Three Days That Try Men's Souls
NEWS FROM NON-BORING HOUSE Journalists, Ukrainians, WWII American Airmen in England, and Historians Live History
How Long is This Post? Whole Thing: 3,300 words. About 15 min read. Free Readers’ section: About 10 minutes.
Wednesday, March 2, 2022, 9 a.m.
I had plans. Didn't we all? Mine was to write an Annette Tells Tales post on a book about disasters. Ironic, I know.
That book, Inventing Disaster, by historian Cynthia Kierner, isn't the sensational thriller you might expect from its title and colorful cover. It’s an academic book, more about ideas than stories, which is why (with abject apologies to Dr. Kierner) it has waaay less popular appeal than, say, journalist Erik Larson's Dead Wake, a splendid and terrifyingly detailed book on the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania during World War I.
Inventing Disaster is heavy going for the casual reader, but elegantly written. It's also brilliant. Kierner shows us that how people respond to catastrophes has, like everything else, changed over time.
I'm trying to bear this in mind as I doomscroll through the news about Ukraine.
I already made a grim joke, after my last post, about a cemetery, that it's no coincidence that I'm writing about death and disaster right now.
But my post on Inventing Disaster will have to wait. I'm overwhelmed this week, and not just by the news from Europe, but by my speaking work. Remember, I never meant to write Non-Boring History, much less have it turn into a second (third?) job. I was just puttering along happily, writing a novel and speaking in schools and to teachers, and to community groups, when the world changed.
Thanks to Zoom, this is still school visit season, so I'm talking to kids from Atlanta to rural California. That means my time for reading and writing is too short.
So I'll send you my post on Inventing Disaster another day.
Inventing Disaster is not, strangely enough, a downer. It's just another reminder of how lucky we are.
“My civilian friends -- writers, academics, artists -- are all staying in Ukraine to defend their cities. A scholar of English Victorian literature is sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs) and coordinating the flood of media requests. A filmmaker and a historian joined the country's growing territorial defense. A professor is giving an online lecture on Ukrainian culture from Kyiv while listening out for air raid sirens outside her window.”
I promised you I will not offer analysis of the war in Ukraine, and I won't, because I'm simply not qualified: I’m just watching the news, aghast, like anyone else. What I am thinking about, however, is how, so often, I react to present-day crisis by thinking of how I might have responded to past crises. I know I'm not alone in that.
I think of my students, back in my professor days, insisting that they would have fought the Nazis if they had lived in 1930s Germany, and me challenging them to think again, because the evidence is that most people did nothing of the kind.
I think of a few years earlier still, to a graduate student I knew in the 1990s, an older German woman who, under the Third Reich, had been a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, the female version of the Hitler Youth. She had spent her life agonizing over that fact. When my grad student friends and I concluded that we would have fought the Nazis, she said quietly, “You cannot know what you would have done.”
I finally got it. But I can't help thinking about such things. I'm human.
To repeat, if you want analysis of the Ukraine crisis, I won't give it. A good teaching historian is, like a family doctor, a general practitioner, who knows the limits of her expertise, and refers you to her learned specialist colleagues, as I do now.
My only caveats as I pass you along to the experts of your choice:
First, bear in mind the advice of John Allen Phillips, my late adviser in British history, that historians are very good at predicting the past. The future, he said? Not so much.
Second, be sure the “expert” is really an expert. Historians and political scientists with relevant degrees and publications. Journalists who are eyewitnesses. That sort of person. And even then, one person can't do all the explaining, and shouldn't try. That includes me, which is today's reminder that I have zero interest in leading a cult, and that I rely extensively on historians’ and museum professionals’ work to write NBH.
I would add this: When historical analysis of the past suddenly proves useful in the course of events, those who provided it are hailed as prophets. When fate takes a different turn, their words of wisdom, no matter how clever, are forgotten, their work archived as old hat.
All historians and journalists become old hat eventually. That's a big reason why, by the way, I objected to Substack labeling my collection of posts on the site as an archive. It's not. It's a body of work interpreting history books and museums for the public. It’s still current, and when it's not, I will either revise it or take it down, or it (and I) will simply fade into irrelevance.
And that will happen. Time catches up with all historians in the end.
Writing today, on Wednesday, I wonder what will have happened by Saturday. It looks pretty bad from here and now. It's hard to imagine that the brave Ukrainian scholars Olesya Khromeychuk described above will still be alive. It's hard to see what's happening in Ukraine ending well for anyone, whether for the Ukrainians, the Russians (and Putin in particular) or the world, including those Americans who ignore it.
By the time you read this, my personal pessimism may already have proven true. Or still be in the making. Or perhaps a miracle will have taken place. Or, well (no, I’m not playing on George Orwell’s name, but nice idea), if we wait long enough, we will see every broad prediction proven, smashed, and perhaps proven again. There’s much evidence to consider, always, but I have always thought that the ultimate proof, the only proof, in history is to count the bodies. Sorry.
Having trained as a journalist a long time ago, I know which journalists inspired me most, and whom I continue to admire.
