Author Interview--Shannon Bontrager (Death at the Edges of Empire) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Shannon Bontrager about his book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921, published by the University of Nebraska Press in February 2020.

Part 1

You already mentioned Cuba and I want to say, that I was happy to finally see something done on the memory of that war! There are so many interesting topics from the monuments in Cuba and the eventual struggle between Castro’s Cuba and the United States as well as the U.S.S. Maine dilemma. What aspect of this conflict and its memory did surprise you the most?

SB: Thank you for your compliment and for asking another fascinating question! We are usually taught in grade school to “Remember the Maine” but for the vast majority of Americans this is a forgotten war. So perhaps the most surprising thing that I learned was just how central the battleship was to Americans at the time. People from all corners of the country had a cultural connection with the wreckage and many wanted to turn the hulk into some sort of monument or at least acquire a piece of the ship, be it guns, masts or anchors (some even requested the recovered pencils and rubber bands from the Captain’s quarters) to put in local places for local commemoration. They anachronistically tied the wreckage to the Alamo, to Gettysburg, and to Bunker Hill among others. The closest thing that we might compare this to is the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor for those in the generation who fought in the Second World War or, for those of us in the present, the destruction of the World Trade Center. Our collective memories are tied suggestively and intimately to material objects and these structures represented, for many, the spirit of their respective ages. For us, the World Trade Center represented the financial power of New York City in an age of globalism. The innocent lives taken in the 9/11 tragedy seemed to expose contradictions in the kind of globalism where individuals unexpectedly were forced to sacrifice their lives in a war that most probably didn’t even know they were involved in. How does one apply Lincoln’s promise here is a question for our generation that I don’t think we have fully answered even twenty years after the horrific tragedy. But even if we cannot comprehend the complex reasons for why the attacks took place, we all can relate to our own individual identities in the global system whenever we hear those horrible but loving goodbye phone calls made from the doomed airplanes or when we hear of the courageous sacrifices made by firefighters, police, and co-workers as the buildings collapsed around them. Something similar, I think, occurred for people who heard the news of Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and I think people had similar memories in regards to the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. These were national tragedies that were extremely difficult for most to interpret. The Maine tragedy was a shocking moment of poignant contradiction. Was America a Republic or an Empire? The William McKinley administration justified the entire invasion of Cuba on the false pretense of Spanish sabotage. The explosion of the ship and the subsequent invasion forced millions to consider their own individual identities in relation to an imperialistic nation that might be something they could not reconcile with their republican history. And so they collaborated and labored hard to cover over the imperialistic invasion with republican tropes of liberty and freedom. Enough Americans bought into the rhetoric at the time but when the wreckage was exposed to the sunlight fourteen years later and the evidence suggested that the ship had suffered an internal explosion rather than sabotage, many Americans had a hard time reconciling the contradictions between imperialism and republicanism because they had tied their republican identities to a ship that they believed had been sabotaged by the Spanish empire. No wonder everyone wanted a piece of her. I think this is the undercurrent surrounding military officials who insisted on re-sinking the wreckage in international waters rather than turn it into a monument. Indeed pieces could be broken off and sent to various locations because the fragments themselves could be taken out of context and construed as material objects symbolizing republican virtue. But the wreckage as a whole exposed the imperialistic context behind the invasion of Cuba and any kind of comprehensive monument made out of the wreckage would seem pastiche of Lincoln’s promise. People like Fidel Castro, however, could exploit these kinds of symbols for a different purpose. Even sixty years after the conflict, Americans still had faux memories of their Cuban invasion as a conflict for the liberation of Cubans. The Castro regime, however, exploited the battlefields and monuments that Americans interpreted through the lens of liberation and instead interpreted them as sites of American imperialism. This memory war caught Americans completely off guard because they could not conceive of their role in Cuba as inspired by anything other than republicanism. I was surprised too by how the Castro regime could so easily take hold of important sites that Americans held dear, such as the Santiago Surrender Tree, and turn them into sites that exposed the American empire so readily. It was the equivalent of shock and awe cultural memory and the American government had no cultural memory infrastructure capable to thwart it.

