How we represent veterans matters. This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect. To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature. Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact. Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are: “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”
The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War. In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.” He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:
“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children. He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).
Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.” But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency? The writer assumes we already know.
Perhaps we do. But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness. Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men. So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature. Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:
“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away. Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain. By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).
There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.” More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article. The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain. Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.
In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue. Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s. This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks. But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations. One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal. He says:
I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so. I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens. All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt. Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place. Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.
So where does this leave us? How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?
I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are: Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered. Remember that not all veterans are the same.
Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group. For what is a myth but a form of stereotype? If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way. If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service. Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support. The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers. There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know. Army life is one of those things.
On Saturday, February 14, C-19 (The Society for Nineteenth-Century Americanists) held what will hopefully be the first of many circuit events, which will help members of the organization meet on a local level and promote the study and discussion of nineteenth-century American culture.
Members of C-19 joined other scholars and the general public for a dramatic reading of a play recently unearthed by the Newberry library’s acquisitions staff. That play was “Philip, or the Indian Chief (1838),” a play script written by Jehiel Lillie, a cadet at Norwich military academy in Vermont.
The script contained many of the themes and imagery that one would expect of a play written about Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Philip and his warriors are portrayed as brave but ultimately doomed to extinction at the hands of colonists as they “civilize” the land. At one point near the end of the play, Philip’s spiritual counselor, Francis the Prophet, directly references the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” in words that would not have been out of place in one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.
What surprised me, however, was the dialogue between the commander of the Colonial Militia (Church) and the Missionary (Elliot) and Surgeon (Cooper). These two civilian professionals attempt to convince the military leader that violence is not the answer to resolving the land disputes between the Wampanoag tribe and the colonial settlers. Although their argument ultimately falls on deaf ears, the fact that it is present in a play written and performed by military cadets is fascinating. It suggests that in 1838, a period dominated by wars with the Native tribes and racist populism, a group of potential army officers were concerned about the relationship between the army and the people it was supposed to serve.
More research has yet to be done on this play. I hope to see scholarship both from Native Americanist researchers as well as historians of the Jacksonian era that references this intriguing work.
This newly acquired play script is part of the Rudy Lamont Ruggles collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago and is housed in their Special Collections on the 4th floor. Call slip information can be found here.
Many thanks to the Newberry Library and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the President of C-19, for hosting and organizing this event.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not prone to bragging, but I just saw the cover image and web write-up for my new book and I just had to share it with you all. The work the publishers did on the cover looks amazing.
Check it out if you’re so inclined.
The American Civil War and Reconstruction
Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association
National Conference 2015
April 1-4, 2015
New Orleans Marriott
555 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130 USA
The Civil War and Reconstruction Area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association is calling for papers on the American Civil War and Reconstruction for its national meeting, April 1-4, 2015 (Wednesday through Saturday) at the New Orleans Marriott in the French Quarter. Papers are welcome from a range of disciplines, and may explore any topic or “reading” of the War. Past presentations have included such diverse subject areas as literature, photography, art, newspapers and journalistic history, counterfactual history, battle reenactments, music, politics, battle narratives, guerilla warfare, film, historiographical issues, women’s narratives, war games, secession politics, African-Americans at war, modern pop culture, memory and memorializing, battlefield preservation, and material culture. Suggested special topics for this year could include slavery and politics, Northern intellectuals at war, military politics, New Orleans at war, The 150th Commemoration and the Politics of Commemoration, and the cultural legacy of the War.
Acceptance of your paper obligates you to appear and make an oral presentation of your paper. Sessions run for ninety minutes, and each presenter receives fifteen minutes, depending on the number of papers in each panel. Please plan to stay within this time limit. Graduate students are welcome to submit proposals. Whole panel proposals are also welcome
Please send an abstract of 100-250 words to:
Dr. Randal Allred,
Department of English,
Brigham Young University Hawaii,
55-220 Kulanui St.,
Laie, HI 96762
Deadline: Nov. 1, 2014
Please include in your proposal your address, school affiliation, e-mail, and telephone number.
Also, please submit your proposal online at http://ncp.pcaaca.org/
My research on veterans has been driven by a number of questions. Foremost among them has been how we as a culture choose to represent veterans in the United States. Naturally the answer to this question depends upon the war discussed. Conflicts far distant in our imagination take on a mythic status. Minute Men and the civilian militia dominate our mental portrait of The Revolutionary War while Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still loom large over the United States Civil War. World War Two remains framed by the “Greatest Generation” label associated with it by former news anchor Tom Brokaw. The Vietnam war is only slowly beginning to mythologize as its veterans advance in age and the war fades from living memory.
Part of the reason I chose to write a book on veterans of the Civil War was the challenge associated with attempting to recover the actual lives of veterans who fought in one of our nation’s most mythologized conflicts. Moving beyond the statues of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank that stand in town squares throughout most of the United States, I wanted to know: What had soldiers of the Civil War survived? How did they understand it? How did non-combatants understand them? What I discovered was that the Civil War served as a turning point in the way veterans were understood in American culture. It set in motion ways of understanding former soldiers that remain influential today.
We tend to take for granted that veterans are different from civilians. This assumption was not widely shared until the late nineteenth-century. Military service was a skill or craft and participation in a war one of the many events that took place in a man’s life. The unique nature of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the country, marked the soldiers who survived this conflict differently from their forebears. In the last years of the war, the pace of combat also changed leaving soldiers psychologically scarred by events they did not have time to process until much later in their lives.
Civilians viewed the growth of the veteran as a distinct social category with apprehension. On the one hand, they were viewed as wounded warriors in need of civilian care and sympathy. On the other, veterans were a potentially destabilizing force to society. For every image of a pathos laden amputee returning to his family in Civil War era newspapers and magazines there was also a tramp, addicted to alcohol and drugs and never quite able to get his life together after the war. In spite of the gender assumptions of the era, it did not seem clear at all that war made men. Instead it seemed to unman them or remake them into something vaguely monstrous.
Time passes and the details change, but the Janus-like figure of the veteran as victim or threat remains. They are two different ways of looking at soldiers and yet they are inextricable from each other. Perhaps the best example in our own times remains the film First Blood (1982). John J. Rambo is a special forces veteran of the Vietnam War. Most viewers of the film will readily remember the action sequences as Rambo unleashes his military training upon a small town in the pacific northwest. What often gets forgotten, however, is the somber way in which the film begins. Rambo is a tramp. We first see him hitchhiking with his battered field jacket and pack. He is looking for fellow survivors from his unit in the war. His travels bring him to the pacific northwest where he discovers that another comrade has died since the war, this one of cancer. Not long after this depressing discovery, Rambo is confronted with a Sheriff who attempts to get him to leave his town. He rebuffs the Sheriff’s attempts to push him back on the road and gets arrested. Rambo is mistreated in prison and memories of the war emerge. Suddenly he sees himself as a P.O.W. in North Vietnamese captivity. Rambo escapes and engages in an epic battle with local law enforcement and the national guard. It is only when his former commander comes to “take him home” that the violence ends and peace is restored to the small town.
One doesn’t often expect to find a parable contained in a popular film, but First Blood is the veteran parable as we’ve inherited it in perfect form. Initially an object of pity, it takes very little effort for Rambo to become a threat. He has brought the war home with him and disrupted the lives of those far removed from it. Only by removing him can peace be restored. A soldier once, he is a soldier forever.
A better film in many respects than First Blood, winning six Oscars, The Hurt Locker (2008) nonetheless helps to perpetuate the “soldier once, soldier forever” theme. Bomb technician Sergeant William James is the protagonist of this film. Far from being a tramp, he is instead presented as a reckless adrenaline junky. James pushes the limits with each mission and in the process risks getting himself and his team blown up by a bomb. When he returns from his combat rotation, James attempts to readjust to civilian life with his family. We see him cleaning the leaves from the gutters of his home, helping his wife chop vegetables for dinner, watching the baby, and helping his wife shop at grocery store. In most of these tasks we see James attempting to feign some interest. We even see him filled with greater terror at the overabundance of the U.S. supermarket than he ever exhibited on the war-torn streets of Iraq. Uncomfortable at home, James re-enlists and the last we see of him he is leaving a troop transport at the airport for his new base.
Surprisingly, few have noted the significance of the name William James being used for the protagonist of this film. Nineteenth-century U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a proponent of a “moral equivalent of war.” Like most of his contemporaries, James wanted to believe in the man-making power of military service. At the same time, however, he had seen how the Civil War had scarred his younger brothers Wilky and Bob. James wondered if the uplifting aspects of the soldier’s life could be separated from the ugliness of war. The Hurt Locker has no such interest in war’s moral equivalent. Nevertheless, it does, like James’s research, remind us that war is not the soldier’s problem. It is a shared concern for the society that creates armies and sanctions war. In the end, this is what our current metaphors seek to evade. War is many things, but at its heart it is a social pathology rather than an individual malady.
No image can do justice to the full range of experience in any person’s life. Veterans are people with all their faults and virtues. They are also complex texts for a society to read and interpret. Unlike dead soldiers they talk back. Their stories bend and twist down many roads, assaulting our assumptions about ourselves and our world. That’s one reason why we continue to search for the right metaphor.
In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago. This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.
Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now). So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).
I guess the best place to start is with my life and career. For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter. Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution. In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June. So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.
None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation. Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures. Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair. Try doing that same activity today. You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid. This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances. An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.
Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors). We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then. The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.
As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition. These can be dealt with at the departmental level. One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors. We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars. In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).
While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation. Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it. Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test. Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.
Has the MLA done the same? Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?
Yes and No.
Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.
What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism. The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body. Neutrality was a farce in 2011. It remains so today.
If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over. We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.” Let’s start doing something about it.
Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:
October 11th, 2013
ENG 240 – 36394
In week six’s response paper, I was a cheerleader for the possibilities and potential that the Digital Humanities offers to both the classroom and personal scholarly pursuits. In week seven, that stance has not changed. I still believe that the boom of technological advancements born from the ashes of the “dot com bust” carries the possibility of a true explosion of literary competence and community. However, through this week’s reading, I was presented with various complaints of DH and how/why they are yet to be utilized to their fullest potential.
I’ll begin by saying that as a daily suburban commuter via the Metra train system, I have the opportunity to rub elbows with every walk of life for upwards of three hours per day. Recently, I took note of the fact that roughly approximated, 70…
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Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:
October 4th, 2013
ENG 240 — 36394
A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities
As a millennial, I feel as if I have a naturally engrained desire to see Digital Humanities succeed. Throughout my entire educational career, the importance of computer literacy has been stressed via numerous typing and computer-aided research courses. Despite sitting through painfully tedious lectures on the “home row” typing technique, I feel as if for the first time, the threat of “pay attention because you’ll be using this for the rest of your life” has—and will continue to—come true. While I haven’t written in cursive in almost ten years and I can’t remember the last time I did manual long division, I use computers and the internet as a vessel for academic research almost every day of my life.
“Digitial Humanities” is defined as “a field of research, teaching, and invention…
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