LEARNING FROM WAR: Why Care About Our History?


In a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch there was a news article about a group of officers from the U.S. Army visiting The Museum of the Confederacy and Civil War battlefields. The event presents several questions. Why do they care? And why is it a news article, rather than being covered in the arts and entertainment section? As the president of the Museum of the Confederacy, I am often asked the same question, "Why should we care?" Or, particularly here in Richmond, and most particularly on the subject of the Confederacy, I confront the statement that "we need to get over it" or "our history is holding us back."

The people who ask the question are missing the point. The study of history provides a great foundation to move forward. Many of the greatest leaders of history were themselves students of history. Winston Churchill stands out. The statesman whom Nelson Mandela called "one of the most progressive leaders the world has ever seen" believed that his constant analysis of people who had gone before would provide great assistance to him as he made decisions going forward. And "progressive" is not a word one would use to describe someone who is mired in the past.

While he was the superintendent at the Virginia Military Institute, Josiah Bunting wrote a book titled An Education for Our Time about the needs of modern education — how a new generation should prepare itself for the 21st century. In the book, he constructed the model college curriculum, emphasizing the need to study history. He cared less about facts and dates and more about the study of the conduct of men and women making critical decisions in times of crisis and stress. Bunting believed that this study would help us emulate the best qualities and avoid the worst that we see in these historical figures, particularly if we delve into the complexities, ambiguities, and nuances that affected them just as they confront us today.

Ed Ayers, the new president of the University of Richmond, is a historian who embodies that same belief. Future graduates of the University of Richmond will be the beneficiaries of his leadership — a leadership that has gained from his own career study. It was no coincidence that he chose Drew Faust, a native Virginian and the newly elected president of Harvard University, to share the stage during his recent inaugural weekend. These educators — people who are charged with the responsibility to forge our next generation — share the common belief that the study of history can make a difference in an individual’s future conduct. Again, it is no coincidence that the historical era of choice of Bunting, Ayers, and Faust is the American Civil War. In her seminal 2004 article, " ‘We Should Grow Too Fond of It’: Why We Love the Civil War," Faust stated, "The Civil War offers an authenticity and intensity of experience that can rivet both researcher and reader; the war serves as a moment of truth, a moment when individuals — be they soldiers or civilians — have to define their deeply held priorities and act on them."

And note that she references civilians, because she and Ayers are two leading scholars on the intertwined nature of the military and the civilian sides, including the issues presented by slavery. She has concentrated on the common folk, particularly the women, and her 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, was on The New York Times best-sellers list. It is also no coincidence that the study of leadership has come into vogue, particularly in the nation’s graduate business schools as they attempt to distinguish good leadership from good management. A favored text in those programs is H. W. Crocker’s 1999 book, Robert E. Lee on Leadership. Crocker’s subtitle states the reason for the book’s merit: "Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision."

SO WHY INDEED would today’s U.S. Army officers spend a day of their valuable time at The Museum of the Confederacy and on Civil War battlefields? They did not come for entertainment or because it was somebody’s favorite hobby. These men and women compose the top echelon of the Army’s Accession Command, whose responsibilities include the recruiting and training of our armed forces. They find themselves late in the conduct of a war that has grown increasing unpopular with the general public.

As a nation, we have been there before. Late in the Civil War, both sides had grown war-weary. Abraham Lincoln was relatively certain that he would not be re-elected as president, and governors’ races in the South included peace platforms. In the armies, re-enlistments were scarce in the North, and desertion was becoming an increasing problem in the South.

These current Army officers share the beliefs of the college presidents that the study of history is extraordinarily relevant if your focus is on the future. They are working to shape the future, not merely to know what happened in the past. The study of history is a hobby for many people. They want to visit the sites and read the books that describe the events of the past. But the study of history goes far beyond a mere hobby. It may also teach us a great deal about how we might conduct ourselves going forward — as individuals and as a collective society. Those who say "let’s get over it" may be doing themselves a disservice. Perhaps they too could learn something about themselves that could positively affect their future if they would read a book or two or visit a museum or walk on ground hallowed by the conduct of their predecessors.

S. Waite Rawls III is the president and CEO of The Museum of the Confederacy. Contact him at (804) 649-1861 or info@moc.org. http://shnv.blogspot.com/2008/05/learning-from-war.html