“Remembering War” at the Wellcome Collection.

This was a one-day conference organised in conjunction with the excellent War and Medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. A number of speakers explored different aspects of the themes of memory and war, in ways that connected fascinatingly.
To start with, Martin Conway from Leeds gave a laid-back presentation about memory in general. He talked about our earliest memories (If you’re average, you probably remember an incident from when you were about 3. If you can see yourself in the memory, this is probably a sign that the memory has been processed – worked on over the years.“No memories are true representations of what occurred,” he told us – they are always selective and interpreted.
He has been collecting memories for a database. Some people have offered impossible memories – things from earliest infancy, the preverbal period. Yet these people believe in the images as memories. We remember most about our life between the ages of 15 and 25 (the “reminiscence bump” on the graph of memories). This are the years when we are defining our personalities, and the memories are part of that definition. (Schizophrenics, apparently, don’t show  a reminiscence bump.) Memory declines, he says, after the age of 27. Yes, I’ve noticed.
War memories, he says, have a disproportionate influence on children and young adults, because they come at this crucial time when the self is being formed.
Next, and very different, was Mary Fulbrook, talking about different generations’ memories of the past in Germany, and the different stories that Germans have constructed to deal with having been the “perpetrator nation” of the twentieth century. Usually these involved denial of aspects of the past, or distancing oneself from it.
She described how the unreality of the 1918 defeat produced myths that led to right-wing radicalisation. After 1945, a defeat so complete that it could not be denied, West and East Germany evolved different official myths to shape their memories, with different heroes and villains. Blame was put on elites, and the people exculpated in different ways in the two halves of Germany. These public myths must often have been at odds with private memories.

Prof. Fulbrook talked about the Holocaust memorials in Berlin – that deliberately ugly maze of great grey blocks, and the stolpersteine, the stumbling blocks in the pavements memorialising individual victims.

It struck me how different these are from British War memorials. Here, the memorial, in town centre or churchyard, was almost always built because the community wanted it, and often by community subscription. It is a focus of voluntary remembrance, especially for descendants, and usually of civic pride. New names, from the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan, have been added, so that the monument evolves as a public record. The Holocaust memorials are imposed on a culture that would rather forget, and are a reminder of shame, not pride. I sometimes wonder how long they will last.
In contrast with these public reminders of shame, private mourning for the war dead is conducted quietly. Candles and flowers in the cemeteries show the continuation of private mourning, but there are no ceremonies to give this a public dimension.
Very different, but equally impressive, was the next speaker, Simon  Wessely, on “shell-shock” and PTSD. He gave us a quick tour of the twentieth-century history of the problem, showing how there was no simple narrative of progression in the treatment. What Simon Wessely communicated most brilliantly was his own fascination by the complexities of the subject – such as the Americans who define themselves as war-damaged Vietnam vets, but in some cases were never in Vietnam, and in a few cases were never in the military.
He was illuminating about how small-group bonding contributes to the capacity to cope with war. Also  about why the military are suspicious of nervous disorder – it’s because being a soldier is about controlling fear, not expressing it. You have to earn your breakdown, he said. (If you break down on the way to war you get no sympathy. If you break down on the way back, you get plenty.)  Why do soldiers have more psychiatric trouble than sailors or airmen?  Because the Army recruits more men with a history of trouble than the other two, especially the air force. And on a ship there is nothing to be gained by breaking down. You’re heading into action whether you like it or not.

He is sceptical of the blanket term PTSD, sometimes used to suggest that even chronic psychiatric disorder can be caused by war. Pre-war problems can be exacerbated by war, though, and combat stress can make itself felt years after the event – maybe when the man’s children have grown up, and his wife has left him, and his late-life troubles revive memories (which can then be blamed for what went wrong…).

Simon Wessely was illuminating on “flashback memories”. There is no record of this in WW1 shell-shock literature, except in Goodbye to All That (and Robert Graves later confessed to having made it up. But since the flashback has been a staple feature of war films…

There was plenty more in his talk, but that should give you the flavour.

Then there was lunch. Very good sandwiches provided by the Wellcome – and while I’m on the subject, let me recommend the ground-floor café. I shall definitely use it when I’m in that part of town – and the bookshop, too.

After lunch, Catherine Moriarty gave a good talk about British war memorials – standing, as she said, as enduring reminders in an age of fleeting communications. She talked about them as reminders of responsibilities, and as visible signs of invisible private memories. Talking about the IWGC, she mentioned a Kipling pamphlet that I really must get to read, explaining the principles according to which war cemeteries were organised.

She spoke briefly about the Silence, which turned everyone at the memorial into a participant, not just a spectator; and also about different forms of memorial.

Lastly, she enthused  about Steve McQueen and his project for putting photos of soldiers killed in Iraq on postage stamps.

When I saw the stamps in their neat sliding display cases at the IWM last year I was underwhelmed; they were in the same room as Sargeant’s great painting Gassed, and in comparison seemed a little glib. But she is right. If McQueen’s original plan had been taken up by the Post Office, and these faces of the dead had been on millions of letters, this would indeed have been an interruption of public space that would have made people take note of what soldiers were doing in our name. I wonder which civil servant put a stop to the scheme? One of those who encouraged the sentimental granting of pardons to every soldier executed in WW1?
The last speaker was Walter Busuttil, a psychiatrist from the charity Combat Stress, which helps ex-servicemen with mental problems. There are a lot of them.
Many soldiers, he pointed out, join in the first place because they have problems at home. The military culture does not necessarily help them – hard drinking and institutionalisation (a lot of your decisions taken for you.) The hard military life can produce physical disorders, and civilian life can be very difficult to adjust to. Since seeking help can also go against their self-image, no wonder they have problems.
Here are a couple of facts I noted:
Of all recent warfare environments, Northern Ireland was the most traumatising.
More Falklands soldiers have died from suicide than were killed in combat.

So – in all, a most thought-provoking day. I’ll keep an eye on the Wellcome Collection’s website to see what else is coming up on their calendar.

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