How Short is America’s Collective Memory?

Today I had the pleasure of skyping with a Civil War class at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.  Chris Lese and his class have made good use of my blog over the past few weeks so I offered to spend some time with his students to field questions.  In addition to utilizing the blog the class has read a chapter from David Blight’s book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War and they are making their way through a critical evaluation of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  It’s always nice to see high school kids engaged in serious study of American history and it made for an entertaining and informative 45 minutes.  I am planning on visiting with this class in person during my trip to Milwaukee in April for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.

A number of the questions focused on the place of the Civil War in our collective memory today and the extent to which it still resonates.  I don’t find these types of questions to be particularly easy to answer, especially when anything normative is implied.  Though I have devoted much of my time to reading, researching, and teaching the subject I still hesitate to ascribe it the same importance for others.  My response to these questions was to throw it back to the students since I don’t believe that my opinion ought to carry much more weight.  It comes down to the fact that how we approach the past is a very personal decision.  American both past and present have rarely struck me as particularly interested in history relative to other cultures.  In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case.  We are much more of a future-oriented culture.

The students at Marquette offered some interesting observations in response to my question of what would be lost if we pushed the Civil War even further away from our collective memory.  At the same time I wonder what is more important right now as we look back on the past ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  How do you even begin to shape a memory of a war when it appeared as no more than a blip on the radar screens of most Americans.  I seem to remember being told to go shopping by my president and that photographs of flag draped coffins was somehow inappropriate.  We can speculate on what it might mean to minimize and even forget the sacrifice of so many Americans in the 1860s and the nation-shaping events that took place, but how does that compare with the ease with which we’ve moved beyond our most recent military endeavor?  We risk losing sight of the great lessons of the 1860s, but can someone tell me what great lessons were learned as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan?  What great meaning are we going to attach to the sacrifice of thousands of men and women who “gave the last full measure” and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer from debilitating physical and psychological injuries?  Perhaps we’ve already moved on from these uncomfortable questions.

Right now I am worried much more about the consequences of ignoring what happened yesterday as opposed to what happened 150 years ago.

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20 comments… add one

  • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

    I think the last decade has taught us the world is still a pretty idiotic place. We still live on a planet where there are despots, authoritarians, and some very violent religious people.

    Unfortunately, if we want to stop some of the violence, end some of despotism, and most importantly protect or expand our interests we have to use violence ourselves, which includes sending Americans around the world to be killed, mutilated, captured, and psychologically affected.

    Frankly, what we’ve learned, is that the world is the same as it has always been. There is more violence coming down the road. Hopefully we’ll be prepared for it.

  • Ben Railton Feb 14, 2012

    Hi Kevin,

    Really interesting and thought-provoking stuff, per usual. My one thought would be that there’s a third option, or middle ground, or different way to look at it: that our general inability to remember the past with any complexity (I think we have collective memories, but that they tend to be hugely simplifying and mythologized and the like) is directly connected to our difficulty engaging with events like these recent wars (ie, what do we do with the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda worked directly with the CIA as they developed? With Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand during the Reagan years? Nothing, ’cause we just don’t remember them!).

    So I guess I’d suggest that the great work done by folks like you (and in my own way, I hope, me) is really about getting us to remember our past with more complexity and nuance and accuracy, rather than remembering it per se. Does that distinction make sense?

    Thanks, keep up the good work,
    Ben

    • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

      “What do we do with the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda worked directly with the CIA as they developed? With Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand during the Reagan years? Nothing, ’cause we just don’t remember them!”

      Actually it doesn’t really matter if we remember these things, because it is irrelevant that the US once had a relationship with Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. The third most important ally the US had during WWII was Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. That certainly didn’t preclude us from having a Cold War with that authoritarian immediately after the war did it? It was in our interest to ally with Josef Stalin, just as it was in our interest to support Saddam against Iran and the Taliban against the Soviet Union. That didn’t mean we had to forever abide them.

