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Tag: memory (Page 2 of 6)

Space Shuttle Challenger taking off for the STS 51-L mission, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Two tragedies, Challenger and Columbia

Eighteen years ago today, on Saturday, February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the STS-107 mission. Burning debris of the shuttle rained down on Texas. All seven crew members on board were killed in the disaster. The accident investigation afterward concluded that a piece of insulating foam that had fallen off the shuttle’s external tank at launch had damaged the leading edge of the port wing; on reentry, hot gases entered the damaged wing and tore the shuttle apart.

It was the second time that a space shuttle had been destroyed on a mission, leading to the deaths of all of its crew. Seventeen years earlier, on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on the STS-51L mission. One of the solid rocket boosters had burned through the O-ring joining two of its sections, creating a jet of flame that blew up the external tank and destroyed the shuttle.

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first elementary teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Both tragedies were important events for NASA, leading to redesigns of the shuttle and managerial reorganizations to prevent the kind of group-think that had allowed the disasters to happen in the first place. Challenger was replaced by a new shuttle, Endeavour, while the Columbia tragedy led to the eventual retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet and their replacement by commercially-operated space capsules.

For the American public at large, though, the two tragedies had markedly different effects. Challenger was a national calamity that left deep emotional scars on the public psyche. The launch was carried on national television and literally millions of people watched the astronauts die in real time. These included school children in their classrooms, because one of the crew members of Challenger was America’s first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. Challenger exploded before I was even born (I was born later that year), but I feel like I remember it because it was talked about as I was growing up.

The loss of Columbia was also a national tragedy, but its influence was not as long-lasting. Columbia made front-page headlines for weeks after the disaster. Like Challenger, Columbia got a eulogy from the president (an uncharacteristically eloquent George W. Bush, quoting from Isaiah 40). The astronauts’ names are inscribed on the space memorial mirror at Kennedy Space Center and there is a monument honoring them at Arlington National Cemetery. But Columbia isn’t remembered like Challenger was, even though the tragedy is more recent. I doubt that children born in 2003 grew up hearing about Colombia like I heard about Challenger.

Why is Columbia not as well-remembered as Challenger? I think there are several reasons. One of them is that the American public was not as aware of the mission as it was going on. It was not high-profile because there was no teacher-astronaut among the crew. Even though I was a space enthusiast, I hadn’t really been following the mission and I’d only read one newspaper article about it. No school children watched Columbia crash in their classrooms. (It was a Saturday anyway)

When Challenger exploded, it was something new under the sun. America in the 1980s had been unstoppable. The economy was booming. The American military was stronger than ever. The Space Shuttle was making access to low-earth orbit routine and easy. There was nothing we couldn’t build or do—until the Challenger tragedy showed that there must be limits to the United States’ technological hubris. (The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the same year had a similar effect on the Soviet Union.)

When Columbia crashed in 2003, America was no longer unassailable. The country was in the midst of crisis. Columbia crashed less than a year and a half after 9/11 and a month and a half before the US invasion of Iraq. The United States was preoccupied.

Do a web search for Challenger and the ill-fated space shuttle will show up on the top of the results. But if you search for Columbia, you will get results for a river in the Northwest, multiple US towns and cities (including the capital South Carolina), a country in South America (albeit with a slightly different spelling), a sportswear company, and on and on. You may never get results for the shuttle, unless you make your search more specific.

This is an accident of vocabulary, but it is also telling. Perhaps there is only so much room in American cultural memory, and one tragedy must represent several. Challenger represents itself but also space tragedies in general. When we remember Challenger, in a way we are remembering Columbia as well.

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. (Source: NASA)

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. Left to right: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lists off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

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Splendid little monuments

(and not-so-little monuments)

On a street corner in Walla Walla, Washington, the town where I went to college, a gray stone soldier stands silently on a gray stone pedestal. Monuments like this blend easily into the urban landscape, and for years I didn’t pay any attention to it. When I passed by it, I simply assumed that it was a Civil War monument, based on the uniform worn by the soldier and ignoring the chronology. (The US Civil War ended in 1865 but Washington didn’t get statehood until 1889.) When, in my fourth year of college, I finally stopped to look at the monument up-close, I was startled to find that it was not for the Civil War but for the next big war in US history, the Spanish-American War.

