Sunday, July 19, 2015

For Those Who Still Hear the Guns


I believe it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead. It isn't even past. There are those of us for whom the past is just as alive as the present. We hear the fading echos of artillery fire from long ago. We sense the presence of those who tread on many a far flung battlefield with us. They haunt our minds and our thoughts. The past drives us to squander the present while we mentally dwell in a bygone era. We spend money and time that we perhaps do not have to focus on an era in which we will never actually live. Is this foolhardy? Is it misguided? I would say no. The world needs people like us. We keep old memories alive.

I suffer from some pretty serious health issues that seem to be getting more serious. I deal with it by retreating in time to the Civil War where I can spend what time I may have left (I don't know) reading books and watching television programs that tell me of an era when things appeared to be more clear cut. More simple. But, of course, they weren't. My own fear of the future is pushing me further into the past. I don't really see this as a bad thing. In fact, I kind of enjoy it as I have always been a Half A$$ Historian. Obviously the Civil War is my bread and butter, but others of you may have different eras that you enjoy (Great War, WW2, etc). 

Does, for example, the Civil War still matter? Recent events have shown that perhaps it does. The problem is the overall pop-culture version of the Civil War which includes the North's own Lost Cause myth that is taught in schools that bother to teach history means that most of those entering the public discourse have no real historical knowledge of the Civil War. That does not, however, stop them from pontificating on the subject. How many of those tearing down Confederate flags from private property can even name a Civil War battle, much less a General. The decline of historical knowledge in this country is exactly why those of us who "live in the past" must continue to do so!

I get frustrated and angry with "professional historians" for many reasons. First of all, the very idea of a "professional" historian is dumb. What makes you "professional"? Some will say that you must have a PhD. Others say no, just a graduate degree period (like an MA). Others say to be "professional" you have to get paid to teach history or work at a museum. Said professionals scoff at books written by non-PhD people as being "popular history". I wonder if they ever think that there might be a reason for the popular part? Second, though a lot of professional historians do know about history, their knowledge is more limited than you might think. For example, military history is very rarely taught in graduate history programs (with a few exceptions). It is all about race, class, and gender now. If that is what you want to learn about, great. If not, you are screwed. Third, though many of them teach history (and teach it well), there is a difference in teaching history and truly living it. By that I don't mean in the reenacting sense, but rather living with the past in your mind 24/7. 

When I was healthy enough to be able to visit Civil War battlefields, I could still hear the cannons and the muskets. I could see everything unfolding in my mind when I closed my eyes. The Civil War is not simply empty words on paper or some boring and grainy old documentary. It is real. For those of us who still hear the guns, the war rages on in the recesses of our minds and we will forever be prisoners of it. Yes, it still matters. 

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