Posts Tagged ‘War’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My wife and I were leaving Robert Morris the other day, and a man came up to us to ask for directions.  “Is Dearborn Street nearby”, he wondered.  We kindly replied that Dearborn was only a few yards away, pointing him in the correct direction. As he took leave of us, he smiled pleasantly, waved, and shouted “Merry Christmas”! I wondered, ‘what did he mean by that?’

This is now the world in which we live. The ‘War on Christmas’ narrative is running amok. Thanks largely to Fox News, radio talking heads, and screeching bloggers, the month between Thanksgiving and New Years Day has become ground zero for the culture wars.

Great-Christmas-War-eWhen this seemingly kind man stated “Merry Christmas” to me and my wife, I wondered if he had ulterior motives.  Was he, in fact, proclaiming an aggressive political statement with his apparent jolliness?  Was this ‘Merry Christmas’ a shouted proclamation of his religious and political views on the street corner in order to be seen by others. Had he received his hypocritical reward in full? Even more disturbingly, was he making sure we shared the same views as him?  Did he hope to discover that my wife and I were on his team?

Or, was he just a friendly man who appreciated the little help we provided him? Was his ‘Merry Christmas’ simply intended as a straightforward hope for my wife and I to have a wonderful holiday season?

About 10 to 15 years ago, this conflicted set of thoughts would have never entered my head. Back then, I would have smiled nicely at the guy, and responded in kind, wishing him a full-throated “Merry Christmas”!  If he had said ‘Happy Holidays’, I would have replied in a similar fashion. “Happy Hanukah”, “Happy Kwanzaa”, “Happy Boxing Day”?  None of these fare-the-wells would have struck me ill. I would have smiled, and happily replied, ‘the same to you my friend!’

Today though, how one greets their fellow man during this six weeks often has little to do with friendship and warmth.  For some, the method one uses to wish a stranger good tidings during the holiday seasonraisingthetree has deep political, tribal meanings. As such, the idea that a ‘War on Christmas’ exists, and must be fought, is quickly eroding the very holiday the Noel freedom fighters purport to protect.  The irony would be delicious if it was not so tragic.

I think for a great number of people, the holiday season, and Christmas in particular, is not relegated to churches, sermons, or hymns. To put this more bluntly, Christmas is not only about Christianity or Christians. As a lover of Christmas myself, and as one of the secular humanist boogeymen that Fox News fears, the day holds little religious meaning to me. But, that does not mean I don’t find the day and season to be spiritual, or spiritually fulfilling. For 21st century Americans, Christmas’ encapsulation of brotherhood, peace and goodwill is a heartwarming necessity in an increasing cold, individualistic society. The discursive, and completely imagined, “War on Christmas” weakens, if not completely annihilates, that most wonderful aura of happiness each December produces.  Though the idea of a ‘War’ on any holiday is ludicrous in itself, it is especially unfortunate when utilized to create Christmas identity ideologies.

If nothing else, the creation of this supposed struggle and escalation of the tribal rhetoric provides a sobering example of the power of words.  One of the reasons humans throughout history have ‘loved’ war is because it produces a strong, aggressive sense of community. Of course, this community is most often steeled by identifying and vilifying an enemy who is different.  War produces a sense of moral righteousness that pulls members of a group together, but does so with a sense of paranoia, hatred and distrust of those seemingly on the other side.

But, how to identify such people?  Do they dress different? Think different? Feel different?  Or, do they simply talk different?  Can they say ‘Shibboleth’?  Do they say Happy Holidays? Or, are they on ‘our’ side and say the correct greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’?

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A couple weeks ago, I covered the First World War in my American History, and Western Civilization courses.  The First World War has always been an event that has obsessed me, and I really love to teach it since Americans generally know very little about it.  Since these are introductory courses, I usually portray the war as a definitive cataclysmic event that left enduring scars on the twentieth century. This standard narrative of the conflict draws a line between the Victorian, 19th century world, and the modern, 20th century world.  The old world died in 1914.  A new world was born in 1918.

Though this narrative of the war has been challenged by many over the years, there is no denying that the world of 1914 seems distantly foreign from the rest of the twentieth century.  Though, again, it generalizes the complexities of this era too much, it is easy to see the world before the war as a time of innocence, perhaps even naivety. A famous example of such cultural innocence is what happened in many European capitals once war was declared in the late summer of 1914. During the first week of August, thousands of Europeans of all ages, and all classes, flooded into the streets in evident war euphoria, cheering the outbreak of a continent wide conflagration.  I showed my students the photos below of those early August, 1914 days of excitement:

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Crowds in Paris

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Berlin

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Students off to Enlist

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London

Historians now realize that this evident war euphoria didn’t infect everyone.  Many Europeans were nervous, anxious, dreadful or apathetic about the outbreak of war.  However, there is no denying that the thousands of people in these photos are revved up for what they believed would be their nation’s inevitable victory (each national community felt they would win victory quickly, and cleanly.) These photos make the informed student crack an ironic smile, since he/she knows that the next four years of war would be anything but quick and clean.  The young men were cheering their generation’s death sentence. The First World War killed 9 million soldiers, made empires fall, and still is the epitomizing symbol of the absurdity and destructiveness of modern conflict.

For 21st century Americans, even those knowledgeable of WWI, the fact that people would be cheering for the outbreak of war is absurd.  War in our world is not something to cheer; it may be unavoidable, but any self-respecting American will solemnly swear that ‘war is hell,’ and it should be avoided at all costs. We are more likely to see people in the street, shouting for the end of wars, than cheering for the outbreak of war.

So, why were these people in 1914 so excited?  Why would they want war?   When I asked these questions a couple weeks ago, I got a familiar answer from my classes. Like some in previous classes, one student shouted out that people want war because it is “good for the economy.”  In response, I politely pointed out that these people were not cheering for an economic windfall. After a couple minutes of thinking, and some hints from me, my students gave responses closer to the truth.  They realized that these men had lofty expectations for the war. War was thought to provide glory. War could produce honor. War created adventure, and the opportunity for true manliness.  Many cheered for war simply following their friends, trying not to be left out.  Some believed fighting the war was their duty. Most felt the war was necessary to protect their families from enemies.

So, why does it take my students some time to come up with these answers?  Why is ‘the economy’ often the first response I get? Simply put, my students are 21st century Americans, and many have the typical worldview that goes along with that identity.  Since their youth, they have been inundated with a simplistic materialist ideology that points to the national economy as the most important social issue. How could they not think that economics make the world go round, since media, pop culture and schools have constantly reinforced this belief.  As a result, they often misinterpret human motivations as misinformed psychologists, thinking that people make all their decisions as if they were homo economicus.  It is my job to try to dispel such beliefs, because the notion that human beings live and die for the strength of an economy has dire consequences for our understanding of the past and present. The human story is not always based upon the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Yesterday was Memorial Day, and I am sure many of us enjoyed the long weekend by having a cookout with friends, relaxing 3419566889_18c412a73d_bwith family, or simply getting some extra sleep.  I had planned on writing a Memorial Day post for the Turtle yesterday, but I decided to wait until today (and tomorrow as well).  Since the United States has been at war for over 4000 consecutive days, I thought providing the fallen with an extra 24 hours of thought was appropriate and necessary. So, before settling into the short work week, take a couple minutes and view this quick lecture by David Blight, one of America’s great historians of the Civil War era.  In this snippet of a larger talk, Blight provides the amazing story of the first Memorial Day Celebration.  Please watch, and enjoy: