Michael C.C. Adams: The Necessary Historian, or Why Academics Should Engage with Popular Culture

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael C. C. Adams, in Historically Speaking, the bulletin of the Historical Society (June 2004):

... Some would say that the late Stephen A. Ambrose is the finest model of a historian writing for the public at large. Ambrose did fine work but, toward the end, his books had difficulties (beyond plagiarism). First, he came gravely close to ancestor worship, a pro b l e m also coloring the work of some baby boomers who, embarrassed by their earlier opposition to the Vietnam War and to their fathers, now write excessively laudatory biographies of the “ greatest generation.” But Ambrose was perhaps guilty also of what we might call pandering, that is, telling the public only what it wants to hear: a lucrative but intellectually destructive “dumbing down” of scholarship. This has also affected the quality of some university presses whose first criterion for publication of a manuscript is no longer quality of content but marketability.

Civil War writing provides an example. Although thousands of volumes continue to be produced on that conflict, relatively few chart new paths or examine the less glamorous aspects of the struggle, such as widespread economic and social distress among the dependents of soldiers, or the role of disease in affecting the course of the war, a subject still relegated to “medical histories.” To humor the book buyers who see the war as a diverting board game, we have accounts that chart the actions of Company A of Regiment B during the third hour of the first day at Gettysburg .

This pandering, although perhaps the easiest route to influence with the public at large, is in some danger of making historians, along with theater and literature faculties, into the c o u rt jesters of academe, seen only as good for entertainment value and not vital to the healthy development of our society in the sense that science and business colleges are seen as pivotal to our cultural strength and well-being. This definition of humanists as e n t e rtainers comes at a time when our real participation in serious public dialogue about today’s issues has never been more vital. Take again my field of military history. The military actions of the U.S. impact every nation on the planet and drastically alter how Americans themselves think, live, and die. Yet the closer we come to the present on the timeline of history, the more “innocent” Americans are of the actual nature of warf a re. By innocence I mean a deliberate, cultivated refusal to look at the reality of conflict: many people are better informed about the Alamo than they are about the war in Iraq.

This posture of innocence about the current nature of war predates the sanitizing of the Vietnam War, which wrote out the startling truth about the mutual savage destru ctiveness of that encounter between alien cult u res. In World War II, for example, civilians objected to the publishing of pictures of America’s dead and mutilated soldiers; they did not wish to read or hear about the detailed nature of combat. One result of this closemindedness is that combat veterans often feel they cannot talk honestly about their experiences, what they have seen and what they have done, with a resultant cost to them in physical and mental health. This innocence also means that we can accept oxymorons like “humane bombing in Kosovo”—inexplicable when applied to a B-52 carpet bombing run—and a whole vocabulary of complacent euphemisms such as “collateral damage.” Body bags are brought home in the night and cameras are not allowed; the president carefully avoids the funerals....

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