Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.

Posted in African Americans, Great Depression, homelessness, Japanese Americans, marginalization, material culture, migrants, New Deal, photographs, propaganda, racism, reformers

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Linda Gordon is one of only three historians to have won the Bancroft Prize twice, one of which was for Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits.  In this book, Gordon traces the life and photography of Lange by interweaving historical biography with contextual readings of Lange’s photographs.  Gordon reminds us that behind every photograph lies the person whose viewpoint framed the shot.  This is the first book that I have read about Dorothea Lange that encompassed her entire life rather than just focusing on her work during the Great Depression.  In addition, Gordon reveals the photographer’s growth and resilience through Lange’s relationships, personal tragedies, and professional setbacks.  A prime example appears near the center of the book, where Gordon illuminates Lange’s lessons in “participatory democracy” from her second husband Paul Schuster Taylor.[1]  Gordon successfully portrays Lange as a passionate “photographer of democracy.”

Lange is most well-known for her photography during her time with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and specifically for the iconic image Migrant Mother.[2]  Gordon astutely notes that this image seems to represent the nation during The Depression, much like Marianne stands for France: “Migrant Mother is the enduring, ultimately invincible nation enduring a terrible collective tragedy.”[3]  Gordon shows that even though the original intent of the of the FSA’s photography project was to publicize the value of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lange was able to raise public awareness of and sympathy for poor farm families through her moving photography.  The same empathetic eye that earned her such acclaim for her FSA photographs caused her work to be marginalized following her photography of Japanese American internees and West Coast defense workers.

Gordon researched a wide range of documents, including photographs, letters, taped interviews with Lange, FBI reports, newspapers, and trade magazines. Numerous photographs by Lange are printed throughout the book. Gordon tells American history through Lange’s photography.  Lange’s biography is the focus, but important historical events are narrated through her work.  Gordon reveals racism related to immigration through Lange and Taylor’s work.[4]

[1] Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (London; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), 157.

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 149-50.

Posted in commemoration, historical reenactments, material culture, military, photographs, resistance, rituals, Vietnam War

Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?

Apel, Dora. “Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?” In War Culture and the Contest of Images, 47-76. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

(This post focuses on only one aspect of Apel’s book.)

Public performances, such as anti-war demonstrations and guerrilla theater, continue to be powerful vehicles for raising social awareness and producing significant instances of counter-memory. In War Culture and the Contest of Images, Dora Apel investigates how photography and other visual practices (including public performance) can be used to create a culture of social consciousness and encourage people to question the world in which they live. She argues that, depending on context, images can critique the reality of war as easily as they can reinforce the practice of romanticizing it. Apel contends that America’s perpetual state of war cultivates a militarized society. Her work explores ways to interrupt this mindset. Claiming that art and war occupy the same space, she argues that contemporary artists are uniquely positioned to engage in social justice activism.

When performing historical reenactments, individual experience outweighs historical or political meaning. Apel notes that the reenactor-soldier “allegorically embodies the uniform he wears.” [1] Reenactments provide access to a particular quality of manliness consisting of “virtue, courage, and the sublimation of personal needs to a higher purpose” that are forged only in the heat of battle.[2] In other words, the primary goal of reenacting is to generate meaning for the participant rather than to reinforce or challenge public memory.  Reenactors wish to experience the “intensity and intimacy of male bonding” that occurs in real wars. Apel emphasizes that over eighty percent of reenactors have relatives who served in the wars that they reenact.[3] Soldiers are traumatized by war and then share that trauma with their families and communities upon their return. Reenacting is a way for family members to find meaning through performance and to connect with relatives who are unwilling or unable to communicate their experience.

Most reenactors are civilians with no desire to experience real war, and veterans of real wars generally do not participate in reenactments because they have little desire to reconnect to their traumatic past.[4] This is true as well for African Americans, who show little interest in engaging in activities that revisit painful memories of enslavement or segregation. Their image of previous wars is not nostalgic. Whereas, white Civil War reenactors tend to mythologize the war and reject its real historical implications.[5]

Apel claims that it is possible to use reenactments to deconstruct official histories and to study our own biases.[6] Rather than performing passion plays or historical pageants of earlier times, reenacting events from wars, such as Vietnam, allows us to reexamine traumatic histories and myths that shape contemporary social and political realities. Apel’s studies reveal how performances can “reframe [the] past from the perspective of those who were silenced or obscured.”[7]  In Apel’s study, “Vietnam in Virginia: An-My Lê,” a group of Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia allowed Vietnamese American artist An-My Lê to photograph them on the condition that she also join them as a participant.

