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Remembering other memorials

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Who remembers? And what remembers for us when we've lost the point of the story we once felt we needed to tell?

Veterans and comrades, 2005

Old soldiers of the Red Army, some in their boxy uniforms and rows of cheaply struck medals, are getting ready in West Hollywood for the dedication of a city- and county-sponsored memorial at Plummer Park. It will be, say city officials, the only monument in America to veterans of the Soviet military.

A slab of red granite, slightly tilted, engraved with cranes and lines from a famous poem about dead fighters rising as white cranes from the battlefield will honor comrades who fell in the Great Patriotic War against Nazism.

I was born a soldier of the next war, already underway in the fall of 1948 while Soviet tanks blockaded Berlin and President Truman campaigned for election on his willingness to do the unthinkable with America's atomic arsenal. I was schooled in the Red Menace by the Sisters of St. Joseph in the 1950s. I drilled for the coming fight in monthly "duck, cover, and hold" exercises. The Cold War plan of battle required that my classmates and I be casualty statistics, but we were assured this would be our contribution to the war effort.

It was the same in high school, with maps in every classroom showing the line dividing East from West. For two of those high school years, I studied Russian under a Czech refugee priest who had learned the language while imprisoned by the Communists. In the mid-1960s, Americans feared we were slipping behind in various races - to the moon, to better bombs - and, Fr. Jacob said, America needed more Russian speakers.

I remember some words of the practice dialogs and some lines from a song about Katusha rocket launchers. I bought a couple of Red Army Chorus LPs. I went to a film festival to see Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," produced in the Soviet Union in 1938.

There is a scene at the end of the movie, set in the 13th century, that shows the aftermath of a battle between the defenders of the city of Pskov and its German besiegers. The liberated survivors go out into the snowy fields to collect the city's dead. A woman of the town sings a haunting lament that prefigures, at least for me, the anguish of Stalingrad's defenders, who would collect their own dead from the snow only few years after the film was made.

World War II, some historians say, was won at Stalingrad's gates in 1943, or at least, the winning of the war was made possible. The advancing army of one great evil crashed disastrously into the defending army of another evil, one that had been complicit in 1940 in making the war possible. The victory of the Red Army was heroic on anyone's terms and yet it was compromised by the fate of Poland and the Baltic states, the history of the Soviet gulag and Stalin's pogroms, and the misery of the Iron Curtain.

The city of West Hollywood is émigré Russian and Jewish in one part and proudly gay and lesbian in another. Their very different battles have made heroes - survival alone is worth celebrating - but a memorial to any of them is still ambiguous. Perhaps all contemporary monuments should carry a warning asterisk.

Los Angeles is getting crowded with memorials that jostle for our attention, which is a good thing for a place that encourages easy forgetting and celebrates memory loss as "closure." Not as good is the fierce sentimentality that hangs on some civic memorials and on roadside flowers and votive candles. Public sentimentality is as much an enemy of memory as is our preference for amnesia.

Memory is supposed to be served by the Red Army memorial in West Hollywood. A digital video display calls up clips of the old soldiers talking about their wounds and losses and, I hope, the uncertainties of their battles, in which they were ultimately both the victors and the defeated.

In 1962, during the week of the Cuban missile crisis, my parents stood at the kitchen sink after dinner, washing up and listening to the news on the TV set turned up loud. They turned to my brother and me and told us what we should do, if something happened.

My brother and I - he was 16 and I was 14 - should not try to come home from our Catholic high school. We should go to the school chapel instead, to wait. My parents said they would come for us there. My parents mouthed these lies, and my brother and I quietly repeated them.

We knew that we lived at "ground zero," surrounded by Douglas Aircraft, Rockwell International, a Nike missile battery and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. We knew that the thermal pulse from the detonation of 20-megaton fusion bomb would incinerate everything and everyone inside a 23-mile-wide circle.

We knew that our parents would not come for us, and that our school chapel was a fit place in which to die.

I wish there were a piece of marble for those of us who are veterans of the Cold War, in front of which our losses, though different, might be considered. But that will have to wait for the end of current wars, into which we've all been drafted again, elderly Soviet veterans and middle-aged Cold Warriors - comrades at last.

A substantially different version of this post appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2005

Image taken by Flickr user Martin Belam. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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