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We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.

(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)

The National History Day queries have gotten out of hand. I say this as someone who: a) is an employee of a public institution and takes his obligations to the public very seriously; b) participated in and learned a great deal from the National History Day competition; c) likes working with anyone, including middle school and high school students, interested in the past.

All of that said, everyone in the profession now gets huge numbers of requests from students who want us to weigh in on topics about which we know very little. Worse still, these students want us to reply via e-mail.

Here’s a typical letter:

Dear Mr. Kelman:

My name is [redacted]. I’m a student at [redacted]. I’m participating in National History Day. As part of my assignment, I have to interview an expert about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Please reply to these five questions.

[questions redacted to preserve the student’s confidentiality]



There’s something to annoy nearly everyone there, right? Regardless, what are we supposed to do about this kind of thing? My current policy is to beg off politely if I don’t know anything about the topic at hand, and to offer to do a phone interview if I do have the relevant expertise. But that makes me feel churlish in the first instance and somewhat creepy in the second.

Seriously, what’s a guilty Jew to do?

I have a new author’s website:  All are welcome.

The New York Times, April 28, 2012:

Presidents running for re-election typically boast of programs they created, people they helped or laws they signed. They talk about rising test scores or falling deficits or expanding job rolls. President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.

To be sure, that man was Osama bin Laden, and he is not mourned among either the president’s supporters or detractors. But in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the raid that finally caught up to the Qaeda mastermind, Mr. Obama has made a concerted, if to some indecorous, effort to trumpet the killing as perhaps the central accomplishment of his presidency.

The article does nod to previous Presidents running on their toughness, but then goes completely off the rails when talking about a recent Obama interview in the Situation Room:

Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Mr. Bush, said that it was “unseemly” to use the room for such a purpose. “I don’t believe it ever would have occurred to us to conduct an interview in the Situation Room,” he said, “and don’t believe we would have considered it appropriate.”

Mr. Fratto (and Times), I give you the USS Abraham Lincoln from the New York Times, May 16, 2003:

George W. Bush’s ”Top Gun” landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history. But it was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before.

Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings.

Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ”Mission Accomplished” banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ”magic hour light,” which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.

Oh, and:

The New York Times, June 21, 2004:

The story of how President George W. Bush ended up with Saddam Hussein’s pistol mounted in his private study off the Oval Office has dribbled out in the last few weeks, and it is a good one.

In that context, Saddam’s pistol is a bookend of sorts, the prize of a president who viewed the badge as reason for waging two wars.

To the Delta Force that brought it back, the gun is a piece of history representing nothing less than mission complete. “These kinds of experiences you only have a few times in your life, and they’re very powerful,” said Major General David Grange, a retired commander in the Delta Force during the Gulf War. “It’s ‘Sir, we got him.”‘

As to whether Bush will ever give the gun to the Iraqis, he didn’t say.

Politics was so much more dignified in the Bush administration.

The intersection of 195th Street and 58th Avenue, Queens, NY, in 1941:

N20 bpq07376

And today:

Following up to this article, the Navy has continued its streak of not naming carriers after Democratic Presidents. LBJ now has a ship named after him, but a destroyer, rather than a carrier:

The Navy has named the third ship in its class of state-of-the-art destroyers after the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as a naval officer during World War II, the service said in a press release Monday.

“I am pleased to honor President Johnson with the naming of this ship,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. “His dedication to a life of public service included bravely stepping forward to fight for his country during our entry into World War II.”

No word on whether the ship would have a tendency to report attacks by imaginary torpedo boats, but some folks have been unable to avoid the sniggering locker room humor that the name might inspire:

That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to ever name a Zumwalt destroyer the JOHNSON. Only Ray Mabus [Secretary of the Navy] is apparently so tone deaf as to not see the irony that during April 2012 – also known as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the Navy – that the 18-22 year old enlisted sailors are going to almost certainly come up with some highly creative (and crude) JOHNSON jokes. OK, so the silver lining is that at least we won’t have a JOHNSON STRIKE GROUP in the Navy, but when a ship’s most prominent feature is often described as 6″ or 155mm, JOHNSON doesn’t quite strike me as the appropriate name.

I’m sure the person was concern-blogging about the USS George HW Bush when it was named.

The only remaining recent Presidents without ships named for them are now Nixon, Clinton, and Shrub. Nixon’s unlikely to get one, which means that naming the next carrier is going to be an interesting decision. My guess? They name it the Enterprise and push back the controversy.