An-My Lê participated in historical reenactments of the Vietnam War in Virginia over the course of four summers in order to photograph the experiences. The relationship was two-sided: the reenactors hoped to win her sympathy and she hoped to win their trust.[8] She often played a North Vietnamese army soldier or Vietcong guerrilla. The reenactors would often construct elaborate scenarios around her character, which Lê describes: “I have played the sniper girl (my favorite—it felt perversely empowering to control something that I never had any say in). I have been the lone guerrilla left over in a booby-trapped village to spring out of a hut and ambush the GI platoon. I have played the captured prisoner.”[9]

Lê found that her participation in the reenactments reawakened childhood memories from Saigon of night explosions, screams, and the trauma of finding dead bodies in the streets. Apel notes that Lê’s desire to interrogate those experiences can be seen as part of her desire to photograph and reenact the Vietnam War.  Small Wars (1999–2002), the resulting art exhibit, has been shown in major art venues across the country.  Unlike the violent photographs of the real war that “implored the viewer toward a moral stance,” Lê’s photos are “quiet, lush, beautifully printed silver gelatin prints” that were produced with a large-format camera and tripod, similar to those used by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan for the studio of Matthew Brady during the Civil War.[10]

Apel explains that due to Lê’s respect for the reenactors’ “complicated motivations,” the photos selected for the show rely less on drama and focus more on a feeling of quiet introspection.

[S]he concentrates on moments of anticipation or reflection, such as two soldiers taking a break to write letters or read the newspaper (Stars and Stripes), resting in the grass (GI), a misty forest opening with the blurred movement of soldiers (Ambush I), or the trails of sparks captured with a slow shutter speed of an explosion in the forest (Explosion). The quietude of the scenes is underscored by the middle-gray scale of the photos that downplays the dramatic, instead shifting the focus to the immersion in the landscape, which takes on a mythic quality and becomes a character in the scenarios, almost overshadowing the dwarfed soldiers in frozen tableaux.[11]

The resulting photographs of American soldiers in Vietnam offer another image of the warrior. Unlike most of the teenagers drafted into the war with Vietnam, these noncombatants volunteered to participate. Not much information is offered about the reenactors. We only know that they were men who did not fight in the war, but claimed that they wanted to. They felt a need to connect to the enormity of that experience. One reenactor had lost a brother and the fathers of two others had fought in the war.[12] Apel provides an image of the warrior’s extended family and a civilian survivor.

[1] Dora Apel, War Culture and the Contest of Images (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 66.

Posted in anti-war movements, censorship, material culture, military, myths, photographs, propaganda, resistance, Vietnam War

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Traditionally, Americans have shown their appreciation for soldiers returning from war, believing that they all deserve a warm welcome for their sacrifice.  Newspaper columnist Bob Greene collected accounts from Vietnam War veterans about their experience of returning home in his 1989 book Homecoming.  Many of these recollections involved stories of hippies and other anti-war activists spitting on them as they arrived stateside. In Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke investigates the myth of Vietnam War veterans returning home only to be spat upon by representatives of the anti-war movement. His research reveals that no evidence exists to support that such incidents ever occurred.  Barry Romo, who was the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and an active collector of Vietnam War historical materials, literature, and oral accounts, confirmed that no news source documentation (such as photographs) exist to validate this myth.[1] Contemporary newspaper reports and police records document no such incidents. If soldiers had been spit on, someone would have collected photographic evidence showing the alleged perpetrators.[2] Lembkce contends that the myth was propagated by government officials in order to demonize anti-war movements and the political Left in order to gain public support for current and future wars.[3] He shows how this myth and PTSD diagnoses worked to stereotype Vietnam War veterans as mentally unstable.

