Politics of Hidden Emotions: Responses to a War Memorial

Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. 2007. 13 (2), 1-9.

 Politics of Hidden Emotions: Responses to a War Memorial

Thomas J. Scheff

Abstract: This account links emotions that I have felt and seen repeatedly to the resolution of conflict. I had a strong initial reaction to a local Iraq War Memorial, and subsequently observed many similar reactions in others who visited it. I try to understand the meaning of these hands-on experiences in terms of social/behavioral science, and their relevance to conflict resolution.

Although I had heard about a Santa Barbara war memorial early on, it was four months before I visited. I had been protesting the war in Iraq in marches, so I was in no hurry to see the memorial, feeling that I was already paying my dues. Beyond that, I suppose, was the sense that the memorial would not tell me anything I didn’t already know. As it turned out, it told me a great deal I didn’t know, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Finally I visited because my friend Bob, one of the veterans creating the memorial, was pressing me. If he hadn’t been so insistent, I would never have visited at all. So I headed down to the foot of the pier where the memorial is located. It stands on the beach just to the right of the path of thousands of strollers, heading out for a pleasurable time on the wharf, a tourist site. When I got to there, Bob was printing nametags for the crosses that make up the memorial, about five hundred at that time. He copies information about U.S. military deaths for the past week in Iraq from the Internet. 

The monument itself, called Arlington West after the U.S. military cemetery in Washington, is only temporary, as per city ordinance. Early Sunday mornings the crosses, flags, and other materials are brought to the site and installed by members of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. A nametag is then attached to each cross. In the evening, they remove everything, leaving nothing behind.

All of the crosses, now over three thousand,  have names and other facts about a U.S. fighter who died in the current Iraq war. Over the past two years, hundreds of thousands of tourists have walked past, and many have stopped to look at this replica of a military cemetery, larger than a football field. Some of the strollers talk to us as we stand on the beach below the pier, handing out memorial postcards. Some also write their comments in the notebooks we have made available on the railing, placed among many pages that list the names of the dead.

The weekly installation and removal of the memorial requires huge effort and dedication every Sunday to unpaid labor. Even though they get help from volunteers and passers by, most of the work is done by about a dozen regulars. Why are they working so hard? Perhaps the responses by viewers sustain the activists.

My Own Initial Response

My response on first visit was surprisingly intense. When I arrived, Bob had me install some of the nametags he had just made. Crawling in the sand between the crosses, I read the names and ages of the fallen. It was their ages, mostly 18-26, that I couldn’t shake. I felt upset: confused, disoriented and desperate. I already knew that over five hundred U.S. fighters had fallen. What was the matter with me? 

After finishing the stack of nametags, I returned to where Bob was working. He asked me to do more. “Let me take a breather; I didn’t realize how young…” I couldn’t finish the sentence, silenced by convulsive sobs. Tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t fight it anymore, I just gave in. Coming unexpectedly, my cry felt like a tsunami of grief. Surprisingly, after some fifteen minutes when I stopped crying, I felt much better. The fog and confusion had lifted.

             The deep feeling of loss revealed by my fit of crying was probably the reason I had resisted visiting. I hadn’t wanted to feel it. Resistance to feeling turned out to be a theme for our visitors as well. In the early weeks of the effort, the veterans’ group thought of the memorial as a protest against the Iraq war. They soon realized, however, that it had a much more powerful effect if it was not political.

Visitors’ Responses

The memorial described here is quite different than most in one particular way. The great majority of the strollers on the pier had no intention of visiting a memorial, or even know that there was one. So there is little or no  response from most of those driving and walking on the pier every Sunday. Either they don’t look at all, or give only a sidelong glance. Others briefly read some of the signs, then continue on their way. Here they are, walking past what surely must be a big surprise, a vast cemetery on the beach directly beneath their gaze. Very few would have known that it was there. How could they not stop? This question is further discussed below.

A substantial number, however, do stop to look -- perhaps six or seven hundred each Sunday. Most of those who stop talk to us. Some of them, unsolicited, read or write comments in the notebooks that lie on our railing. Of those who stop, there is no noticeable effect on a small minority. One of the things they say is to thank us for honoring our brave dead fighting for our freedom. I have learned not to argue. More rarely, I have seen no overt change whatsoever in persons who come down off the pier to place flowers on the nametag of a relative or friend.

In the early days of the memorial, there were a substantial number of strollers who were suspicious of the memorial, or openly angry about it. Lately the number has fallen to near zero. Most who stop for even a short time to talk to us or write in the notebooks seem touched by the experience. Some of the excerpts from what they write in the books on the railing hint at what has happened to them.

