Extracts from Adisa Basic’s coverage of the ‘Writers in Motion’ tour
for the weekly magazine “Slobodna Bosna” (Sarajevo, Bosna-Herzegovina),
WAR TOURISM: A BLOODY PAST CONVERTED INTO BUSINESS
The first stop is the surreal town of Gettysburg, the place where the biggest battle of the Civil War took place a century and a half ago, and which today lives comfortably off its past. A million visitors annually visit its National War Monument, the former battlefields teeming with tourists having themselves be photographed in historical uniforms, as well as communicating with the spirits of the dead warriors.
In the stream of visitors coming through Gettysburg there are virtually no black faces. The reason is, apparently, that the majority of the visitors here come to gaze with nostalgia at the suffering of the heroic Southern troops, ignoring the fact that it was the Southerners who put in place the slavery upon which their economy was based. Peter Carmichael, professor of history at the local university tells me: “This place has always provoked lively controversies; people interpret history according to their own ideas, they romanticize the past, and they tell stories the way it suits them. Mostly people imagine gentlemanly battles of volunteers giving lives for their ideals. The fratricidal slaughter, in which men gauged out each other’s eyes fighting face to face, or how they starved —that does not get talked about. Precious sources of facts from that period are the letters the soldiers wrote, and which show not the heroic but the tragic side of war. “
According to the Civil War specialist Carmichael, many people appear to still accept the Southern ideology: “I really have heard much here about how this is really a celebration of the Southern troops... take the monument to General Lee, the commander of the enemy Southern army—it's ten times more visited, not to mention grander, than the monuments for the fallen Northern soldiers. I often hear people commenting Lee's greatest defeat by saying: “If only he would have done this or that, gotten here earlier, played the situation differently or estimated things differently.... “ And I ask myself whether they are conscious of what it is they are saying, whether they truly realize this means wishing that the South would have won and that we would today be living in two different American countries. I'm not sure they understand the consequences of what they are saying....” says Prof. Carmichael with slow resignation.
He and his colleagues are indeed involved in ongoing debates about the war even today, hundred and fifty years later. For them this dialogue is an indispensible part of the American identity, even if the participants’ opinions about these fundamental questions can never reach a point of agreement. At the same time there is the problem of the diverging interpretations of recent history—a problem that daily provokes bitter arguments in Bosna-Herzegovina. Comments professor Kent Gramm, the author of a recent book the about major traumata of US history: “We live in a post-modern era but a whole generation of students is now raised within this postmodern perspective, in which history is simply a narrative shaped by whoever is (re)telling it. The final consequence of such an approach is a complete relativization of everything from the past-- yet there were actual people who made a heroic effort so that our life today is what it is. People fought here, as president Lincoln says in the Gettysburg address, for a government of the people, by the people, for the people. When it’s necessary to confirm an undeniable historical fact, all we are left with are facts and historical data, nothing more.”
POST-CAPITALIST TOURIST TOURS
The town of Gettysburg together with its National War Memorial complex may seem as a precarious place of militaristic pilgrimages, where assorted militant inclinations come to the fore. Yet it is interesting to see how, in being overtaken by consumerist kitsch, its martial air has gradually lightened. There is barely a house which is not in one way or another tied to the Civil war. T-shirts with pictures of generals, uniforms of both warring sides, dress-up photo-stands, wax museums, the model of the most decisive battle of American history enacted by 120.000 miniature figurines…. In answer to my question whether it doesn’t seem tasteless to be merchandising trauma in this way and whether such war tourism (sometimes known as black tourism) oughtn’t be avoided so as to retain a sense of piety, the American writer Hugh Ferrer says: “I understand that this may seem strange to an outsider, but the economic aspect of war's heritage is in fact fundamentally American. The fate of the entire town rests on it, it lets people make a decent living-- and such entrepreneurial spirit is fundamentally in keeping with the American culture and way of life.“
Indeed, Americans trade on trauma in this way even when it comes to much more recent events. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, too, are occasions for souvenirs, themes for movies and TV series; both New York and NO offer special programs on the spots where catastrophes occurred: “Soon after Katrina a bus tour operator started offering visits through the hardest hit places. There certainly were people who were upset and raised objections, but in the last analysis, and taking into account the economic aspect, perhaps a tour of such places can be both informative and sobering, one of those life-altering experiences that mark us forever,“ says an American commentator.
From the Bosnian perspective such questions and perspectives may seem unusual, to say the least. Though there now are groups of tourists who visit out country in search of Sniper Alley, “Sarajevo Rose,” the debris of The Tunnel or similar places, the idea still strikes us as dark, morbid and somewhat offensive. Yet it's interesting to see not only the different manner in which other cultures tackle their painful experiences but also how disagreement around large-scale historical questions is a more universal phenomenon than we may have thought.
Translated from the Croatian (nd)
Translated from the Croatian (nd)