History

Yet Another Post in Defense of History and the Humanities

Yes, One Thing after Another has been silent for some time. This blog has not been slumbering. Rather, our good blogger has been very busy performing a variety of tasks associated with his job, including research, service, and preparation for fall classes. Despite a very long “to do” list, One Thing after Another has been spurred to action by a recent article authored by Stanley Fish entitled, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Stop-Trying-to-Sell-the/243643?key=m1JvRRyygNd0EHj5AaFoO0ti00iCHCUA2K5ZxC8dMYxDxHtupVA2vVdwCkhaYR63dmtqcHlDbzFCVllkSGhIczZsMXBNMGRlUVpJWFdFUjRSR1cxNS01VnN2SQ

Fish, who is professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, first attained prominence as a literary scholar, so he speaks (or writes) with some sympathy for the plight of the humanities. It makes sense to trace his argument before coming to terms with it.

Fish commences his essay by following the philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott who, in turn, seems to be following Aristotle. Education, so the argument goes, should be pursued for its own sake, not some “ulterior motive” like job skills. Once education is inspired by ulterior motives of this sort, it is no longer education because it is no longer true to itself. So when the time comes for public universities to defend the humanities in front of the state legislature, these schools should admit that there is no defense—or at least no intellectually consistent defense that is outside of the humanities’ own frame of reference which is knowledge for its own sake.

Fish proceeds to demolish the various justifications for the humanities that are frequently adduced by its defenders.

  • To the belief that the humanities provide students with indispensable language skills that help uphold culture, hold society together, and produce knowledge, Fish counters that this is an “in-house argument” unlikely to sway legislators.
  • When confronted with the argument that the humanities are useful because they teach us important everyday skills (e.g. writing), Fish states that one need not study “Byzantine art or lesbian poetry” to learn those skills.
  • As for the idea that the humanities lead to the happiness that one associates with a “fuller experience of life,” Fish responds that years of study have not necessarily made him a better person inspired by the highest motives.
  • The argument that democracy needs humanities professors to guide it and that students who engage with the liberal arts are better citizens also receives short shrift from Fish; he believes the former smacks of “elitism” and “academic exceptionalism” while the latter is only incidental to a college educational (and questionable at best).

Better to admit that there are no defenses of the humanities extrinsic to itself than to build our citadel on sand or so Fish claims.

One Thing or Another has encountered somewhat similar arguments before. Some months ago, this blog responded to an essay by the classicist Justin Stover that also claimed traditional defenses of the humanities were both wrong and futile (although he made more of the fact that the humanities have always been about sustaining an intellectual class—something that Fish only alludes to). There is much validity to such arguments. After all, how can we declare that the humanities make us better citizens and people when Alcibiades, who learned at the feet of Socrates, turned out the way he did? (See the two above as depicted by François-André Vincent, who painted this scene in 1775.)

And yet . . . One Thing after Another is unable to capitulate to such arguments. Perhaps this blog continues to writhe like a worm on a fish hook, struggling against its fate, because it cannot accept the ultimate destiny of the humanities which, according to Fish and Stover, seems to be some sort of marginal place where lovers of books and arcane topics gather together to follow their cranky dreams.  In any event, this blog will leave it to the other disciplines in the humanities to defend themselves; what follows is a defense of history.

