the corpus, as Plato would say in the Gorgias, the sÇma and the s°ma. Between two different epochs where the political injunction is always “there shall be no mourning,” something about the Tomb of the Unknowns resists, something that remains buried in the past century and will remain unknown even to God, something that resists our technologies and our knowledge: an absolute remains, the absolute remains, inaccessible to our gaze even as it calls us to attention and to respect, a tomb even more inaccessible and more unknown within the space opened up by the Tomb of the Unknowns. And that history’s remains leaves me with the odd thought, the perplexing conclusion, that, from the perspective at least of this exemplary collective ritual of remembrance called the consecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the twentieth century, this time of the unknowns, would lie at a critical crossroad between two epochs of state or collective mourning. Insofar as the twentieth century still has remains that cannot be identified, and insofar as it will have memorialized those unknown remains if not all that must remain unknown in them, it still holds open a gap between the name and the body, the corpus of history and the corpse. In other words, the twentieth century will have posed us the question of remains as such, a question of what exceeds our history and our science, of what resists all our attempts to cut our losses, a question that, I believe, still remains to be thought even if we today in the twenty-first century are in danger of forgetting it. The question of remains—that is what remains, that is what shall remain, and remain for mourning—assuming that we can still identify it.
Hedges:War memorials and museums are temples to the god of war. The hushed voices, the well-tended grass, the flapping of the flags allow us to ignore how and why our young died. They hide the futility and waste of war. They sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires. There are no images in these memorials of men or women with their guts hanging out of their bellies, screaming pathetically for their mothers. We do not see mangled corpses being shoved in body bags. There are no sights of children burned beyond recognition or moaning in horrible pain. There are no blind and deformed wrecks of human beings limping through life. War, by the time it is collectively remembered, is glorified and heavily censored.


War memorials are quiet, still, reverential and tasteful. And, like church, such sanctuaries are important, but they allow us to forget that these men and women were used and often betrayed by those who led the nation into war….Read More:
Julian Glover ( Guardian ):Last week I was sent a stiff-backed card to the unveiling of a statue of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL, MA, RAF. You would have thought the titles were tribute enough, but at least his statue is modest and traditional. That is more than can be said for other structures, which mistake scale for sentiment and mawkishness for power but which, because of the sensitivity of the subject, people have found difficult to oppose. To question these memorials is not to question the sacrifice: only our desire to do it now, on such a scale, and for some conflicts above others.

The most peculiar is the Animals In War memorial, which has plonked bronze beasts of burden in the middle of Park Lane, where they must struggle forever to reach Marble Arch beneath the slogan “They had no choice”. Nor, for that matter, did most of the men conscripted into 20th-century battles, but we don’t like to point it out. How this thing was allowed, and who wanted it, is unclear, other than it has celebrity backing from the likes of Jilly Cooper, such support being a prerequisite of every monument campaign.

Robin Gibb, from the Bee Gees, is supporting an unfortunate plan to hand a large corner of Green Park to a neo-classical tribute to Bomber Command. The proposed structure, 85 metres long, is all Doric columns and Churchillian inscriptions, as if the deaths of 55,000 courageous young men and women are best served by recreating a vast classical relic on quiet, unbuilt green space. Bomber Command bore some of the greatest risks of the war and has not been remembered as it should have been. But it should not lessen our respect to question this banal and intrusive structure, or to ask whether we are turning our last unquestionable moment of national greatness into something uncomfortably close to a death cult.

Bomber Command is getting a monument in part, I suspect, because Fighter Command already has one in the Battle of Britain Memorial, an awful design erected five years ago on the Embankment, its frieze seemingly carved from chocolate by a mawkish Soviet realist.

The purest and most moving structure in London is Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph and it might be thought that no other form of remembrance is necessary. As each group is commemorated, so another will feel left out. The fragmentation of what was a collective endeavour into an array of specialist sites diminishes the whole.

The Cenotaph’s power has been reduced, though, by the Women at War monument just behind it in Whitehall. Its designer was apparently inspired by a photograph of coats on hooks in a 1940s cloakroom, and the result is as bad as that sounds. Read More:

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