During the twilight of its period of independence, when the city of Novgorad had grown to the point where its food supply was vulnerable to attacks from the growing duchy of Moscow, the city fathers of Novgorad sought to inculcate habits of patriotism and civic virtue on the part of their citizens by focusing on the brave history of their city. Novgorad, which fittingly enough means “new city” in Russian, represented the best of Russia in its well-functioning democracy and its power over the city’s relatively weak princes, as well as its combination of business acumen and military strength. One of Novgorad’s many frustrated princes was one Alexander Nevsky, most famous for his efforts to make peace with the Mongols and defeat the Swedes and Danes and Germans that were attempting to take advantage of the Mongol threat to increase their own imperial holdings in the area.
One lesson that the city fathers of Novgorad learned to their shame was that all of the writing of glorious and noble history could not make the contemporary generation of citizens any more brave or noble themselves. Mere awareness or head knowledge of history does not induce virtue or bravery or nobility on the part of a people. To remember the fallen is necessary to gain a historical context, but simply remembering the fallen alone is not sufficient to make sure that the right lessons and the right character is being drawn from history. After all, as many of us know all too well, there are a great many people who remember the fallen and seek to extol their bravery, but end up rejoicing in the wrong sorts of causes that were evil a hundred and fifty years ago and remain no less evil today. Not all who fell were heroes, after all.
Remembering war dead is a tricky historical task. When I lived in Thailand, a couple of times I had the chance to visit the town of Khun Yuam, which is a very beautiful town but not a particularly exciting one. One aspect of the town I did find of great interest was the fact that it had been a major Japanese base during WWII, when Thailand was a not-entirely-unwilling ally of the Japanese (in roughly the same position as Finland was to Nazi Germany). Since the Japanese Shinto faith places such a high regard on ancestor worship (which is fairly common among East Asian religions, including Chinese Confucianism), the fact that so many Japanese died in and around Khun Yuam means that the Japanese have placed a lot of money and effort into building a war shrine there to honor their war dead, whom most of the world considers to have been notorious war criminals.
The trickiness of remembering Confederate war dead or Japanese Imperial Army war dead is that one man’s honored ancestor is another man’s criminal and scoundrel. Are rebels war dead? As Americans, for example, we praise our patriots of the American Civil War, but they were surely rebels too. Some cultures honor terrorists as honored war dead and praise their supposedly noble sacrifices by killing relatively innocent people. Our memories are clearly faulty, and so while we seek to honor those who came in the past, our efforts to honor the past are complicated by questions of the deeds of our ancestors. Even where we can agree that our ancestors fought for a worthwhile cause (and that is not always clear), we are forced to wrestle with question as to the honor of their conduct, both by the standards of their time and by our own.
Memory is always a tricky matter. In many ways, we may see ourselves as far more enlightened than our ancestors, and may be disinclined to find much of value in their lives and in their sacrifices. All the same, though, our ancestors were far more willing to suffer and sacrifice for the good of others than we appear to be willing to do. It is not hard to see that our moral infrastructure is suffering the same fate as our physical infrastructure, which is crumbling before our very eyes. Let us hope that it is not too late for us to own up to our own lack of character as a society and to make a new beginning. If we cannot capture the virtue of the past, let us at least act in such a way that we might secure a brighter future, for truly the bell appears to be tolling as much for us as it did for the citizens of Novgorad and their erstwhile republic.