The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II stirs memories of the conflict sites I have visited over the years: the landing beaches of Normandy, the Kohima battlefield in northeast India, Hiroshima's Atomic Bomb Dome, the Death Railway in Thailand. And I try to probe why I and millions of others -- Westerners and Asians, young and old -- are so powerfully drawn to grounds of suffering and death.
Veterans and relatives of the deceased come to honor and remember. Casual sightseers drop by because their guidebook insists that a certain site is a "must-see." History and heritage buffs want to get close to what they have studied. After all, even secondhand, war is probably the greatest human drama. Visitors flock to Verdun and other World War I battlefields where millions perished, while Compiegne, where peace was sealed at the end of that war, is hardly a tourism hot spot.
Morbid or meditative, conscious or subliminal, the attraction of war cemeteries, battlefields, museums and monuments also connects visitors to life's final, haunting moment, when the bell tolls for us all. Academics have categorized war tourism as part of what they term "thanatourism," derived from Thanatos, the Greek mythical figure personifying death.
Messages for the dead
I recently walked beside the long rows of gravestones at the Allied cemetery in the western Thailand town of Kanchanaburi. More than 100,000 lives -- of Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers -- were lost building the Death Railway for the Imperial Japanese Army. The gravestones hold simple, poignant messages inscribed for the many victims who were barely out of their teens: "We think of your smile. Mum"; "Sleep on son, dad is proud of you"; and, "It is always spring in the garden of memory."
Shaded by a tiny bed of roses, the latter inscription caught my attention. The man buried beneath it was recorded as S.G. Simpson, but the gravestone revealed little more. Perhaps because I have fought in one war, Vietnam, and covered nearly 20 conflicts as a journalist, I experienced what I know others like me often do -- something the dark tourism researchers label "emphatic identification." But for an inch of difference in a bullet's flight my life could have been cut short, like the soldier over whose grave I stood. What I would have missed in life! What would his life have been like if he had survived?
Next to the cemetery, at the Thailand-Burma Railway Center, I met with Rod Beattie, an Australian who has devoted decades to upholding the legacy of the railway. As creator of the center, which is both a museum and a research facility, he has also built up a database of 105,000 Allied POWs in Southeast Asia. Among them was one Sidney George Simpson, a British bombardier. From Beattie's record I could flesh out something of his life: parents living in Middlesex; the fall of Singapore where he was captured; a journey to Kanchanaburi with 650 other POWs packed into torrid trains; agonizing labor on the rail line. Also recorded was his death from chronic diarrhea on July 31, 1943, and the jungle patch where Simpson was initially buried.
Beattie, who served as head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Thailand, receives a steady flow of children, grandchildren and other relatives of the deceased on what he calls "pilgrimages" to discover more about their departed kin. Private memorial services are often held. Beattie himself was riveted by this World War II episode in large part because two of his uncles had been killed, his father was twice wounded in the conflict, and he himself served six years in the Australian army.
It is not just citizens of former Allied nations who make such trips. A dwindling number of veterans from Japan, as well as younger Japanese, undertake journeys to far-flung burial grounds -- from Myanmar to the world's largest ship graveyard, Truk Lagoon in the Pacific, where dozens of vessels were sunk and more than 4,000 killed in Allied bombing raids. Every March, in Kanchanaburi, Japanese gather at a memorial obelisk to remember all who died on the railway.
War tourism -- the pull of Thanatos -- is certainly not restricted to the cataclysmic conflicts of the 20th century.
Marathon, where the heavily outnumbered Greeks defeated Persian invaders 2,505 years ago, is still a much-visited destination. Americans crowd Civil War battlegrounds, while Sekigahara and Nagakute draw large numbers of visitors to recall the battles that turned the tides of Japanese history during the Sengoku period.
Waterloo, in Belgium, remains a magnet. This June, on the bicentenary of the battle, some 6,000 actors and 300 horses took part in a spectacular re-enactment, with a Parisian lawyer taking the role of Napoleon and an ex-punk rocker from New Zealand playing the Duke of Wellington.
Thanatourism is reportedly booming, spurred by greater availability of information and growing in tandem with a dramatic rise in overall travel. One would hope there is also a growing sense of responsibility to tell the stories of tragic events to prevent them from recurring.
Wherever masses of tourists go, commercialization soon follows, often bringing tasteless or insensitive elements. Thanatourism is no exception. Coffee mugs inscribed with the words "Never Forget" are sold in the gift shop at the Ground Zero memorial in New York, which has attracted 20 million visitors since it opened in 2011. Chocolate army helmets can be bought at World War I battlefields. The River Kwai bridge, the stage for an annual sound-and-light show, is hemmed in by restaurants, souvenir shops and hawkers flogging T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of the structure.
But there are also truly informative museums and memorials that are free of overtly patriotic flourishes. Instead, they focus on the human tragedy.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is one such place, with its stark, black gabbro wall engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 military personnel who fell or are listed as missing. When I visited a few years ago, I felt it natural to render a salute to my former comrades-in-arms, some of whom I had known personally. Scanning the names of the fallen, I did not think about the rights or wrongs of the war, nor even about my own experiences in Vietnam, but about what American poet Archibald MacLeish expressed so well:
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses ...
They say: We were young. We have died ...
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning ...
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
Denis Gray is a Bangkok-based writer and former bureau chief for the Associated Press in the Thai capital. He served as a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam. As an AP journalist he covered numerous conflicts, including the two Iraq wars, Afghanistan, Somalia and various insurgencies in Asia in the 1980s and 1990s.