I admire journalists who work in the field. Those who risk their lives for a tiny byline, to show us the dangerous and confusing reality of an unfolding situation. Those who provide evidence for future scholars, and seldom themselves get credit beyond recognition and respect from the dwindling ranks of their profession, almost destroyed now by the accountants, profiteers, and grifters.
That’s because journalism, which I define here as the public pursuit of truth, has been corrupted and crushed by the forces of greed and personal ambition, even more than academia, perhaps as much as politics.
Those journalists, who hang on as best they can, range from household names to, more often, people toiling ill-paid and unrecognized outside (and even inside) the local areas they cover. I suddenly think of Dylan Brogan, who writes for the Isthmus, the local alternative paper here in Madison, Wisconsin. He is one of the best reporters I've come across in years. (UPDATE: Here's the latest example of Brogan's work, and he connects Madison to Ukraine in a way that will grab you even if you've never set foot in Wisconsin. I know this, because I barely had time to unpack before the pandemic, and am still a stranger to the Midwest.)
Right now, as I write, local and international journalists in Ukraine are interviewing soldiers and civilians as air raid sirens wail, knowing that bombs and bullets seldom spare reporters. Historians and other scholars in Ukraine are giving lectures, sheltering the victims, and taking up arms. Historians here in the States are quietly making donations and (if Eastern European specialists) giving talks and interviews, while continuing, with an eye to the long term, to attend to their thankless and all-consuming work of teaching, research, and committee work, under a barrage of attacks from parasitic administrators, politicians, and the public.
These are the times that try men's souls, as Tom Paine, corset-maker turned activist, wrote as he spurred American colonists through the War of Independence. He wasn't writing in the same historical context or with quite the same meaning as we might now, but it's an appealing catchphrase.
After all, which times have not tried men's souls? Excuse me using the old-fashioned generic “men” , but Paine’s striking statement doesn't have the same ring when I update it to “people” or, worse, “persons”.
The past is offensive. You may file a complaint about this with the Historical Equity Gnome at Non-Boring House, who will be sure to read your letter carefully before placing it in the special round file.
A few months before COVID, Hoosen and I visited Thetford, an English town near where Hoosen’s father was stationed with the US Air Force decades ago, and where he and his family lived for a time.
We stayed at the Thomas Paine Hotel, an old inn knocked together from three 18th century cottages, in one of which, allegedly, according to the hotel website, Thomas Paine, philosopher of American Independence, was born. Well, yeah, maybe. He was certainly from the immediate area thereabouts.
Tom Paine was a corset-maker, not a glamorous trade, but he was also evidence that liberal arts education matters: He had an apparently excellent schooling at Thetford Grammar School, which, while it ended when he was 13, has proved its worth ever since.
During WWII, a group of American servicemen, stationed near Thetford, put up this plaque on the hotel wall, which you can see in the photo above to the left of the door:
Here’s what it says:
THOMAS PAINE 1737-1809
Journalist, Patriot & Champion of the rights of the common man. Thomas Paine, son of an humble THETFORD staymaker, was born near this House.
From his talented pen came the voice for the democratic aspirations of the American Republic through such splendid writings as "Common Sense”, “Crisis" & "The Age of Reason."
Buried in New York this simple son of England lives on through the Ideals & Principles of the democratic world for which we fight today. In tribute to his memory & to the everlasting love for freedom embodied in his works. this Plaque is gratefully dedicated through the voluntary contributions of Soldiers of an American Airforce Group.
OCTOBER 21st 1943
They knew what they were fighting for, these young men, far from home, in 1943, “ . . . the ideals and principles of the democratic world for which we fight today.” They had lived through the Great Depression, many had known poverty, all knew fear, and they had every reason to know what was at stake. America was a democratic republic, a light to the world, and they could not allow the world to fall to tyranny. I’ll confess that sentiments like these, which for so long have been derided in fashionable circles as embarrassingly mawkish, have always caused a pang in the heart of this weary and battered historian. Especially now.
Even knowing in burdensome detail how short of its ideals America fell, even the most oppressed Americans have still wanted it to succeed.
Nothing's perfect, ever, but when we give up trying to make it so, we crumble to dust.
Olesya Khromeychuk, the Ukrainian historian in London I quoted earlier, does make a prediction with which I cannot argue, and it is this:
“I am a historian. I realize that we are living through a moment that will be on every syllabus of European history. Now is the time to decide what place each one of us wants to have in that history. Stand With Ukraine.”
These are the times that try men's souls.
Wednesday March 2, 2:39 p.m. : CNN reporting that Kherson has fallen into Russian hands, the first Ukrainian city taken.
The Fork in the Road
Free Readers: Here's where we part company today. I never give you half a story before lowering the paywall. In fact, you'll find that most of my emailed posts come without a paywall at all.
Subscribe on the annual plan ($60) this weekend, and I'll donate 30% of the funds I receive to Save the Children, founded by Eglantyne Jebb, whose biography by Clare Mulley I recently wrote about, for their work in Ukraine and around the world.
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