Thoughts on War Memorial Desecration

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I never wanted the post I recently wrote on the MP child abuse scandal to ignite a debate about the sanctity of war memorials. Child abuse is too important. There are rarely any ethically watertight, black and white issues on which we can all agree. Surely, I thought, if we can rally around anything we can rally around the idea that elected officials should not be allowed to get away with raping and (allegedly) murdering children, without serious public unrest. Being upset about defaced memorials while staying silent about members of our government committing sex crimes against children is like worrying about the colour of your bedspread when your house is on fire. And so I typed furiously, certain in the belief that people would agree.

But perhaps, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have used the defacing of a war memorial as a way into writing about the child abuse scandal. Some commenters have argued that the desecration of memorials can never be right, regardless of the circumstances. On the whole, people seem much more comfortable agreeing that vandalism against war memorials is wrong than they do speaking in any real way about the difficult and disturbing subject of child rape and what we are to do about it.

I don’t agree that it is always ‘wrong’ to vandalise a war memorial, although I understand why people hold that view. Memorials serve a symbolic role – they say something about the values of the society we live in, and how we treat them is a direct response to how we feel about the values they represent. There are, therefore, circumstances in which defacing a memorial is a necessary – or at least a justifiable – symbolic act, despite the fact it is also a disrespectful and most often illegal one.

Obviously it is disrespectful to deface a war memorial. That’s the point. But who are you disrespecting? That is where the issue gets interesting (if difficult), and where a simple narrative of ‘you are spitting on the graves of men and women who fought and died for you’ will not suffice. Almost everyone in this country (indeed, in the world) has someone in their recent ancestry, or even in their life, who has been affected by war. Those decrying the vandalism do not have a monopoly on conscripted grandparents. Thus we must understand that defacing a memorial is not always (ever?) about disrespecting people who have suffered and often died. Defacing a memorial is about disrespecting the state – because war memorials ALSO often serve symbolically to suggest that ‘those who fought did so because they were on the ‘right’ side, and we honour them and respect the values they fought for (which are almost always the values of the state that is in power now).’

Defacing a war memorial is usually (although not always) therefore a symbolic act against the state, which is justified and justifiable on these terms. At the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia there is ongoing ‘vandalism’ as artists and activists paint over the memorial to express political allegiances, including support for the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. I think this example illustrates the symbolic ambiguity of memorials – the tension between a memorial’s role as a site of respect for individuals akin to a headstone, and a memorial’s role in symbolically sanctioning the political actions of the state. It also demonstrates how memorial ‘desecration’ can actually serve as a kind of discussion between warring groups who are unable to find common ground in speech – if one ‘side’ has to clean paint off of a memorial they are forced to physically engage with the views of their opponent (even in the act of removing those views from sight), just as the opponent must physically engage with the symbolic value of the memorial in order to deface it.

A public condemnation of the desecration of a war memorial indicates that there is a general public support for the values of the state. The criticism of the ‘Tory Scum’ graffiti on the Monument to the Women of World War II suggests that the media (and a large proportion of the public) support the Conservative government (hardly a surprise given they have just won a majority vote in a general election), and the (neo)liberal values embodied by that monument. It is of course highly unlikely that the incendiary act of painting graffiti on a war memorial will do anything in the short-term other than shore up already existing political divisions. And as yet we have no idea exactly who painted the graffiti on Saturday, or what their motivations were (I have seen speculation online that it wasn’t painted by the protesters). But the fact remains that war memorials provide a visible and potent canvas for expressing frustrations with politics and the machinations of political power – they are visible sites where we can react and where we can provoke reaction. They are important, fertile and appropriate sites for political intervention. War memorials are the public face for our public values, and they provide a public face for us to change and challenge those values too.

*Image by Getty Images