One of the more odd sort of travel interests I have is visiting battlefields. Having frequently traveled between Florida and Pennsylvania during my youth, I had the opportunity to visit many fortresses and battlefields relating to the long martial history of my relatively young nation. I have visited the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Fort Pulaski outside of Savannah, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and Fort Fisher near Wilmington, and seen the way that different siting and construction choices made the forts more or less successful in their times of trial by cannon fire. I have walked the melancholy grounds of Moore’s Creek, been a tourist at Gettysburg, and gotten lost in the Wilderness of Virginia like the armies of Grant and Hooker. I have pondered the terrain that people have fought over, their tactics in seeking victory, and logistical and strategic issues of how they fought and why. I have studied military history formally and traveled to other countries and seen different approaches to war and different ways that war and conflict are remembered across space and time.
Some of the more interesting aspects of remembering the cost of war come wen one has to address the commemoration of massive and epochal historical events. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389, for example, led to the destruction of Serbian freedom and centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks, similar to the result of the Battle of Mohacs to the Hungarians. Neither the Serbs nor the Hungarians are the sort of peoples whom I would necessarily feel sympathetic to when it comes to their role in history, because even as they struggled against oppression by Ottoman Turks from above, so too they were oppressive to various smaller peoples when they had regional domination. Anyone who has read about (or endured) the attempts of Magyarization between 1867 and 1918 would not feel very fondly about the Hungarians and their attempts at acculturating Slovaks, Croats, and others. Neither will people who have seen Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and the horrors of the wars of Yugoslav succession after 1991 think very highly of the Serbs when they were themselves in power. Despite the fact that the Serbs and Hungarians both saw Kosovo and Mohacs respectively as evidence that they had been the victims of historical oppression after decisive battlefield defeats, when they were the dominant figure in multi-ethnic realms, they were as unreflective about oppressing others as the Ottoman Turks had been about oppressing them.
One of the problems about commemorating certain historical moments is that they can distort the way one views one’s own culture and history as other people see it. One can remember the sneak attack of Pearl Harbor and forget that Japan had begun two other wars in the half-century preceding it by sneak attacks as well as forget the threat that Japan had felt from sanctions it had received relating to its ongoing horrific warfare in China. This is not to say that Japan should be pitied for having faced problems with sanctions as a result of its war crimes in China, but rather that the United States should not have been as surprised as it was that a Japan that felt itself threatened and had taken measure of the vulnerability of the position of the United States at the time would have attempted a decisive sneak attack to preemptively start a war. Likewise, the sudden start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter was not a surprise because Lincoln had clever manipulated the Confederacy into a lose-lose proposition. If it allowed the peaceful resupply of the beleaguered fortress in Charleston harbor, the Confederacy would be faced with a continual provocation in a union fort blocking the harbor of the most violently secessionist city in its wannabe country. This sort of insult could not be borne by a proud and prickly people like the Southron. On the other hand, responding to such a provocation with deadly force would make one responsible for having started a war that one might not be able to win, which is exactly what happened for the Confederacy. Our historical memory does not always include enough historical elements to put those dramatic events we commemorate into the proper context.
And it is that context that matters a great deal. Great historical events do not occur in a vacuum. They take place when people respond to the pressures that they are under, including their own sense of dignity and pride as well as the pressure that they face from people to “do something,” even if there are a great many things that one can do that are unwise. Likewise, our memory of historical events has consequences, to the point where people grow up learning to hate or fear certain other groups and may think of themselves as deserving something from the rest of the world as a way of counterbalancing the misfortunes that they have suffered in history. As is the case with people on an individual level, memorializing one’s victim status tends to blind us to the way in which we have greater power or responsibility than we may believe and that we may not be as much a force for good in the eyes of others as we may fancy ourselves to be. To understand ourselves and the context in which we exist and in which momentous events has occurred is not to allow those who were guilty to escape from their just condemnation, but rather to reflect upon the fact that we do not come to history with clean hands ourselves, and being in need of mercy can better be equipped to give it.