This blog will concede that it became interested in history for its own sake. And yes, if the study of history has given a fullness to this blogger’s life, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better or happier person than other people. And maybe One Thing after Another has not been a model citizen. And sure, studying history was not indispensable to becoming a good writer—this blogger could have learned to write in many other disciplines. Having conceded all of these points, this blog still believes history is important and that everybody should study it. Why? First, because it is interesting, and since it is interesting, it can be the spur to learning how to read, think, and write. In other words, it is a convenient medium by which to teach all those skills that people need. Yes, the History Channel has gone downhill since its glory days, but do you ever wonder why there is a History Channel and, say, no Chemistry or Sociology Channel? Many people find history fascinating, and they will willingly write papers on the subject or read books about it when they might not be willing to do so in other subjects. Second, history shows us that the world has not always been as it is today. The discipline allows us to understand the different outlooks of various civilizations. That being the case, we can gain perspective on our own time and consider alternative modes to our present way of doing things. Third, history shows us how we got to where we are today. There is no understanding the European Union, the conflict in Gaza, or the Chinese government’s current outlook (to name just three contemporary examples) without some reference to the past. No matter where we live, we are in the middle of a long story with no beginning or end, but to understand the chapter we are currently reading, it helps to know the ones that came before. Finally, the study of history can sharpen our judgment of people and events. If we are careful, we can even make valuable analogies with times past. Learning these skills, obtaining this knowledge, and honing this judgment might be inspired by the love of history for its own sake (as Fish argues). But are these not valuable incidentals? Do they not have the potential to turn us into better citizens and leaders should we choose to be such? Is it not better to know a bit about history rather than be confined by both time and place, utterly bereft of any experience outside our own immediate ambit? One Thing after Another grants that these things could perhaps be learned outside the university—but the task of learning them would be that much more arduous. Perhaps the university is the place at least for history.

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What is “Patriotic History”?

In a recent article that appeared in The Atlantic last week, Eliot Cohen, the prominent political scientist, sometime public servant, and well known neocon, makes a case for “patriotic history.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/a-modest-plea-for-patriotic-history/555500/

The essay starts with Cohen following George Orwell in making the following distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects,” while patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The former, which Cohen associates with President Trump and the Make America Great crowd, is supposedly inferior to the latter. Why Cohen believes such is the case (aside from the fact that he evinces enormous dislike for the current occupant of the White House) and why he even chooses such definitions in the first place, are unclear. Indeed, a number of problems with his essay begin with the meanings that Cohen attributes to these terms—but more about that anon. Cohen continues by arguing that the failings of the current administration have inspired a renewed interest in civic education and particularly history as a means of inoculating the public against the corruption emanating from Washington, DC. He is gratified to note that history is alive and well in the United States, insofar as Americans have many opportunities to engage with the past. But Cohen believes that history and historians must be more mindful about encouraging Americans to understand and embrace patriotism. The kind of patriotic history that Cohen has in mind would not be some sort of white-wash. As he puts it:

Patriotic history does not have to cover up the dark pages of the American past—the cruelties and suffering of slavery and Jim Crow, the violence and injustice of the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Wounded Knee, the corruption of Tammany Hall, the follies of the Red Scares or Charles Lindbergh’s creepy America Firstism. But patriotic histories have a way of reminding us of what there is to celebrate in the American past—as when David Hackett Fischer reminds us that George Washington broke with British military practice in abjuring the floggings that could turn into death sentences, or when James McPherson points out that, in fact, the Cause—be it preservation of the Union or hostility to slavery—really did matter to many Union soldiers.

This history, he states, must provide us with heroes—complex characters from a wide variety of backgrounds who may have had flaws but can help teach us what integrity, intelligence, service, and self-denial are all about:

Patriotic biography gives us John Quincy Adams in every phase of his life, to include its end, when he took a lonely and principled vote on the Mexican War just before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives. It gives readers Davy Crockett on the frontier and Audie Murphy at Anzio, and it also gives them Harriet Tubman rescuing men and women from bondage, or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fighting a hopeless fight for his people. It gives them complicated figures like Andrew Carnegie—strikebreaker and extraordinary philanthropist committed to building libraries across the country to give young people the keys to better futures.

Cohen stresses that, “All of us, but young people especially, need heroes, including the really complicated ones, and particularly these days, when character is in such short supply. . . . To know what heroes look like is also to know what craven or spineless or obsequious or merely unserious persons are.”

