War Stories

The 2011 Jefferson Lecture -- by Drew Gilpin Faust, the Civil War historian and Harvard president -- draws unexpected immediacy from the events unfolding around it.
May 3, 2011

WASHINGTON – Like her immediate predecessor as Jefferson Lecturer, Jonathan Spence, Drew Gilpin Faust wrote for the occasion a speech based in her specialty as a historian – in Faust's case, the American Civil War. But unlike Spence, who in his lecture took great care to stay within the boundaries of one particular historical moment, Faust gave a talk with a double layer of contemporary relevance.

The first layer was one of her own choosing, even the inspiration for the speech itself: the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The second layer was one over which Faust had no control, and which in fact arose well after she had put the finishing touches on her prepared remarks: as it turned out, Faust would deliver her speech on "narratives of war" – on the tangible, real-world consequences of the ways in which we choose to interpret and recount acts and experiences of violence – less than 24 hours after President Obama announced that U.S. forces had located and killed Osama bin Laden.

Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Drew Gilpin Faust gives the Jefferson Lecture Monday.

Faust, who rose to prominence as a Civil War scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, but who is now better known as the president of Harvard University, delivered the 40th Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities to a completely packed house Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which calls the lecture "the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."

In the NEH announcement of Faust's selection, Chairman Jim Leach cited both her academic and her executive accomplishments: "This distinguished historian has revealed for us the lives and minds of those confronted by the turbulent social changes of the Civil War era, and then proceeded to apply extraordinary administrative skills to leadership of one of the world’s premier academic institutions.”

Faust's speech, "Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian," was clearly delivered from her standpoint as a scholar, rather than as a president. ("This article is me the teacher," she told Inside Higher Ed in an interview Monday morning.) It recalled especially the themes of her most recent book, 2008's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (or "my death book," as she referred to it in the interview).

Faust was raised in rural Virginia, and she began her lecture by describing how, one day in September 1962, "I crowded with my brothers and cousins into my aunt and uncle's station wagon and drove off to war" – that is, to watch a centennial reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, "an exciting display of seemingly lifelike military action, a spectacle that would remind us of the courage and sacrifice we had been taught to revere since the time we were very small…."

"The courage and sacrifice we had been taught to revere": as commonplace, perhaps even noble, as the sentiment may sound, it lies at the heart of the seductive ideology that Faust's lecture aimed to unpack. "The centennial commemoration of Antietam," she said, "was designed to be less about remembrance than about forgetting" – forgetting, that is, the inglorious cause of the South's rebellion, and the "turbulent racial politics" that lingered and seethed in the South and beyond, even a century later.

In Faust's view, the reverent and approbative tenor of the Civil War reenactment she witnessed as a teenager illustrates an age-old pitfall of war narratives: in attempting to impose an articulable structure on the ineffable experience of war, Faust argued, we lend it a significance and even a grandeur that belie the nebulous and devastating reality. "To rename violence as war," Faust said, "is to give it a teleology. This is why it can provide the satisfaction of meaning to its participants; this too is why it offers such a natural attraction to writers and historians. War assumes a trajectory towards victory and thus the possibility of its own cessation and conclusion."

It was around this point in her speech that Faust's words took on an almost eerie – albeit coincidental – echo of the events currently making breathless headlines around the world. "When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003," Faust said, "it was influenced in no small part by the desire – even need – to transform the uncertainty of combating a terrorist enemy without a face or location into a conflict that could provide a purposeful, coherent, and understandable structure – a comprehensible narrative. Responding to terrorism with war… offered the United States the sense of intention, the goal-directedness and lure of efficacy that war promises and terrorism obliterates. … The language of war made Americans protagonists in a story they understood rather than the victims or potential victims of forces beyond their comprehension or control."

Those in the audience who'd been following the news (that is to say, probably everyone) were likely to see obvious parallels between Faust's assessment and the media narratives emerging out of the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. Indeed, President Obama offered just the sort of meaning and teleology to which Faust referred in his remarks to the nation late Sunday: "[T]onight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it's the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place."

“I would guess that one of the sources of the focus on bin Laden,” said Faust in her interview with Inside Higher Ed, “has been to try to have a marking moment that would be a culmination of a narrative of sorts.” In the news stories she had read so far, Faust said, she had noted “a lot of sense of completeness, in a sense of 10 years – just about 10 years – since 9/11 and that having been a trajectory of the narrative about our response… So I think it’s part of the structure of how we’ve understood 9/11.”

Despite the freshly underscored pertinence of her topic, Faust emphasized that the intent of her speech was to "suggest some ways of thinking about who we are and what we do, rather than prescribing one political path or another.” Her goal, she said, was "to leave people with questions, or a little puzzlement, even, about the implications for positions they may hold about the wars we're fighting, the nature of the military in American life -- whatever the issues might be, just to frame them in a way that can generate an ongoing self-consciousness about how we bring ourselves to those issues."

"As we think about [the Civil War] and why it was fought and how it was fought," Faust explained, "we need to understand the cost. Not because it would necessarily make us do anything differently -- but we need to understand that." By way of example, she cited President Obama's 2009 visit to the Dover Air Force Base to see the coffins of U.S. soldiers who had just been killed in Afghanistan -- a trip he undertook while considering whether to deploy still more American troops to that country. "I was very moved by that," Faust said, "because I thought, 'He's trying to make sure he understands what war is as he makes a decision... on Afghanistan.' And that seemed to me part of understanding the true war story, when you make a decision for war."

Thus the importance of attempting to comprehend the real story of a war, and to tell war stories that are true -- to the extent that it is even possible to do so -- is, in Faust's view, by no means merely academic. "Our narratives are not just modeled from war; they become models for war," she argued in her speech. "They have the power to send men into battle and to shape the wars they fight."

As the Civil War's sesquicentennial has just begun to unfold, Faust said, it remains to be seen whether the various observances of its landmark events, such as the upcoming reenactment of the First Battle of Bull Run, will hew much more closely to the actual, uncomfortable history they represent than did the centennial commemorations of five decades past.

"Will we," she asked in her lecture's conclusion, "in this historic sesquicentennial -- to be observed at a time when Americans are involved in real conflicts in three sites across the globe -- forget what a heavy responsibility rests on those who seek to tell the stories of war?"


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