The Transportation Security Agency, in all its glory:

A spokesman said the agency has its reasons for still requiring that traditional laptops go through X-ray machines in a separate bin. But he declined to share them, saying the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.


That’s a shocking infographic.”

The incomparable Michelle Vaughan, who did the typography for this marvelous piece of work as well as 100 tweets has done a much more affordable limited run of Rupert Murdoch’s tweets. I recommend them to all discerning readers with a spare $30 (plus S&H) looking for some frameable wit. (Murdoch would surely like you to think of him as framed.)

Leftover ordnance is one of the legacies that lasts generations after the war itself concluded. The phrase “Iron Harvest” comes from the annual crop of exploded shells and bombs that French farmers in northern France bring to the surface when plowing their fields. Farming is a dangerous occupation in France.

But the Iron Harvest is not limited to World War I. World War II era bombs are sometimes found, particularly in areas heavily bombed during that conflict. The city center of Rennes was evacuated within the last few years when a 550 lb British bomb was discovered and had to be disarmed. A similar discovery required the evacuation of the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt

Nor is the ordnance always found in an active war zone. Recently, in Washington, DC, a construction crew building a new supermarket was somewhat surprised to discover an unexploded 1,000 pound bomb. The supermarket was being built on the site of the old Naval Gun Factory, a site that apparently the Navy had not cleaned up quite as well as they might have.


Even better? The Army has still not quite been able to figure out where all the old chemical weapons dumps underneath DC are, including some in heavily populated areas, one of which was nicknamed “Hades”:

[The] corps excavated part of the South Korean ambassador’s residence on Glenbrook Road. They discovered two pits on the ambassador’s property and then a third straddling the property line to the north, all of which contained munitions and glassware with traces of chemical agents.

Perhaps the most damaging form of unexploded ordnance, however, are the cluster bomb remnants and landmines that litter more recent battlefields, from Afghanistan to Vietnam to Korea. Just looking at landmines:

There are between 70 and 80 million landmines in the ground in one-third of the world’s nations. Landmines are indiscriminate weapons that maim or kill 15,000 to 20,000 civilians every year. They cost as little as $3 to produce, but as much as $1000 to remove.

At $1000/mine, that works out to $80 billion to remove all the mines, and that assumes that all the mines can be found. If northern France is any indication, they won’t be , and the legacy, as it has for the French, will be generational, the continuing toll of a fading war.

A reader reports the below glitch displaying this blog on iPhones. I don’t get it with mine. Do any of you? If so, please report what model and OS, and we’ll see if we can sort it out.


I’ve probably never said this here before, but having finished my book on Sand Creek, I’m now co-authoring* a graphic history of the Civil War. As a consequence, I’ve been following this discussion with some interest. I don’t have much to add except this: I decided, very early in the process of writing the book, that we would NEVER put fictional words into the mouths of non-fictional historical figures. Which is to say, although my co-author badly wanted to insert a couple of gold bug stanzas into the Gettysburg Address, I put my foot down. On the one hand, this seems very much like what Silbey suggests should serve as best practices (both in literature and scholarship, if I understand him correctly). But on the other hand, I have to admit that we worked around the attendant problems by making up characters left and right to voice the dialogue and carry the weight of the story we’re trying to tell. I’m reasonably sure that this makes me a lousy historian in Silbey’s eyes and a lousy storyteller in Eric’s. Mission accomplished!**

* With Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Who also worked on this project. Which is awesome.

** (Note to self: wear flight suit and codpiece, not academic regalia, to graduation this year. Unfurl self-congratulatory banner at key moment. Bathe in applause.)

Amelia Earhart, still sought after 75 years:

Ric Gillespie is executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), and he revealed details of the new analysis at a press conference in Washington on Tuesday. Gillespie told reporters:

“We found some really fascinating and compelling evidence. Finding the airplane would be the thing that would make it conclusive.”

The photo is not new to Earhart investigators, but this fresh analysis from 2010 has aroused new suspicions that it could be part of Earhart’s plane in the October 1937 photo. Gillespie said he was convinced, boldly stating:

“This is where the airplane went into the drink.”

The photo is supposed to show her landing gear floating:


Gillespie and TIGHAR targeted Nikumaroro before.

“Even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, nicely adverting both to TIGHAR and Earhart.

Eight (because eight begins with “e” and there’s an iron law of journalistic alliteration) Earhart theories.

Understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from — that is not a lie. That is art.

If you use real people and real events, you don’t get to lie. No dramatic license, no aiming for a larger truth, no composite characters, no changing things around for better narrative flow, no “art.” No lying.