  There are many comments that indicate strong feelings:

  • Very emotional and touching. I am profoundly touched by this thoughtful display….
  • Beautiful and touching!
  • Wow, I can’t even express what I feel when I see this….

Some of the comments about feelings also imply a reason for them: 

  • Thank you for showing us what a tragedy the war is. These crosses really bring it home….
  • Seeing this brings a face to war, not just headlines. 
  • Thank you from my heart. We must remain conscious of our losses.”
  • “Thank you for being our conscience, for waking us up….
  • Thank you for jarring me into reality—its so easy to forget.
  • Thank you for being a voice for conscience. [We need] reminders that the numbers are real people.

A few have immediate emotional reactions on their own, without any contact with us. I have seen many women, and one man, crying all alone by the rail. Recently an elderly visitor barely asked me one question before tears came. Obviously disturbed by her own reaction, she handed me a twenty-dollar contribution and walked off in haste. When I invited a colleague from the university, she began crying the first moment she saw the memorial, and cried for the entire two hours of her visit.  Most reactions, however, are somewhat delayed.

A young blond in a flowery dress stops to look. As she surveys the memorial, the smile on her face fades. She is obviously puzzled. So I hand her a free memorial postcard, in case she has questions.

Stroller: “Which war?”

Me: “Iraq.” (This was until recently a common question. She may be unsure because most the vets she sees below her are obviously too old to have fought in Iraq, even in the Gulf War. They are mostly veterans of the Vietnam War, but a few, like me, the Korean War.) She looks again.

Stroller: “What for?”

Me: “To honor our dead.”

Then another long look at the memorial. At this point emotion began to work in her face: first surprise and shock, then sadness. She cries intensely with tears streaming down her face. Then she said the thought that caused surprise: “I didn’t realize how many have died.” I have seen similar reactions and heard similar statements many times over. Women cry at this point, and men reach into their pocket to contribute money. Although the men don’t cry, I can see sadness in their face in varying degrees.

This effect was also caught by a Santa Barbara man, Richard Anderson, who took the trouble to write to the local newspaper about it. An excerpt from his letter of 9/13/ 04:    

Walking out into the memorial for the first time, I found myself overwhelmed with grief. One thousand casualties is just a number. One thousand crosses, with names and dates, will drive you to your knees like a sledgehammer…

Notice that this testimony names a specific emotion, grief, which is very unusual. Among the hundreds of comments in our notebooks for the strollers, I have never seen a specific emotion named.  Although I have seen some of the strollers crying while they were writing, explicit reference to crying is never made.

In our society, we usually deny emotions. Anderson also seems to refer to crying (“overwhelmed by grief”) but only indirectly.

Like me before I visited the memorial, Anderson’s feelings about the war, and those of the others affected by the memorial, had been asleep. The memorial woke us up. Even if it had just been one person, the effort would have been rewarding. Because of the memorial, it has struck several thousand. It is these strong reactions, it seems to me, that sustains the veterans’ willingness to labor away their Sundays.

This discussion suggests a possible answer to the question raised above: how can the majority of strollers simply walk past the memorial with at most a sidelong glance? Perhaps at some level they understand the meaning of the memorial, they just don’t want to deal with it. In this respect, their avoidance might be a lot like my own. The difference is that unlike me, they had no friend to cajole them.

Hidden Emotions and Politics

The responses of the viewers of the war memorial suggest steps toward waking. The first specific emotion that occurs in the face of the stroller is surprise. Surprise is the emotion of transition from one mood to another. In this respect, it is like the clutch in a truck for shifting gears. If a joke is to produce laughter, it must involve surprise.

The crucial moment on the pier occurs when the stroller asks the purpose of the memorial: “What’s it for?” I say, “To honor our dead.” I learned that any other answer, such as “To protest an unjust war,” would usually give rise to a verbal, rather than an emotional response. The response I give serves to unite, rather than to divide us: we both want to honor our dead. We become momentarily connected in our respect for the dead.

This moment of connection seems to be important. In addition to surprise, a change in attitude usually involves feeling a secure bond with another person. I think that this is the reason that most of the intense responses I have seen have been delayed. For most people perhaps, deeply hidden feelings can be accessed only when they feel connected with another person. Being connected, rather than alone, provides the sense of security needed to feel emotions that are anticipated to be extremely painful, if not unbearable. Note that in my own first day at the memorial, my response was delayed until I spoke to Bob, my colleague.

In this moment of connectedness, no matter the political stance, one is suddenly able to feel at least some of the grief that has been covered over until now. Until this moment, one knew about the loss only intellectually, without feeling it. Until one feels the number of dead, it is just one of literally millions of equally un-involving bits of knowledge. It is the hitherto buried emotion that gives this particular bit of knowledge its force and its true meaning. Understanding a situation in a new way seems to require these three steps: surprise, connectedness with another person, and feeling a hidden emotion.

Exploitation vs. Uncovering of Emotions

Since my day job is to be a social scientist of conflict, I have tried to understand my personal experiences at the memorial, and those of others, in wider terms. There is beginning to be a literature on the role of emotions in starting and stopping conflict. 

 It is possible that the fear and anger elicited by the 9/11 attack has been covered over with angry aggression directed at Iraq and other purported enemies. Rather than helping people work through their fear and anger, a common tactic of governments is to disguise vulnerable emotions through false pride and aggression. Yet emotions can be mobilized in the opposite way, helping rather than hindering working through. The example above illustrates the uncovering of the strollers’ hidden grief in response to the war memorial, perhaps a crucial step away from war and passivity.

Know Thy Emotions

The emotional approach runs counter to the rationalism of most theories of conflict. However, in world literature there is a much broader alternative to rationalism, implied in the quest for self-knowledge. Long before Freud, the Greek philosophers proposed that the goal of philosophical thinking was knowledge of the self, and by implication, that human folly is a result of lack of self-knowledge. This thread forms one of the central concerns in both ancient and modern literature. For at least three thousand years, stories, myths, fables, satires, and more recently, novels have explored the theme of the dire consequences of lack of self-knowledge. This theme is epitomized in one of Goethe’s (1789) dramas:

The gift of the great poet is to be able to voice his suffering, even when other men would be struck dumb in their agony.

Knowledge of self is not just a cognitive matter, but also an emotional one. Identifying and giving expression to one’s hidden emotions may be not only the most difficult part of knowing thyself, but also the most important. Else we remain sleepers.

There may be a need for the uncovering of two other vulnerable emotions in addition to grief: shame and fear. Freud mentioned only the grief work that is necessary to work through loss. As it turns out, fear work and shame work may be just as important. 9/11 probably created as much unacknowledged fear and shame as unacknowledged grief. In her article on conflict resolution in Mozambique, Errante (1999) urges both grief and shame work.

Is there also need for anger work? Probably not. Psychotherapists have long known that anger is only a secondary emotion. That is, underlying most anger is what psychotherapists call “hurt.” They mean that anger is used to cover up the hurt that clients want to avoid since they sense it might be unbearably painful. However, “hurt” usually turns out to be one or more of the vulnerable emotions, grief, fear, and shame. For most men, the fear component seems particularly difficult to access. For both men and women, shame also seems to be well hidden. How could steps be taken to uncover hidden vulnerable emotions in a whole society?

Toward Peace: Rituals that Allow Grief, Fear, and Shame Work?

One step in this direction is suggested by approaches to the control of crime that involve restorative justice. These practices lead to public acknowledgment, not only that one was the perpetrator or victim of a crime, but also of one’s emotions. In the community conferences that Retzinger and I witnessed in Australia, the first step was for the victim to describe their experience, and the second step, for the perpetrator to confess to his or her part in it, and to apologize (Retzinger & Scheff, 1996; see also Mellor et al 2007). This process usually provided ample room for both victim and perpetrator to express strong emotions face to face. In particular, the victims usually were able to clearly voice their suffering, and the perpetrators their shame about their behavior and its consequences. By apologizing, compensating the victims for their losses, and community service, the perpetrators avoided penal sanctions. This procedure has been highly successful in New Zealand, Australia, England, and other places that have tried it (Latimer et al  2005; see also Braithwaite and Strang 2001).

It is possible that a significant part of the collective rituals needed for waking from passivity involves shame work. One realm for shame work is apology, both at the individual and collective levels. Tavuchis (1991) has shown that both levels of apology involve intricate soul searching by both parties, and precise cooperation between them. In his analysis, the underlying emotion is grief, as indicated by the formula for apology: “I’m sorry.” However, others have proposed that although grief may be involved, the primary emotion of apology is shame/embarrassment (Goffman, 1971; Miller, 1993). The offense that is to be apologized for is shaming to both victim and perpetrator. A successful apology, they argue, involves the expression and resolution of shame.1

A Ritual of Apology

To make explicit the meaning of emotion work, I propose a new ritual: an apology for the part we all play in mass violence, if only by our passive acceptance. Since a genuine apology could touch the basic hidden emotions, it could begin the kind of mourning needed to avoid further acting out of anger. Here is an outline for an apologetic mantra in regard to 911. With its emphasis on shame and guilt, this mantra might be particularly helpful for men, since their training to be protectors would make many of us feel a sense of responsibility about 9/11.

