Walking through Port Richmond, I regularly pass by two memorials for American soldiers who died fighting abroad. One is a statue of Corporal Michael J. Crescenz, a Philadelphia native from West Oak Lane who died in 1968 attacking North Vietnamese bunkers and posthumously won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The other is a mural commemorating Petty Officer First Class Michael J. Strange, a Navy Seal who died in 2011 along with 29 others when Taliban fighters shot down their helicopter. Both memorials honor young men who were cut down in their prime, Crescenz being 19, and Strange only 25, when he died. At the same time, they also raise questions of what we remember when we look back at fallen soldiers.
Statues, murals, and other memorials have the power to both remind us of history and obscure its true meaning. For example, the monuments to Confederate soldiers have masked the Civil War’s origins in slavery with imagery of bravery and heroism, disguising the racism at the heart of the Southern cause. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United States, as war monuments across the world often portray war in a manner beneficial to governing elites. The Yasukuni Shrine in Japan has attracted worldwide condemnation for honoring condemned war criminals from World War II. The memorials in Port Richmond, however well-intentioned, similarly distort historical memory, ultimately doing a disservice to the men they seek to honor.
By their very nature, war monuments effectively reduce those they commemorate to two-dimensional figures, essentially warrior archetypes. Rarely if ever do they give a sense of the actual human beings who suffered and died on the battlefield. For example, the statue of Cpl. Crescenz shows him in uniform running into battle with a rifle. The onlooker gets no sense of who he was as a person; he is stripped of personality and turned into a warrior archetype. Something similar happened in the case of Petty Officer Strange, as the mural depicts him in uniform with an American flag, naval insignia, and gravestones in the background, with the only truly human element being the mascot of his high school painted in a corner. Although his family welcomed the memorial, at least one relative has complained that people who think of him as a “warrior” miss who he truly was: “That’s not my Michael. In our lives, he was kind and funny.”
More broadly, war memorials ignore and even mask the roots of war with a veneer of glory. The statue of Michael J. Crescenz bears no acknowledgement that our government sacrificed his life as part of a great power struggle with the Soviet Union, in defense of a corrupt “democratic” South Vietnamese government. Similarly, by the time Michael J. Strange died in Afghanistan, the war there had ceased to have any meaningful connection to the September 11th attacks. American forces had killed Osama bin Laden several months earlier, while al-Qaeda had long since fallen into disarray under military and financial pressure from the U.S. and its allies. Strange’s father stated in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We got Osama bin Laden. We should have gotten out of there after that.” America’s rulers spent Strange’s life as part of a geopolitical struggle for control of the Middle East and petroleum resources.
In their focus on heroism, monuments disguise the roots of modern war in capitalist struggles for resources and to protect the capitalist world order. America fought in Vietnam to protect capitalism from the perceived threat of communist expansion, while the occupation of Afghanistan and the broader War on Terror quickly transformed from an effort to destroy al-Qaeda to a struggle to secure strategic positions in the Middle East and Central Asia, regions vital to the global oil supply. Working class people compose the majority of the forces fighting these wars on behalf of wealthy elites, while reaping little to none of the spoils.
None of this is to suggest that fallen soldiers and others who have died in war should not be memorialized. What needs to change is the nature of the memorials. Rather than statues and paintings of men and women in uniform, there should be more honest treatments of the suffering caused by war and the reasons behind it. Whenever possible, plaques giving historical context should be posted so that readers will realize how and why human lives were sacrificed and all too often wasted.