THE BLOG
03/21/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Iraq, Stalingrad, Gettysburg and the Limits of Remembrance

"Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot," exclaims Shakespeare's Henry V in his fervid St. Crispian's day speech on the eve of the battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the observance of this month's 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq there appears to be no danger of consigning this event to oblivion. Most soldiers who participated in the invasion are still (relatively) young, and the historical verdict about the war is far from settled. In a few decades, however, Henry's words will echo true, and we will all but have forgotten this brief American foray into the Middle East. Anniversaries show us the eventual futility and limits of human remembrance -- especially when it comes to tragic political events like wars and battles.

2013 marks a striking confluence of martial anniversaries: the 200th anniversary of the 'Battle of Nations,' or the Battle of Leipzig, as it is known today, the biggest and bloodiest engagement of the Napoleonic Wars; the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the epic crest of the U.S. Civil War; the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, the decisive battle of the Second World War. While interesting for the historian and U.S. Civil War and Napoleonic Wars buffs, none of these anniversaries invoke much passion, debate or true retrospection in average citizens.

And unlike the invasion in Iraq, the battles mentioned above have an established place in history often described as "turning points" in long protracted wars with an excessive number of casualties and, as it turned out, clear strategic and diplomatic consequences.

The Battle of Leipzig, fought in October 1813, was named the 'Battle of Nations' because of the number of countries (Austria, Prussia, Russia, France, England, Sweden) involved. It was the largest battle fought in European history prior to the First World War with more than 600.000 soldiers involved and around 100.000 killed, wounded or missing. It solidified the last coalition against Napoleon and brought him his first total defeat on the battlefield. While on the 100th anniversary of the battle in 1913, the Austrian Crown Prince, Franz-Ferdinand, was still in attendance along with high representatives from the other combatant nations, this year's anniversary will be marked by both the disinterest of the European public and absence of any high level political representatives.

Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere, and the Confederates States of America's 'high water mark', has a prominent place in U.S. history, mostly because of Abraham Lincoln's 'few appropriate remarks' on the occasion of the inauguration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery a few months after the slaughter. On the 50th anniversary in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson delivered an eloquent speech appealing to the public "that we shall not forget the splendid valor" of the soldiers who fought there in the July heat of 1863. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union veteran and hero of the battle of Little Round Top, called the 1913 anniversary a "transcendental experience" and a "radiant fellowship of the fallen." This year, the 150th anniversary will mostly be for civil war buffs and re-enactors, a Disneyization of the battle with little interest among the wider population in the United States or an appreciation for the larger significance of the battle.

The battle of Stalingrad, which officially ended in February 1943, caused the loss of about 2 million men on both the Soviet and German sides, shattered forever the myth of the invincible Wehrmacht, and marked the limits of Germany's eastward expansion during the Second World War. The battle is one of the greatest single tragedies of the 20th century, but during Soviet times, the battle was an ennobling myth -- a manifestation of the durability of the Soviet citizen enduring against impossible odds. While both President Putin and Prime Minister of Russia, Medvedev, were attending the 70th anniversary commemorations in Wolgograd (briefly renamed Stalingrad for the anniversary), there was a complete absence of lofty tributes in both Austria and Germany. An event that caused the single biggest loss of lives in both countries in modern history went completely unnoticed by the larger public.

One of the explanations for this is eyewitness attrition; there are no longer any survivors of the carnage of Leipzig and Gettysburg, and just a few men left from Stalingrad. Also, victors and losers of battles naturally commemorate these anniversaries differently. More importantly, the lack of interest in these historical events illustrates the ephemeral nature of political causes: The political ideas for which these men fought and died for are mostly foreign to us, and too much time has passed since they mattered. The sense of the word "Union," as invoked by Abraham Lincoln, is semantically different from current usage, if this archaic expression is used at all in serious political debate. Hereditary monarchy, fascism, and communism have ceded relevance and have been conveyed to the ashbin of history.

The 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq will soon share the historical fate of all human attempts to shape destiny by force, not because the American political system has changed dramatically in the last decade, but because we still cannot even agree on a basic common political narrative why this war had to be fought in the first place. "History is not was, it is." states William Faulkner. The history of the Iraq War, however, has barely touched the collective conscience of the American people to be considered "history." And in that case old men will forget even faster.

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