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Memorials


The second of our two lectures this morning had me a little concerned. The topic was "Designing Memory: The American War Cemeteries in France." I have an architectural sweet tooth, so I wasn't worried about being bored. But I was worried that the kids might be challenged to hang in on a presentation that was so much about aesthetics.

Was I ever wrong.

A still from Dr. Lemay's presentation of cemeteries in France. 

First, I have to give credit to the presenter, an art historian who works for the Smithsonian named Kate Lemay. She knew she had to do something to hook the students early, even if it was to randomly call on one student to ask them to read something (like a grave inscription) posted on the screen. It worked, normalizing the idea of the students participating before teachers had a chance to crowd them out. And in Q&A dialogue, she favored the students in who she called to speak.

When the session was finished, I happened to walk out and toward lunch with some of the boys who were in the session. I saw two (one from Hawaii, one from Mississippi) engaged in a rather serious discussion about the commemoration of Confederate war dead. Another boy talked about how surprised he was at the layers that existed in the controversies over how the monument could be designed. Lauren wanted to know at lunch what my perspective was on a rather serious dialogue we had regarding the way in which German war dead are honored in France.

Sounds controversial, doesn't it? What could be debatable about a cemetery?

Our presenter, Dr. Lemay, spent some time discussing the German war cemeteries in France. We're visiting one on the trip, La Cambe. The American government administers war cemeteries overseas through the American Battlefields and Monuments Commission. There's a similar organization in Germany, but it's not a government effort. Here's their website. Okay, so what's the controversy? Dr. Lemay, while contrasting design ideas between that monument and two American cemeteries in Normandy accidentally triggered a heartfelt discussion between students and teachers wondering why the French would permit German dead to be buried on their soil? Why were the German soldiers afforded an honor that so many victims of their occupation never received? Oh, and isn't it surprising that most French visitors prefer the German cemetery over the American ones? Wait, French are frequent visitors, much more so than Americans?

It was like another world cracked open for the students. And a few teachers, including me.

Dr. Lemay spent time on the controversy about repatriating American remains. We were the only power to offer families the right to return bodies home for burial here. And act that seems quite generous on the surface. But we quickly learned that there were economic, labor relations, diplomatic, and even Franco-American relations implications to us doing that. We learned about how the job of burying the dead and caring for their graves first fell, primarily, on the French. And the Normans had their own dead to bury. Normandy is the only region of France bombed by the Allies in their liberation, and the number of French civilian dead roughly equals Allied casualties suffered in the campaign to liberate Normandy.

I've seen this inscription before. I'll see it with new eyes on Tuesday.
The lecture was perfectly timed for us as a group. We're enough in to our work that the kids can hang in there on a topic as esoteric as this, and it lends much more meaning to their work in honoring the fallen soldiers they're studying.

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