Forgetting after War: A Qualified Defense

Chapter 1
Forgetting after War: A Qualified Defense

Jack Volpe Rotondi and Nir Eisikovits

Remembering: An Article of Faith

Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting begins with a description of two communist party leaders, Gottwald and Clementis, standing next to each other on a porch in Prague. Gottwald is about to give a speech. It is winter and he does not have a hat. Clementis takes off his own hat and gives it to his comrade. A few years later, Clementis falls out of favor and is accused of treason. He is removed from official photographs. All that remains of him is the hat on Gottwald’s head. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” comments Mirek, Kundera’s protagonist.1

The discipline of transitional justice focuses on the question of how nations can best own up to a past of political violence: once the killing subsides, what does it take for parties to account for their old crimes and make a transition to civil society? What are the institutional ways of dealing with the past? What are the legal, moral, and political problems involved in the operation of bodies such as truth commissions, war crime tribunals, or lustration panels? How is their efficacy to be assessed? What role should indigenous practices have in the design of transitional policies? And what about reparations? Who should pay? Who should receive the payments? What counts as payment in the first place? There is much disagreement about these questions. However, one thing the scholars and practitioners of transitional justice do agree about is that the past must be dealt with. We might call this “the memory assumption.” With Mirek, they assume that forgetting, not dealing with the past, or, to paraphrase Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, digging a hole and burying the past, is toxic.2 Such suppression, we are told, is an act of brute force. It solves nothing. It merely exacerbates injustice, fuels a culture of impunity, and creates a reservoir of unprocessed resentment on the part of victims and their families, always bubbling close to the surface, ready to explode at the first instance of political unrest.

This chapter takes up the question of forgetting after war. While acknowledging the powerful rationale for robust policies of transitional justice it will argue that remembering cannot be an article of faith. We will try to make a limited and qualified case for forgetting, or at least raise some questions about the axiomatic nature of the “memory assumption.” First, however, let us briefly explore the case for that assumption.

The Case for Remembering

At least as far back as John Locke’s famous account of personal identity in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” modern Western political thought has been committed to the view that memory is central to our ability to perceive ourselves, as ourselves, through time. Our memories are constitutive of who we are and, as a result, it is crucial to have others listen to (and, ideally, acknowledge and reflect) our understanding of our past. Having our history suppressed, destroyed, or hidden amounts to severe violence against the core of our identity.3

In his essay “Superseding Historical Injustice,” Jeremy Waldron makes one of the most compelling contemporary cases for the importance of memory in the face of historical injustice. He offers three reasons why we must, institutionally and otherwise, strive to memorialize what we have done to others and what they have done to us.4 First, “our moral understanding of the past is often a way of bringing to imaginative life the full implications of principles to which we are already in theory committed.”5 Remembering allows us to take our moral principles seriously as it gives us a particular historical context to think about how they apply in practice. Rational but abstract moral “principles” are insufficient; a contextual sensibility which maps current “circumstances and entanglements” to representative past “temptations” is essential for living, breathing people to “face moral danger.”6

Waldron then goes on to illuminate the relationship between “identity and contingency,” suggesting that, “[w]hat happened might have been otherwise, and, just because of that, it is not something one can reason back to if what actually took place has been forgotten or concealed.”7 Quite simply, if the past is not remembered, there is no way of rationally reconstructing it on the basis of counterfactual reasoning. Once it is gone, it is gone. Deduction yields nothing about how Jews acted in the Warsaw ghetto, the participation of women in the Rwandan genocide or Native American ideas of property in the fifteenth century.