As I said earlier, the entire section on 1898 and the memory of the war is just fascinating and you illustrate this with your answer. The whole Surrender Tree story was just jaw-dropping. It does sound a little like the general Cold War problem that the United States sought simple solution to complex global problems. At the same time, they drank a little too much of their own Kool-Aid.

SB: The Cold War complicated Lincoln’s promise immensely because it brought the tension between republicanism and imperialism into full view and striking contrast. But I think we should note that this is not only a consequence of the Cold War as, for example, the War on Terror has created similar distortions within our collective memory. The stories of the USS Maine and the Santiago Surrender Tree are important examples of just how hard Americans could work to obscure the past and how that work could be unraveled. At the time of the Maine’s explosion in 1898, people in the U.S. Navy already suspected it was due to an internal explosion. The New York Times, among other papers ran articles on this possibility. Likewise when the wreckage was raised out of the harbor investigators interpreted the forensic evidence as proof that an internal explosion happened. The military officer who was the project manager of the salvage operation gave an interview admitting as much and the public decried him for it. The investigations into the explosion that took place in 1898 and in 1910 were one-sided and compromised from the very beginning as both commissions were too influenced by nationalism and the politics of empire to make a truly independent finding. The re-sinking of the Maine further obscured the cause and it wasn’t until the 1974 investigation headed by Admiral Hymen G. Rickover that enough time had passed (when Americans had forgotten this war and were preoccupied with the Cold War) for an independent investigation to return the conversation to where naval officials in 1898 had initially suspected; an internal explosion. The Rickover findings can confirm for us the presence of a longer memory of the American empire that many of us, perhaps, would like to forget. In other words, we should “Remember the Maine!” not as an isolated trivial event, but as the beginning of a continued theme in the history of American empire unfolding through the Cold War and continuing on through the War on Terror. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for example, that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration used to justify escalation in Vietnam was based on an attack of a U.S. warship that never happened. The George W. Bush administration used the false argument that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction to justify their entire invasion of Iraq. Lincoln never intended his promise to be imperialistic, but the United States’ gravitation toward building an empire turned the promise into one where imperialistic themes had been deeply embedded in American cultural memory. Popular support for the imperial practices of the United States can only be sustained through the depiction of imperialistic behavior as acts of republicanism. The Castro regime seized on this core weakness and the Americans could not adapt because they had become so dependent upon obscuring their imperialistic actions behind the veil of republicanism. The Cold War, I think brought this to the forefront in the minds of many Americans because in places like Korea and Vietnam the distinction between republicanism and imperialism became, for many, nearly indiscernible and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exacerbated this impalpable memory.

The whole dilemma over imperial v. republican memory also comes out strongly in your section on World War I, but here the complexity is even greater because so many of the soldiers died and remain buried overseas. How does this conflict and its mourning/burial rituals even further uproot us from Lincoln Gettysburg ideals?

