Friday, March 02, 2007

Pearl Harbor redux

One Sunday last month, I took a trip to the USS Arizona visitor centre at Pearl Harbor. It was my third visit there in twenty years, and my second within 24 hours. The first time, I was about six years old, returning with my family to Australia after two years of living in Vancouver. Visiting the Arizona was one of only a handful of things I vaguely recall from this childhood stay on the island of O'ahu (along with taking hula lessons at a hotel on the north shore, and browsing an extensive selection of tapes -- yes, I'm talking audio cassettes, kids -- at a music shop). The second time, in February just passed, was to prepare for a volunteer session there the following day, working with the United States National Park Service. During that orientation visit to the site, I had an opportunity to take the audio tour of the facility (narrated by Ernest Borgnine), visit the memorial (which involves a short boat trip on a vessel run by Navy personnel) and view the introductory film which all memorial visitors must watch beforehand.

The Pearl Harbor visitors' center is located on shore, near where the USS Arizona lies in forty feet of water. As many readers would know, the Arizona was an American battleship sunk in a surprise attack by Japanese bombers on the morning of December 7, 01941, dubbed by President Franklin Roosevelt "a day that will live in infamy" -- a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy which accompanied the United States joining the second world war. Pearl Harbor is an iconic location, a stand-in for the seven military bases on the island which were all attacked on that "day of infamy", so the memorial stands in tribute not only the 2,000 lives lost on the boat itself. (Despite the largest marine salvage operation in history, many of the bodies remain entombed in the sunken vessel on top of which the memorial is built.) And, the painful cinematic efforts of Ben Affleck notwithstanding, it remains one of the most visited tourist attractions in Hawaii.

So why redesign it? In fact, the number of visitors has long exceeded the intended capacity, with the all the frustrations of long waits, oversubscribed bathrooms, and so on, which go along with that. Moreover, engineers have determined that, in a slow-motion recapitulation of the ship's fate, the visitors' building is sinking: it has an life expectancy of under ten years. Hence the National Parks Service, having run the site since 01980, has engaged a museum design firm, AldrichPears Associates (coincidentally, headquartered in Vancouver) to help re-envision this historic location.

What occasioned my involvement was stumbling across a presentation on museum and exhibit design one evening at the UH-Manoa art department, which included a call for assistance in gathering public input. A small number of graduate students were duly recruited on a voluntary basis to head out to Pearl Harbor and survey visitors about their reasons for coming, their background knowledge, and their responses to the proposed content and format of certain exhibits. There are some promising ideas on the drawing board -- interesting artifacts, multimedia presentations, and a historical walk-through beginning with pre-war life on O'ahu. Whatever eventuates, it is certainly being informed by an innovative, systematically thought-out design process. Indeed, the original reason for my curiosity related to the pedagogical challenge of designing an experience to communicate complicated information, which I saw as possibly helpful for our work on developing immersive scenarios. But I found there's rather more to it than that, as I'll explain.

In addition to the capacity issue, and the sinking problem, another motivation for rethinking the facility is that for an increasing number of people, it introduces events that took place in an earlier era. Whereas for an earlier generation of visitors it served as a reminder of historic events many of them had experienced more or less first-hand, with the passage of time, the details are bound to be only vaguely familiar, if not totally new, for more and more people. At bottom, then, there's a challenge in the rebuilding process that's less architectural or structural in nature than historical, cultural, and political. How are these stories to be told? How are events like this to be remembered? Who speaks for whom, and what do they say? An anthropology professor who specialises in the politics of representation is involved in this process, to help the designers grapple with such questions. And even though it is the visitors' center rather than the memorial itself which is to be redesigned, the significance of the exercise is further underscored by the fact that -- as I heard on several occasions, including from Ernest Borgnine -- many visitors regard the memorial as a sacred place.

But having now had a hand, however small, in this process, I am compelled to consider for myself a few of the questions it raises. What, after all, is or should be the purpose of this, or any, memorial?

I used to live just a few hundred feet from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and frankly I find my feelings are divided on this. On the one hand, the tragedies and triumphs, heroism and sacrifice that occur in wartime are crucial part of human experience, as well as individuals, families and communities. On the other hand, I don't think it in any way impugns the contributions of people at those levels to state that, in my view, no one should have to experience war, and the purpose of such memorials, if we are to keep building and maintaining them, ought principally be to show anyone who comes to look, exactly how insane the whole institution of warfare actually is. There's a fine line between the "never again" that renounces systematic bloodshed, and the "never again" that buttresses military spending and a defensive outlook which turns offensive when cornered.

In reflecting on this, I'm reminded of an insight shared by a colleague and alumna of the Manoa School of futures, who works as an archivist at the University of Hawaii's Hamilton Library. She has an interesting view of archiving in a whole-chronology context; and she looks both forward and back down the "time tunnel". Borrowing this idea, when I look down the time tunnel towards the past, as far as the eye can see stretches a litany of atrocities that establishes beyond any doubt that the problem goes beyond any particular culture or country -- the old devil violence seems deeply ingrained in humanity. But when we look down the tunnel towards the future we discern an opportunity to be relieved of history's more ignoble legacies, because what happens to last (or what is chosen for preservation) today is raw material for the historical record of the future. We can't avoid the need to decide, somehow, what of the past to preserve, to emphasise, to discard, to treasure -- in short, we set the stage for how the future will remember us. And at the risk of sounding like a refugee from the idealistic late-'60s (which in sensibility I probably am in many ways, despite having missed them by more than a decade) in my opinion war should go the way of slavery, and we should think seriously about how to treat war-related historic locations in that light. I am not advocating amnesia, but a wiser way of remembering; one that does not chain us unduly to repeating past tragedies out of respect for the people who enacted them.

