Learning from War Stories

At the moment, I’m smack-dab in the middle of teaching a five-week summer course I developed: War and the American Century. I’m using “American Century” very broadly, borrowing from Henry Luce’s 1941 article titled with the same term. Typically, historians tend to define “American Century” as the period from, say, World War One to the end of the Cold War, and “American Century” refers to the idea of the US’s growth as a world power. I’ve broadened the view for this course: we began with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and discussions of the US beginning to flex its muscles as an imperial power and world player, and we’ll go through the current conflicts and engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan .

Although I always approached the class with this idea, it wasn’t until the first week that I was able to articulate the underlying theme for the class: how to tell war stories. In the US, I feel like war stories are everywhere, particularly those related to World War II, the Civil War, and the current engagements in the Middle East and north Africa. The final project, then, is all about having the students develop their own war stories, in a manner of speaking: they’re creating a small virtual exhibit about some aspect of an American war in the time period we’re covering.

My original thought was simply that I wanted my students to think about how people tell history and how people engage with history in venues like museums. IE, if you’re going to tell your mom or best friend about, say, what you learned in class regarding the Rough Riders, what story would you tell them? What would you want them to learn? In essence, what are you taking away from class and reading?

We began, then, with an exhibit analysis exercise. I asked them to visit a local museum exhibit  and told them to determine the exhibit’s main narrative (what story is being told?) and to analyze the artifacts/images/objects being displayed (the evidence to support that story)

The next step, then, is that they will develop their own narrative on a topic related to war. (By way of example: I’m creating a mock-up site for them that will focus on how the US military recruited women in the early Cold War). Side note: I realize Omeka would probably be a fabulous way to do these small-scale exhibits, but I lack the familiarity and the time to integrate it in this course – Google Sites will do instead for the time being.

I’m really excited about the course, the projects, and this assignment of having students tell history on their own. I feel like it’s a much more valuable exercise than assigning them an academic paper because not only do they have to do research and write, but they also have to think about history as public consumption: how DO we tell stories – war stories or otherwise? What makes a history tale effective or not?

I spent six months planning to use Clausewitz as the first reading for the course so I could introduce them to some real military history. On the first day of class, however, I realized that there was another reading that fit much better with the course theme of telling war stories. Out went Clausewitz, and in came Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried. That piece, combined with Luce’s “American Century” article made a great textual introduction for the course. It’s provided a touchstone for much of what we’ve discussed in the time since, and a great way to frame the class as a whole. I think it was one of the most serendipitous decisions I ever made, and I only wish I’d made the connection sooner.

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One thought on “Learning from War Stories

  1. It sounds like a great set of exercises and I love the story about your serendipitous change of readings. Sometimes it takes one small change to transform a class. It seems like you found it with that pairing of readings and course planning.

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