Few people realize that World War II veterans were early demonstrators against the Vietnam War and instrumental in reaching out to Vietnam era soldiers and veterans.[4] Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war and developed tactics, such as burning draft cards and returning military medals in mass, which became emblems of the anti-war movement.[5] Lembkce argues that the anti-war movement established credibility with drafted and enlisted men, which helped form tight relationships between veterans and anti-war activists by 1970. Many veterans of previous wars, however, were openly hostile to the anti-war veterans and were the source of much of the grist for the myth.[6]

Lembkce explains that stories about war veterans being spat upon frequently occur in modern histories around the world. Many stories involve, on one hand, soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war and, on the other hand, their abusers who were traitors to the national cause. For example, following Germany’s loss in World War I, Fascists spread similar rumors to incite public anger against groups and individuals who had opposed the war. Some historians claim that images of abused veterans were critical to Nazi propaganda that fanned the flames of patriotism to lead German masses into World War II.[7]

According to Lembcke, it was extremely important for the Nixon administration to discredit the anti-war movement, so the government worked with Hollywood and other popular cultural media creators to propagate this false collective memory. To discredit anti-war veterans and mobilize support for the war, the administration drew a distinction between “good” pro-war veterans and “bad” anti-war protesters who symbolically spit on brave and loyal fighting men. The figurative symbol became a literal reality for the American public. Years later, the Bush administration exploited this anti-American image to gain public support for the Gulf Wars, convincing Americans that not supporting the troops was a fatal mistake of the Vietnam War. However, both administrations had enormous stakes in depicting the anti-war movement as anti-veteran. In order to achieve this goal, the true collective memory of protesters demonstrating at induction centers while recruits and draftees went off to war was rewritten into a story of protesters demonstrating at airports when the worn veterans returned home.

Recent analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War in American culture has revealed that the primary focus of Vietnam veterans’ stories is how they were treated after their return from the war, rather than their experiences in the war.  Lembcke notes, however, that most documentation of abusive behavior against Vietnam veterans show that pro-war people acted against anti-war veterans.[8]  In several interesting revelations, Lembcke argues that members of conservative veterans’ groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, rejected soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.[9] Claiming that Vietnam was not a “real war,” Vietnam veterans were excluded from participating in veterans’ parades and treated as second-class citizens in veterans’ hospitals.[10] When VVAW conducted its march and guerrilla theater from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1971, pro-war members of the VFW publically harassed the marchers.[11]

[1] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] We can see from recent events in the United States how powerfully “fake news” can influence public opinion.

[4] Lembcke, 4.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 76-83.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Posted in gender studies, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, racism, WWII

Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II

Hegarty, Marilyn E. Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Women’s bodies were nationalized and their sexuality militarized during WWII. While men’s bodies were drafted into battle, women’s bodies were called upon to support the war effort, in part, by maintaining servicemen’s morale.[1] More than 200,000 women served in the United States military during World War II, while over six million flooded the American workforce. Countless more supported the war effort through activities like selling war bonds and rationing.  Common knowledge of women’s contributions during the war often is limited to images of “Rosie the Riveter.”[2]  Hegarty’s Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes presents a counter-narrative to the iconic Rosie the Riveter story. In addition to the socially acceptable roles women played during the war, tens of thousands of women supported the war effort by providing morale-boosting services to male soldiers that ranged from USO dances to more blatant forms of sexual services, such as prostitution.

While the de-sexualized Rosie was celebrated in the media, women who used their feminine wiles to serve their country faced discrimination and imprisonment from morals campaigns launched by government and social agencies. This double-standard was summed up by U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) physician Otis Anderson, who dubbed these women “patriotutes” (part patriot, part prostitute), further blurring the line between patriotism and promiscuity (between “good” and “bad” women).[3] Advertisements and popular magazines contributed to these mixed messages by condemning promiscuity while at the same time encouraging female readers to make themselves sexually alluring to soldiers.

Authorities from government, military, health, and social reform agencies developed plans to protect the wartime state and male health by controlling what they perceived as dangerous female sexuality. They succeeded through linking prostitution with venereal disease.[4]  Even though many young women’s reputations were questionable, they were nonetheless mobilized by the state to serve the military’s needs. Hegarty points out that “[p]rostitution was illegal, promiscuity was immoral, female sexuality was dangerous, but sexual labor was essential to the war effort—a veritable catch-22.”[5] Policymakers (military and civilian) intensely debated whether to criminalize prostitution or regulate the practice by screening and licensing prostitutes.

There was not much consensus across the forty-eight states and territories. Hawaii had a longstanding and successful history of legalized prostitution, while many states shut down their brothels as soon as the May Act was implemented in 1941. Some advocates for prostitution regulation argued that policies would protect soldiers from disease and protect respectable women from soldiers. Authorities generally agreed that (white male) soldiers should not (or could not) be sexually restrained. Hegarty notes that one study suggested that men “often act with impunity because acts of aggression (including rape) are linked to traditional images of what it is to be a warrior, because of women being seen as men’s property, or because women fear to speak out.”[6] This study suggests that the warrior image these men embraced is to blame, for it promoted the mindset that soldiers have the right to rape women because that is what warriors do.

