When it comes to war, ethical memory illuminates how war neither emerges from alien territory nor is fought by monsters. War grows on intimate soil, nurtured by friends and neighbors, fought by sons, daughters, wives, and fathers. Our ambivalence about war’s identity simply expresses ambivalence about our own identities, which are collectively inseparable from the wars our nations have fought. These are the wars for which we have paid, from which we have benefitted, by which we are traumatized. Whatever may be noble and heroic in war is found in us, and whatever is evil and horrific in war is also found in us.
When it comes to war, the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is thus not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people. The basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is instead more fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity. A just memory demands instead a final step in the dialectics of ethical memory—not just the movement between an ethics of remembering one’s own and remembering others, but also a shift toward an ethics of recognition, of seeing and remembering how the inhuman inhabits the human. Any project of the humanities should thus also be a project of the inhumanities, of how civilizations are built on forgotten barbarism toward others, of how the heart of darkness beats within. No wonder, then, that for Jorge Luis Borges, remembering is a ghostly verb. Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited. The troubling weight of the past is especially evident when we speak of war and our limited ability to recall it. Haunted and haunting, human and inhuman, war remains with us and within us, impossible to forget but difficult to remember.
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies