Posted in 20th century America, atomic bombings, death, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, military, religion, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

“Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach is to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 18th century America, military

The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

Bell, David Avrom. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007.

In The First Total War, David Bell, whose historical interest lies in the political culture of the Old Regime and the French Revolution, argues that modern militarism evolved during the vast number of worldwide conflicts that occurred during the Napoleonic era.  The book’s introduction suggests that Bell’s research is a response to the continual state of war American leaders have waged on the Middle East and beyond since the early nineties.  Although historians are not in agreement over the term “total war,” Bell argues that apocalyptic rhetoric and, with it, the “complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of the enemy” are key identifiers of total war, and Bell claims that absolute investment in total war becomes a redemptive experience (7). Yet, ironically, the intellectual roots of modern militarism can be found in the Enlightenment belief in the coming of perpetual peace (6, 73-74, 77-78), and Bell connects these themes to both World War I and the aftermath of 9/11 (314-315).

Most of Bell’s sources are published secondary resources, such as academic journal articles and books, with a few works with which the general public would be familiar, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and popular magazines, such as The Wall Street Journal.  Bell saved the layman from having to wade through scores of footnotes by arranging them at the end of his book.

Bell missed a number of opportunities that would have helped readers better understand our current state of perpetual warfare.  Apocalyptic discourse tied to redemptive experience stems from Christian narratives, yet Bell failed to connect the influence the Church has on politics and language.  He also failed to connect the differentiation of the military from civilians to the abolition of the nobility and the clergy during the French Revolution.  Societies are ordered hierarchies, so leveling the importance of the nobility and the clergy in French society left a gaping wound that was quickly filled by this new prestigious military power.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, immigrants, marginalization, military, religion

Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

Posted in 20th century America, assimilation, death, journal articles, Korean War, military, Native Americans, racism

Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era

Kotlowski, Dean J. “Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era.” Journal of American Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 199-225.

In 1951, Sergeant First Class John Raymond Rice, an eleven-year veteran of the United States Army who had been killed in the Korean War, was refused burial in Sioux City, Iowa’s Memorial Park cemetery, because he was not white. The insult enraged many Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, who soon arranged for the soldier’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kotlowski recounts the history of this event and notes three larger themes. First is the character of Truman, a President whose historical reputation has fluctuated over the years. Second, this event revelas how mid-twentieth-century liberals approached the issue of race. Kotlowski points out that Native Americans were often lumped together with African Americans’ fight for equality, whose leaders advocated integration into white society during the 1950s. Native Americans fought a different fight. And third, veterans and minorities were rightfully outraged when the Cold War mantra was for national unity. But again, Native Americans did not want to assimilate. They wanted to maintain their special rights, privileges, and institutions.

The Rice burial unfolded within the context of an evolving federal policy toward Native Americans. Kotlowski illuminated the postwar climate and federal programs meant to integrate disparate communities. He shed light on Truman’s affinity for Native Americans and also his disinterest in preserving them. Kotlowski also painted an intimate portrait of Rice, his community, and the bias against Native Americans, even in death.

Truman’s gesture was not politically motivated but generated out of moral outrage concerning racial prejudice against a soldier. (214) Kotlowski recounted a particularly vicious attack in 1946 against Isaac Woodard, a recently discharged African American sergeant, who had his eyes gouged out by a sheriff in South Carolina. Truman cited the Woodard attack when defending his decision to desegregate the armed services. (214) Many Americans applauded Truman’s gesture. Yet, it was interesting that non-assimilated Native Americans did not respond with the same enthusiasm. The government, including the President, continued to believe that Native Americans should not retain their unique, federally protected status.

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, imperialism, journal articles, memorials, military, Vietnam War, WWII

War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism

Doss, Erika. “War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism.” Memory Studies 1, no. 2 (2008): 227-50.

Doss asserts that war memorials are flourishing around the country, especially those dedicated to the memory of WWII. In this article, she examines why people feel such a need to say thank you to those who fought over sixty years ago. Doss claims that “memorials embody a ‘cultural turn’ toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension.” (229) People want to experience history.

Importantly, Doss compares Alison Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memory” to Joan Scott’s understanding of experience. Landsberg claims that new forms of public cultural memory and mass technology enable anyone to personally experience the past, no matter how remote or distant or traumatic. Whereas, Scott contends that “discourses of experience are both illuminating and highly problematic.” (229) The people who have an experience understand it as authentic. But we must realize that these people are subjects who are constituted through experience. Memorials help to fabricate public subjectivity. Memorials are, to paraphrase Ann Cvektovich, “a public ‘archive of feelings’ which is encoded in their material forms, narrative content and ‘practices that surround their production and reception.’” (229) Doss points out that these affective experiences do not foreclose possibilites of social or personal transformation, but we need to understand “how and why (and which) feelings shape historical moments, concepts of citizenship, and understandings of self and national identity.” She argues that we need to understand how they work to mobilize and maintain contemporary American war memory.

WWII was always celebrated as the Great War and memorialization began almost immediately. Doss details many projects over the years, but focuses primarily on the WWII memorial on the National Mall. She discusses the many contributors and the design, noting its imperialist qualities. Doss contends that “the National World War II Memorial is not simply to say ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, but to dramatically reconfi gure contemporary understandings of national purpose and identity. Its privileged location in America’s capital city helps promote its cause.” (240) Surprisingly, Doss shows that not everyone supported the building of this memorial. Some veterans thought that it ruined the Mall. (242) Other veterans felt like they were trying to erase the “dangerous memory” of the Vietnam War.

Doss ends by stating, “Framed by saying ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, the National World War II Memorial is a blatant example of the manipulative dimensions of war memory.”

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, tourism, Vietnam War

Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials

Beckstead, Zachary, Gabriel Twose, Emily Levesque-Gottlieb, and Julia Rizzo. “Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials.” Journal of Material Culture 16, no. 2 (2011): 193-213.

In this article, the authors use the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Worcester, MA to explore how the various memorial ‘objects’ guide the way the memorial is experienced, understood, and related to. They question the socially mediated meanings inscribed or encoded in the war memorial to see how they relate to messages about the war. In particular, they examine how these material and symbolic objects evoke feelings as part of the meaning-making process.

Citing foundational memory scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, the authors make the case that social and individual memories meet through interacting with forms of objectified memory as can be found in memorials and monuments. War memorials, in particular, work to perpetuate remembrance through incorporating “hard, long-lasting materials such as concrete, brick and mortar.” (195) Traditionally, war memorials emphasize themes of ‘honor’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘common good’, which offers some form of redemption and meaning for the loss of life. War memorials become sites of memory “where national and social myths are mapped and group and individual identities are created.” (196) Through pilgrimage and commemorative rituals, visitors imbue memorials with personal and social meaning.

Feelings play a large role in the meaning-making process. The authors show that even though each visitor has a personal reaction, that response is regulated through cultural quotes and symbols that are familiar to the visitor, for example, “freedom is not free.” In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial in Massachusetts, or any other memorial to the Vietnam War, society has not come to full agreement that the loss of life was worth the cost. (201) The authors then discuss the Vietnam Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin and the public’s initial and later responses to it followed by a fuller discussion of how the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial works to make meaning.

The way the memorial is constructed enables individual identity to be subsumed within the larger socially mediated discourse, “overwhelming the perceiver, wstrengthening a culturally prescribed emotional response.” (206) The authors claim this memorial was designed to provoke a cathartic experience to allow healing. Monuments promote a particular narrative and social order, memorials offer a more therapeutic experience. (210)