What are we fighting for?
From the Civil War to Vietnam and Afghanistan, Americans keep asking the same question of their leaders. The answers are insufficient.
In an interesting TIME magazine article about The Civil War, 150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War, author David Von Drehle develops cogent arguments for the idea that this horrific war began five years before Fort Sumter with a massacre of abolitionists in Lawrence, Kansas, in May 1856. People died because they preferred to live in a “free state.” I attended the University of Kansas and did not know this sobering fact about the home of my Alma mater.
It’s not entirely due to my ignorance.
After the war and until the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, historians and public intellectuals typically packaged the purpose of this war for reasons other than the divide over slavery. According to the opinion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for example, this war was a battle for “liberty, property, honor and life.” Slavery became but a footnote if mentioned at all in the years following the war. It is only just now, 161 years after the war officially began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, that the rationale and true context for the war has become fully manifest.
During one of my Generation Reinvention podcasts, I interviewed Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed. Rob has undertaken a scrupulous initiative to document many facets of a year that did, indeed, shape the nation — history he does not personally recall since he was merely two-years-old then.
For example, we discussed the Vietnam War and a deadly battle for control of Ap Bia, a 3,000 foot mountain near the Laotian border. As Rob wrote, this battle would become “a microcosm of the strategic hardships experienced by American forces in Vietnam.”
This became the first significant battle in which American soldiers openly questioned with national news media the strategic wisdom of their commanders in a battle eventually called Hamburger Hill, a raw metaphor for the human carnage, a watershed turning point in popular support of the war.
Although the battle was a victory for the US, with 84 fatalities compared to over 600 North Vietnamese deaths, American media and the nation’s antiwar majority started demanding, “What are we fighting for?” This is a question that has resurfaced with every subsequent war in which the US has engaged since Vietnam.
Two different historical chapters and their contemporary implications emphasize how critical it is that we accurately understand bygone times to avoid repeating mistakes of the past or revising the record, rendering the past mythical rather than factual. The Civil War and 1969 are too often misunderstood or misrepresented today.
I wrote about historical revisionism and marketing co-optation in Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers:
When some media today choose to report about “the sixties,” they often derive background coverage and image positioning from distorted archival reports, thus perpetuating simplistic stereotypes and generalizations as valid truths.
The media, sometimes sympathetic to students and their political demonstrations, chose then, and often still choose, to reflect inaccurately the true context of the era. Media bias has led to disjointed images of antiwar activists through presentation of outlandish personalities and the antics of notorious celebrities connected to student demonstrations. Some journalists and news accounts actually encouraged an escalation of militancy, theatrical expression, and a turn toward revolutionary behavior.
Thomas Frank, author of The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, provides substantial evidence of mobilization of bias in his critique of business and the sixties. He observes that mentioning the sixties and associated images arouses in some “an astonishing amount of rage against what many still imagine to have been an era of cultural treason.”
Although the sixties’ era has been commonly positioned as a time of narcissism and social destructiveness (the popular movie character Austin Powers notwithstanding), on the contrary, most young people in my experience consciously embraced a philosophy of non-violence while opposing the horrific violence of racism, poverty, environmental assaults, and American bombardment of Vietnam.
I write from personal experience to this point: Most veterans of the sixties were going about the business of earning college degrees and/or starting careers — albeit sometimes in slow motion because of the social and cultural struggles — while playing active roles in grassroots mobilization, and they were motivated by a sense of obligation to others far more than self-gratification.
Another interesting but complex concept has played a role in manufacturing what society now thinks of as “the bad sixties.” This is the theory of co-optation or the tendency of the marketing industry to have quickly embraced the powerful iconographic images and metaphors of young people, transforming them into commercial messages. Thus, the symbols of the social revolution became distilled into come-hither selling images in magazine ads and television commercials; the creative revolutionaries in the arts chose to mimic and mass-produce counterculture so that their corporate clients could cash in on the youth psychographic. The more ardent proponents of this theory even claim that the co-optation process helped to nullify the revolutionary aspects of the counterculture, thereby mollifying its threat to mainstream value consensus.
I believe, at the very least, that co-optation helped to synthesize in society’s collective memory the most superficial, unsavory, cynical, pugnacious images of the antiwar and democratic mobilization movements of the sixties and seventies. Businesses also made money through co-optation, which, by itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. When this commercially manufactured history becomes history, however, many start having a problem with the prevailing official record, as do I.
The Civil War and 1969 have little in common, other than being periods of extreme internal strife within the borders of the nation. Contemporary beliefs about what happened during both historical chapters are amorphous. History has sometimes been revised.
Media sometimes takes hold of the symbols and slogans, decontextualizes and simplifies them, rendering them meaningless beyond positioning goods and services in consumers’ minds. Responsible portrayal of historical periods begin with respect for the true historical record. Neither citizens nor society win when we collectively forget or fail to heed the truths and lessons of history.
I believe an optimum intersection exists between historical accuracy and artistic expression of a historical period, and, in fact, cinema and literature can be conceived that help clarify the historical record so more Americans better understand their legacies and moral responsibilities going forward.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention my collaborative book : 1969: Are You Still Listening? Written with seven co-authors, all of whom experienced 1969 firsthand, our book shares deeper insights into what we experienced as a generation, how the events of that year became significant formative experiences impacting us today, and what we learned from our youth revolution.