Off to the Grand Canyon

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

The time has finally come! Early tomorrow morning I depart for two weeks of training and exploration at the Grand Canyon as a part of the National Park Service’s Fundamentals Program. Designed for permanent employees just starting their careers with the NPS, the Fundamentals program–from what I’ve gathered so far–aims to orient employees to the Park Service’s history, mission, and core values. It also sounds like there will be lots of networking opportunities and time to hike the canyon itself. I have never been to the Canyon or even Arizona before, so I am thrilled about embarking on this new adventure.

Since starting full-time with the Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site back in June I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of the agency. As I go through this training, however, I’ll be very curious to hear from other new professionals in the field about their own experiences with the NPS. Right now my network of NPS connections is almost strictly limited to my coworkers at ULSG, so I’m anxious to meet and learn from others. Maybe I’ll get a clearer idea of what career opportunities lie ahead for me with the Park Service.

I think this trip will also be a nice opportunity to be “off the grid” for a while. I’ll have a full itinerary of training and activities to participate in and limited access to a computer and internet while at the Grand Canyon. I love using digital technology as much as anyone else, but I think it’s good to occasionally step away from your usual habits and soak in new experiences without the aid of a computer screen. If I have time and access I’ll try to write a post or two and share pictures while there, but we’ll see.


Ta-Nehisi Coates in St. Louis

The above video shows a talk that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates gave at Washington University in St. Louis on Wednesday, February 18. I had the distinct privilege of attending the talk (although finding my way through campus was a chore. I can’t believe I got my car through without running into a person, car, or other object). The talk covered a wide range of topics that included reparations, slavery, segregation, police brutality, democracy, white supremacy, and history. It was simultaneously incredible, inspiring, thought-provoking, and saddening. Those familiar with Coates’s work will not be surprised when I say that I really enjoyed the entire experience.

I could write an article-length piece sharing my thoughts on the talk, but for now I want to make but one brief point.

One of Coates’s central arguments, regardless of topic, is that Americans have yet to reckon with the wrongs of their history, and that they may very well never do so. As I listened to the talk I thought about an argument that Edward Baptist made in the introduction of his recent publication The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that gels nicely with Coates’s. Too often, Baptist argues, we view slavery’s wrongs only in terms of citizenship and legal rights. We see things like voter disenfranchisement, the inability to testify in court and face one’s accuser, and exclusionary restrictions against freedom of worship, speech, and assembly as the primary wrongdoings of slavery. Thus we still run into people who attempt to argue that while slavery was unfortunate and wrong from a legal perspective, it had its social and economic “advantages” for both black and white people in the years before the Civil War. “America,” says Pat Buchanan, “has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people . . . were introduced to Christian salvation [what does Frederick Douglass have to say about religious slaveholders?], and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”

But Baptist points out (and Coates might agree) that if slavery was wrong simply because of its abridgment of citizenship rights, then shouldn’t the extension of those rights to African Americans be a sufficient resolution for correcting past wrongdoings? Does it suffice to elect a black president and say we now live in a “post-racial” society? Or might there be more work ahead for us to overcome our past?

Coates–both in writing and in this talk–comes out in favor of reparations to African Americans. What would these reparations look like in terms of finances, recipients, and regulations? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows. But what I do know is that both Coates and Baptist are right when they point out the sheer violence of our past. Slavery and Jim Crow did more than abridge citizenship rights: they plundered the fruits of black peoples’ labors through the use of democratic state violence and a legal system that allowed for the buying and selling of people during slavery and the threat of lynching and mob violence against blacks well into the 1950s. One group benefited from legalized violence against another and used the false logic of “race” (among other false logics) to justify the plunder. And the Civil Rights movement didn’t magically eradicate this history or make our country immune to any future wrongdoings after 1968.

This is our history, our burden, and our legacy. We all share a part in it. As I’ve stated time and again, history is there whether or not we acknowledge it. If we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, we put ourselves in a position to more precisely define them, critique them, understand them, and reckon with them. If we can’t talk honestly about the past, how can we say that we are talking honestly about the present?


Pros and Cons of Historical Markers

Last week an Alabama-based Civil Rights organization, Equal Justice Initiative, released a report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report is unique in that it compiles a comprehensive inventory of nearly 4,000 lynching victims throughout the Deep South from 1877 to 1950, including many new names not listed in previous inventories. The New York Times also ran a story on the report with fancy visuals and more background information on Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI.

A lot of interesting discussions emerged on my Twitter feed about various strong and weak points of the report and the need to provide more context about the horrifying consequences of lynching so that these victims are not portrayed as mere numbers or crime statistics. Historian Kidada E. Williams covers some of these concerns here.

I’ve been focusing on the public history side of these discussions. Central to Mr. Stevenson’s vision for reckoning with this history is the erection of historical markers in locations where lynchings occurred. By installing these permanent markers at “ground zero” sites, Americans will have daily, tangible reminders of the lives lost by white mob violence in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. I believe the idea of erecting historical markers to commemorate this tough history is necessary, but that it’s only a starting point for further inquiry.

Historical markers come with certain advantages and disadvantages for thinking critically about history outside the classroom. Generally speaking, historical markers are a cost-effective investment in history for towns, cities, and states of all sizes. Besides the initial start-up costs for erecting a marker there is little expense beyond basic maintenance to maintain historical markers, which allows small towns like Kirvin, Texas, and Elaine, Arkansas, to preserve a part of their history without the expense of a museum, historical society, temporary exhibit, or professional staff. And historical markers, combined with digital technology, allow for viewers to write, photograph, collect, and share their experiences at markers through websites like Historypin and The Historical Marker Database. Historical markers also do a good job of emphasizing the importance of local, regional, and state history that often gets passed over in the history classroom. Many of the markers researched and cared for by the Indiana Historical Bureau, for example, do a nice job of connecting local history to national history in a way that demonstrates how small communities throughout Indiana have contributed to the story of the United States.

A historical marker, however, can only take you so far. A marker will not answer any questions in real time that you may have about the content you are reading. Most markers are limited to around 20 to 200 words, and in many cases that text doesn’t go beyond the restatement of basic facts, leaving readers wondering why a particular marker is significant (this marker dedicated to Hannah Milhous Nixon is a great example. Why is this marker important? Who cares?). I personally have had experiences at historic homes, museums, Civil War battlefields, national parks, and even monuments and statues that inspired me to learn more about a given historical topic and, equally important, share that interest with friends and family. With the exception of one uniquely notable historical marker, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such feelings after looking at a historical marker.

It’s one thing to read historical content on a static marker. It’s a whole other experience to engage in active dialogue with an interpreter or educator in a public history setting who has passion, content knowledge, and the ability to craft an interpretive story that creates meaning and raises questions that one may not readily consider when looking at a marker text alone. When at all possible I prefer to listen to and converse with an interpreter than read a marker text. I realize that not everyone would chose to learn in this manner, but the point is that we should strive to create interpretive opportunities in both settings so that interested parties have multiple avenues in which to connect with the past.

Talking about a difficult and sensitive topic like lynching requires intensive training in both historical content and interpretive techniques, however, and I’m curious to learn more about places where interpreters regularly discuss these topics. What are cultural institutions doing to discuss lynching and rioting in museum exhibits, public programming, and other interpretive mediums within public history?

The floor is yours.


The U.S. Grant Drinking Debate, Continued

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I think it’s safe to say that scholars of Ulysses S. Grant are tired of constantly talking about his drinking habits and addressing whether or not he was an alcoholic. They understand, however, that such debates “come with the territory” of studying Grant and that they will not be going away anytime soon (although I’ve personally observed that folks from the 1960s Centennial generation are more interested in talking about it than millennials such as myself, which is probably reflective of how we learned about Grant in school). I for one get tired of talking about Grant’s drinking, but I don’t get so tired as to ignore questionable claims that cross my path.

Today, in the strangely beautiful place that is Twitter, we come across claims about Grant’s drinking from none other than “Stonewall Jackson’s Arm” (yes, really). The person behind this account is actually quite friendly, and his/her tweets are often humorous in nature. But alas, methinks we have some problems here:

First of all, Mr. Jackson’s Arm engages in a strawman argument by suggesting that historians today ignore evidence of Grant’s drinking and deny that he even drank in the first place. All historians of the Civil War era that are worth their salt acknowledge that Grant drank, including his time during the Civil War. There’s nothing to hide and no one’s ignoring that evidence. The real debate among historians then and now revolves around the extent to which Grant’s drinking habits influenced his actions in the field and, more broadly, the overall role of drinking in his life. That debate requires more thoughtful analysis that goes beyond painting Grant as a sinner or a saint or as a teetotaler or alcoholic.

