I am ashamed of my country’s memory. I get it. We were born into collective amnesia—so focused on making the future bright and so afraid of falling back if we looked over our shoulders that the stories we ended up telling were not so much lessons of the past as inoculations from it. No sense in confusing the children. Yes, there was slavery, but there was also freedom. Yes, there was war, but it was usually good for the country. Yes, women had to fight for the vote, but they were bound to have it.
A few hundred years out, we’re still covering our tracks, teaching mythologies, letting decisive moments from the past, like untended gravestones, revert to clay. I got the highest scores in AP history in high school and invested in two years of coursework in college, and no one ever taught me the Vietnam War, even though my father fought in it. Even though militarily, morally, and emotionally it has shaped the issues of my adulthood.
The South has tended its graves and legends and even, in some cases, its facts better than the rest of the country. (We are still in the South, aren’t we sweet Virginia?) But it does no good to remember who the high sheriff of Albemarle County was in 1803 if we can’t recall the arguments when the schools desegregated. There is no sense in understanding Jackson’s Valley Campaign if we leave out Reconstruction.
And now we are talking intervention in Syria. The people are tired of war, even the soldiers, especially the soldiers. Do we remember how in The Cold War, Syria and Iran were Russia’s game pieces, and Iraq and Egypt were ours? Do we teach that? And if those things are not important enough to teach, then how can they be important enough to kill for, or for that matter, to die for?
This week’s feature on Stephen Canty is remarkable. We’ve told veterans’ stories before but never like this. Canty was, very recently, a 17-year-old high school kid in Louisa. More recently than that he was a 19-year-old Marine in Helmand Province, and even more recently than that a PVCC graduate and, briefly, a UVA student. But what is most remarkable about Canty’s story is that he’s telling it without apologizing or stuttering or romanticizing. He’s telling us, like Homer did, what it feels like to go to war and then come home.