Book Review: Remembrance and Reconciliation

Remembrance and Reconciliation, New York: Rodopi, 2011
Edited by Rob Gildert and Dennis Rothermel
Reviewed by Sally Carlton, Nepal Institute for Policy Studies

The Preface to Remembrance and Reconciliation informs us that the book is derived from papers presented at the 2005 National Conference of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace.

Explicit throughout the book, therefore, is the authors’ primary motivation: the hope that facilitating remembrance of past violence can positively and constructively contribute to the establishment of a more peaceful world. Within this overarching aim, the authors draw specific attention to the amnesia of their own country, the United States, which, in the words of one of the editors, “fails to remember its past atrocities easily” (3). An example of this message of remembrance for peace is Joseph C. Kunkel’s argument in Chapter Four that proper commemoration by the United States of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would hugely contribute to the eventual delegitimisation of nuclear weaponry (42). Unfortunately the passion engendered by the authors’ aspiration for peace – obvious for example in the repeated and often virulent condemnation of the anti-terrorism policies implemented by the George W. Bush administration following the 11 September 2011 attacks – at times impedes the book’s academic impartiality, and thus to some extent inadvertently undermines the cause which the book so laudably advocates.

Of the nine chapters in the book, half deal with theoretical considerations of remembrance and reconciliation, and half are thematic. In the theoretical chapters, considerations of language – and particularly the keywords ‘remembrance’ and ‘reconciliation’ – are central. Because language is immensely powerful as the predominant means by which humans articulate themselves (as argued by William C. Gay in Chapter Nine, 114), several of the authors position terminology and definitions as frameworks within which to formulate their arguments for peace.

As one example of this preoccupation with how language functions to construct remembrance and reconciliation, Joseph Betz, author of Chapter Three, draws our attention to the totalitarian connotations of the word ‘homeland’, a “new word” (27) in the American political vocabulary. He warns that through the “distortion” of the “ordinary meanings of words” (27), language can be used to conceal unpleasant truths.

Each thematic chapter uses a particular topic – including American homeland security, Hiroshima, the punishment of criminals, and victims’ rights – to highlight current barriers to a reconciled and peaceful society, and to suggest reappraising the ways the American people and government consider these issues in order to further the cause of peace. The book’s variety of subjects is one of its strengths, particularly as this elucidation means that ‘peace’ is interpreted far more broadly than purely a lack of conflict between states (although peace as it relates to past wars and contemporary terrorism also features prominently). For David Boersema, author of Chapter Six ‘What’s wrong with victims’ rights?,’ peace is primarily an individual phenomenon, obtainable when victims come to terms with their status of victimhood. Rob Gildert’s Chapter Seven ‘Pedagogy and punishment,’ on the contrary, envisions ‘peace’ as something both personal and communal. Analysing the pedagogic benefits of retributive versus restorative justice, Gildert argues for a reevaluation of the American criminal justice system to place more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. When offenders and victims collaboratively develop reparations techniques, he claims, there is a higher chance that both parties will feel satisfied – and at peace – with the decision, which will in turn have peaceful implications for society.

The book’s inclusive and expansive view of ‘peace’ is its main strength; however, in the thematic chapters the concepts of remembrance and reconciliation are usually implied rather than explicitly stated (in contrast to the theoretical chapters which rely upon this terminology).

Thus while the book’s underlying message of remembrance for the purpose of reconciliation is always discernable, it is the reader who is forced to seek out parallels between the chapter topics and the overarching theme, and to draw his/her conclusions regarding the meaning of ‘peace’ for each author. This failure to unambiguously relate the individual topics to the book’s overarching theme critically undermines the pro-peace message of the book. Remembrance and Reconciliation constitutes a philosophical investigation of many key issues of violence and peace which shape the world, and particularly the United States, today; it is immensely regrettable that its message of peace is in some chapters hard to detect and in some chapters weakened by the authors’ effusive bias.

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