I get it. Actual events can happen slowly, or not at all, intermittently, inconclusively, inconveniently, and not in useful way for story-telling. I also understand that, for example, history and historians never get to the pure unvarnished objective truth of myth and legend. There are too many distortions, too many intervening years, too many people, sources, and all the grand filtration that the past goes through before reaching its reporter. I know too that historians often produce pedantic, waffle-full, carefully-couched, well meaning but utterly boring recitations. Their books fly off the shelves only when someone yanks too hard on the David McCullough biographies beside them.

All that is true, and irrelevant. Using real people with real lives and real names as your subjects gives a singular advantage over fiction: the conviction and credibility of reality. The power of talking about things as they are, rather than as you imagine, goes bone-deep with the audience. It goes too deep for disclaimers and denials and claims about artistic license to overcome. That is its great value.

The payment for that power is a duty and responsibility to your subjects, to your audience (now and future), to your peers, and to the act of explanation and narration itself, to speak the truth as you understand it, in all details big and small. There is no “larger truth” that you get to by lying. If you wish to speak the truth, you must actually speak the truth.

There are no exceptions; not if you’re Mike Daisey, and not if you’re David Foster Wallace.

No exceptions.

Johnny Ramone:

One night, the New York Dolls were hanging out there. They were already a band, but I hadn’t seen them yet. I pointed to Johnny Thunders and told Tommy that he looked cool. Tommy said that the band was terrible. But I knew, looking at him, that there was something there. To me, it’s always been about the look.


I’ve always been a Republican, since the 1960 election with Nixon against Kennedy. At that point, I was basically just sick of people sitting there going, “Oh, I like this guy. He’s so good-looking.” I’m thinking, “This is sick. They all like Kennedy because he’s good-looking?” And I started rooting for Nixon just because people thought he wasn’t good-looking.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters, Margaret Thatcher, as played by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, explains what she would do as prime minister: “Crush the working class, crush the scum, the yobs.”

That’s in a pirated version. The cheap joke to make of course is, how pirated is it really though? And we’re not above that, in the same way as the sea is not above the clouds (as Douglas Adams would say).

John Demjanjuk has died.

Reuters: “Former Nazi guard Demjanjuk dies in Germany aged 91”
BBC: “Nazi camp guard Demjanjuk dies”
Al Jazeera: “Nazi camp guard Demjanjuk dies in Germany”
NYT: “John Demjanjuk, 91, Dogged by Charges of Atrocities as Nazi Camp Guard, Dies”

NYT: Why so circuitous?

Jerusalem Post editorial here.

And, relatedly, a fascinating New Yorker review by Richard Brody of Claude Lanzmann’s autobiography, including discussions of the making of Shoah.
Read the rest of this entry »

Repurposing a comment I made in this thread, I thought I would run a chart of American military fatalities in Afghanistan. I use American military fatalities “as a quick and dirty way to tell how things are going in a US counterinsurgency effort, figuring that killing an American soldier is always a valuable achievement for an insurgent, that American soldiers (especially in the respective surges) are in harm’s way, that killing one requires mobilizing a certain amount of effort on an insurgency’s part, and that (perhaps most importantly) the Pentagon can’t really fudge the number of deaths (they can with wounded; the definition of “wounded” changed in the middle of the Iraq War to, shock! surprise!, reduce the numbers). It’s not perfect (not nearly so), but it worked pretty well for me looking at Iraq in 2008 and 2009.” Note that this is not a statement about the morality or utility of the war, but simply an attempt at measuring the military effectiveness of the American effort there.

In Afghanistan, the two periods to look at are summer and winter. Summer has the highest number of fatalities and winter the lowest. In both seasons, American fatalities began surging in 2009, peaked in 2010, and started downward in 2011.


That suggests to me that, like Iraq, the American effort is knocking the insurgency down, if slowly.

[UPDATE, 3:00 PM: Having written and scheduled this post on Friday, it turns out to be ill-timed, given the horrific slaughter of Afghan women and children by an American soldier over the weekend.]

If you’ve ever wondered to yourself why I don’t edit, say, the Keynesian section on the New Deal on Wikipedia, you might want to look into the now much-covered story of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s valiant effort to get Haymarket treated properly. (We have previously drawn on Messer-Kruse’s excellent work here.)

To be clear, this is, if not quite laziness on my part, then simply a prioritizing of time and energy. I believe in what Messer-Kruse is doing and I wish him greatest success.

is up at Cliopatria. Enjoy the best of reader-nominated military history from around the web.

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