Like the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War of 1898 isn’t much remembered or talked about in the United States anymore. But unlike the war with Mexico, the war with Spain inspired a frenzy of monument-building. Some of them, like the Dewey Arch in Madison Square, New York, were temporary structures, but many still stand, dotting the American landscape and blending right into it like the statue in Walla Walla. Once I noticed that this statue was for the Spanish-American War, I started to see monuments to the war all over the place. Here are some that I’ve seen and had the chance to photograph.

About the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War took place over the course of just under four months in 1898, late-April to mid-August. The United States fought with Spain over its last remaining colonial holdings in the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines. Because the war was over so quickly, it was nicknamed “The Splendid Little War” by people who didn’t participate in it, but it was in reality a bitterly-fought war, with American forces suffering high casualties from enemy fire as well as tropical diseases and conditions for which they were totally unprepared.

Before the war began, on February 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine had blown up in Havana harbor, killing 261 sailors and sparking public outrage in support of a declaration of war against Spain. The fiercest fighting in the war took place in Cuba, as Spanish forces fought against Cuban revolutionaries and American forces that were supposedly supporting the Cubans. There was also a huge naval battle in Manila, in which the US Navy under the command of Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. In Puerto Rico, the Spanish forces surrendered without offering hardly any resistance.

After the war, Cuba gained its independence, but only nominally. The United States reserved the right to meddle in Cuban affairs whenever there was a dollar to be made. (This created resentment that led to Cuba’s communist revolution in the 1950s.) The Philippines became an American colony, although Filipinos themselves resisted US control for three years in a bitter, bloody insurrection that left thousands dead on both sides. The Philippines finally gained its independence from the United States after World War II. Puerto Rico also became an American colony, and it remains one to this day, having never been fully integrated into the United States or granted independence.

It isn’t hard to see why we in the United States don’t like to remember the Spanish-American War. Although this country has always been an imperial power, we were able to convince ourselves that our expansion across the North American continent was somehow inevitable (although it definitely wasn’t). But in the Spanish-American War, the United States became an overseas imperial power, just like Britain and France and apparently no better than them. In the end, we were probably worse imperializers. While France has legally integrated its overseas territories like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guyana into France, the United States continues to refuse to make Puerto Rico a state or grant Puerto Ricans full citizenship rights unless they move to the mainland.

Relics of the Battleship Maine

Parts were salvaged from the battleship Maine after it blew up, and some of them have found their way into permanent public monuments.

A mast of the Maine stands atop a monument in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Battleship Maine mast

Mast of the Maine in Arlington National Cemetery

Predictably, some parts of the Maine have ended up in the state of Maine. Portland has a gun from the Maine and Bangor has its impressive frilly bow decorations.

Battleship Maine gun

A gun from the Maine in Fort Allen Park, Portland, Maine.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

The gilded filigree that used to decorate the bow of the Maine, on a monument in Bangor.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

Detail of the shield from the bow of the Maine.

USS Maine plaque in Bangor

The plaque of the Bangor USS Maine monument.

The monument in Walla Walla

The Spanish-American War monument in Walla Walla honors Company I of the First Washington Volunteer Infantry. Being from a West Coast state, the regiment shipped out to the Philippines rather than Cuba. It arrived after the Spanish had surrendered, but it participated in the fierce fighting with the Filipinos. It was dedicated in 1904.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

View of the Spanish-American War monument on Alder St. in Walla Walla, Washington.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the front inscription of the monument.

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

Detail of the inscription on the right side of the monument, with the dates and places of battles that Company I fought in during the Philippine War. An inscription below this declares that the unit was “204 DAYS ON FIRING LINE.”

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

With the help of my mother, I took a rubbing of the inscription on the front side of the monument on Memorial Day weekend last year. It now hangs on the bulletin board in my office.

Dewey Monument in San Francisco

The biggest Spanish-American War monument I have seen is the Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square, which honors the hero of the Battle of Manila Bay. The Dewey Monument is an 85-ft-tall monumental column, crowned by a statue of the goddess of victory carrying a trident. It is an impressive monument, but it blends imperceptibly into the urban environment. The vast majority of shoppers at Macy’s and the other stores on the square probably have no idea what the monument represents.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

The Dewey Monument in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was dedicated in 1903.

