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September 26, 2009

Memorializing Defeats

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I took the above photo at the site of Custer's Last Stand -- the Battle of the Little Bighorn that took place 25 June, 1876 in southeastern Montana. As many (40 years ago, I would have written "most") Americans know, Lt. Col. George Custer and all the soldiers and Indian scouts with him perished in the fight.

Considering its isolation, the battlefield is a popular tourist site; at least one tour bus was there and the parking lot was pretty full in mid-September -- late in the tourist season.

A very popular attraction in Hawaii is the battleship Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor. Some people visit San Antonio, Texas with the main purpose of seeing the Alamo. And then there's the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, yet another tourist attraction. Each of these sites has to do with a military or quasi-military disaster.

I read that the British also reserve some of their patriotic sentiment for defeats or near-defeats. Is this an Anglo-Saxon thing? I don't know enough about other countries to speak with certainty, but I suspect that military victories get most of the attention. (One exception: the French Foreign Legion defeat at Cameron, Mexico in 1863 is a subject of supreme honor for that service.)

Is it healthy from a national willpower standpoint to memorialize defeats? Maybe so. Britain and the United States have nearly always been winning their wars for the last 300 years, so the memorializing doesn't seem to have done any harm. Or perhaps the fact of being victorious has made it easier to shrug off defeats in campaigns that were ultimately won.



posted by Donald at September 26, 2009


Inside the Pentagon there is a HUGE painting of F-16s flying past the burning World Trade Center towers. (It is probably larger than 10' wide and 6' high.) I was astonished when I first saw it, because it depicts a profound failure of the Air Force to fulfill its basic mission, i.e. to protect the USA from air attack. I can think of no better way to send the message that high-tech manned fighters are irrelevant to the war we're in, and that one of the USAF's proudest instruments (the manned fighter) was powerless to prevent thousands of Americans from being killed.

Posted by: USAF on September 26, 2009 1:01 PM

It can serve as a reminder of the struggle that our forebearers went through to get us where we are, give us some perspective. However, you make a salient point about us winning most of our wars so that being defeated doesn't play a large part in our national psyche.

In places like the Middle East, where "the struggle" and being defeated is central to their identity (as far as I can tell), it only serves to embitter people.

Posted by: JV on September 26, 2009 2:06 PM

The Alamo doesn't celebrate a defeat per se, it's more of a celebration of brave resistance against overwhelming odds. It's hard to characterize Custer's site as a defeat celebration because things have gotten a bit fuzzy as to who were the Good Guys and who were the Bad Guys.

Posted by: Peter on September 26, 2009 3:18 PM

It depends on the defeat, I think. The Charge of the Light Brigade is one thing, but not too many Britons like to contemplate the Fall of Singapore. Still, I don't know of a British equivalent of the History of the French Army that managed to make no mention of Waterloo.

Posted by: dearieme on September 26, 2009 3:26 PM

Not sure if this isn't simply a human thing: the Yuanmingyuan imperial garden was trashed by the British during the 2nd Opium War in 1860, and is kept in its wrecked state as a sort of nationalist shrine near Beijing.

Posted by: Foobarista on September 26, 2009 8:20 PM

Not everyone in the United States has a 300 year history of being victorious. For Southrons Gettysberg is a memorial to defeat not victory.

Posted by: Don Menig on September 27, 2009 12:48 AM

ANZAC day in Australia plays an important role in shaping the national psyche. It commemorates a failed campaign against the Turks in the Dardanelles in WW1.

Posted by: Olive on September 27, 2009 4:10 PM

For Southrons Gettysberg is a memorial to defeat not victory

Posted by: jar games on October 1, 2009 6:37 PM

The practice of commemorating some defeats is very old:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.

As with Camerone, as with the Alamo, as with (from the Southern point of view) Gettysburg, the point was not to celebrate victory, but to honor valor and loyalty in extremis.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 5, 2009 10:33 PM

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