Home Shrines for American War Dead: Are They Just About Remembering?

By: Kenny Smith

In a recent series of photographs and essays for the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Shrine Down the Hall,” Ashley Gilbertson, Dexter Filkins, and Miki Meek, offer “a look at some of the bedrooms America’s young war dead left behind.”  The photograph above, for instance, comes from the childhood home of U.S. Army First Lieutenant Brian N. Bradshaw, age twenty-four, from Steilacoom, Washington, who was killed June 25, 2009, in Kheyl, Afghanistan by a roadside bomb.  In all, the article shows nineteen of these “war memorials with neatly made beds.”  

Gilbertson

Gilbertson began this project in 2007.  While his coverage of the war in Iraq has received numerous accolades over the past seven years, “he has stopped photographing combat zones because the American public isn’t responding anymore… [He] is now concentrating on showing the aftereffects of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder… [and] looks at bedrooms as a way of memorializing the lives–rather than the deaths–of young combatants.”  As Gilbertson himself explains, “[y]ou walk into these rooms… and you feel like these are the kids you used to hang out with…. It’s powerful to look at where these kids lived, to see who they were as living, breathing human beings.”

A number of families have chosen to preserve, virtually untouched, these highly personal spaces, “to which young American service members will never return.” The bedroom of U.S. Army Pfc. Karina Lau, for example, 

has not changed. A stuffed teddy bear and floppy-eared rabbit sit on top of her floral bedspread. Angel figurines and framed family photos line her bookshelf and dresser. The only thing missing is her. Private Lau was killed seven years ago when insurgents shot down her helicopter in Fallujah, Iraq. She was 20 years old. Her mother, Ruth, usually keeps the bedroom door closed and the window shades drawn, but when Mr. Gilbertson came to her home in Livingston, Calif., she opened them up.  

Nor has the bedroom of Pfc. Jack Sweet (Alexandria Bay, N.Y. ), who was killed by a roadside bomb in Jawwalah, Iraq, on Feb. 8, 2008. This practice extends also to items returned to families by the military. “In Private Sweet’s bedroom are two trunks that the Army sent back from Iraq. Next to them is his laundry hamper. The clothes inside, still carrying his scent, have never been washed.”           

The authors interpret these actions as attempts on the part of family members to “resist” and “wrestle with” what has happened; this is “how they will cope and how they will remember.” No doubt this is the case. Still, this view has trouble explaining why so much personal space, and so many personal possessions, remain intact and untouched, even to the point of clothing, still “carrying the scent” of the person who was killed, remains unwashed. If we think about these sacred spaces as if they really are shrines, what else might we learn about them? More, what might we learn about the larger culture in which they take place, or about the war in which these persons died? 

In the Western sense of the word, shrines (from the Latin scrinium, meaning a box or receptacle) serve as “places or containers of religious presence.” As Paul Cartwright, writing for the Encyclopedia of Religion, explains, 

One of the distinctive features of religion is that its objects do not “exist” in the ordinary sense of the word. Deity, spirit, soul, afterlife, and other familiar categories of religion lie outside the realms of everyday objects in time and space. However, human beings across multiple cultures experience the presence of these religious realities at particular times and places and in relation to material objects. Much of the work of shrines is to provide habitations for sacred presences within the everyday world. As places having a particular shape and materiality, shrines give particular density to complex sets of religious associations, memories, moods, expectations, and communities. Shrines may be seen as sites of condensation of more dispersed religious realities, places where meanings take on specific, tangible, and tactile presence. (p. 8376) 

A shrine, then, is a very special kind of sacred space, in which we can experience heightened forms of intimacy and relationship with those who exist only in religious worlds. Bob Orsi defines religion itself in similar terms. Religion, he argues, is best understood not as an intellectual model of reality, but “as a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures… I can think of no religious world,” he writes, “that does not offer practitioners opportunities to form deep ties with saints, ancestors, demons, gods, ghosts, and other special beings”(2005). 

Borrowing from both Cartwright and Orsi, what do we see in home war shrines that we did not see previously? To begin with, these carefully preserved bedrooms offer far more than an aid for remembering. They offer a sacred space in which family members may experience heightened physical intimacy with those “who will never return” in any tangible manner. Relationships sundered by violent and untimely death may be at least partially and fleetingly re-constituted and re-experienced. The home shrine, replete with the “neatly made beds,” other furniture, posters, pictures, pillows, blankets, televisions, stereos, books, CDs, DVDs, weights, religious iconography, sports trophies and sports-team memorabilia, and numerous other mundane items favored by the lost son or daughter, afford a plethora of concrete emotional touchstones that may well evoke a sense of being present with those who, like gods, goddesses, and spirits, now exist only in religious worlds. This view finds support in Gilbertson’s description of the intensity of presence these home shrines evoke. “Sometimes, you look at these rooms and it’s like they are going to come home.”  

But the practice of maintaining home war shrines also suggests something about the larger cultural context in which they are found, namely, the considerable moral ambiguity that continues to loom over the wars that drag on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of us, it seems, have responded with a sustained silent acquiescence. This approach may reduce cognitive dissonance, but also promotes minimal collective interest in creating a public space that richly memorializes those who have died in these wars. As Gilbertson observes, though received wisdom has it that we “shouldn’t talk to military families about death… in reality, all these families want to do is talk about their kids. If they are not being talked about, they’re not being remembered.” This is especially so if the larger culture is ambivalent about why precisely it is that these young people were asked to sacrifice their lives, and hence reluctant to provide public spaces that allow for intimate connections and continued relationships with the war dead. It is telling to remember that it took quite some time for a rich, intimate, sacred public space for American war dead from Vietnam to be built. 

Some, of course, may argue that in nearly every war (and not just in our more recent ones), parents and families have maintained home shrines for those who are killed, especially when the war dead are young. World War II, generally considered to have rested upon more firm moral footing, might serve as a good example here. But it may well be that, in truth, there is no war capable of entirely reconciling parents and family to the process of brutal and untimely loss that the cultural practice of war entails. It is just that some wars, particularly those clouded by political malfeasance and ineptitude, make the act of reconciliation more difficult still, and thus require heightened religious responses, in this case carefully preserved and highly intimate home shrines, “war memorials with neatly made beds.”

To view the 19 bedrooms featured in Ashley Gilbertson’s essay go to: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/showcase-140/

This article was first published on April 9, 2010.

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