One Thing after Another will not deny that American patriotism is now in a bad way. Both the right and left would agree on this point but, of course, for very different reasons. Certainly, our political leaders have done a poor job of modeling the virtues and behaviors associated with patriotism. There is now much more concern with outcomes than process. Party has become more important than the republic. Even the armed forces, which seem to many people the last and most reliable bastion of patriotism in America, may not be able to sustain this role for long. Long-service professional forces committed to imperial ventures for extended periods overseas and often alienated from the main currents of metropolitan civilian culture may not remain patriotic forever. Such a situation threatens to produce a class of “centurions” (to borrow the title of Jean Lartéguy’s famous novel about French officers who fought in Indochina before applying lessons learned there to Algeria) who are tough, experienced, resourceful, skillful, intelligent, brave, and cynical—but more responsive to the call of a mystical brotherhood in arms than the democratic republic they serve. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Lartéguy’s centurions became praetorians who twice attempted to overthrow the French Republic (1958 and 1961).

There are, however, a number of problems with Cohen’s argument and prescription. For one thing, patriotic history has been tried before, and the results have not always been desirable. France provides an interesting example (again) because, like America, it too has been a democratic republic for many years. Under the Third Republic, patriotism was a mainstay of history education in the schools. In this context, one is reminded of the schoolmasters who were the so-called “shock troops” of that republic in its battle against the Catholic Church, great landed families, and conservative values. Armed with Ernest Lavisse’s The History of France (“our ancestors the Gauls were intelligent and brave”), these schoolmasters not only taught a love of the Republic and its institutions, but also devotion to the patrie. With its praise of Vercingetorix, Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, Bayard, Henry IV, and so on, this type of education was perhaps not so nuanced as the sort Cohen would like to see. One marvels, though, at the results. The patrie was literally manured with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen between 1914 and 1918 as they fought Germans who had been educated in much the same way. Patriotic history was not solely responsible for this bloodbath, but it played its role. Lavisse, in his way, was part of that love to which F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Tender is the Night, famously attributed the colossal sacrifice of World War I:

The western front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. . . . This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. . . . You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. . . . This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Udine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Württemberg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here.

How can we ensure that a patriotic history does not become an aggressively nationalist one (at least according to Cohen’s lights)? Can the state, especially one constituted as ours, be trusted to conjure up Fitzgerald’s “sureties” properly and deal with the results in such a way that we do not experience another “great gust of high-explosive love”?

If Cohen’s patriotic history, which exposes the past “warts and all,” should not resemble something so unsubtle as Lavisse’s History of France, what would it look like? How would it convey its patriotic message? What exactly would that message be? To what degree would it look different from plain old history? And are we not already producing the kind of history that Cohen desires? Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of Ron Chernow’s Grant and Louis Galambos’s Eisenhower (both of which were published in late 2017) as works that might fit Cohen’s bill. But since Cohen is not terribly specific about the form and content of a patriotic history that might suit the needs of 2018, it’s hard to tell.

With these questions unanswered, it also remains difficult to decipher which heroes to include in the pantheon of patriotic history. Who is a hero? Who is not? Is Robert E. Lee in? Is Eugene Debs? We can be sure that those who support the inclusion of the former in patriotic history would not look kindly on the latter—and vice versa. These questions are ineluctably tied to another: who should select these figures? In the same way that it “takes money to make money,” it requires patriotism to make patriots. We cannot remedy our deficiencies with supposedly non-existent material (unless, of course, Cohen and other self-appointed patriotic elites choose themselves for the task of resurrecting patriotism). Otherwise, a bitterly divided country suffering from a lack of patriotism is not in a position to anoint heroes without adding yet another battle to the protracted culture war that has consumed the United States for decades. From where is the universally recognized understanding of patriots and patriotism to come?

