The meaning and significance of commemoration
At the break of a new century we are inclined to look back. Our twentieth century has produced, among other things, an unprecedented destructiveness of warfare all over the world. Since the world has grown smaller and information has multiplied, war has become a part of our collective memory. Today the impact of war is unprecedented also, as well by the number of casualties, as by the level of destruction and disruption and the impact on the lives of those who survive. War experiences will never leave memory and will influence the course of life, sometimes in a very devastating manner. Many veterans that we work with have had these experiences over 50 years ago and still suffer from the memories of it. But also young veterans from recent UN- or NATO-missions may have lost comrades or may have had threatening experiences and may be bothered by intrusive memories. Yet, because of the horrid nature of war, society tends to forget or deny what happened, thus denying their memories and neglecting the need for recognition and healing, and the need for learning lessons. In this article we will discuss the meaning of memorial services as a framework of remembrance and we will relate this to veterans and their kin. We will describe what we found in a theoretical study about the function and the benefits of ritualised commemorations, and how we act upon that in our memorial programs in “de Basis”.
The meaning of commemorating war
In the Netherlands, like in most other countries, we organise national memorial services for the big wars in our recent history, like the national commemoration of the second world war on the fourth of may. On this memorial day there are memorial services all over the country, containing commemorative adresses, military honours, poems read by victims and music. At 8.00 pm there is a national two-minute silence for the victims. Eventually garlands are placed by many officials, veterans’ organisations and civilians.
A commemoration is not a group of people talking. It is an objectivated form of symbolized expression (van Iersel, 1998). Above that it is a public event , which implies that there is a societal recognition of the historical events.
This form of ritual suits people who are hardly able to talk about their experiences, but who can neither forget them. It contains an expression of their feelings, even though they don't talk about it. It symbolizes their transformed grief for the dead and the other losses of war. A commemoration can thus be a vehicle to relive the personal feelings of grief and loss and to bring the deceased into mind. A commemoration can be a connection between the living and the deceased.
Every participant in a commemoration has his or her own personal memories, but nationwide people share many memories together. Everyone has come for the same purpose, to reflect upon the same war, and to disclose their feelings and to express their memories of this episode. This is a key element for the survivors. Every one of them has his own story, that can hardly be shared with "outsiders", who don't really know what happened. Apart from that some survivors may not even be able to produce a narrative, because memories of traumatic episodes can hardly be put into words (Van der Kolk,1996; Herman, 1992; Laub & Auerhahn, 1994; Pomeroy, 1998; Schreuder, 1997). During the post-war period in the Netherlands most people avoided to talk about the war. The society needed to go on with bussiness as usual, and tried to achieve this by keeping silent about atrocities. In the Netherlands this has been called the "conspiracy of silence" after World War II (De Swaan, 1984; Withuis, 1997), but it also occurred after the war in the Dutch East-indies between 1946-1950 and after the New-Guinea-conflict 1960-1962. And when we meet younger UN-veterans, we also hear from them that it is difficult to share the experiences from their missions, either because it's difficult to explain the real situation, or because the public doesn't want to hear about it. A commemoration helps to recognize that the war is part of a common history. This is not only important for the veterans themselves, but also for their intimates and for society. The stories of survivors contribute to the collective memory, and one can try to learn from these experiences. A commemoration can thus be considered as a connection between society and its members.
Furthermore in a commemoration ritual we do not only look back at the past, but we try to formulate lessons or mental notes for the future. By doing this we try to give meaning to what has happened, even when the event itself remains meaningless. What happened in the past can be transformed into lessons for the future, or into a feeling of responsibility for people who suffer from any war today. So a commemoration is a connection between past and future, and can stimulate responsibility and solidarity.
Memorial and traumatized veterans
So far we described how commemoration creates a connection between the living and the deceased, between society and its members, and between the past and the future. By the ritual and symbolic character it enables to relate to those of us who died. It creates a common ground for sharing individual memories and for reducing isolation. Society can learn from the personal memories, and so learn about the common history.
We will now try to apply these general findings to the specific needs of veterans and their relatives. From literature and from our own experiences we know that many traumatized veterans suffer from personal and social problems. They may live in two different worlds. The world of trauma is marked by strong feelings of loss or guilt, that could hardly be mourned about in the post-war period (Shay, 1994; Begemann, 1992; Schreuder, 1995; Herman, 1996). Commemoration can be considered as part of the mourning process that has to find its way. The world of trauma is also marked by helplessness and by isolation from their kin and from society (De Vries, 1996). Veterans are left with overwhelming memories of the past. It is difficult to share these memories, they are like a motion-picture without subtitles, consisting of images, sounds or smells. It is difficult to connect to people who don’t share all these overwhelming experieces and who seem to live in a different world. All in all it is very difficult to personally and socially integrate the traumatic experiences they have gone through.
