national memorials and monuments

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Fallout V/S reality, pictures collected but not taken by me. 

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On a quiet morning 75 years ago today, Imperial Japanese forces attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,100 more wounded. Twenty-one ships of the Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged, including the USS Arizona. Shocked and angered by the attack, the country joined the Allied forces to fight World War II, inspired by the call of “Remember Pearl Harbor.” A moving reminder of the service and sacrifice of those who fought, the USS Arizona Memorial is jointly administered by the U.S. Navy and the National Park Service. Photos from World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument by National Park Service.

Vimy


The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place in April 1917, and was part of the Battle of Arras in Northern France.  Canadian troops fought against German Troops.  It was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had fought as a single cohesive unit.

The Memorial at Vimy is a National Canadian Monument and serves to commemorate those Canadians who fell during the First World War and also those Canadians without a known grave.

The main element of the monument is Mother Canada mourning her dead.  She stands on the edge of the monument, looking over the once blood drenched fields on which so many Canadians fell.

A truly moving experience the first time it is visited, more so on subsequent visits.

I was on holiday in France, 2007 when I first saw the memorial at Vimy, it made such an impression on me, that on the journey back to the ferry, at the end of the holiday, we stopped again to photograph it.  It is unbelievably moving.  Like so many of the War Cemeteries and memorials within the Somme area of Northern France their very presence is to commemorate the fallen of a long, bloody and needless war.  Some of the memorials are beautiful, in total contrast to the very thing that they were built to commemorate.

About 3 hours drive south of Vimy, stands a little village graveyard.  You could quite easily drive past St Agnan Communal Cemetery and not know that it is there.  However, I know that it is there because it contains the grave of a relative.  Walter Alec Clarence Footman was killed on the night of ¾ May, 1944 in the lead up to ’D’ Day.  He was part of a large Lancaster bomber raid on a transport and communications centre.  Unfortunately he didn’t come back - he was 24.

So here we have two ends of the commemorative spectrum, a massive monument in honour of 11,000 Canadians who lost their lives in France, and a single grave to an airman of the second world war.  

One death is to many…

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…“

The Indomitable Spirits.

National Mausoleum or the National Martyrs’ Memorial is the national monument of Bangladesh. It is the symbol in the memory of the velour and the sacrifice of all those who sacrificed their lives in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971

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“Before the witness of history the response of non-violence stands, in the memory of this nation, as a monument of honour to the black community of the United States. Today as we recall those who with Christian vision opted for non-violence as the only truly effective approach for ensuring and safeguarding human dignity, we cannot but think of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and of the providential role he played in contributing to the rightful human betterment of black Americans and therefore to the improvement of American society itself.”
—Saint John Paul II

Getúlio Vargas, populist dictator

The Vargas era began in 1930 when members of the newly formed Liberal Alliance party decided to fight back after the defeat of their candidate, Getúlio Vargas, in the presidential elections. The revolution kicked off on October 3 in Rio Grande do Sul and spread rapidly through other states. Twenty-one days later President Júlio Prestes was deposed and on November 3 Vargas became Brazil’s new ‘provisional’ president.

The formation of the Estado Novo (New State) in November 1937 made Vargas the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy, Vargas banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents and censored artists and the press.

Despite this, many liked Vargas. The ‘father’ of Brazil’s workers, he created Brazil’s minimum wage in 1938. Each year he introduced new labor laws to coincide with Workers’ Day on May 1, to sweeten the teeth of Brazil’s factory workers.

Like any fascist worth his salt, Vargas began WWII siding with Hitler’s Third Reich. Mysteriously, an offer of US investment to the sum of US$20 million in 1942 led Vargas to switch allegiances. The National War Memorial in Flamengo – a huge concrete monument and museum, which represents a pair of hands begging the skies for peace – today pays testament to the 5000 Brazilians who served in Europe.

Vargas, of course, wasn’t exactly practising what he preached. The glaring contradiction of someone fighting for democracy in Europe and maintaining a quasi-fascist state back home soon became impossible. After WWII, the military forced him to step down.

Yet he remained popular and in 1951 was elected president – this time democratically. But Vargas’ new administration was plagued by the hallmark of Brazilian politics – corruption. For this, a young journalist called Carlos Lacerda attacked him incessantly. In 1954 Vargas’ security chief sent two gunmen to assassinate Lacerda at his home in Copacabana. The troublesome scribe was only slightly wounded but an air force major was killed, precipitating a huge scandal. Amid calls from the military for his resignation, Vargas responded dramatically. He penned a note saying ‘I leave this life to enter into history, ’ and on the following morning, August 24, 1954, fired a single bullet through his own heart.