Finally, Waldron explains how forgetting can be implicated in the creation and perpetuation of unjust social relations:

When we are told to let bygones be bygones, we need to bear in mind also that the forgetfulness urged on us is seldom the blank slate of historical oblivion. Thinking quickly fills up the vacuum with plausible tales of self-satisfaction, on the one side, and self-deprecation on the other. Those who as a matter of fact benefited from their ancestors’ injustice will persuade themselves readily enough that their good fortune is due to the virtue of their race, while the descendants of their victims may too easily accept the story that they and their kind were always good for nothing. In the face of all this, only the deliberate enterprise of recollection (the enterprise we call “history”), coupled with the most determined sense that there is a difference between what happened and what we would like to think happened, can sustain the moral and cultural reality of self and community.8

In other words, a refusal to remember can create stereotypes and structures of subjugation. Without the benefit of history, those who find themselves disadvantaged lack the context to make sense of their predicament and may come to see it as reflective of some innate deficiency. Conversely, those who find themselves on top may justify their fortunes by making reference to ahistorical abstractions and fantasies about “manifest destiny” or “natural right.”9

Transitional justice scholars make the case for remembering after war in more concrete terms. We must, they insist, account for historical injustices because burying the past is a profound injustice to victims and because forgetting oppression perpetuates a culture of impunity. Martha Minow, in Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, ascribes the “most appalling goal” to the perpetrators of twentieth century atrocity: “the destruction of the remembrance of individuals as well as of their lives and dignity.”10 Intentional regime-sponsored forgetting as well as flawed transitional justice efforts have adversely affected discrete and very real human lives. Nir Eisikovits describes one such case in his Sympathizing with the Enemy. Forgetting, he writes:

compounds the suffering of individuals by forcing them to watch their tormentors walk around freely, reenter politics, or maintain their posts in public service and the military. All of this takes place while their painful memories and traumas remain unacknowledged. Amanda Pike, a reporter for PBS’ Frontline, tells a story which starkly demonstrates the cost of forgetfulness for individual victims. During a trip through the Cambodian province of Pailin, Pike came across Samrith Phum, whose husband was executed by the Khmer Rouge. Phum knows the murderer well. He is her neighbor and he operates a noodle shop across the street from her house. He was never arrested and never charged with her husband’s murder. There is no procedure through which he can be sued for damages. Phum must simply get used to the idea that her husband’s killer quietly manages his store next door.11

Transitional justice writers also share a broad consensus that some form of accountability helps nurture budding non-authoritarian institutions. In other words, forcing perpetrators of past human rights abuses to face their crimes allows a new democracy to start off on the right foot—such accounting conveys the message that from now on human lives are once again valuable enough to receive the law’s attention—and this, in the transition from an authoritarian regime that did not display such respect—is a very important message to be sending.

Is Forgetting Ever Admissible?

To what extent do the philosophical and practical arguments sketched above support the strong presumption in favor of historical remembering? Are there cases where the possibility of not addressing the past needs to be taken more seriously? There are two ways of approaching these questions. The first is to undermine the rationale for remembering presented above. The second, more tentative and modest approach, is to identify some cases in which there is an argument for not remembering. We shall pursue the second strategy. While we think there are strong grounds for the memory assumption, it is important to avoid turning it into a dogma. Our concern is that much of the recent literature treats it as such. We propose to look at three cases in which the memory assumption is problematic: conflicts with significant cultural variance on the question of how best to deal with the past; conflicts where there is a complicated division of guilt between the parties; and political situations where an insistence on commemoration and thorough accountability risks reigniting the conflict.

In selecting these categories we draw on the work of Priscilla Hayner. In her canonical work on truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity, Hayner outlines four components which “would account for this lack of desire to formally establish the truth.”12 The first involves “fear of negative consequences.”13 She defines this as “a perception that violence would increase, war could return, or that the current violence or war would not end, if old crimes were revisited.”14 Hayner’s second and third categories are, respectively, lack of political interest (“little or no interest by the political leadership in truth-seeking and a lack of significant nongovernmental actors pushing them to do so”) and other urgent priorities (including “extensive destruction resulting from the war or violence, widespread popular sentiment to focus on survival and rebuilding, and a lack of basic institutional structures that could support a truth-seeking process.”)15 Hayner’s fourth and final category addresses “alternative mechanisms or preferences” and focuses on cultural variance about remembering.16 She describes this as “indigenous national characteristics [which] may make truth-seeking unnecessary or undesirable, such as unofficial community-based mechanisms that respond to the recent violence or a culture that eschews confronting conflict directly.”17