Lest I should seem unappreciative of the sacrifices of generations before me, I fully understand that my own position (with others in my highly fortunate age group) is a great rarity in the historical perspective -- a male who reached adulthood without having to fight in a war, lose any close family members to one, or even seriously contemplate being drafted was, until recently, a very rare phenomenon. Even so, from a lifetime of films, literature, documentaries, the study of history, and a year spent in the former Yugoslavia a few years after the conflict of the 01990s came to an end, I have fully internalised that "war is hell". This however was not the principal message I received at Pearl Harbor. "The loss of American life in military situations is a tragedy" would be closer to the mark. And, while a message in the latter form may be part of a suitable tribute from the point of view of those who experienced the attack as a personal tragedy, as history goes on, the contestation of the broader meaning of the site comes into focus. And the appropriation of those stories of personal loss for the dangerously warlike purposes of national myth-making becomes a risk that ought not to pass unremarked.

Now, as I indicated, the representation issues that arise in selecting and telling the next round of war stories are being carefully considered by the designers and their advisors, so I am not criticising anyone concerned of lacking anything in the way of sensitivity or good intentions. One of the questions we volunteers asked of visitors related to their feelings about augmenting the Japanese perspective on the circumstances and events around 7 December 01941. Not surprisingly, responses were mixed. But in the bigger picture I'm addressing here, frankly, that question is a red herring. The Pearl Harbor visitors' facility is located on an active US Navy base, so how can it possibly represent anything other than a mourning of losses (as opposed to wins), in accordance with the unwritten rules of the war game which obtain on all sides in the nation-state era? In my eyes, the greatest tragedy lies not with this attack, or even with this war in particular, but with the human habit of war itself. And what of this burning question, found only at the next metalayer up from the tallies and tales of one side or another, about the ethics of the whole military enterprise? No, if it's literally built upon and surrounded by the same thinking and practices that made the second world war possible (and hundreds of basically similar conflicts, on a smaller scale), whatever explicit message is proclaimed, this facility inescapably serves a fundamentally past-oriented view of the world that is in varying degrees nationalistic, narrow, aggressive, and self-pitying -- and therefore irretrievably tragic.

So here's an idea to run up the proverbial flagpole (meanwhile, giving national flags a much-needed break): why not let the visitor center sink, after all? Let it slowly tilt and bubble and disappear into the mud. Let us not lose any sleep, or 34 million US dollars, rebuilding anything -- except perhaps, eventually, a boardwalk for future generations to stroll past its crumbling passages and peeling interpretive panels. The former Pearl Harbor visitor center could become a meta-monument; embodied historical testimony to the way we used to embrace militarism while turning our faces away... how we would shed a tear for each of "our" dead, while rounding "theirs" off to the nearest thousand, or ten thousand, or million. It could serve as a fallen landmark to the belated passage to maturity of humanity, when in the early 21st century, we finally acted on the knowledge that war was an institution which we had to bring to a complete end, or it would do so to us. We might go further. Instead of O'ahu remaining the enormous military outpost that it has so long been, we could lay down arms, close the military barracks, and aim sincerely to make the whole of Hawai'i a living monument to sustainability in human relations, as well as in ecology. So, like the Arizona, might we leave the visitor center undisturbed for time and the elements slowly to reclaim, and when finally it's no longer visible, maybe we will have learned the bigger lesson. If perchance we haven't by then, it probably won't matter anyway.

Because, forgive my naivete, but where in all this are the monuments to futures we want to create? Where, for instance, is the statue honouring the (perhaps as-yet unborn) person who cures AIDS? Our space consecrated for silent reflection on the so far undrafted treaty that will abolish war? The grand architectural gesture towards the future dismantling of the world's last nuclear weapon? The city square adorned with messages in a thousand languages prefiguring the erasure of the last international border? In my opinion there is a far stronger case for planting these seeds of joy, hope and aspiration in our public buildings and spaces than there is for eternal, solemn remembrance of yet another sad story from the bloodstained era of guns and bombs.

Folks, our civilisation has a problem. We could start by acknowledging that fact; and if we must build public monuments, and flank them with interpretive centres (which incidentally, at this point in the human story might be better conceived as virtual/electronic spaces anyway) let them be to celebrate peace, creativity, and the honest work of collectively imagining and constructing something far more inspiring, at the global level, than the tradition of "international" violence and domination that has been our inheritance.

Kurt Vonnegut, The Nation, 7 January 01984 (reproduced here):

If Western Civilization were a person, we would be directing it to the nearest meeting of War Preparers Anonymous. We would be telling it to stand up before the meeting and say, "My name is Western Civilization. I am a compulsive War-Preparer. I have lost everything I ever cared about. I should have come here long ago. I first hit bottom in World War I".

Western Civilization cannot be represented by a single person, of course, but a single explanation for the catastrophic course it has followed during this bloody century is possible. We the people, because of our ignorance of the disease, have again and again entrusted power to people we did not know were sickies.

And let us not mock them now, any more than we would mock someone with syphilis or smallpox or leprosy or yaws or typhoid fever or any of the other disease to which the flesh is heir. All we have to do is separate them from the levers of power, I think.

And then what?

Western Civilization's long, hard trip back to sobriety might begin.

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