      Morally we probably even had a responsibility to do something about these guys since we in fact had a working relationship with them in the past. If we were partly responsible for their degeneracy, then it was probably our responsibility to do something about their degeneracy.

      • Ben Railton Feb 14, 2012

        Hi Lyle,

        Thanks for the responses. There’s a great deal in your comments with which I would disagree, but I’m not a big fan of hijacking Kevin’s threads, so I’ll just keep it to this: if the US were genuinely to try to go to war with/take out all the suspect or just plain horrible regimes and groups we’ve installed, propped up, funded, and otherwise allied with over the last century or so, to make good on our support for their “degeneracy”… well, we’d have even more never-ending war than we already do. And would, I would add, be quite definitely failing to learn from any of the complexities of our and the world’s histories.

        Thanks,
        Ben

        • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

          Interestingly though we’re not at war with every despot. There were very specific reasons for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which you’re correct, didn’t totally have to do with their leaders’ degeneracy.

          My point is to simply vitiate the idea that we had no moral right to go to war against Saddam and the Taliban because of our past relationships with them.

          • Ben Railton Feb 14, 2012

            Last one from me, but I want to be clear that my point here wasn’t about our moral right to go to war or not. Instead I’d say, linking this to Kevin’s comment and my thoughts in response there too, that the issue is that we as a nation/community didn’t and don’t have the faintest idea why we went to war with Iraq (or, more exactly, that the “ideas” we had as a nation were based on either blatant 9/11-related misdirection or elaborately constructed false narratives about WMDs), and that a significant part of the problem there was and is our complete unwillingness to grapple with the histories of the region, our own foreign policies, past wars, and so on. (Afghanistan is a much more complicated case to me, so I’m focusing specifically on Iraq here.)

    • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Ben. I don’t know if the recent history that you cite has hindered our collective response to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan one way or the other. It seems to me that the nation was never really called to make any significant sacrifice and it didn’t help that the mission lost its focus once we realized that there were no WMDs. The worst part was getting caught up in a civil war that placed US troops in a precarious situation. I suspect that leaving Iraq without any clear sense that our presence improved the situation is what will continue to push the war further from our collective memory.

      In the case of the American Civil War I find myself working to unravel the various strands of historical memory that can be traced directly to the war itself. But what effect is there on our memory of a traumatic and costly event when the nation’s investment in a war is lacking? Granted, there have been some very good movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have tended to focus specifically on the experience of the military and the struggles of readjusting to life back home. I don’t see how you can construct much of anything from that. Perhaps the challenge is to find some redeeming value/meaning in the event.

      I don’t know if any of this makes sense.

      • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

        I think our current wars are like the Indian removal wars of the 19th century or the Spanish-American War. American life didn’t stop because frontier Americans and the U.S. army were fighting native Americans somewhere out west, or because the U.S. volunteers were running over Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

        Our current conflicts simply do not require a great sacrifice on the part of the American people. We didn’t need a 10 million man army to get rid of Saddam, bin Laden, or Qaddafi. We might feel there should be greater sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it is required of us.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2012

          Our current conflicts simply do not require a great sacrifice on the part of the American people. We didn’t need a 10 million man army to get rid of Saddam, bin Laden, or Qaddafi. We might feel there should be greater sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it is required of us.

          Right, it only required a significant sacrifice of a certain segment of our country. Their burden made it possible for the rest of us to continue as business as usual.

          • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

            Yes, that is exactly right. It’s harsh to put it this way, but it is the truth. American soldiers died horrible deaths in Cuba and the Philippines as well… and yet there was no great sacrifice on the part of the American people during that conflict.

            We’re not fighting the American Civil War right now, or even World War II. Maybe we will have to in the future, but the level of sacrifice that has been required to defeat Saddam, bin Laden and Qaddafi has not risen to the same level yet.

            I’m as thankful as anyone else for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and live today with the physical and mental consequences of their sacrifice. I give thanks to them just as you do, but it doesn’t change the fact that the country hasn’t been required to sacrifice more to accomplish what has been accomplished or not accomplished.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2012

              So are we saying that the formation of a robust collective memory hinges on how many body bags are filled?

