War matters. Only eight percent of recorded human history has been spent without it. Its destructive forces and the changes those forces wreak are ever-present in the human experience. But, the experience of war has not been distributed evenly. Since the sixteenth century, colonizing nations have used war as a means to expand and cement their hold over native populations. Their motivation was fundamentally profit-driven, their eventual goal to exploit the human and natural resources of colonized areas beyond the point of exhaustion. The large majority of the United States’ current armed conflicts around the world are in former European colonies, where people are struggling to make sense of the chaos imperialism left behind and determined to resist what they see as US efforts to take up where Europe left off.
Whatever the outcomes of those wars, what is certain is that the combatant groups involved will use them to define the place they see for themselves in the world. Wars have the power to remake entire societies and change the course of history itself. The lessons we learn from them are important; how we define ourselves in relation to them is important. The recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of Confederate monuments are just one example of the hold war has over our lives. The defenders of the monuments in Charlottesville came ready to resort to violence if they deemed it necessary. As we showed in our recent issue “The Road to Charlottesville,” Confederate symbols are an outgrowth of attempts to suppress Black voices and weaken Black empowerment in the wake of the Civil War. Their modern defenders see the silencing of non-white voices as key to the success of their lives and livelihoods.
The commemoration of war has often, as in the case of Charlottesville, been used to bind together the sinews of power. The three articles in this series seek to explore avenues in the other direction, commemorating war as a means of bending the arc of history toward justice. As their authors suggest, changing the way we remember war has the potential to fundamentally rework our understandings of both the past and present. In the process, we may find new opportunities to foster more equitable approaches to our shared history and society.
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