Just this evening I chatted a bit with Paul, or who I call dad. We found ourselves reflecting a bit, at least why his grandfather (my great grandpa Barth) left railroad work in Cleveland, Ohio to take up a homestead claim just outside of Braddock, North Dakota. This is how one line of our family history goes, at least one of the general narratives.
After a bit of chatting my dad, knowing I am a bit of a bibliophile, produced two books from his late mother’s (my late grandmother’s) library. One of these books was The Joy of Words, published in 1960 by the J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company of Chicago, Illinois. I started flipping through the table of contents and pages, and I arrived at the section called “Historic.” Here, in the opening, on page one hundred eleven, it begins with a quote that seemed to capture the evening conversation I had with my dad:
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
I thought I’d float that quote our there, at least since it resonated with me. Perhaps someone else might be able to grab hold of it and use it too.
It’s closing in on 7:28AM as I type, and I thought I’d do a quick recap of this last week. Just yesterday evening on my walk home from NDSU campus, I was thinking how much more exciting blog posts on exploding trains are in contrast to posts about napping. Yet when it comes down to it, and if I’d have a choice, I’d rather read up on nap studies than exploding trains, since the former — naps — are much more likely to affect and influence a larger cross-section of society than, say, oil trains that explode near Casselton, North Dakota. Both are important. But I tend to enjoy figuring out how to find and make the otherwise mundane and boring (naps, or even a German-Russian homestead) interesting than focusing on the also important mushroom clouds rising up out of the northern Great Plains winter prairiescape.
Anyhow, I just confirmed a couple lecture-talks this semester at universities within the region, and these talks will build off published research on, broadly speaking, how and why the US-Dakota Wars have been remembered for the last 150 years in the Dakotas and Minnesota. I’m perpetually fascinated by this topic of memory. I suppose one reason is that by looking at how and why groups remember an event is just as informative as the actual event itself. And maybe even more. By studying these groups, we’re able to unpack the cultural, social and political set of ethos that various memory groups brought to bear on the interpretation of historical events.
These groups, in turn, are responsible for advancing the general topics in history that we know today. There is, for another example, the world historical event of the Second World War. But there are also the memory groups — in this case led by Tom Brokaw (also from South Dakota), Tom Hanks, and the late Stephen Ambrose — who study, popularize, and consider America’s involvement in the Second World War. These memory groups have reasons for studying what they study, and I want know the philosophy and technics behind it — the why and the how.
I’ve been coming into the topic and conversation of war in the last week. Twice at least. On Sunday I chatted with a Kurdish friend and got some thoughts on his perspective of the Second Gulf War. Being Kurdish, it was understandable to hear him say that yes, he is glad the United States went at the Ba’ath regime, Saddam Hussein and his two sons (I reminded myself out loud that Saddam was, to put it mildly, a super-jerk and no friend of the Kurds). As John Stuart Mill reminds us, though (and this is paraphrased), when the bullets start flying in a war, all chaos breaks loose and there is barely a modicum of reason, restraint and control. Innocent people die. And it is terrible and it needs to be acknowledged. I have found that it is best to chat with individuals about their individual experiences in war when it comes down to it: ears open and mouth closed. Wars are complex and terrible things. This last Sunday, my Kurdish friend had some remarks on it all but he had to take off. He said we’ll sit down and have a dinner and a conversation about it all some time. I agreed.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
The second encounter was yesterday evening when I had a chance to watch Ari Folman’s 2008 film, Waltz with Bashir, this a work of remembrance of the First Lebanon War (1982). The film eventually takes the viewer to the horrors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should. Note: it is an adult topic — war, and the horrors intrinsic to it and remembrance thereof.
Within the film, a female psychiatrist (at least I think she was a psychiatrist) was having a conversation with a friend or patient, and she was remarking on how a soldier dealt with war by treating it, in his mind, as one would treat a vacation. She referred to this as the soldier’s “camera,” and psychologically the soldier was able to deal with processing the immediate carnage this way (think Christopher Browning’s 1998 monograph, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion and the Final Solution in Poland).
When the soldier came across a Hippodrome of slaughtered and mangled Arabian horses (ravages from the war), the soldier’s psychological camera, she said, broke. This mental shift caused the soldier to look at everything as it was, the change in perspective pulling him into the reality of what was going on. I thought about this and Ari’s use of cartoon to tell this story of remembering The First Lebanon War: impressionistically, a viewer of the film understands this is a serious topic of war. But Ari’s use of cartoon gives the viewer distance. And then toward the end of the film, gravity returns as Ari uses actual footage from the Sabra and Shatila massacre, this carried out by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia in Beirut. Once again, see this film. It is important.