Generally speaking, it’s true that contemporary historians have questioned older narratives about Grant’s alcoholism and have come away with a more forgiving interpretation (James McPherson, H.W. Brands, and Joan Waugh, for example), but to argue that these historians are trying to make Grant a “saint” is just silly (although Edward Bonkemper does push the line at times in his book on Grant’s generalship). Revisionism is fundamental to historical inquiry, and it’s more than fair for today’s historians to question and revise past understandings of Grant’s drinking. This is especially the case here because older historians like W.E. Woodward relied on questionable and contradictory claims from Grant contemporaries like Henry Halleck, Sylvanus Cadwallader, and Charles A. Dana.

Another factor we need to keep in mind is the need to avoid “presentism.” In other words, we too often view Grant’s relationship to alcohol through the eyes of our own twenty-first century perspective on alcoholism rather than understanding nineteenth century cultural views towards alcoholism. What did it mean to be an alcoholic in the 1800s? What was too much? How did nineteenth century Americans view alcohol from a medicinal standpoint, and how did these views shape drinking habits? How did Grant fit into this context? One book I plan to read in the future on drinking in nineteenth century America is W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition.

Now, Mr. Jackson’s Arm does make a fair critique of historians who say that Grant never drank to excess or that he never drank when it impaired his duties on battlefield. Joan Waugh has made arguments of this sort, and you can read a similar argument in this article by Brian J. Murphy. I don’t buy that argument for the simple fact that you can’t predict when your duty as a general will call on the battlefield. You can’t predict with full certainty when a battle may or may not occur, and it seems flawed to suggest that Grant only chose to drank at the most opportune times. Being a general is a 24/7 job.

Ultimately, the debate over Grant’s drinking lingers precisely because the available “evidence” we have is shrouded in myth and speculation that prevents us from reaching a concrete resolution to the matter. I recommend that interested readers consult Brooks Simpson’s wide range of Grant scholarship for what I consider to be the most thoughtful and considerate discussions of Grant’s drinking habits. I also agree with General Dwight Eisenhower’s thoughts on Grant’s drinking, which he penned in a letter to author William Brooks in 1945:

It never seemed possible to me (and I have thought about it often during the months since December 1941) that a man who so constantly under the influence of liquor could have pursued a single course so steadfastly, could have accepted frequent failures of subordinates without losing his equilibrium, could have made numbers of close decisions which involved a nice balance between risk and advantage, and could have maintained the respect of such men as Sherman, Sheridan, Meade and, above all, President Lincoln.


“Belle Missouri”

Following the firing of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from the various state militias to recapture the fort and defend federal property. Some of these federal troops were ordered to Washington, D.C. to defend the nation’s capitol, but their route required dangerous travel through Baltimore, Maryland, which was a hotbed of secessionist sentiment at the time. When Union soldiers arrived on April 19, deadly violence broke out between troops and rioters in what is now referred to as the “Baltimore Riot of 1861.” James Ryder Randall, a pro-secessionist Marylander teaching in Louisiana at the time, was horrified by the specter of federal troops marching through the state and shocked by the death of a friend killed in the riot. Randall took pen to paper and wrote a poem titled “Maryland, My Maryland,” which advocated for the state’s secession from the United States and subsequent joining with the Confederacy. The poem was quickly put to music and became widely popular, so much so that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had his troops sing the song when they later crossed into Maryland in 1862.

“Maryland, My Maryland” includes several sharp digs at President Lincoln and his alleged tyranny:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,
Virginia should not call in vain,
She meets her sisters on the plain-
“Sic semper!” ’tis the proud refrain
That baffles minions back amain,
Arise in majesty again,
Maryland! My Maryland!

Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll
Thou wilt not crook to his control,
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the soul,
Maryland! My Maryland!

“Maryland, My Maryland” was later established as the official state song in 1939 (although there’s been plenty of debate about removing the song in recent years).