Silence around rape is a huge issue during wartime.[7] But women became the ones responsible for stopping unwanted advances.[8]  Hegarty points out that wartime statistics show that reported rapes increased, but those statistics are probably low. She writes, “It seems likely that, given the discourse of servicemen as victims and of girls and women as responsible for sexual control, many pressured sexual encounters were not defined as rape.”[9] This image of warriors as rapists is not an image that Americans will readily accept.

The belief that some bodies (female and nonwhite) were dangerous shaped government policies and social attitudes during World War II. Knowledge about deviance and disease was formed around preexisting assumptions regarding particular bodies. And because the disease in question was sexually transmitted, the bodies in question were constituted as dangerous, both morally and medically.[10] The campaigns to prevent sexually transmitted diseases from harming the health of the military focused primarily on controlling women; however, African Americans were also perceived as “sexually promiscuous” and came under scrutiny as well.[11] Hegarty sheds light on numerous biased health studies and treatments of African Americans, including the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She also repeatedly shows how authorities exempted white males from the same level of scrutiny given to females and minorities.

Governmental racist policies and regulations ensured that nonwhite men (civilian and military) were controlled and contained in a variety of ways. Hegarty asserts that within the segregated military, race-based sexual politics guaranteed that African American men and women suffered numerous personal and professional indignities. Citing one case in point, Hegarty explains that in the Caribbean, military officials allowed white servicemen to cohabit with Polynesian women, but black servicemen were prevented from doing so because offspring would be considered “undesirable citizens.”[12]

[1] Hegarty, 7.

[2] Sean Irwin, “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women’s Contributions During World War II,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed December 15, 2016.

[3] Hegarty, 1.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 85.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Sexual assault is, and has been, a huge issue in the United States military, for men and women. Numerous books and documentaries have been published on MSA (Military Sexual Assault) that both document the issues and provide assistance to survivors.

[8] Hegarty, 160-61.

[9] Ibid., 160.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 160.

Posted in censorship, gender studies, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, WWII

The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II

Jarvis, Christina S. The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Jarvis explores images of masculinity during World War II and the years leading up to war in The Male Body at War.  Proposing that America’s idealized vision of the militarized white male body was a national symbol, her study compares connections between the emerging “powerful male ‘body politic’” and the United States’ “rising status as a world power.”[1] During these years, Uncle Sam was transformed from his slender World War I form into an imposingly broad-shouldered figure during World War II.[2] Images of Uncle Sam, America, and its men were transformed into powerful fighting machines.

Her argument is based on the idea that men were emasculated by the Great Depression. New Deal employment programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Work Projects Administration (WPA) aimed to reinvigorate the image of American manliness. Efforts intensified as the nation acquired a new sense of national purpose with its entry into the war.

Jarvis sheds light on how military medical boards implemented massive screenings to sort and categorize men in terms of their usefulness to the war effort. Relying on Michel Foucault’s definition of “technologies of power” that literally measure and codify “normality,” Jarvis shows how new understandings of deviance were constructed through medical examinations and how these classifications impacted larger society.[3]

The government restricted images of wounded and dead soldiers during the first two years of World War II.[4] Even though there were fewer than 300,000 battle deaths and approximately 671,000 servicemen suffered combat wounds, there were over 24 million hospital admissions during the war attributed to a wide range of maladies, such as malaria, dysentery, and “jungle rot.”[5] However, the true extent of the horrors of war were concealed from the public for much longer.  Jarvis notes that “American soldiers did not shed any blood in print” until May 14, 1945.[6]

Images of wounded soldiers that appeared in posters and advertisements tended to valorize warriors while simultaneously shaming citizens into giving more.[7] Images of wounded soldiers were also used to recruit women to enlist as nurses.[8]  Nevertheless, representations of wounded servicemen continued to be perceived as a threat to national manhood, so were tightly controlled by the OWI in cooperation with Hollywood studios. Representations of the physically disabled president were likewise controlled.[9] America’s soldiers and leaders represented the health of the nation and needed to stand strong.

[1] Jarvis, 4.

[2] Ibid., 35-44.

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

[4] Jarvis, 97.

[5] Ibid., 91-92.

[6] Ibid., 89. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 and Germany surrendered on May 8th.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 30-33.