Collective memory is a fascinating thing. “Never forget.” That’s a phrase that we often hear associated with things like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, usually splashed across social media pages on the anniversary of those days. Or maybe there are calls to never forget the sacrifices at Normandy or Bastogne. These national calls for memory tend to ask us to recall that one specific moment in time where the nation was shocked by extreme loss of life. Never forget. Well, never is a long time. And what is it that we are reminding ourselves not to forget? The feelings of loss? National pride? The individuals who died? Our national sacrifice?
Americans, as a nation, prefer to keep collective memory at the selective level of merely glossing over the high points of our past. Engaging in specifics slows us down and makes for poor talking points. But in a nation whose norm is to have troops engaged in combat operations rather than being at peace throughout our history, this selective memory becomes a dangerous thing. It is dangerous not just to our historical consciousness, but to our ability to successfully use military power to achieve the ends of national security.
The American military as a tool of foreign policy is most successful when tied to the whole of society. America’s great military victories of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II came not simply because of the U.S. military’s tactical acumen – indeed, one can even say that victory came in spite of many tactical and operational failures. They came because the federal government was able to harness the full potential of America’s unprecedented economic prowess and build a logistics system that simply overwhelmed opponents on the battlefield. These three major conflicts saw a national, unified war effort, with the nationalization of industry, commerce, and labor towards one common end.
In an era where political and corporate individualism seems paramount, the idea of the governmental power to forcibly put millions of people into uniform via the draft or to control all transportation and industrial assets seems foreign and archaic. Yet, this very idea of American exceptionalism is built on the history of just those things. In each of those three conflicts that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, patriotism alone was not enough to bring victory. It took forcible measures to tie the whole of society to the war effort, a profound paradox for a nation that prides itself on individual liberties.
And yet, the very act of national service does more to shape our collective memory than anything else. World War I saw four million Americans in uniform – World War II, 16 million. These were unprecedented numbers, and remain so. Americans by the millions had to change their lives because of military service, and the military itself had to change to accommodate these citizen-soldiers. Military service began to change society, just as society was also changing the military. When service becomes generalized, it gives society something to remember, not just those few individuals who experienced specific events.
Conversely, when society is not brought into the equation of military conflict, we see a profound disconnect in American memory. America’s longest and most controversial conflicts were waged by a small percentage of society largely well out of sight during the periods of national expansion, colonialism, and economic imperialism. Conflicts such as the 2nd Seminole War (1835-1842), the Plains Wars (1850s-1880s), Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Philippine Wars (1899-1914), the Banana Wars (1898-1930s), Vietnam (1955-1973), the wars in Iraq (1991-present), and military operations in Afghanistan (2001-2021). These wars largely do not fit in to our national consciousness and memory – either because they do not fit the narrative of American exceptionalism, because the majority of society did not feel the effects of these wars, or because society was divided over the role of the nation in these conflicts. These military conflicts also saw atrocities, massacres, and indiscriminate killings of non-combatants at a scale unmatched until strategic bombing and the use of atomic weaponry in World War II. Many saw the weakening of neighbor states, the destabilization of entire regions, or the full-scale dismemberment of cultures and societies. American memory is selective.
Why is this important? Because as we look ahead into another year at the beginning of a new decade of a constantly changing world, America needs to take a hard look at herself and ask whether we are remembering or forgetting the right things. This is not only vital to our collective consciousness as to who we are as a nation, but to the success of future military operations. The best tactics, technology, and generalship mean very little at the strategic level. If we continue to separate society from military conflicts, we can expect to see little change in the coming decades. And we will continue to amass military conflicts that very few Americans will remember. Never forget, indeed.
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Views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.
Cover image: A photograph of the 20th Kansas Regiment taking a meal in a trench while stationed in the Philippines. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.