Riffing on New York’s Culinary SceneApril 26, 2011
And the Award Goes to…May 7, 2011
In an earlier post, I joked about the possibility of focusing this blog on the issue of civil wars (the subject of my novel). While I have no intention of limiting myself in this way, current events have pushed the topic to front and center. (And I’m not referring only to stories of political upheaval in the Middle East, which I’ll address in a future post.)
A week ago, I was watching one of my favorite programs, CBS Sunday Morning, the most consistently intelligent, literate, and thoughtful newsmagazine on television. (I realize that that may not be saying all that much, given the competition, but this show deserves all the praise it receives.) Because 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, it’s a subject that’s been popping up quite a bit lately—in everything from reviews of new books that re-examine that historical event, to the story that CBS Sunday Morning ran last week on civil war re-enactors.
As I watched their piece, I reflected on the very notion of historical re-enactments. Although I can’t say so with 100 percent certainty, I’m 99.9% sure that there’s nobody in Spain currently re-staging the various battles of that civil war—at least, not publicly. (And I’d wager that the same is also true of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.) Spain’s “pacto del olvido” (pact of forgetting)—the nation’s unspoken agreement to avoid dredging up its painful memories after Franco’s death, for fear of destabilizing what was, at that point, a very fragile democracy—pretty much precluded any chance of people spending their weekends re-staging torture, civilian bombings, and mass burials.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no advocate of silence on these matters. Quite the opposite. Nothing is more important than truly understanding your history. In fact, one of the main reasons I wanted to write a novel about the Spanish Civil War was to do my tiny part to shed light on a monstrous event whose details remained in the dark for far too long. And I recognize that time is a big part of the reason that people in the US are able to engage in these activities; the 150 years that have passed since that difficult period have taken with them all living witnesses as well as the children that grew up hearing their parents’ firsthand accounts.
I also accept that most re-enactors are very respectful of history—so much so that they’re willing to spend their free time, money, and energy to ensure that every last detail, from their clothing to their weaponry, is accurate. I’m in no way questioning their right to do so, but what I don’t understand is the desire to bring to life in such a vivid way events that brought so much pain and suffering to so many, regardless of what side of the fight they were on.
I only hope that when these folks run around pretending to advance on enemy lines, and make believe that they are shooting each other, they realize that their simulacra does not remotely resemble the real thing, no matter how authentic their costumes.
Real war is ugly, and civil war—where your opponent could be your neighbor or even a member of your family—is even uglier. For those who lived through these types of conflicts, the memories don’t get neatly packed away in a trunk when the weekend comes to an end.