Not everyone was a fan of “Maryland, My Maryland,” however. I recently came across a response-poem-turned-to-song written by Howard Glyndon and set to music by Hermann Schneider around 1864 or ’65. “Belle Missouri” aimed to counter “Maryland, My Maryland” and elicit support for the Union war effort. More specifically, it aimed to remind Missourians of hard-fought battles and severe federal losses on Missouri battlefields like Lexington and Wilson’s Creek. It also sought to convince readers and listeners of Missouri’s patriotic loyalty to the Union (which, just like Maryland, was questionable depending on where you were in the state).

Photo Credit: Library of Congress,

Photo Credit: Library of Congress,

Here’s the poem/song in full, which was set to the “Maryland, My Maryland” tune and included in Glyndon’s 1864 publication Idyls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion:

Arise and join the patriot train,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
They should not plead and plead in vain,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
The precious blood of all thy slain
Arises from each reeking plain.
Wipe out this foul disloyal stain,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!

Recall the field of Lexington,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
How Springfield blushed beneath the sun,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
And noble Lyon all undone,
His race of glory but begun,
And all thy freedom yet unwon,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!

They called thee craven to the trust,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
They laid thy glory in the dust,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
The helpless prey of treason’s lust,
The helpless mark of treason’s thrust,
Now shall thy sword in scabbard rust?
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!

She thrills! her blood begins to burn!
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
She’s bruised and weak, but she can turn,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
Lo! on her forehead pale and stern,
A sign to make the traitors mourn,
Now for thy wounds a swift return,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!

Stretch out thy thousand loyal hands,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
Send out thy thousands loyal bands,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
To where the flag of Union stands,
Alone, upon the blood-wet sands,
A beacon unto distant lands,
Belle Missouri, My Missouri!

Up with the loyal Stripes and Stars,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
Down with the traitor Stars and Bars,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!
Now, by the crimson crest of Mars,
And Liberty’s appealing scars,
We’ll lay the demon of these wars,
Belle Missouri! My Missouri!

But wait, there’s more!

“Howard Glyndon” was actually a pseudonym for Laura Redden Searing, a poet and journalist who lost her hearing after a bout of spinal meningitis at age 11.  A native of Somerset County, Maryland, Searing began attending the Missouri School for the Deaf in 1855 at the age of 16. She took an interest in poetry and literature while in school and was hired as an editorialist for the St. Louis Republican in 1860. Following the firing of Fort Sumter she was sent by the Republican to report on events in Washington, D.C. She used the Republican and her poetry to promote her pro-Union views and encourage loyalty to the Lincoln administration.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

After the war Searing wrote for various eastern publications that included the New York Times, the New York Tribune, and Harper’s Magazine. She lived until 1923, when she passed away in California at the age 84.

Many historians and Marylanders know of “Maryland, My Maryland.” Far fewer people know of Laura Redden Searing’s wartime response to that popular song.


Journal Article Number Two

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’m pleased to pass along to readers some good news on the writing/publishing front. Yesterday I received word from the folks at the Indiana Magazine of History that they have accepted an article manuscript I submitted to them last summer. It took years of research, writing, and seemingly endless edits and revisions to get to this point, but I feel great about the final product, which will be published in either late 2015 or early 2016.

The article analyzes the Grand Army of the Republic’s creation of Memorial Day after the Civil War and the ways the holiday’s meaning and purpose changed over time. More specifically I explore an untold story about the Indiana GAR and their vehement opposition to the annual Indianapolis 500 automobile race, which also took place on Memorial Day starting in 1911. I don’t want to give away much else at this point, but there are a lot of questions I raise about the relationship between Union veterans and the rest of civil society and whether or not younger generations have the right to mold and shape traditional commemorative holidays for their own purposes.

This article will be a fine conclusion of my studies on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana. I wrote a master’s thesis, presented several papers at conferences, and will now have two journal articles published about these guys. I’ve loved just about every minute of it, but it’s definitely time to start researching that next topic. I don’t have any concrete ideas for topics or a time table for getting the next project done, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for new opportunities to contribute my perspective and scholarship.

Stay tuned for updates about this journal article later this year.


