"Wait a minute," I said, breaking away from our group. "I want to go look at that plaque made out of a piece of the Maine."
I hadn't seen it in a decade or two, but I knew it was there, somewhere. It took a bit of searching. For an uneasy moment I thought it had been carted away. Not every tribute that is taken down is done so because it's become offensive; some just are irrelevant.
But there it was, an actual memento, cast from a piece of the ship that blew up in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898. That fact must have impressed me as a child and stuck in mind. "Cast from metal recovered from the USS Maine," it says on the plaque, the way after 9/11 pieces of the Twin Towers were worked into memorials.
It was a similar attack, maybe, with a considerable loss of life. The USS Maine sank with a loss of most of its crew. Hit by a mine, it was believed at the time, and the sinking was cast as provocation and atrocity and blamed on the Spanish, who were trying to put down a Cuban independence movement. "Remember the Maine!" became a rallying cry, and the U.S. entered into one of its more lopsided imperialist wars.
I pass it along as a reminder that monuments do, in fact, influence us. I know what the Maine was, not because of any history class, but because of this green oxidized slab of bronze that I passed regularly for the first 18 years of my life. The memorial doesn't mean I particularly venerate the Maine—some historians suspect it was blown up, not by a Spanish mine, but through some ineptness in the management of the ship's engines and coal supplies. I could see that. My concern was nostalgic, not historic. Some U.S. history books never even mention the Maine, and probably just as well. You can't remember everything.
Though there is a value to the story. The moral of the Maine sinking is to remember the dubious excuses we use for going to war—like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or the weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. They seem so important at the time. But they're really not. We say we remember them, and we do, for a time. Then we forget and move on.