All of these questions stem from Cohen’s problematic descriptions of nationalism and patriotism which he obtains from Orwell. Orwell’s definitions appear in “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) in which he wrote:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly ­– and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. . . . By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Although this view of matters may accord with the way these ideas are widely perceived, the problem with this passage is that it turns nationalism and patriotism into bad and good versions of more or less the same thing: nationalism is aggressive and motivated by a thirst for power; patriotism is defensive and inspired by love. Both, however, are about one’s association with a community of people (which is really nationalism). Ironically, Orwell’s understanding of the difference between the two lends itself to a kind of double-speak: “we” are always patriots (peaceful and defensive), and “they” are nationalists (warlike and aggressive). It is partly for these reasons that most scholars who investigate the topic have rarely defined the two terms in this fashion. Generally, the most important distinction that those working in the field have drawn between patriotism and nationalism is that the former concerns one’s duties to the state while the latter is about one’s relationship to the national community (which is frequently defined and held together by forces such as culture and history). This is a position most identified with Lord Acton’s famous essay, “Nationality” (1862). More recently, Maurizio Viroli has made a very similar argument in For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (1997), when he states:

The language of patriotism has been used over the centuries to strengthen or invoke love of the political institutions and the way of life that sustain the common liberty of a people—or love of the republic; the language of nationalism was forged in late eighteenth-century Europe to defend or reinforce the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic oneness and homogeneity of a people.

Viroli goes on to argue that nationalists can be patriots, and patriots can be nationalists, but the priorities of each are somewhat different. Such is usually the case, unless one lives in a country characterized by civic nationalism—that is, a nation (like the United States) defined by subscription to specific political institutions and not to a particular ethnicity. In such a case, one can say that patriotism and nationalism are extremely closely related if not identical. In America, then, patriotism and nationalism are not different names for a horse, one for when it is good, another for when it is bad (as Cohen and Orwell would have it); instead, they are two horses working in tandem.

Making distinctions of this sort are not acts of pedantry. They help us understand what our duties are and how they should be taught. A civic nationalism based on our institutions binds us to our fellow Americans while a patriotism based on our love of our democratic republic and the protections it extends to us also ought to bind us in duty to the state. It seems fitting, then, to conclude with a reference to George William Curtis’s oration to Union College’s graduating class of 1857 in which he pointed to one way in which Americans could understand their peculiar patriotism. In this speech, entitled “Patriotism,” Curtis made clear that we have several duties that could either contradict or complement each other. As people, we were “bound by the universal rule of right or of God” which meant that in “whatever country or whatever case a man may chance to be born, he is born a citizen of the world.” Such an assertion was in keeping with his belief that “the races are but one race” and that the “doctrine or practice of universal brotherhood” was the “ethical statement of a scientific fact.” A man, then, should not be “the best German or the best Roman . . . but the best man he can be.”

Patriotism was the “peculiar relation of an individual to his country.” It was, declared Curtis, an “intelligent love” that perceived opportunities where his country could help mankind. A person’s country, Curtis went on to argue, was a principle, and “patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” Every country served a different principle which contributed to the “cause of human development to which all nationalities are subservient.” In America’s specific case, that principle was not power (every country was tempted by its siren song), and it was certainly not riches (which Curtis believed had the potential to corrupt America). Rather, it was the love of liberty safeguarded by a commitment to democracy; that is, the spirit and values that underpinned the democratic republic. Curtis continued:

Patriotism in an American is simply fidelity to the American idea. Our government was established confessedly in obedience to this sentiment of human liberty. And your duty as patriots is to understand clearly that . . . whatever in its government or policy tends to limit or destroy that freedom and equality is anti-American and unpatriotic, because America and liberty are inseparable ideas.

The patriot’s duty consisted of obeying the laws of the state—only so long as they did not contradict American principles and thus violate the universal rule of right. Although he did not say so explicitly at Union College, Curtis asserted in other venues that American slavery, protected by the Constitution and the laws of men, violated natural laws. It was therefore the duty of every patriot who loved democracy and freedom—by definition every true American—to destroy the peculiar institution. Towards the end of his speech, Curtis had these words to say, as true then as they are today: “Remember that the greatness of our country is not in the greatness of its achievement, but in its promise—a promise that cannot be fulfilled without that sovereign moral sense, without a sensitive national conscience.” From this perspective, patriotism could be taught by history (and Curtis referred to many such examples), but it was mainly a question of ethics.

At the end of the day, then, the problem with a history that teaches a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world” is that it makes presumptions about a country and its people that are not necessarily true (one may believe something that is false). Moreover, such an attitude lends itself to complacency (if one belongs to a country she believes to be the best in the world, why change it?). One Thing after Another much prefers Curtis’s vision, which suggests that patriotism is a matter of eternal exertion and struggle for the sake of an idea that is imperfectly realized—a democratic republic. In other words, instead of defining Americans by who they are, Curtis seeks to define them by what they strive for. And that seems much more useful at a time when, to quote Villèle, the journalist who crops up in Lartéguy’s Centurions occasionally to make an observation, “The role of the utter, out-and-out bastard is becoming more and more difficult to keep up in this dull, hypocritical, tolerant world of ours.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

There is No Case for the Humanities–or is There?

Only a few days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that originally appeared in American Affairs (Winter 2017) and which swims very much against the current. In “There is No Case for the Humanities,” Justin Stover, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh (where he teaches Classics), claims that the arguments conventionally used to justify teaching the humanities at universities are not only wrong but also beside the point.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/There-Is-No-Case-for-the/242724

It’s hard to do justice to this long and interesting piece, but to summarize, Stover argues that the humanities live in difficult times. Assailed by both conservatives and liberals (although the humanities have defenders in both camps as well), it is becoming increasingly difficult for scholars to do “good work in their fields”—that is, “read things and think about what they mean; to tease out conclusions about the past and present through a careful analysis of evidence; to delve deeply into language, art, artifact, culture, and nature.” In other words, to do “what the university was established to do.” Stover believes many criticisms of the humanities lack perspective. To those who argue that overspecialization, overproduction, and a lack of emphasis on teaching indicate the decadence of the humanities, Stover counters that these qualities are central to the whole project. As Stover puts it, if professors stopped investigating esoterica, ceased churning out publications, and did nothing but teach, “we would have just high schools — perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.” Likewise, he claims, various defenses of the humanities that we hear these days are also off the mark. Defenders invoke the degree to which study of the humanities can help students unleash their creativity, formulate values, learn ethics, or find the truth. And then there is the ever-present argument that the humanities can teach skills. But Stover thinks a number of these goals are problematic and wonders whether the humanities are indispensable to achieving any of them.

It is easy to lose sight of what the humanities and the university are for, Stover intimates, because the university these days is, well, a university plus many other things. He writes:

In short, the contemporary university is a strange chimera. It has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding — often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around — and, for a few institutions, a hedge fund (“with a small college attached for tax purposes,” adds one wag).

The true university, Stover argues, it is to be found with the “people who read stuff and think about it.” More precisely, the heart of the university has always been the arts. When universities were first founded in the middle ages, the liberal arts were the curriculum, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Since then, the liberal arts have grown by common consent to include what we call the humanities along with the natural sciences and all branches of mathematics. And what was—and still is—the point of this curriculum? Stover’s answer to this question is the key point in his essay. The humanities, he argues, “have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices that marks one as a member of a particular class.” This class is an international community that shares a common culture and similar preferences. “As teachers,” Stover writes, “what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class.”

The problem, of course, as Stover quickly points out, is that “the mere existence of a class is . . . not a case for its existence in society as a whole.” Justifications for this class only make sense within “the internal logic of the arts themselves.” The public and the state can hardly be expected to fund the intellectual project of the humanities on these kinds of grounds. Still, all hope is not lost. Stover argues it doesn’t matter that no case can be made for the humanities; by definition, one cannot have universities without the humanities. If the contemporary university ceases to teach the humanities, it will no longer be a true university. Instead, wherever people “read stuff and think about it,” there the university will be.