Was Abolitionism a Failure? A Response

13th AmendmentToday marks a significant day in United States history. 150 years ago on January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which ended chattel slavery in the U.S. The amendment was then forwarded to the states for ratification, and in December enough states ratified the measure for it to become the law of the land. Some slave states like Missouri had already chosen to abolish the institution prior to the amendment’s passage, but the event was nonetheless significant because President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure applied only to states in rebellion against the U.S. government during the Civil War. Although slavery was basically destroyed in parts of the Confederacy where heavy fighting and Union military occupation occurred, what would happen to slavery’s legal status after the end of hostilities remained an open question as the war began to wind down in 1865. Lincoln sought a permanent and constitutionally binding measure that would put an end to these questions and forever end the institution.

Historians since 1865 have debated extensively about the process of wartime emancipation and the eventual demise of slavery in the United States. How did a nation dedicated to protecting slaveholders’ human property, enforcing fugitive slave laws, and sanctioning the legal buying and selling of slaves in 1861 come to abolish slavery only four years later? What changes in American thought occurred over these four years, and how do we assess the agency of those whose efforts ended slavery?

One point I would not argue is that the abolitionist movement–which arose in the early 1830s and called for the complete end of slavery (without colonization) in all corners of the United States–was a failure that had little influence in ending slavery. Jon Grinspan, writing for the New York Times Disunion Blog, makes a valiant attempt to suggest otherwise:

Before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

I agree that abolitionism’s eventual 1865 victory was a surprise. Indeed, slaveholders who supported the Confederacy would have never pushed for secession in 1861 had they known that such an effort would have hastened their slaves’ freedom. Likewise, it’s safe to say that abolition was not a popular political stance with voters at that time. But Grinspan’s claims go too far.

The problem, in my opinion, is that one cannot measure the success or failure of the abolitionist movement based solely on a quantitative measure like county votes, the electoral college, or readership lists. As I’ve stated before on this blog, the abolitionist movement during the antebellum period experienced strong disagreements about the morality and practicality of participating in democratic politics. Many Garrisonian abolitionists (named after their leader, William Lloyd Garrison) considered voting to be a sinful act that sanctioned state violence and promoted allegiances to political parties and nations instead of God’s earthly kingdom. Going to the polls and voting was not nearly as important to these abolitionists as influencing public opinion about slavery and compelling non-abolitionist voters to choose anti-slavery candidates for office. The success of these efforts was undoubtedly limited, but to suggest that they were a “failure” is wrong if we move beyond quantitative voting tallies.

The leaders of Confederate secession were not stupid. Several states created Declarations of Secession that clearly outlined the reasons why they were leaving the Union, and it’s evident that regardless of abolitionism’s political power, its imagined influence in the minds of Confederate leaders was strong, so much so that they chose to leave the Union rather than accept President’s Lincoln’s repeated promise to leave slavery untouched in states where it legally existed. South Carolina’s Declaration complained that the free states–including the abolitionists–“denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.” It went even farther by attacking the abolitionist practice of sending incendiary anti-slavery literature through the mails to Southern slaveholders. Slaves that remained in bondage, the Declaration claims, were encouraged by “emissaries, books and pictures” to move towards “servile insurrection.” Mississippi was so threatened by abolitionism that its Declaration claims that “there was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

In sum, the Civil War was ignited in large part by fears of a growing abolitionist movement and its potential to end slavery in the United States. Whether or not these fears were rational or realistic in 1861 is a moot point because leading secessionists believed abolitionism was a threat. To say that the Civil War and not abolitionism ended slavery in the United States, as Grinspan suggests, is to imply that abolitionism did little to influence the outbreak of war in the first place. This claim is clearly mistaken if we are to take the various Declarations of Secession seriously.

Were the goals of abolition fully achieved prior to the Civil War? No, far from it. But did that make the movement a failure? Of course not. Abolitionism was an ongoing struggle with limited results prior to the Civil War. The movement ultimately succeeded because a range of circumstances and contingencies that included the Union military, the slaves themselves, the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, Congress, the act of Confederate secession, and yes, the abolitionist movement, all contain a degree of agency in pushing emancipation forward. I don’t doubt that the Union military’s presence in Confederate territory emboldened slaves to run away to their lines and hasten the institution’s demise during the war, and the 13th amendment certainly helped put an end to slavery in 1865. But underlying all of these efforts was an eventual acknowledgement that abolition was right for the country moving forward, and the abolitionists who spoke out against slavery in the years before the war deserve a degree of credit for their efforts.