SB: Yes, this was a really difficult problem for government officials and U.S. citizens to navigate. But they adapted Lincoln’s promise by creating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Reinhardt Koselleck argues that the unknown soldier/warrior was the ultimate form of commemorative effort that democracy could offer society. A single unknown soldier could stand in for everyone. Such a monument seems, on the surface, to epitomize the democratic ideal. But I think one way to understand Koselleck’s framing of this unknown tradition is to see that the democratic commemorative tradition had reached its limits just as the First World War ended. The Unknown Soldier is the last gasp ritual powerful enough to echo Lincoln’s promise. Or, more precisely, it is the last gasp ritual powerful enough to cover over the imperialistic behavior of the nation. It was an effective ritual early on in the twentieth century but this kind of ritual did not have much staying power. For one, it is no longer possible, thanks to DNA science, to produce an unknown soldier ever again. Today the rituals surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown focus more on the guards and the changing of the guard ritual and less on the soldiers buried in the tomb and this has weakened the power of the unknowns to “speak” on behalf of fallen comrades. For example the Ronald Reagan administration tried to bury a Vietnam Unknown in the tomb in the 1980s in an attempt to bring an end to the searing controversies still surrounding the conflict. But the material artifacts buried with the remains, as well as DNA evidence, revealed the soldier’s identity in the 1990s. So the monument is not as effective at conjuring cultural memory even as the changing of the guard ritual continues to thrive and subsume the memory of the unknowns. For the soldiers buried overseas in France or in other countries, the beautiful and elaborate military cemeteries are supposed to remind Europeans, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Latin Americans and others around the world that host these military cemeteries of American benevolence and the commitment that Americans hold dear in fulfilling Lincoln’s promise; to do the work of cultural diplomacy. But only privileged Americans with enough money to travel overseas are able to witness these sacred burial grounds. When American foreign policy becomes controversial locally, it becomes easier for many in foreign countries to deploy the Castro model that accentuates the imperialistic themes that have been tied so thoroughly to Lincoln’s promise. Thus these overseas sacrifices became harder and harder to incorporate into the republican themes of Lincoln’s promise. And as such, American citizens found it more difficult to adapt their cultural memories to the new realities of the empire. For example in 2003 Representative Virginia “Ginny” Brown-Waite, a Republican from Florida, sponsored legislation that would use American taxpayer dollars to bring home the remains of World War I and World War II soldiers buried in France in the wake of the French government’s threat to block a United Nations resolution that would allow the U.S. to invade Iraq. Congresswoman Brown-Waite came up with the legislation after listening to one of her constituents, “I, along with many other Americans, do not feel that the French government appreciates the sacrifices men and women in uniform have made to defend the freedom that the French enjoy today.” In the mind of some Americans, it was easier to bring the bodies home than confront the United States as an empire. Slowly but surely the power of commemorative rituals to cover over the nation’s imperialistic propensities ebbed. Now the early efforts to commemorate the war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq act more as a mirror reflecting back to Americans these imperialistic predilections; many have found it troubling. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Lincoln’s promise is no longer in effect. The shift and continued reliance on drones and robot armies to wage our wars of empire almost guarantee the death of Lincoln’s promise in future wars and this will have a profound impact in the way political and military elites justify wars and in the way that citizens remember/forget these wars. I think there is an opportunity to reinvigorate Lincoln’s promise but it must start with the acknowledgment that the United States is an empire and from there our commemorative rituals must, in the words of Jay Winter, become less vertical and more horizontal. That is to say our commemorations need to be less about victory, expansion, and domination and more about humility, democracy, and learning from the past. 

Those are some very powerful words and much to considered. The only quick question I am going to add, what do you focus on after such a blockbuster book? Do you have any new projects?

SB: Thanks again for your kind words! I am underway in writing my next project which is tentatively titled The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France. It is about how memory travels across national borders and cultural boundaries. It views the American war dead from the First World War as trans-Atlantic agents of cultural diplomacy shaped by those French and American governments and unofficial people who created new commemorative rituals during the interwar period. Most of the scholarship on the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and on the American cemeteries in France has presented a nationalistic narrative that underscores the objectives of the U.S. But these cemeteries, monuments, pilgrimages (such as the 1927 American Legion pilgrimage and the Gold Star Pilgrimages in the early 1930s) were transnational in their makeup. For example, during the Second World War, the ABMC had to abandon their duties of taking care of the American monuments and cemeteries in the face of Nazi blitzkrieg and the ensuing failures of the Vichy regime. While the ABMC retreated (they went to great lengths to provide funds for the upkeep of these sites of memory), it was French people who actually stepped in to protect monuments and preserve them, often at great risk, until the Allied invasions of D-Day allowed the ABMC to come back eventually and manage these sites again. With the help of a research fellowship jointly award from New York University and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, I traveled to Paris in 2013 and spent five weeks in the Ministère des Affaires étrangères archives in Courneuve collecting over 4,000 French-language documents showing how crucial the French government and French people were as collaborative partners with their American counterparts in making American cultural memory. This last year the American Council of Learned Societies awarded me a fellowship to translate these documents. These French documents, mixed with documents I collected from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, will illustrate how memory travels and how it can only be made with the cooperation of several different kinds of people often with a range of agendas and politics but all operating within an imperialistic mentality. I also look at how the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs stepped into to regulate contract disputes between the ABMC and various architects, labor unions, and municipalities in France as well as how French people often protested American monuments, especially in Paris, during controversial moments such as the Ruhr crisis, the Sacco and Vanzetti execution in Massachusetts, and the Dawes and Young plans in which many French people felt the U.S. was failing to protect French national interests.