There is much truth in Stover’s essay, and One Thing after Another hopes readers will look at it to clarify their own views on the humanities and the university. However, there is also something simultaneously clever and appalling about Stover’s argument. The university, so the argument seems to go, appears to be some sort of elevated book club for a class of people with intellectual and arcane tastes who seek to perpetuate a particular kind of culture. Regardless of what happens to the contemporary university, so long as we have these people doing these things, we will have the university (and the humanities). This is one way to “rescue” the humanities and assure those in the field that it will survive, but this deliverance seems more semantic than anything else. What will happen to professors in the humanities when they no longer find a home in the modern university? What institutional framework will support this project? Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that Stover’s essay seems to suggest that over the centuries, the humanities, or more properly, those who teach in these fields, have been engaged in some sort of confidence trick that has allowed them to thrive at everyone else’s expense. For the sake of perpetuating itself, it seems, an intellectual class has pretended that the humanities are good for everybody else.

This blog could respond to Stover’s argument in many ways, but at the end of the day, the main problem with his essay is that he dismisses the utility of the humanities. In other words, the humanities do not merely serve to promote the recondite intellectual interests of a class—a class whose existence this blog freely recognizes. Rather, the humanities have real value to everyone. One Thing after Another will confine its comments to history, but many similar observations could be made from the vantage point of other disciplines in the field.

One Thing after Another first became interested in history because it was full of good stories with much drama. This blog still likes a good story, but as years have passed and One Thing after Another’s tastes have matured, it has come to treasure the ways in which the study of history can mold our judgment and help us make sense of the world. History is an anthropological art that enhances our understanding of human nature. It allows us to draw on an extensive stock of knowledge that transcends our own immediate personal experience. We can then obtain a better understanding of human motives and their interaction with a variety of forces, whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. History does not repeat itself, but an experience of studying history provides us with different ways of knowing and enhances our perspicacity when confronted by difficult questions as citizens of our community, our country, or our world. Surely, these are useful qualities that history professors should pass on not only to majors but also non-majors taking history courses as part of a general education requirement.

Recently, in a general education course, One Thing after Another assigned a paper asking students to discuss the relationship between the Roman qualities of virtus (aggressive, manly courage that involved risk-taking and seizing the initiative) and disciplina (a basket of characteristics that included obedience, training, and skill) as they appeared in Josephus’s account of the Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) in The Jewish War. As a class, we discussed various primary and secondary sources associated with this assignment for over a week. Arcane, isn’t it? Just the sort of useless thing that one would expect from the humanities. For sure, it is clear now that the papers have been graded that some of the students were too lazy, uninterested, or ill-equipped to deal with the assignment. But a majority of the students understood how to tackle this question and did, at the very least, a credible job.

One Thing after Another was not attempting to “initiate” students into a “class” as Stover would have it. The majority of the students have already selected a major—and it isn’t history. The great bulk of them will not join the professoriate either. But it is important that they understand that there were once Romans who were not like us and who saw the world in a radically different way. In other words, things have not always been the way they are now, nor will they stay the same. Just this simple fact ought to open up a world of possibilities to these students. At the same time, the investigation of virtus and disciplina also ought to get their gears whirring. Such a study touches upon universal questions concerning how and why professional soldiers fight—surely a matter of no little import in an era where the United States has stretched its professional army to the breaking point with various commitments across the globe. Moreover, a discussion concerning the balance between virtus and disciplina provides fodder for a variety of analogies in different fields, whether they be management, politics, or something else. This blog has frequently criticized others for making inapt comparisons, but that does not mean that historical analogies cannot and should not be made; they should merely be formulated with caution. But the main point here is that history is useful, no matter who you are and what you intend to do, because it provides a multitude of ways of seeing the world.

History is not the only means of honing certain job-related skills, but this field can help foster significant all-purpose skills like thinking, reading, speaking, and writing. History is not indispensable to developing values and ethical training, although it certainly helps with these objectives. And history does not necessarily allow one to see the truth, whatever that happens to be. History, however, is extremely important in developing our judgment of people and things so that we are not mere babes without experience as we confront each new challenge that emerges before us. And everybody, no matter who he or she is, can benefit from that.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

The British Empire is Dead–But the Debate over Its Morality is Not

A recent essay by Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books details the latest public spats among historians over the merits of the British Empire.