There is also a statue honoring Spanish-American War veterans on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Spanish-American War veterans monument in Sacramento.

Bonus: Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River

Wheeler Dam is a Tennessee Valley Authority dam in northern Alabama, and I have already profiled it in “A gallery of Alabama dams.” Of course, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Spanish-American War monument, but I include it here because it is named after a prominent officer from the war, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who commanded troops in Cuba. He had earlier been a Confederate officer in the Civil War.

Wheeler Dam pan

Panoramic view of Wheeler Dam in northern Alabama.

Links

Forgetting the Mexican-American War

This post is a follow-up to my piece from last year, “Remembering the United States intervention.”

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was a hugely important event for both nations involved. At the end of the war, a defeated, humiliated Mexico lost nearly half of its territory. The United States gained this territory, including the strategic harbors of San Francisco and San Diego and the gold- and silver-rich Sierra Nevada. The aftermath of the war would lead to bitter civil wars in both countries, the War of the Reform in Mexico (1857-1860) and the American Civil War in the United States (1861-1865).

Given its importance, it is not surprising that the Mexican-American War is well-remembered in Mexico, with huge monuments in the capital and streets honoring the heroes of the war in cities across the country. In the United States, though, it is another story. There is very little cultural memory of the war, and virtually no monuments to it. (I am not including monuments to the Bear Flag Revolt in California, because the monuments never portray the conflict as a part of the bigger war.) I never even heard of the war before I was in 11th grade, and my students in college-level US History 1 know little or nothing about it.

Why do we not remember the Mexican-American War in the United States, even though it was so important? That is a question I have pondered for some time. I unexpectedly came across an answer to this question when I found an article about memory of the Mexican-American War while researching a different topic.

The article is by Amy S. Greenberg, and it appeared in the October 2009 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association. According to the article, it was between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Spanish-American War in 1898 that Americans forgot about the war with Mexico. There were a couple of reasons why collective amnesia set in during this time. One was that the heaviest fighting in the war had taken place in territory that was still a part of Mexico, and there were thus very few soldiers’ graves on US soil to pay homage to on the new holiday of Memorial Day. (To this day, the US government maintains a cemetery of American war dead in Mexico City.)

There was also a political reason. In the Second Party System, the Democrats had been in favor of the war with Mexico while the opposition party, the Whigs, were opposed to it, seeing it as nothing more than a brazen land grab. (Great Whig statesman John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives while railing against a proposal to honor the generals from the war with Mexico. He never recovered and died shortly afterward.) The Whig Party fell apart shortly after the war, splitting north and south over the issue of slavery.

In the North, most former Whigs joined the nascent Republican Party. After the Civil War, Whigs-turned-Republicans maintained their dislike of the Mexican-American War. From their perspective, the Civil War had been a righteous crusade to preserve the Union and liberate the slaves, while the war with Mexico had been a shameful attempt to seize more land for slavery. Republicans blocked the efforts of veterans’ groups to build a national memorial for the Mexican-American War or to preserve battlefields from the conflict.

As it is, I have seen precisely one physical monument to the Mexican-American War on American soil, and it isn’t much of one. The waterfront in Vallejo, California, on the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, has a display of a couple of cannons. One of them has a plaque stating that the gun “participated in the capture of Guaymas and Mazatlan” in 1847.

And that’s it. If you want to see much more than this, you are going to have to go to Mexico!

24-pounder cannon plaque

Plaque for a Mexican-American War cannon on the waterfront at Vallejo, Calif.

Naval cannons in Vallejo, Calif.

The cannon from the USS Independence in Vallejo (foreground). The other cannon is a post-Civil War cannon from the USS Hartford.

References

  • Greenberg, Amy S. “1848/1898: Memorial Day, Places of Memory, and Imperial Amnesia.” PMLA 124 no. 5 (Oct. 2009): 1869-73.

Links

  • https://www.nps.gov/paal/index.htm Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Texas. The first clash of the Mexican-American War took place north of the Rio Grande on land claimed by both countries. The battlefield was not preserved as a historic park until more than a century after the war.

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