              Let me try to frame my point a bit differently. I agree that the scale of sacrifice and mobilization of the nation does not compare with the Civil War, but it seems to me that the case can be made that the proximity of these recent events and the fact that they will shape our involvement on the world stage for the foreseeable future demands more attention than an event from 150 years ago.

              • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

                “So are we saying that the formation of a robust collective memory hinges on how many body bags are filled?”

                Maybe… if 1/2 of America dies off next year because of some disease, I’m guessing we will remember it pretty well since it would be terribly unusual for something like that to happen to us.

                “It seems to me that the case can be made that the proximity of these recent events and the fact that they will shape our involvement on the world stage for the foreseeable future demands more attention than an event from 150 years ago.”

                I totally agree with you. And I don’t think there is any question that Americans are thinking harder on their current conflicts than the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

                • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2012

                  And I don’t think there is any question that Americans are thinking harder on their current conflicts than the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

                  Really? I just don’t see it.

                  • Lyle Smith Feb 14, 2012

                    ;)

              • Will Stoutamire Feb 14, 2012

                Kevin, I’m intrigued by your question. It raises the issue of to what degree a collective memory (of war, genocide, epidemic, etc.) forms in proportion to the scale and personal impact of the event. One might easily make the case that American Civil War memory appears so large because of the unparalleled death toll and, perhaps most importantly, because it was fought on American soil; this, in turn, would explain why Southerners are the loudest voices. That and it survives as a legacy of an era in which war was excruciatingly romanticized, cast as full of “heroes” and “villans” – a point that came up in the comments on another one of your posts a few days ago. (do you know of any good texts that address this latter point in a Civil War context?)

                We (fortunately, I would say) now live in an era that does not so easily give itself to such simple binaries. Many Americans have, from the beginning, felt conflicted about the wars in the Middle East. Combine these sentiments with the fact that those conflicts have involved comparatively few Americans and have occurred universally on foreign soil (with the primary exception of 9/11, which is heavily remembered in American culture) and you have this perceived ambivalence. As an aside: What would make for an interesting study, now that Iraq is more or less over, would be a comparative study of Iraq War collective memory in the U.S. and Iraq. How will those memories develop and, likely, diverge? What kinds of reconciliation will we see? What will be the consequences of that reconciliation? etc.

                And, one last note. I understand the historian’s desire to find a redeeming value or meaning in these events, but, thinking aloud here, I would caution against attempts to impose a meaning that might only contribute to a selective remembrance. Perhaps the seeming lack of clarity and meaning, and the cultural focus on the impact of fighting on the individual, has a meaning in and of itself?

                • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2012

                  Excellent points, Will. I am just thinking off the top of my head here, but I wonder if the speed of information makes it more difficult to maintain a sufficient level of attention and interest that important events in the nineteenth century presented to the nation. The events of 9-11 had a significant impact on the nation resulting in an outpouring of nationalism and various commemorations, but for the most part we’ve moved on. We seem to be much more distracted.

                  • Will Stoutamire Feb 15, 2012

                    Perhaps. I’d add that we also live in a post-Vietnam era (dare I say, even a little postmodernist), where attitudes towards nationalism and war are much more diverse and complex. Finding a “collective” view is very difficult in that setting.

                • Vicki Betts Feb 16, 2012

                  One of my favorite quotations on Southern vs. Northern memory of the war comes from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. It’s several paragraphs long, so here’s a link to the chapter, and it’s right at the beginning–http://www.classicreader.com/book/2886/46/ It, too, speaks to the percentage of people involved being a key component.

                  Vicki Betts

  • Mark Stoneman Feb 14, 2012

    Regarding our attitude towards our most recent wars, maybe we are still in sme kind of denial phase (with varying colorations) that makes it hard to even want to look at it for what it is or was.

  • Pat Young Feb 14, 2012

    We learned the same lesson we’ve learned before-the first casualty of war is truth.

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