The Sacred, the Profane, and Pokémon Go

Before I start, I’d like to thank my friends Kate (ABD, Early Modern Jewish History at the University of Maryland), Trish (MA, Modern Middle East + MLIS at the University of Maryland), and Thomas (ABD, Modern European History at the University of Maryland) for putting out ideas and arguments about this that helped me gather and center my thoughts for this post.

So, I am not here to tell you why it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or wherever. Frankly, if you need to be told why, you’re too far-gone for anything I say to have any impact. So let’s just skip past my pearl-clutching and moral assessments and move on to meaning; what does it mean to play Pokémon Go in spaces with commemorative meanings assigned to them?

Before I go any further, and for those of you out of the loop (like my mom, who thought this game involved following clues to people dressed like Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a cell phone game which, using the mobile device’s camera and GPS, allows players to catch, train, and battle Pokémon in the physical environment , transformed within the augmented reality of gameplay. 

Oh hey look, there’s a Squirtle chilling in my office with my freshly processed papers.

Once a Pokémon is spotted, the player has to throw a Pokéball within the game and make a successful catch. And if the player catches all the Pokémon lurking in their immediate vicinity, they have to get up, and walk around their city, town, or local park to find more. If a player wants to buy supplies or battle with other players, they have to walk to a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, typically located at identifiable landmarks like monuments, local strip clubs, and some dude’s converted church house (no but actually).

I’ve thought a lot of about different spaces where gameplay could be perceived as tacky or inappropriate, and I’m going to focus on three sites: Auschwitz, where 1,100,000 Jews and 200,000 Romani, gay men and women, people with mental and physical disabilities, Resistance members, dissidents, and POWs were tortured, abused, executed, and tossed into the ovens; Tuol Sleng (previously known as Security Prison 21/S-21), a former high school used by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as a prison, torture and execution center; and the September 11 Memorial and Museum, the site of death for nearly 3,000 people, and the grave of those whose remains were never identified.

Installation at the September 11 Memorial and Museum between the footprints of the towers. Behind this wall is the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, where unidentified human remains are stored. Image courtesy of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

The women’s barracks at Auschwitz. Image courtesy of Yad Veshem.

The Khmer Rouge photographed every S-21 incoming prisoner, and here are a fraction of those images on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Image courtesy of said museum.

NOTE: The images I chose to represent Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng are comparatively tame. I could have chosen much more disturbing ones, but I find those extremely triggering, and I have no desire to spring that on anyone.

I choose these three because these are inarguably sites of human suffering, murder, and/or torture. That legacy cannot be assigned; it’s intangible. These sites are not in any way spatially divorced from the horrors they commemorate. 

I don’t think the game has been released in Cambodia (yet) so my use of Tuol Sleng is hypothetical. But it has been released in Poland and the US and yes, people have and are playing Pokémon Go at Auschwitz and at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Here someone plays the game one of the two September 11 Memorial Pools, which lie in the footprints of the two towers. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.

So again I had to ask myself, what does this mean?

Screen-cap of the Auschwitz gameplay. Image courtesy of the NYMag twitter.

Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them. The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, in these spaces I’m discussing, that is no longer a room where a Khmer Rouge official tortured a librarian, or where Jews were forced to huddle together like cattle before the slaughter,or where unidentified human remains still lie, but simply wallpaper; just the setting of a game.

Superimposed Pokémon lurking outside the entrance to Auschwitz. Image courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

To play Pokémon Go at these sites is to divorce them of all meaning, wrest them away from the hideous pasts they and all visitors must bear witness to. And I guess I lied; I have to extend moral judgement here, because that act?-is pretty profane.

At a site like the Vietnam War Memorial*, it’s a much more ambiguous relationship. This is a memorial to lives lost on a battlefield across the sea. It’s meaningful because we, as a society, have made it meaningful. People bring to it their grief and trauma and memories, and in doing so imbue it with  meaning. Or to put differently, the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial is a constructed, but it’s a meaningful, important construct.

It is a symbolic site of mourning which means different things to each of the millions of people who visit it. One person could see playing Pokémon Go at the Vietnam Memorial as a horrific insult to fallen soldiers and veterans suffering from trauma, while another could see at as a tribute to a fun-loving grandfather, or never-met uncle. Because it is not on the site of death, the meanings of augmented reality gameplay at the Vietnam Memorial are too fractured for me to be able to make any definitive statements about them.

There’s a lot more to say here. About playing this and other augmented reality games at sites like cemeteries, war memorials, monuments, museums, art installations, gentrifying spaces; about space, interaction, memory, and human geography. I have really just begun to scratch the surface, and I welcome contributions.

*I used the Vietnam War Memorial as an example here, but this discussion can apply to any number of cemeteries or memorials or monuments located away from the site of death, or violence.

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