Some years ago, a newspaper article credited a European visitor with the wry observation that Americans are charming because they have such short memories. When it comes to the nation’s wars, however, he was not entirely on target. Americans embrace military histories of the heroic “band of (American) brothers” sort, especially involving World War II. They possess a seemingly boundless appetite for retellings of the Civil War, far and away the country’s most devastating conflict as far as American war deaths are concerned.
Certain traumatic historical moments such as “the Alamo” and “Pearl Harbor” have become code words—almost mnemonic devices—for reinforcing the remembrance of American victimization at the hands of nefarious antagonists. Thomas Jefferson and his peers actually established the baseline for this in the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines recollection of “the merciless Indian Savages”—a self-righteous demonization that turned out to be boilerplate for a succession of later perceived enemies. “September 11” has taken its place in this deep-seated invocation of violated innocence, with an intensity bordering on hysteria.
Such “victim consciousness” is not, of course, peculiar to Americans. In Japan after World War II, this phrase—higaisha ishiki in Japanese—became central to left-wing criticism of conservatives who fixated on their country’s war dead and seemed incapable of acknowledging how grievously Imperial Japan had victimized others, millions of Chinese and hundreds of thousands of Koreans foremost among them. When present-day Japanese cabinet members visit Yasukuni Shrine, where the emperor’s deceased soldiers and sailors are venerated, they are stoking victim consciousness and roundly criticized for doing so by the outside world, including the US media.
Worldwide, war memorials and memorial days ensure preservation of such selective remembrance. My home state of Massachusetts also does this to this day by flying the black-and-white “POW-MIA” flag of the Vietnam War at various public places, including Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox—still grieving over those fighting men who were captured or went missing in action and never returned home.
In one form or another, populist nationalisms today are manifestations of acute victim consciousness. Still, the American way of remembering and forgetting its wars is distinctive for several reasons. Geographically, the nation is much more secure than other countries. Alone among major powers, it escaped devastation in World War II, and has been unmatched in wealth and power ever since. Despite panic about Communist threats in the past and Islamist and North Korean threats in the present, the United States has never been seriously imperiled by outside forces. Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America’s adversaries.