Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Military Ritual in Two Republics

Well, after a fair bit of traveling and taking care of various things, hopefully I can get back into some sort of consistent blogging pattern.  As anyone can see, relentless discipline with this sort of thing is NOT my strong suit.  But, partly in response to one of my former students (NOT a former midshipman) exhorting me to keep up with this more, and giving me advice on how to use Facebook (when will I take the plunge?), I've finally gotten around to writing this post.

Anyhow, the picture above is from the National Revolutionary Martrys' Shrine in Taipei, Taiwan.  This is essentially a monument to the war dead of the Republic of China--"revolutionary" refers to the fall of the old imperial system and the rise of a Chinese republic.

This is a shot of one of tourists posing with one of the shrine guards.  The complex was filled with tourists--most of them Japanese as far as I could tell, and a fair number of.... Koreans.  Go figure.  I showed up at the shrine in time to see a changing of the guard, which involves a fairly lengthy march by one set of guards across a plaza to the inner complex to relieve the two guards in the interior (the picture above is of one of those guards).  During the ceremony, the tourists make sure to stay out of the way, and various minders (the fellow in the white shirt and tie above) ensure the relief detail has space to move.  Nevertheless, the whole relief process is surrounded by tourists snapping pictures, children running around, etc.

In all due honesty, I was a bit mystified by this sort of thing, since for me, the "normal" environment of these sorts of war memorials is the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington.  The environment at the Tomb of the Unknowns is as relentlessly solemn as anything else I've seen, with the commander of the relief asking the assembled audience to rise and doff their caps, and a dead silence that surrounds the ceremony, broken only by the sounds of the inspection itself, and the occasional squalling baby.  The memory of it still gives me chills--it's as if the living and the dead merge in these sorts of places, and the weight of American nationalism makes its awesome and relentless presence felt.  Drew Faust's fine study of Civil War dead actually helps explain this cultural trait in historical terms related to the Civil War, but for a better sense of the emotional resonances in present day America, the movie Taking Chance is probably more instructive.

So, in perhaps a striking sign of my American-ness, I found the "touristy" environment I found at the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine.... strange.  It wasn't as if I felt any strong sense of national loyalty at the shrine--I didn't, and as far as I can tell, even a lot of Taiwanese don't feel a strong attachment to the place--it's just that the tone seemed...  off.  But, the reality is that none of the tourists intended any sort of disrespect, and the civilian minders didn't make any gestures of disapproval.  I actually saw the one pictured above take a picture for a tourist. While initially astonished, in the end, it seemed a good lesson in how notions of appropriate martial bearing and memorialization can vary across cultures.