Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the National World War II Museum in New Orleans for work. It’s a terrific museum, and they have some really exciting plans for future exhibits – if you can make the trip, I highly recommend going. I especially recommend seeing the film Beyond All Boundaries while you’re there; it’s a production that you truly experience rather than simply watch.
However, two conversations were also had that reconfirmed in my mind why museums like this play such an important role in our culture. The first came in the form of a talk about the museum’s founding. When the museum opened, many were skeptical whether there would be a draw to come to a museum about WWII. The only people they thought would come to see such exhibits were veterans, and WWII veterans are becoming fewer and fewer. The second came in a chat with a docent, who revealed that a guest had once said that he was a pacifist and that he thought the museum was “sick” and “glorified war.”
Putting aside the argument that spending twenty-five dollars to go to a museum in order to tell someone you’re morally opposed to that museum is ludicrous, if you’ve actually visited the museum, viewed the exhibits, and especially seen Beyond All Boundaries, you know that the National World War II Museum does the opposite of glorifying war. The museum exhibits are very careful to document and illustrate what a terrible thing war is. One of the first segments of Beyond All Boundaries includes panels put up that say in big, bold letters 65,000,000, the number of casualties associated with World War II. They are very clear that the majority of these lives were civilian lives.
All of the exhibits play with the same questions: How could this terrible thing happen? How could the world come to this dark place? How can we prevent this from happening again? There are exhibits that give difficult decisions, such as the What Would You Do? exhibit in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion. They give background on difficult moral choices that were made during the war. They ask things such as, “If you bomb these rail yards, you’ll block supplies getting to Nazi soldiers. However, there are civilians that would also die as a result. Would you bomb the rail yards, or simply destroy roads and tracks?” Users vote on a screen in front of them. When time is up, they show the results of the current poll, as well as what was done historically. (The U.S. did bomb those rail yards, by the way. 12,000 civilians died, but it effectively cut off supplies to Nazi troops. Was it worth it? The museum lets you decide.)
The museum highlights the terrible, despairing, lonely lives of soldiers – many of whom were still practically children when they left. Towards the end of Beyond All Boundaries, a soldier is quoted saying something along the lines of, “Finally, the war is over! We’ll have an opportunity to go home and grow up.”
These lessons are vital, and we need to think about the consequences of our actions on the international sphere. We can’t let this happen again. With current weapons technology, if something like this happened again, the outcomes could be even more ghastly.
Which brings me to the first conversation: it is true that we have fewer and fewer WWII veterans. But without museums recounting their story from their perspective, their experiences will die with them. Veterans are able to express what the war was like through first-person narratives, instead of a sequence of numbers and a map of troop maneuvers in a textbook. There is a section in the museum featuring oral histories from veterans. They recorded audio of veterans recounting their memories and experiences in the war, and additions to their collection are ongoing as they encounter more veterans willing to share their experience. No, we will not always have people that lived through WWII around to recall what it was like to be there, but their story can at least live on in digital form.
Passage of time often changes the way we view history. Opinions change, details become hazy, and situations often get altered or skewed. But the experience of the people that lived through that history – even after they are gone, museums have the power to record their memories and lessons and pass them along to a new generation.
Maybe we can in fact avoid making the same mistakes as our forefathers. And maybe we can use the good they did in the world as well, and mirror it in our own time.