American Sniper: A Review

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Warning: This post includes spoilers

Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle had four tours of military service during the Iraq War. Alleged to have been the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, he had 160 confirmed kills during the war. Kyle took pride in his service and believed he was fighting for America’s safety and freedom. In his 2012 book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle minced no words when justifying these kills, arguing that “I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. Savage, despicable, evil – that’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy savages.” The book was a success, and plans were eventually made to turn it into a film. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of American Sniper–which is also called American Sniper–was released in January 2015 to much critical acclaim, but also a healthy dose of vocal criticism from various quarters. In this post I will address praises and criticisms of this film while also sharing my own reflections on American Sniper.


American Sniper claims to tell the story of Chris Kyle’s life and wartime experiences rather than providing a larger contextual framework for interpreting the Iraq War and the War on Terror. This narrow focus is simultaneously the film’s strongest and weakest point. On the one hand, viewers gain insights into one serviceman’s unique perspective and extraordinary experiences in a war that the vast majority of U.S. citizens never witnessed firsthand. We learn of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, his marriage and family life, his decision to join the U.S. military in 1999 following several al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and Asia, and the horror he and his wife felt on the morning of September 11, 2001. Especially with the latter moment, many of us old enough to remember that day will recall our own shock, horror, and sadness at watching the World Trace Center Towers fall to the ground.

On the other hand, Chris Kyle’s wartime experiences in American Sniper are remarkably obtuse and two-dimensional. Because the film focuses exclusively on Kyle, the narrative rarely evolves or advances beyond his limited memories and experiences. For example, the film seamlessly transitions from footage of the World Trade Center falling to Kyle on the ground in Iraq, falsely implying that the Iraq war was a response to the September 11 attacks. There is no George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein, United Nations, “Mission Accomplished,” Iraq coalition forces or government, Halliburton, or “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to speak of. There are no politics in American Sniper, which is itself a political act. The only active agent of leadership in the film is Kyle himself, pushing his sometimes reluctant troops and nation forward even when doubts about the war effort increase. American Sniper depicts a good versus evil battle for civilization with a self-described “sheepdog” fighting evil in a fallen, sinful world where too many “sheep” naively believe that evil doesn’t exist.

At first American Sniper comes off as too simplistic and eager to bind up a messy, complex war with a simple story of patriotism and sacrifice. The left-leaning website Vox has three separate reviews of the film here, here, and here, all of which criticize American Sniper for distorting the Iraq War and suggesting that because the men and women who fought over there were good soldiers, their cause must have been good too. A.O. Scott’s New York Times review is more positive, but he also criticizes the film for its absence of politics and suggests that Clint Eastwood “engages in his share of mythmaking” throughout. Libertarian-anarchist Noam Chomsky also gets in on the action, suggesting that the movie’s “sniper mentality” ignores “what is most clearly the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history, if not ever . . . which is officially aimed at murdering people who are suspected of maybe someday planning to harm us.” Beyond Kyle himself, American Sniper is an indictment of the wrongness of the War on Terror, according to Chomsky, “because we’re all tarred by the same brush insofar as we tolerate or keep silent about official policy.” Meanwhile, the right-leaning National Review also acknowledges the simplistic nature of the film, but actively celebrates this simplicity: “American Sniper broke box-office records because it dared to be an old-fashioned movie about a modern hero, about good and evil, about an American war hero” who deserves the nation’s “reverence.”

I believe each of these film reviews provide important insights on how we should interpret American Sniper. That said, I think all of these reviews miss the forest for the trees.

At its core, American Sniper is fundamentally an anti-war film. Sure, there is a select minority that will bask in the violence of this film and view it as vindication for the Iraq war and continued violence against Muslims. Still more will leave the film embracing the reverential hero-complex that the National Review gushes about while never thinking about the context of the war itself. But make no mistake about it: American Sniper is a cautionary tale about war and its mental and physical consequences. Indications of Kyle’s mental toll and profound alienation from civilian society become more prevalent as the film progresses. Whereas Kyle speaks during his early enlistment about fighting “for the greatest country in the world,” his justification for future tours of duty are instead cloaked in the rhetoric of fighting for the soldiers in his unit. One time between tours when he expresses a desire to support his country to his wife, she instantly rebukes him, knowing that this claim is hollow and that his primary justification for leaving is to support his soldiers, even at the cost of abandoning his family for extended periods of time. In this sense American Sniper challenges us to consider the merits of whether or not the ideology of “supporting my fellow soldiers” alone is enough of a justification for leaving behind parents, spouses, and children for a controversial battlefield, sometimes permanently. It also shows us that soldiers enlist in the military for a wide range of reasons that go beyond political philosophy or patriotic sentiment.

