Columnists > Voices

Reshaping memories

Our confused view of the present provides little hope that we can properly understand the past

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

I'm writing this column on Memorial Day morning. This was the weekend when our nation dedicated a new $179 million World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington. It was the weekend when a four-star Air Force general came to town to give a speech on the city-county plaza. It was the weekend we were all called on to stretch our minds 60 years into the past to remember what newsman Tom Brokaw has called "the greatest generation."

But something's terribly out of place this Memorial Day morning. With all this memorializing, I've got a nagging feeling that we don't even know how to remember last year accurately-much less something that happened half a century ago. Listening to the news as I drove to my office today, I'm not sure we know how to remember last month or last week.

It doesn't help much to be forced to play the games of the news media. I was sure I had remembered that American fatalities in Iraq during the grim month of April were about 150-so it seemed reasonable to expect a little rejoicing when fatalities in May fell to 75. But that's not the way National Public Radio remembered it on Memorial Day morning. They reported instead that American losses for the "two-month period of April and May" were over 225, which was a high for any "two-month period" since Mr. Bush had declared "Mission Accomplished" a little more than a year ago (another dig the media just can't let go of).

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The really big memory game, of course, is the WMD memory game. By repeating 10,000 times (or is it 100,000?) that the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction was the president's main justification for the war, the media elite have set out to reshape some of our most basic recollections of the last 18-24 months. The memory is further altered with the incessant suggestion that it was only the Bush-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Rice quartet who held to the WMD theory, and that even they may have fabricated it. Never mind that in point of historic fact the WMD theory was, as recently as a year and a half ago, accepted wisdom by almost everybody-Democrats, heads of Middle Eastern countries, officials at the United Nations, and the leaders of Germany, France, and Russia. Most of all, the experience of the Iraqi people themselves testified to the existence of WMD; they had died from those weapons in significant numbers. The disagreement wasn't over whether WMD existed; the debate was over what to do about them. Just go back and read the record during the fall of 2002 and early 2003.

So now that the assumed WMD stockpiles can't be found, isn't it just a little too facile to settle so soon on only one explanation-that they never existed in the first place? Are our memories really so feeble that we'll let people twist and reshape them so easily? Where have been the media explorations of the possibility of WMD relocation to Syria, or of burial in the vast desert sands?

Yet even if such weapons are never found-or even proven never to have existed-the charge still holds that our memories are being tinkered with. For the WMD threat was only part of the Bush rationale for going to war. It was a memorable element in the rationale, to be sure. But it was only a subset of the argument that Saddam Hussein, whether equipped with chemical weapons or butcher knives, was an evil and dangerous man. Allow him to continue in power in a region of the world known to be spawning terrorists by the hundreds and the thousands? The risks were simply too great-and everyone knew the argument, even if based somewhat on speculation, was sound.

But now, on this Memorial Day morning, the memory of that agreement so short a time ago lies twisted and trampled by faithless media reporting.

No less misshapen are the common memories of what war-and its typical aftermath-are really like. The American media do not serve their viewers and readers well when they dramatize the long, 14-month American "occupation" of Iraq, while glossing over the fact that America occupied Germany for four years after World War II, and Japan for seven years.

The one who teaches the history class and writes the history books doesn't just shape the people's sense of what has gone before. He also shapes their sense of the present. Too bad we haven't assigned that task to more faithful folks.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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