Hayner’s first and fourth categories are important and useful. In what follows we expand on them and try to offer at least the beginning of a philosophical argument for the legitimacy of using them. To these we add the category of cases with a complicated division of guilt. While Hayner considers some such cases she does not view these circumstances as creating a separate argument to forego policies of transitional justice. Hayner’s second and third categories, however, present significant problems and, as a result, cannot be included in a putative case for official forgetting. For one thing both categories raise the problem of political agreement. We shall have more to say about this in section 4, but let us provide a preview here: to justify foregoing efforts of transitional justice, there has to be a significant degree of social consensus about the lack of political interest and about the relative importance of alternative priorities. In other words, in such cases it is not enough that the political class has no interest in digging up the past (as its lack of interest may be due to the wrong reasons) or that it has decided that there are other more important things than digging up the past (again, because the priorities of the political class may be informed by problematic considerations). If these two categories are to justify foregoing efforts of transitional justice there must be substantive level of agreement about the judgments they contain. Furthermore, the employment of the category of “other urgent priorities” presupposes that coming to terms with the past and tending to other priorities are mutually exclusive efforts. Two observations are in order about this assumption. First, some ways of addressing past wrongs are more expensive than others. War crime trials and truth commissions with limited mandates cost less to operate than those with expansive authority. Commissions of historical inquiry are cheaper to run than truth commissions. And so on. In other words, efforts to come to terms with the past can be designed in a cost sensitive manner with other priorities in mind (and with the awareness that a reduced effort will probably yield less comprehensive results). More importantly, there may well be a link between a commitment to truth-telling and the ability to build sustainable and legitimate institutions (even given countervailing risks as we shall explore). If foregoing transitional justice is likely to lead to resentment on the part of those victimized by the previous regime, such sentiments would undermine or threaten the viability of the new institutions that have been designated as a more urgent priority. In this sense, efforts of transitional justice and institution or nation-building are mutually enhancing. A government willing to address past wrongs may well enjoy more public trust when it begins to create new institutions. And its ability to create fair, competent and effective new institutions may help to gradually convince the public that the past really is in the past.

Cultural Variance about Remembering

Much of the appeal of the memory assumption lies in its usefulness for overcoming trauma. Remembering is said to be key because of the purported healing benefits of truth-telling and the airing out of the past.18 Is this therapeutic understanding of memory, influenced as it is by the basic assumptions of psychodynamic theory, equally applicable in all cultural contexts?19 Is it, in other words, a universal human truth that “the truth sets us free” (or at least helps us feel better and overcome trauma) or are there cultural contexts in which truth-telling and the public, open discussion of atrocities are viewed with more skepticism? In Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall maintain that “some societies seem able to ‘forgive and forget’ much more easily than others, and to achieve full reconstitution of relations between former enemies without having to go through the travails of justice, perhaps for cultural reasons—amnesia is the chosen path to reconciliation.”20 Hayner agrees that “there may be cases in which a ‘truth always’ recommendation is not appropriate, or at least in which a recommendation for a formal and official truth-telling project such as a truth commission might be inappropriate.”21

Rosalind Shaw’s 2005 “Special Report” on Sierra Leone, raises the difficulty thus: “Sierra Leone’s TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission], like South Africa’s … valorized a particular kind of memory practice: ‘truth-telling’, the public recounting of memories of violence. This valorization, however, is based on deeply problematic assumptions about the purportedly universal benefits of the verbal recounting of past violence.”22 She considers the genesis of this brand of remembering:

Such commissions and the truth-telling that characterizes them became an especially significant weapon against human rights abuses in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably during the Reagan era. During this period certain repressive Latin American regimes that were U.S. allies knew that if they wished to retain U.S. support, they could not use overt forms of violence. Instead, they developed deniable forms of repression and violence, such as disappearances and death squads (as Aryeh Neier, among others, has noted). Truth-telling thus became a tool used against covert, state-sponsored crimes to reveal clandestine violence, to establish the accountability of political and military leaders, and to publicly acknowledge the previously silenced stories of victims. In such contexts, the public recounting of memories of violence was a redemptive process.23

This model, however, is not necessarily efficacious in every post-conflict scenario; further, it is also not necessarily accepted, and can be at loggerheads with indigenous cultural preferences:

Different regions and localities, moreover, have their own memory practices and often their own techniques of social recovery that may have developed during the course of their own history. How do these practices intersect with public truth-telling during a truth commission? … In Sierra Leone, this question was especially important, since the imperative to remember violence during the TRC was at odds with widespread local techniques of healing and reintegration, which are based on the social forgetting of violence.24

In Mozambique such practices were similarly prevalent and widely accepted. In fact, compared to adjacent South Africa, Mozambique approached reconciliation in almost a diametrically opposed manner: “[I]f in South Africa there was a widely accepted position, at least at the beginning of its truth commission’s operations, that ‘the more truth, the more we talk about the past, then the more reconciliation’, in Mozambique the accepted, though largely unstated belief was ‘the less we dwell on the past, the more likely reconciliation will be’.”25 In Mozambique, the process of reconciliation was incredibly swift:

Stories abound of how soldiers of the two warring sides put down weapons and greeted their opponents as brothers … [a]s the war ended, national and international organizations were concerned with creating mechanisms to reinforce peace at the local level, but found their initiatives were not needed … Jose Luis Cabaco, the former Frelimo government official [said] “our ideas were only confusing and stirring up trouble.”26

Complications with Apportioning Guilt

The second case in which the memory assumption runs into difficulty involves conflicts with a complicated division of responsibility. Under these circumstances it may be practically impossible to provide an account of past wrongs because of the difficulty of figuring out who did what to whom. Perhaps more significantly, the very acknowledgment of such complexity –the knowledge that everyone did everything to everyone else– may impact the motivation of parties to come to terms with the past. When many of those involved understand that they or those close to them were both perpetrators and victims of massive atrocities, the drive to neatly sort out guilt and innocence may well diminish.

Consider, again, the aftermath of the civil war in Mozambique. Hayner tells us that “those who have watched Mozambique over the past twenty years describe it as experiencing one of the most brutal wars the world has seen.”27 But surprisingly, an accounting of past abuses was not countenanced: “In a country where some 1 million civilians were killed, thousands tortured, and some of the most gruesome acts of mutilation and barbarism documented, there have been virtually no calls on the national level for justice, accountability, punishment or banishment from public office … ”28 Why?

Roberto Luis, a Mozambican development specialist who works closely with rural communities, put it succinctly: “Who would retaliate against whom? There wasn’t one group against another. Families and communities were put against each other. If it was one ethnic or language group against another, then maybe you could see it. But it’s hard to think how retaliation would be mobilized. It was the Browns versus the Smiths—but even then families were split up.”29

In other words, accounting for what happened during the war years in Mozambique was complicated by the particularly chaotic nature of that conflict. Any attempt at transitional justice would implicate a great number of people on all sides. It would require a tremendous amount of resources and time. It would tear families apart even further. And, most importantly, it would be unlikely to produce a legally or historically coherent narrative. In the rare cases when countries devolve so profoundly into the proverbial Hobbesian State of Nature that the very concepts of guilt, perpetrators and victims lose much of their meaning—how much force does the memory assumption hold? In her famous criticism of Jaspers’ account of German “collective responsibility” for the Holocaust, Arendt wrote that “where all are guilty none is.”30 She meant that guilt had to be tied with individual agency and that the term was diminished if it was allowed to encompass those who simply stood by or were not aware of what they should have known. But what of cases where actual, individualized guilt is almost universal? When an incomprehensible number on all sides is actually guilty of specific acts? Does the rationale of carefully sorting out and documenting such acts still hold? It must be emphasized that we are speaking about an extreme case. Many post-war contexts present a complicated division of responsibility. The ANC committed acts of terrorism against South African civilians in the course of its struggle.31

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