To Smile or Not To Smile… That is a Question

“Hey, let’s take a selfie.” I confess I said those words at the top of the observation tower, near the Bloody Lane at Antietam National Battlefield last weekend. And as soon as I said them, I was cringing inside. I wanted the photo because it was a gorgeous day and I was enjoying the afternoon with my friends from California who are like an uncle and aunt…and I knew we weren’t really going to be anywhere with as good of background or lighting in the rest of the trip. We lined up and grinned at the flipped camera. We did take the photo toward the south, not the actual Bloody Lane. The picture turned out nicely, but the experience became another layer of confusion I was trying to sort and understand.

So I’ve been overthinking it these last few days…and was wondering if you, dear readers, would like to join me in the overthinking process? I’m not sure that there is one “correct” answer. I do think everyone will approach and answer different. That’s good.

  • How do we make sense of our enjoyment of a beautiful day or with the reality that people died on these battlefields?
  • How do we temper our “passion” for the facts of the past with the realities of what happened?
  • And, of course, to smile or not to smile in battlefield selfie photos?

What are your thoughts? How do you make sense of these moments?

(And if I’m just way overthinking it, I guess that’s an answer too.)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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16 Responses to To Smile or Not To Smile… That is a Question

  1. Brian D. Kowell says:

    You’re over-thinking it. Enjoy the moment’s in life when you can smile wherever you are. Is it wrong to smile in a cemetery? I think not. It is not mocking the dead or trivializing their lives. Never pass up a chance to smile

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    Brian nails it. Smile if that is what your mind and body feel like doing. It is just virtue signaling if you force yourself to not smile.

    A good way to keep people from visiting battlefields or anything historical is to tell they shouldn’t smile while there.

  3. Ben Butina says:

    If we’re going to overthink anything, why not take a step back and ask why we feel compelled to take selfies on a battlefield in the first place? (And I say “we” because I certainly do this, too.)

  4. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Agree with all points. This is sorta like Memorial Day – pay attention to where you are, but at the same time keep in mind that the ability to enjoy the ground and the day is something they fought for. One of the ways to honor their legacy is to visit, learn, and enjoy the battlefields and the people you’re with.

  5. John Pryor says:

    Honor their sacrifice by enjoying your life, and being civil to people. Remember.

  6. Frank Schimberg says:

    I was at a high school graduation Friday and a speaker told the graduates to: “Smile aways and have a good attitude” so there you have it.

  7. Douglas Pauly says:

    I think having a good time is part of the American psyche. I also belive most Americans want people to mind their own business. Those things help comprise and define “the American way of life” IMHO. Lots of folks have died over the centuries defending that and other things. So I’m personally good with the emphasis on things like ‘sales’ and gatherings for barbecues on Memorial Day, and smiles at solemn sites like battlefields. There’s a time for being solemn and serious, and the vast majority of us are smart enough to know that and when and where to adhere to it. If you have reason to smile, and laugh, let ‘er rip!

  8. mark harnitchek says:

    i am sure the Antietam vets are smiling down on you and your chums as you honor their sacrifice and remember their service in great cause … so, smile away.

  9. I’d reply to this by thinking about all the smiles that can be found in assorted photos or footage of the 1913 & 1938 Gettysburg reunions. If the men who fought there could go back to that field and enjoy time with their old comrades, then it is not disrespectful of us to not be brooding and solemn the entire time we visit these places either.

  10. Seems to me the experience is different for each one of us. I lost a couple of friends in the recent wars. So, am not inclined to smile when visiting a battlefield, no matter how ancient – when on my own. But, with others who were enjoying the visit, sure a smile or two makes worlds of sense.
    Tom

    • Combat for most of us is a profoundly life-affirming experience. You form bonds that last a lifetime. Am very sure that even in the most harrowing trenches, soldiers on both sides had some very positive experiences with their comrades. One of my best birthdays was when a coupe of junior officers came to my hooch to sing me happy birthday – in a war zone of all places.
      Tom

  11. Meg Groeling says:

    What they all said!!

  12. Sheritta Bitikofer says:

    Not overthinking at all. I’ve wondered about this too, especially with the controversy over taking selfies at Holocaust monuments. I think it goes back to the purpose of the photo or smiles. If you’re genuinely enjoying yourself on a battlefield, whether for the company or the experience or making historical connections, it’s not wrong. If you’re laughing or smiling at the expense of the soldiers who fought and died there, making fun of them or the history, that’s wrong. Taking selfies is also a way to remember the moment. I take selfies for this reason, and because the scenery or the backdrop speaks to me in some way. If you wanna take a metaphorical approach, taking a selfie on a battlefield is like inserting yourself into the history, which is what battlefield trekking is good for – putting yourself in their place and walking in their shoes for a spell.
    In short, I think it’s the purpose behind the smiling/photos that would make it either right or wrong, not the action itself.

    • Benjamin Allen says:

      You are overthinking it, too. We aren’t talking about the Holocaust. That is a different animal due to its very nature.

      In a selfie, you don’t necessarily know why the person is smiling, although you are almost certainly going to assume the reason is because it is customary to smile in photos. In this post, we seem to be talking about the action of snapping a selfie while smiling, not the purpose behind it.

      Maybe your concern would have more merit if we were talking about video.

  13. Randell L Bailey says:

    Jeb Stuart was laughing & singing on battlefields

  14. Benjamin Allen says:

    You’re overthinking it. Stop overthinking it. Like Garry Adelman says, take in battlefields in whatever ways you prefer.

    Now if we are talking Holocaust museums, memorials, or extermination or concentration camps, that is another story.

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