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/26/the-great-british-empire-debate/

As Malik states, “like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads.” Was colonialism good or bad? How should one debate these questions in academia and politics? And what has inspired the most recent flare-up in a long-running dispute?

Malik recapitulates the main outlines of this dispute between detractors and defenders of the British Empire. He concludes that “the arguments for the moral good of colonialism are . . . threadbare.” So far as most scholars of the empire are concerned, Malik is correct. The British Empire killed, enslaved, starved, and impoverished too many people on too many occasions over too long a span of time to qualify as a Good Thing. (However, that is, and should be, a different matter from claiming that it was the equivalent of, say, the Nazi Empire. The emergence of liberalism in Britain led to the rise of an influential and persistent party of home-grown critics who castigated the British Empire throughout much of its lifespan—surely an unusual if not unique situation for an empire. Moreover, this liberal strain made the British Empire, among other things, susceptible to the moral suasion of swaraj in India, a weakness from which other empires did not suffer. But that is an argument for another time.)

Malik goes on to assert that the contemporary defense of empire is inspired partly by a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the colonial past, and partly by a desire to learn lessons that will make contemporary Western intervention abroad more effective. In other words, those like Niall Ferguson, who hold the British Empire up as a force for good are not merely engaging in an act of wistful schmaltz; they are thinking about contemporary policy prescriptions that revolve around “foreign intervention and technocratic governance.” Malik concludes:

These are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

One Thing after Another takes a special interest in this question because this blog teaches a course on the British Empire and, as part of the final examination, asks students to perform a “moral audit” (to use Piers Brendon’s words) of that empire. Piers’ argument that “Imperium et Libertas” was a sort of oxymoron in which an imperium necessarily ruled by force (and undermined libertas) to compensate for its lack of legitimacy carries much weight with this blog. In other words, there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Britain’s version of colonialism. Yet, this blog feels that in an otherwise good essay, Malik elides two important issues.

First, the argument about the British Empire’s merits has been subsumed by a more general dispute about colonialism. The problem with discussing colonialism is that it is not terribly easy to define in a precise manner, and the more one speaks of colonialism (and theories of colonialism), the more one speaks of an abstraction rather than the actual operation of real, flesh-and-blood empires. Discussions about colonialism, then, do not always sufficiently distinguish between different types of empires and often lack nuance. They surely do not capture the historical British Empire which was a mutating and complex entity; merely referring to the source of evil as “colonialism” suggests a static, simple, and monolithic entity. Due to its size, variety of interests, diversity of peoples, and assortments of governing structures (e.g. responsible self-government, crown colonies, protectorates, mandates, princely states, etc.), the empire did not frequently act in unison or speak with one voice. Not only that, but the empire was constantly transforming itself, a fact that is captured by the periodization of scholars who refer to the “first,” “second,” and even “third” and “fourth” British empires—as well as to the different characteristics in each of these phases (e.g. mercantilism, free trade, the “swing to the east,” and so on). Recognizing the bewildering, changing, and kaleidoscopic nature of the empire raises an important question: at any given moment, who or what was the empire? In other words, who was responsible for “colonialism”? Lenin, of course, argued that the culprit was finance capital. He was wrong, but at least he had something specific in mind. As conducted today in public, the debate is not as incisive. The word  “colonialism” conjures up images of the British government in London, imperial administrators, and military leaders. In most minds, it also probably includes British financiers, merchants, and industrialists. But just where does the list end? To what extent was the rest of the country complicit in the crimes of empire? What of the empire’s many British critics who used Libertas to attack Imperium (surely, as a number of observers have pointed out, a unique circumstance for an imperial power)? Our questions cannot stop with the United Kingdom’s borders. What about, say, Indians who worked for the Raj or performed vital functions in the imperial economy—princes, zemindars, soldiers, policemen, low-level administrators, railroad employees, merchants, bankers, and so on?