The film also challenges us to think more critically about “the American way,” which in itself is a contradictory vision. We value strong, rugged individuals who take charge of tough situations, fight for good causes like “freedom” and “liberty,” and who lead by the example of their good deeds and strong words. At the same time, however, we also revere the U.S. military’s preaching of obedience to authority, nation, and flag – a selflessness that casts aside individual vision in favor of national interest. And if you watch close enough, you will notice moments in the film when Kyle’s individualism gets in the way of his desire to support his fellow soldiers and country. Take, for example, his killing of the fictionalized Syrian sniper “Mustafa.” Kyle chooses to fire on Mustafa even though his superiors tell him not to, and his decision to shoot blows his unit’s cover, puts other soldiers’ lives in danger, and ultimately ruins the entire operation. Kyle and most of troops get out of the operation alive, but I came away from this scene questioning Kyle’s individual decision to shoot. For all his braggadocio about killing bad guys and not regretting anything from the Iraq war, American Sniper shows Chris Kyle as a deeply troubled man alienated in both time and space, stuck in a place between the past and the present, between individual agenda and national pride, between war and peace, between the “home” of the Iraq battlefield and the “home” of his Texas house and family.

American Sniper is an interpretive depiction of one man’s experiences in Iraq. Any complex topic like the Iraq War necessarily calls for extended and deeper reflection beyond American Sniper through the use of films, literature, and scholarship. If we stop our analysis of Iraq with American Sniper and move on with our lives without thinking about this devastating war again, we’ve missed the point of the film. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and American Sniper is merely a sum of that whole narrative of the War on Terror.

One final point about Kyle’s use of the word “savage” to describe Iraqis:

As many of us know, the United States during the nineteenth century was marked by rapid territorial expansion and settlement to the west. As white settlers moved west, they faced hostile Indians who resented this oftentimes illegal encroachment on their lands. Sometimes these resentments boiled over into violence against settlers, including scalping and murder. Eastern newspapers picked up these stories and spun them to portray Indians as “savages” who mercilessly killed men, women, and children seeking a better life for themselves out west. “Savages” were portrayed as subhuman, inferior, and ignorant people unfit for citizenship in a civilized democracy. These narratives, however, rarely explored deeper questions about why these white settlers felt they had the right to move into these lands in the first place or how civilized it was to treat Indians as inferior beings unworthy of the land they lived on. I don’t propose to connect that narrative to American Sniper, but we should remember the fact that Kyle’s use of the word “savage” was deliberate and carried a meaning similar to its nineteenth century usage. Ultimately, American Sniper shows us that the line between civilized thought and savagery is often blurry.


Interpreting the History of Nuclear Technology at Public History Sites

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

In his 2012 publication, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener visited Cold War-related historical sites throughout the United States, analyzing the ways this history is interpreted within a public history setting. Wiener came away largely disappointed with his findings. He argues that far too many sites misunderstand, distort, diminish, and omit Cold War history from their interpretive missions, even though these sites are dedicated to educating the public about this history.

Emblematic of these interpretive issues is the Hanford B Reactor site in Southeastern Washington state. The reactor (which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008) was the first full-size weapons-grade plutonium production plant in the world and remained in operation until 1987, producing plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons for more than forty years. Wiener writes an entire chapter in How We Forgot the Cold War about his tour of Hanford and concludes that the site’s interpretive leaders have conveniently ignored its history. Rather than explaining the causes, context, and consequences of developing nuclear technology during World War II and its continued production during the Cold War, Wiener’s tour leaders focused on reassuring visitors of the site’s safety and promoting the federal government’s ongoing efforts to clean up radioactive waste around the site. The human consequences of nuclear technology–which include thousands of Hanford workers and residents who have acquired various (and often fatal) cancers because of radiation exposure from the plant–are left out of the narrative.

When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December, seven new national park sites were established and placed under the control of the National Park Service. One of those seven parks is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a three-state unit that includes historical sites in New Mexico, Tennessee, and the Hanford B Reactor in Washington.

