The Passing of Memory

October 5, 2012, 6:14 pm

I’ve commented on this before, but the topic has a elegiac fascination. Every memory passes from earth eventually, but sometimes, when an organization has been built to commemorate that event, the passing becomes more public. Thus, too, with the Submarine Veterans of World War II:

It was difficult for the national organization to find members able to serve as officers and to complete all of the administrative tasks. In their last roster, published 10 years ago, the pages listing the deceased members outnumbered those listing active members.

“The guys said, ‘I was all for staying. My shipmate came to the convention with me. He’s gone now and I don’t feel like coming,’“ said Kraus, 91, of Crescent Springs, Ky.

The organization officially disbanded this year. Local chapters could continue if they felt like it. The memories–a few of them–survive in a form, in oral history interviews, but the passing of the organization signals, in a singular way, the literal passing of the generation that lived those members. This, of course, is a microcosm of the disappearance of the World War II generation as a whole, the slow ebbing of that tide from politics and society. The last Presidential candidate who served in World War II was Bob Dole, in 1996. There are only three World War II veterans left in the Senate, a number that will go down by one with the retirement of Daniel Akaka. The House, by my count, only has two World War II veterans.

What is replacing the living memory is the historical memory, both the scholarly history of historians, and the mythologized history of the Good War and the Greatest Generation. World War II is still a cultural touchstone, if a lesser one now, but a touchstone that honors not as much the living veterans of that war, but the memory of those veterans. Their remembrance of World War II has been replaced with our remembrance of them.

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