  • I am truly sorry that the 911 attack occurred. since I was not being vigilant when it happened, I feel partially responsible for allowing it to occur.  (Shame and Guilt)
  • I feel violated, weak, helpless, impotent, humiliated.  I am ashamed of my own helplessness. I am ashamed that I cannot protect my own people. I am ashamed that I lacked the foresight to see this coming. (Shame)
  • I am sad beyond reckoning at all the losses that we have suffered. I need to cry bitter tears forever. (Grief)
  • I am afraid. I am afraid to die. I fear for my loved ones and the citizens of this country and the world. (Fear).

In addition to uncovering our own emotions, a statement like the mantra might encourage world leaders to apologize to their people also. Not just Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice, but also Osana Ben Laden, and any other leaders who are acting like gang members rather than responsible adults. I would prefer to keep these two sentences.

To this point, virtually all anti-war activism has been in the form of protest and argument. It now seems to me that this format is usually not effective, and except under unusual circumstances, may even be counterproductive. The thesis of this essay has been that what may be needed are rituals that uncover the vulnerable emotions and create secure social bonds.

There has been considerable work already done in establishing what work must be done in order to resolve the grief connected with loss. Colin Parkes (1988; “unresolved grief”) and Vamik Volkan (1993; “re-grief therapy”) are two of the pioneers in this area. In comparison, there has been little work on the resolution of unacknowledged fear and shame. If we are to organize rituals that will help resolve conflict, we need to learn more about how to deal not only with grief, but also with fear and shame.

It seems likely that the more a person suppresses one of these emotions, the less they will be able to experience any of them. For example, those who are still suffering from their previous losses (perhaps a majority of adults in modern societies) will be unable to mourn, and won’t tolerate mourning in others. This mechanism would create what Volkan (2004) calls the transgenerational transmission of trauma, a key feature of his explanation of continuing enmity between groups. 

It is clear that the failure to mourn is not just a deficiency of individuals, but part of a society-wide pattern. I have been told by an experienced grief counselor that for most mourners, their personal network (colleagues, friends, and family) will support mourning for only a short time (Retzinger, 2004). The loss of a close relationship may require many months, even years, of grief work, but most networks become intolerant after a few weeks. Since, as I have argued, successful mourning usually requires a close relationship in which one may freely confide one’s thoughts and feelings, this limitation usually blocks the completion of mourning. The inability to mourn is institutionalized in modern societies, which affects, in turn, the politics of war and peace. Existing rituals, such as visits to a war memorial, and new ones, such as the mantra proposed above, may be seen as paths toward peace.


Braithwaite, John, and H. Strang. 2001. Restorative Justice and Civil Society.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Errante, A. (1999). Peace work as grief work in Mozambique and South Africa. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 5, 261-279

Goethe, J. W. (1789/1985). Torquato tasso. London: Angel Books.

Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public. New York: Basic Books.

Latimer, J., C. Dowden, and N. Muise. 2005. The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: a Meta-analysis. The Prison Journal. 85: 2, 127-144.

Mellor, D., Bretherton, D., and Firth, L. 2007. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia: The dilemma of apologies, forgiveness and reconciliation. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 13, 11-36.

Miller, W. (1993). Humiliation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Parkes, C. (1988). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life (3rd ed.)Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. (1998)

Retzinger, Suzanne. Private communication.

Roe 2007.  Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace PsychologyPeace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology Forthcoming. Citation?

Scheff, T. J., &  Retzinger, S. M. ­­(1996). Strategy for community conferences. In B. Galaway & J. Hudson (Eds), Restorative justice: International perspectives (pp. 315-336). Monsey, NY.Criminal Justice Press.

Tavuchis, N. (1991). Mea culpa: A sociology of apology and reconciliation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Volkan, V. D. (2004). Blind trust: Large groups and their leaders in times of crisis and terror. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.

Volkan, V. D., & Zintl, E. (1993).  Life after loss: Lessons of grief. New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons. 

3880   words p&c   april 2 07