Second, like many observers, Malik analyzes the motives of the empire’s present-day defenders, but what of its detractors? If “today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories,” to quote Malik, what are the “present needs” of those who attack the empire? Why does no one scrutinize their motives? Do they get a pass because they are on “the right side of history”? It would seem naïve to claim that they are simply engaged in a disinterested effort to correct interpretations of the past. One example here will suffice: Shashi Tharoor (whom Malik mentions), a former UN administrator (who lost the contest for UN General Secretary in 2006 to Ban Ki-moon) and Indian minister as well as a current member of the Indian Parliament. Tharoor became an anti-colonial stalwart in 2015 when he famously argued at the Oxford Union that Britain ought to pay India a nominal sum in reparations as symbolic compensation for losses the latter suffered under imperial rule. He followed up this performance with Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), a polemic which dwells on the Raj’s cruelty and callousness while explaining how Britain grew wealthy at India’s expense. What is Tharoor after? Certainly, he is not attacking the promotion of “foreign intervention and technocratic governance” that ostensibly lie behind present-day justifications of the empire; it would seem odd for a former UN administrator like Tharoor to assault the empire in an attempt to undermine the case for liberal internationalism. It is possible that Tharoor seeks to burnish his credentials with a young, leftish, educated, Anglo-American crowd as someone who has stayed “woke” by engaging in Britain’s venerable anti-establishment tradition of excoriating the empire. Yet this explanation does not seem fully convincing. Although he has longstanding ties to the transatlantic world (he has lived and worked in Britain and the United States for long periods of time), it appears that Tharoor has committed himself to Indian politics for the time being. And it is perhaps the demands of domestic Indian politics that explain Tharoor’s stance. Tharoor is a member of the Indian National Congress (Congress) which has vainly sought to restore its declining popularity among voters by shedding its traditional mantle of secularism and moving closer to the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which currently rules India. For sure, Tharoor continues to speak the language of inclusion (witness this excerpt from his recent work Why I Am a Hindu), but he, like the rest of Congress, must feel the political pressure of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”). Under these circumstances, attacks on an empire that has long gone and demands for reparations that will never be paid must seem like harmless ways of currying favor in a more stridently nationalist political environment. Certainly, these attacks and demands have gone down well in India. Perhaps Tharoor’s motives can be explained in some other way, and perhaps his situation is unique, but it would not be surprising if the empire’s critics were inspired just as much as its defenders by contemporary politics.

Surely, many probably worry that those who defend colonialism and the good the British Empire did are inspired by a kind of neo-imperialism that will lead to more foreign adventures that culminate in disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan (although Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley seem to imply that the whole point of understanding the true nature of colonialism is to avoid making such mistakes when intervening in other countries’ affairs). But as we have seen in Tharoor’s case, we probably also have reason to express concern about the motives of those who denigrate the British Empire. As Bernedetto Croce claimed (and this is not the first time One Thing after Another has referred to Croce’s statement), “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, the concerns and ideas of a historian are, by necessity, dictated by his or her times. History is always political, and no more so than when scholars and politicians use it to make a political point. It is almost futile to inveigh against the forces that prevent the historian from assuming an objective standpoint. Yet in this case, as in others, it seems that all would be better served if historians took the leading role in promoting nuanced and incisive discussions of the past—instead of those who feel most directly the great weight of politics.

Masur Reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Note: Professor Masur wrote a review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War for the North Dakota Quarterly. The essay is reprinted here with permission. Professor Masur’s preliminary thoughts on the first episode of the series appeared on the blog in September.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War

America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.

This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.

The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.

As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.

The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies.

Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.

In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:

For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.

The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.”

While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.

The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”

The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.

In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.

Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.

Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/11/hollywood-history-churchill-getty-trust-fiction?CMP=fb_gu

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.