War Memory, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Portuguese-American Veterans, 1930s-2000s
Journal article (in progress)
War memory is an integral part of most national narratives. In the United States, the most militarized country in the planet, public memory works to conceal the nation’s imperialist aspirations under a representation of war as an eternal struggle to protect and disseminate the same liberal-democratic ideals that shaped its national revolution. Despite the fact that military duty, by its very nature, demands authoritarian discipline, American soldiers in this context are seen to personify a link to the nation’s foundational ideal of “liberty for all.” Thus, war sacrifice is considered indisputable proof of an individual’s devotion to his or her country. In a social, political, and economic culture that is heavily predicated on the pursuit of individual self-interest, war and the military occupy a pivotal place in American psyche by allowing the cathartic expression of the otherwise unexpected communitarian values of fraternity and self-sacrifice. In this context, the celebration of dead combatants by the state becomes a process akin to secular canonization, one that is all the more powerful when the individual is stripped of his or her identity and becomes an ideological archetype.
As Benedict Anderson noted: “No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers… Yet void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings.” In American culture, the Tomb of the Unknowns, located in the Arlington National Cemetery, is less often evoked than the popular image of a green-grassed cemetery, with row after row of white headstones, which can be found in various parts of the United States and in the various countries where its armed forces have battled. Despite representing particular individuals and identifying fallen soldiers by their names, the sheer quantity of headstones and their disciplined arrangement have similar evocative power as the anonymous dead soldier that Anderson refers to. In this case, it is the repetition, not the quality or distinctiveness of the soldiers’ sacrifice that is asked to be remembered; and while the individual is accounted for and memorialized in countless epitaphs, it is the nation as a whole that is being said to bear the burden of war and not the sum of its parts.
Contrary to the national norm, ethnic leaders sometimes went to considerable lengths to (re)claim the ethnic identities of these homogenized national warriors, hoping the blood of their fallen ethnic peers testify to their group’s full membership in the national community and put nativist fears of dual-loyalty to rest. This, however, is a departure from the official war memorialization sanctioned by the nation-state, as it separates the particular from the whole.
This article examines the efforts of Portuguese-American veterans to memorialize the sacrifices of their fellow ethnic warriors in the American War of Independence, and the First and Second World Wars, through the unveiling of monuments, and the renaming of streets and squares, now bearing the familiar ethnic surnames of the resident immigrant community, further impressing their presence in their neighbourhoods’ toponym.