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The Need to Remember

Human beings have always been driven to document the events of their lives and times. Whether this stems from a universal impulse toward self-aggrandizement or simply from an innate need to say, “I was here, and my life mattered,” the drive to record in images and words those things important to us as individuals or as cultures—the things we have accomplished, witnessed and, yes, endured—seems to have existed within us since we first walked upright.

It is understandable, then, why throughout time peoples and civilizations have recorded their martial exploits. War has always been a universal aspect of human existence, whether undertaken with stone clubs or vast armies or small but lethal drones, and its conduct incorporates all that is best and worst about us. War is without question the realm of horror, death and evil; of humiliation, exploitation and, often, demonic savagery on a nearly incomprehensible scale. Yet, paradoxically, war just as often witnesses monumental acts of valor, self-sacrifice, nobility, compassion and even mercy rarely seen in other facets of life.

And it is perhaps human nature that all nations, all peoples, seek to document and remember the wars they fight—whether they initiate the conflict or have it forced upon them—in ways that reflect nobility upon themselves while vilifying their enemies. Take, for example, a colonial empire that ascribes only the vilest intentions to native troops who rise in revolt for reasons the rulers neither understand nor care about, or a conquered people who continue to resist long after an invader has become their monarch.

As effective as words can be in telling the story of a nation’s wars, it is often the images of those conflicts—a burning village wrought in deep earth tones by a painter still wrestling with too many of his own demons; young men and their flying machines photographed in stark black and white; dreamlike images of long-lost warships—that provide the most evocative and memorable record.

In the final analysis, the many ways in which nations have documented their conflicts—in both words and images—all have one ultimate purpose: to allow a people to say, “This is how we fought, and why.”