It may be helpfull to reflect upon these experiences in a broader perspective. The societal recognition of the common history creates a frame of reference for veterans to share their personal narratives of the war- and post war period. Thus society and veterans alike may transform the conspiracy of silence, releasing the trauma from the domestic circle or the therapists consulting room into the public domain. The veteran is no longer an outsider in the common history. This recognition is needed for mourning, for sharing and for finding new meaning. This new meaning implies new self esteem, avoiding the stereotype images of being a heroe or a victim. All these ingredients contribute to reduce isolation and enlarge a sense of meaning and control.
Johnson et al (1995) have demonstrated the effectiveness of the use of ritual and ceremony in the therapy of Vietnam veterans. In their therapeutic work ceremonies are being used as a coping stone in the treatment of trauma. Both family members and veterans judge these ceremonies to be the most effective components of treatment. Apparently the veterans are able to utilize the social defences provided by the rituals, rather than resorting to the use of personal intrapsychic defences. Obenchain et al (1992) had earlier reported strong effects of a "welcome home" ceremony in a treatment context of Vietnam veterans. Almost all of the veterans were seen to improve on depression, anger, self-esteem, alienation and isolation.
In our aftercare-centre we see a lot of traditional veterans and their spouses. They usually are members of the BNMO (Association of Dutch Disabled Veterans) due to their chronic suffering from the aftermath of war. These elderly people are in the closing days of their lifes and therefore are inclined to look back and ruminate about their course of life. They generally do not want to engage in psychotherapy; some of them have succesfully or unsuccesfully finished therapy. We should make it clear that we do not perform psychotherapy, but we offer support and social rehabilitation to groups of veterans and their spouses.
Whenever a national commemoration comes up de Basis organizes a so called memorial programme for some 80 to 90 participants, all veterans of that specific war and their spouses. This programme contains verbal and non-verbal activities in a support group format. In a 5-10 day resident period they are given the opportunity to express their feelings, share their experiences, to create their own symbols, choose music, and write speeches or poems, prepare garlands and form a guard of honor. Thus they actively prepare and perform an intimate memorial service within de Basis, for which also children and family members are invited. Sometimes it is only for the first time that family members learn a bit more about the past of their ever-silent father or grandfather. For children and grandchildren it may be a welcome opportunity to learn more about their own background and sometimes about the secrets of their youth. The active participation of the veterans and their spouses elicits strong emotions and contributes to the feeling of control and to a sense of meaning.
Apart from this intimate memorial service the group of veterans and spouses participates in the national memorial service, e.g. in the commemoration on the fourth of may on "De Grebbeberg". This is the actual location of the frontline, where the Dutch army was beaten by the Germans in 1940.
Today there is a war cemetary and a monument on this hill. The participants in the BNMO-programme are given a place of honor and they actively participate in the celebration. These are impressive moments. The nation holds its breath, and one can hear the wind in the trees. And after the two minute silence all participants in the ceremony transform the monument into a mass of flowers. In the end the veterans search among the graves for their lost comrades and offer their garlands.
In combining the intimate and the public manifestation the guiding principles, that we mentioned before, are being integrated. This means that there are opportunities to mourn, to express and share personal feelings and memories and to relate to family members and to society at large, transforming the private domain into a public domain. This may create a feeling of control and it may reduce isolation, thus providing a chance for integration and healing. Programmes like this are an annual event for many elderly veterans. They attach much value to and derive much recognition and comfort from memorial-programmes.
We are well aware that this article may sound very optimistic about the potency of commemoration. But we think that a commemoration is allways an attempt. Because it is so difficult to comprehend the true nature of war, one can only try to transform the feelings of anger, grief, sadness, loss, and guilt. They often are too dreadfull for words and survivors may hardly be able to talk about it. But at the same time they cannot forget either. A commemoration can therefore be considerd as a compromise between sharing and forgetting (Verhoeven, 1997). By the ritual character it enables people to share, even without a narrative. We feel that it may help veterans in coming to terms with their past, and find comfort, even if their trauma will never vanish. The ritual is a socially acceptable vehicle for accessing and containing intense emotions, and thus may create new personal and social connections.
We think that active participation in preparing ceremonies is a key element. We also think that commemorations should be repeated time and again: if nothing else it gives comfort. It will give veterans the chance to connect to the past, to eachother, to their relatives, to society and to the future.
We learn that commemorations are of utmost importance for the veterans and their kin, that it produces personal recognition and support and thus may contribute to integration and control. We therefore suggest to also organize appropriate commemorations for the younger generations of veterans in our country. It may equally serve the veterans and the nation in the century to come.
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Verhoeven, C. (1997) Een compromis tussen herinneren en vergeten.
Margriet Maas and Bavo Hopman are staffmembers of de Basis, . They wrote a study in Dutch on the meaning and significance of commemoration "De betekenis van herdenken" (de Basis, Doorn, 1999). This article is a compilation of this study.