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Jun 05, 2009

War’s Longue Durée

At a time when the quarterly report is becoming the long view, there is need to remember that some events will continue to be felt long after they have ceased to be the news of the day.  This recent photograph from a Bosnian reburial program seems suffused with sadness despite the bureaucratic uniformity of the victims’ coffins.

These green capsules contain additional victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that were discovered this year.  Unfortunately, Bosnia has had to learn how to handle large-scale funerary responsibilities.  The coffins seem to stretch out behind the frame endlessly, as though part of some industrial process.  Or perhaps a similar operation in agribusiness: the green coloring and slight variations give the scene a ghastly similarity to some sort of hydroponic production facility.  The remains contained within will already have given much back to the earth, so the analogy may be more apt then we’d like.  No matter how you look at it, dignity is not easily restored to those who were butchered by the thousands.

And yet dignity is possible–as long as there is the sorrow of individual loss.  The lone woman provides that sense of proportion and more.  She could be a worker, but even so one who has become pensive by virtue of those around her.  More likely, she is a relative, for nothing needs arranging and she is empty handed, with one finger touching the box to her right.  That single gesture speaks volumes, saying at once how much we want to touch the loved one, and how impossible that is.  She can only gesture, and so her sorrow remains contained, as if her heart were in one of those green caskets.  And yet she is there, and they are restored to the human community, however belatedly, by her presence.

And by ours. The photograph is part of the memorial.  And memory needs to include not only the names of individuals but also the history that they suffered.  More yet: there is need to realize how that history is still unfolding.  The term “the longue durée” comes from an historiographic method that emphasized structural factors over events, and I’m not about to settle that argument here.  One might note, however, that for moral judgment “long” is defined in part by the span of a human life, and that war is one of those events that creates a harvest of sorrow for generations.  By looking at the photo above, one can begin to realize how nothing in modern society changes any of that.

Photo0graph by Dado Ruvic/Reuters.


War’s Longue Durée


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