As the Park Service begins organizing its long-range interpretive plans for Manhattan Project, it’s my hope that the human element of this important story gains prominence. In my opinion science centers, technology museums, and other related sites often struggle to move their interpretations beyond technical descriptions of historical objects, biographies of great inventors, and quantitative facts devoid of context (just look at the local Hanford government’s webpage about the reactor for an example). Less often do visitors learn about the lived experience of technological innovation and how developments in science, technology, and engineering shaped Americans’ day-to-day lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While the federal government should continue discussing cleanup efforts at places like Hanford, more focus on the daily health struggles of Hanford residents allows for new interpretive opportunities that demonstrate the harmful consequences of nuclear technology during World War II and the Cold War Era. Given that Hanford’s history is still recent, perhaps public historians can explore ways to use oral history as a tool for learning more about these stories. As Hanford native Trisha Pritikin warns in her essay on the National Park Service takeover of the reactor, “The legacy of the Manhattan Project is not represented solely by the atomic science. It is also reflected in its destructive effects on the human body . . . the human toll of this project remains a story that must not be silenced or ignored.”


The Importance of Continually Reading about Historical Content AND Methods

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When I completed my undergraduate studies in 2011, I did so without the benefit of taking a historical methods class. There was no requirement to take one when I started my studies five years earlier, and I was later grandfathered from having to take one when the requirements changed while I was still in the history program. Sure, I learned a lot of historical content and got better at writing papers while in undergrad, but I lacked the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological foundations necessary for thinking critically about the bigger questions that dominate a historian’s thoughts: what is historical objectivity, and can it be achieved? Is the past a foreign country, and if so, when do we find ourselves back in our native homeland? Can we separate the past and the present? What does it mean to think historically? What is truth? Is there such a thing as multiple truths? Who owns history? What is the importance of history in understanding the human condition?

I don’t necessarily have clear answers to all of these questions today, but my graduate training–especially my studies in public history and museum studies–did much to raise a sense of awareness about the need to always keep the “Why?” questions of history in close proximity to the how, what, and where questions that surround any historical inquiry. Books from the likes of Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, John Lewis Gaddis, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot exposed me to the importance of source criticism, the power structures the shape the documents we use in our research, and the artistic and scientific qualities of historical study. More generally, these books showed me the importance of historical thinking as a way of understanding our contemporary world. Quite frankly, I am obsessed with talking and writing about historical methods these days.

You can only learn so much and be a student for so long before you must move on from graduate school, however. I would surmise that some history graduates probably do away with their historical methods books after graduation, and I don’t blame them. But now that I’m a practicing public historian I think it’s more important than ever to keep pushing myself to think about the “Why?” questions of history because the public audiences I work with ask those sorts of questions all the time. People often come in with a specific conception of history as facts, dates, dead people, and dust, which challenges me to find ways to teach them about history as an interpretive act that is continually up for questioning and revision. Many visitors also ask me questions about things they learned growing up and whether or not they were true. And every once in a while I get questions about the evidence and methods I use in crafting my own interpretations of nineteenth century history.

A good history teacher emphasizes process and method in addition to content. Public historians should also strive to teach their audiences–most of whom don’t engage with the stuff of history on a regular basis–process and method in addition to content whenever possible so that they are empowered to start their own exploration into the past.

Now that I’m out of school and able to read any book I want, I follow a simple method for ensuring my continued growth as a nineteenth century historian, interpreter, and educator. For every two books I read about history, I read one book about “method,” whether that be historical methods, philosophy of history, public history, museum practices, educational theories, or something along those lines. So, for example, I just finished reading Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending War. Now I am currently reading Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.

To be sure, the best history books teach us much about historical methods! Broadly defined, what I mean by “history book” is a work of scholarship in which the central thesis contains an argument about historical content and our understanding of the past, whereas “method” scholarship focuses primarily on discussing the specific practices scholars and practitioners employ when they interpret the past.

It’s hard to be a good historian if you omit reading one or the other. Having a lot of knowledge about educational theories and interpretive practices is important, but it’s hard to be an effective communicator if you don’t have any historical knowledge to communicate. Likewise, it’s great to have a lot of historical knowledge, but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate that knowledge to your audiences, you will struggle as a teacher and/or public historian.



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