Credit and Blame in War

Struggles over collective memory pivot on credit and blame. Both, as usual, involve the identification of outcomes, competence, responsibility and us-them boundaries. Advocates struggle over each element. On the credit side, competition concerns which outcome added how much value, who had the competence to produce that outcome, to what extent they did so deliberately with knowledge of the likely consequences, and who else deserves to receive the credit if only because of a shared commitment to the cause. France’s Catholic royalists congratulated themselves for maintaining a faithful remnant in the face of national adversity— and perversity, as they saw it.

On the blame side, competition to win control of a symbolic narrative concerns which outcome damaged some valued activity, and by how much. It also concerns who had the competence and intention to produce the damage, and who else should share the blame if only through guilt by association. Blame took up more space than credit in French national discussions of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. Two accounts agreed on the outcome that needed explaining: the political collapse of 1870–71. But judgments of competence, responsibility and value came close to being mirror opposites. On one side, Catholic royalists lumped together the defeated empire, republicans, communards and secularists on the wrong side of the us-them boundary, accusing them of having almost destroyed France. Secular republicans blamed the remnants of a corrupt empire and their ecclesiastical hangers-on for undermining national commitments to muscular democracy.

In general, of course, collective credit and blame often interact: We take credit for saving a situation that our enemies had made toxic. In any normally complex social situation, credit for someone or some side implies blame for someone else, and vice versa. When a society as a whole can agree on who deserves credit and who deserves blame, us-them boundaries are drawn between nations. When a society cannot agree, those boundaries are drawn within a nation. Internal boundaries can lead to secession and even civil war, but they do not necessarily do so. Sometimes the very act of disagreeing, if it proceeds within a symbolic process understood and accepted by all, can itself bind a society together: People can agree to disagree without impugning the right of the other to belong to the society. Or to put the matter in more homely terms, all spouses sometimes argue, but not all marriages end in divorce.

Disagreement is put to the greatest test in times of war. War stimulates collective attributions of credit and blame more often than any other human activity. Even revolutions, bungled natural disasters, political corruption and economic crises produce less collective fingerpointing stories of villains and heroes. Wars begin, after all, with built-in divisions between us and them. They continue with losses of life and property that some people always think unjustified. Win, loss or stalemate, wars always end with participants making collective claims about responsibility. Costly but unsuccessful wars, such as the French and American adventures in Vietnam, compound the problem of assigning credit and blame; now we have to deal not only with the military enemy, but with the question of who among our own people got us into the mess, and how.

War memorials extend the argument beyond the peace treaties. Despite most frequently and visibly awarding credit, war memorials always display the interaction of credit and blame. In their own distinctive ways, both the Hermann Monument and Sacré Coeur serve as war memorials. Behind the glorification of German warriors we detect the vilification of France. Behind the sanctification of the French faithful we detect the condemnation of secularists, republicans, radicals and German invaders. A stark us-them boundary marks the difference, though who gets defined as “us” and who as “them” is rarely a singular or simple decision.

Across the Western world, when communities and countries pool their efforts to build symbolic structures, they most often erect churches, war memorials or both at once. Valley Forge National Park, for example, commemorates George Washington’s legendary 1777 winter encampment in preparation for engagement with British forces near Philadelphia. Its Washington Memorial Chapel features carvings that represent Washington’s brigades, flags for the Army, Navy and French forces, seals from the fifty states, pews dedicated to different patriots, a window portraying periods of Washington’s life, and a tablet with the Declaration of Independence over the door. Beside the door tourists see

a statue of Washington showing ‘ . . . him bearing the burdens of war—anxiety in his face, determination in the grip of the sword, confidence and hope in the pose of the entire figure.’ The chapel is easily interpreted as a political expression of the concept of God and country. The architectural message is that the United States was the righteous result of obeying God’s will under the leadership of George Washington.

Despite enormous architectural differences, Parisian tourists who visit Valley Forge can recognize surprising similarities with the symbolism of Sacré Coeur. God defends our national cause, and the ungodly undermine it. On one side of the us-them boundary stands Washington alongside his soldiers, their allies and patriots in general. On the other side squirm America’s enemies. In 1777, those enemies included Great Britain. Enemies change, of course, but the us-them boundary remains. In many cases, the boundary becomes more abstract over time. American visitors to Valley Forge are no longer riled up against British people; they are riled up abstractly (if they are riled up at all) against tyrants and despots, or better, the concepts of tyranny and despotism.

Even when they don’t incorporate chapels or churches, war memorials breathe sacredness. Corrupt them with commercial, secular or unpatriotic themes at your peril, as the Walt Disney Company discovered when it tried to build a “history” theme park near Manassas. The controversies over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington are also a case in point.

Vietnam veterans took the initiative in pressing for a memorial. Once Congress authorized the two-acre site, however, a committee without a single veteran ran the architectural competition. Yale architecture student Maya Lin won with a v-shaped granite structure containing the names of all the military dead in order of reported death. While it eventually became one of the most visited and admired memorial sites in Washington, organized veterans initially complained bitterly about the abstract design, arguing that by failing to represent heroism directly it perpetuated the picture of the soldiers as losers. The veterans prevailed, winning a second memorial 120 feet away from the first that includes a flagpole and a sculpture of three GIs looking grimly determined.

The arguments were clearly all about assigning credit and blame, and that is also, no doubt, what most of the tens of thousands of visitors to that memorial still do. Americans still disagree about the war and about the memorial, but the process of disagreement, ironically, brings us closer together. We struggle together to find the meaning. It shows we all care. But how we deploy and manage our care, it turns out, matters a lot.

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: