American Memories

American Memories: Atrocities and the Law

Joachim J. Savelsberg
Ryan D. King
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    American Memories
    Book Description:

    In the long history of warfare and cultural and ethnic violence, the twentieth century was exceptional for producing institutions charged with seeking accountability or redress for violent offenses and human rights abuses across the globe, often forcing nations to confront the consequences of past atrocities. The Holocaust ended with trials at Nuremberg, apartheid in South Africa concluded with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Gacaca courts continue to strive for closure in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Despite this global trend toward accountability, American collective memory appears distinct in that it tends to glorify the nation’s past, celebrating triumphs while eliding darker episodes in its history. In American Memories, sociologists Joachim Savelsberg and Ryan King rigorously examine how the United States remembers its own and others’ atrocities and how institutional responses to such crimes, including trials and tribunals, may help shape memories and perhaps impede future violence. American Memories uses historical and media accounts, court records, and survey research to examine a number of atrocities from the nation’s past, including the massacres of civilians by U.S. military in My Lai, Vietnam, and Haditha, Iraq. The book shows that when states initiate responses to such violence—via criminal trials, tribunals, or reconciliation hearings—they lay important groundwork for how such atrocities are viewed in the future. Trials can serve to delegitimize violence—even by a nation’s military— by creating a public record of grave offenses. But the law is filtered by and must also compete with other institutions, such as the media and historical texts, in shaping American memory. Savelsberg and King show, for example, how the My Lai slayings of women, children, and elderly men by U.S. soldiers have been largely eliminated from or misrepresented in American textbooks, and the army’s reputation survived the episode untarnished. The American media nevertheless evoked the killings at My Lai in response to the murder of twenty-four civilian Iraqis in Haditha, during the war in Iraq. Since only one conviction was obtained for the My Lai massacre, and convictions for the killings in Haditha seem increasingly unlikely, Savelsberg and King argue that Haditha in the near past is now bound inextricably to My Lai in the distant past. With virtually no criminal convictions, and none of higher ranks for either massacre, both events will continue to be misrepresented in American memory. In contrast, the book examines American representations of atrocities committed by foreign powers during the Balkan wars, which entailed the prosecution of ranking military and political leaders. The authors analyze news accounts of the war’s events and show how articles based on diplomatic sources initially cast Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in a less negative light, but court-based accounts increasingly portrayed Milosevic as a criminal, solidifying his image for the public record. American Memories provocatively suggests that a nation’s memories don’t just develop as a rejoinder to events—they are largely shaped by institutions. In the wake of atrocities, how a state responds has an enduring effect and provides a moral framework for whether and how we remember violent transgressions. Savelsberg and King deftly show that such responses can be instructive for how to deal with large-scale violence in the future, and hopefully how to deter it.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-749-2
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Introduction: How Maurice Halbwachs Died—and How We Remember Him
    (pp. xxi-xxvi)

    Entering one of the exhibition halls of the memorial site of the former German Buchenwald concentration camp, just outside the picturesque town of Weimar with its history of humanist thought, visitors encounter a small exhibit commemorating Maurice Halbwachs, the late French sociologist and student of Emile Durkheim. It is at this site where, as inmate 17,161, Halbwachs suffered pain and humiliation and finally, in mid-March of 1945, shortly before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War II, death. In 1944 he had dared to demand information and justice from the authorities after the brutal murder of...

  6. Chapter 1 From Law to Collective Memory: Breaking Cycles of Violence?
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book deals with American memories of atrocities, the role law plays in their construction, and the way law itself is affected by them. We begin, however, with two stories that help situate our work and show its contemporary relevance. The first story takes us back to Europe more than two centuries ago. It illustrates some central ideas on how law, and the collective memory to which it contributes, affects cycles of violence. This reference is temporally and geographically distant, but as the great playwright Bertolt Brecht understood, insight is sometimes more easily gained from a distance. The second story...

  7. Chapter 2 What the Literature Tells Us, and Uncharted Terrain
    (pp. 15-33)

    As The preceding pages have shown, collective memory plays a large part in, and is in turn shaped by, the legal response to atrocities. But what exactly do we mean by collective memory? How is it created, and what are its features? How do legal proceedings contribute to shaping collective memory? Through what mechanisms may collective memory, at least under some circumstances, stall future violence? We first answer these questions based on ideas put forth in extant work. This paves the way for us to add our own insights into law’s contributions to collective memory and its potential relevance for...

  8. Chapter 3 Constructing and Remembering the My Lai Massacre
    (pp. 34-52)
    Rajiv Evan Rajan and Lacy Mitchell

    If a high school student asked, “What was My Lai?” how would you answer? Could you correctly pronounceMy Lai? When did it happen? Would you describe it as a watershed event in American history? Who were the key people or institutions involved? Did anyone die, and if so, who, how many, and at whose hands?

    Some of these questions are matters of historical fact. My Lai (pronounced “me lie”) is a hamlet in the village of Son My on the coast of central Vietnam. It is also accepted that several hundred innocent Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children, and old...

  9. Chapter 4 From Vietnam to Iraq: Bridging Metaphors, Mnemonic Struggles, and Haunting
    (pp. 53-75)
    Jeremy Minyard

    In the preceding chapter we showed a cleansing of American memories of atrocities committed by members of the country’s military during the Vietnam War, especially the My Lai massacre. The reputation of the military, already protected by the court’s attribution of guilt to a single lieutenant, the leader of a platoon within one company, continues to appear relatively untarnished. Approval ratings of the military also remain high. This constellation of memories and attitudes became most relevant, visible, and consequential as the United States engaged in a series of new wars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The Gulf...

  10. Chapter 5 Slobodan Milosevic Through Lenses of Law, Diplomacy, and Media Reporting
    (pp. 76-106)
    Courtney Faue and Yu-Ju Chien

    In this chapter we again examine the institutional contexts that are likely to shape collective memories. And again we are concerned with American memories of atrocities. Yet these atrocities are committed not by Americans, as in the My Lai incident, but by foreign powers, and they are adjudicated not in American courts but by an international tribunal. We selected the case of the Balkan conflict because it is well suited for studying the formation of American memories. The United States played a most active role throughout the unfolding conflict; it was a central player in the establishment of the International...

  11. Chapter 6 The Shape of American Memories—and a German Comparison
    (pp. 107-122)

    Particular processes such as legal interventions against atrocities accumulate to shape larger cultural patterns, including collective memories. Having examined in detail how American or United States–supported institutions process domestic and foreign mass killings such as My Lai, Haditha, and the Balkan massacres, we now take a brief look at the composite picture. This picture is simultaneously affected by omissions in processing, through courts or alternative mechanisms, other atrocities in the course of American history, such as those committed during the Indian Wars and in the context of the slavery and Jim Crow systems. Note that instances in which no...

  12. Chapter 7 From Collective Memory to Law: Theoretical Interlude
    (pp. 123-134)

    Despite the general cultivation of a glorified image of American history, on June 18, 2009, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for more than two centuries of slavery in America. This resolution was passed, not coincidentally, around the June 14 holiday once celebrated by former slaves to commemorate emancipation. It stands alongside several related resolutions enacted during the period of just a few years. For instance, in 2008 the House passed a similar resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow laws, and the Senate apologized for atrocities perpetrated against Native Americans. In 2005 a Senate resolution formally apologized...

  13. Chapter 8 How American Memory Shapes Hate Crime Law—and a German Comparison
    (pp. 135-149)

    As the previous chapters have established, collective memories of atrocities differ across societies, and past legal intervention contributes to those differences. Moreover, collective memories of past atrocities have consequences for the likelihood that cycles of violence will be brought to an end. They may at least enhance chances that governments will act to prevent such recurrence. Memories also contribute to the shape legal interventions ultimately take. This expectation applies both to large-scale atrocities and to those small occurrences of hate-inspired threats and violent acts, often referred to as hate crimes, that instill fear in the minds of many ethnic, racial,...

  14. Chapter 9 Commemorating Injustice and Implementing Hate Crime Law Across Jurisdictions in the United States
    (pp. 150-165)

    The previous chapter has shown that collective memories are indeed consequential for lawmaking and law enforcement. When making decisions about whether to pursue prosecutions, many German state attorneys have had one eye on the past. Collective memories are not determinative, but they do guide and constrain German law enforcers. Compared with the German case, the story about American law and law enforcement is less clear cut. Some patterns can be detected, and we have shown how the Holocaust crept into discussions of hate crime law in the early legislative debates, but in the end, in our estimation, American collective memory,...

  15. Chapter 10 Conclusion: Atrocities, Law, and Collective Memory in the United States and Beyond
    (pp. 166-179)

    Our journey through American memories of atrocities has yielded insights of scholarly and practical value. First, and at a very general level, our work corroborates what prior scholarship has long suggested: the structure of American memories of atrocities, domestic and foreign, are a crucial component of American culture and social life. Collective amnesia, which is always selective amnesia, is undoubtedly part of that structure as well. Second, law contributes to shaping this structure of memory. Trials against a few low-ranking perpetrators in domestic cases and prosecutions against high-ranking figures in foreign cases have left their traces in the minds of...

  16. Appendix A: History Textbooks Used in My Lai Content Analysis
    (pp. 180-185)
  17. Appendix B: Detailed Tables on Coverage of Milosevic
    (pp. 186-188)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 189-214)
  19. References
    (pp. 215-230)
  20. Index
    (pp. 231-238)