Tag Archives: memory



Today’s anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has me thinking about our WWII veterans.  Ninety-six percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.


Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad served in the navy during WWII and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.


(Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I thought I would repost a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first is a kind of tourist’s report; the three that follow are more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

This past Thursday morning I hopped in my Kia Rio and made the nearly seven-hundred-mile trek from Wheaton to the site of the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. Along the way I prepared mentally by listening to books on tape: James McPherson’s On Hallowed Ground–a brief guide to the battlefield–and the first half of (what else?) Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. From Friday through Sunday morning I spent nearly sixteen hours roaming the six thousand acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, and I even managed to squeeze in a quick half-day tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (fifty-four miles to the south), the site of John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid on the federal arsenal there. After hiking on the battlefield a final time early Sunday morning, I drove the seven hundred miles back home while listening to the second half of The Killer Angels. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox shortly before I pulled in the driveway. It was the ultimate history nerd road trip.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

After I’ve had time to wrestle with it a bit more, I want to think out loud with you about one of the eternal questions that the experience has raised in my mind, but for the moment let me just share a few initial reactions:

Let’s start with the culinary landscape. After extensive reconnaissance, I have three discoveries to report: first, the “General Pickett Buffet,” much like the general’s charge in 1863, was ambitious but unsatisfying. Second, the Avenue Restaurant, a locally owned diner a couple of blocks to the north, serves a marvelous breakfast. And finally, proximity to the battlefield seems to have had no appreciable effect on the food at McDonald’s.

Next, the battlefield itself: It was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone at all interested in American history. The battlefield is under the auspices of the U. S. National Park Service, which has done a fabulous job of preserving as much of the original battlefield as possible and of interpreting all that transpired there. I’ve read countless books on the battle over the years, but there is simply no substitute for being there. If you can go, and if your health allows for it, get out and walk. I hiked a half-dozen times along the crest of Cemetery Ridge, stood in the woods along Seminary Ridge where John Bell Hood’s Texans formed to attack on July 2nd, clambered on the rocks at Devil’s Den (which Hood described as the worst ground he had ever seen), measured the length of line defended by the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Little Round Top, followed the route of Pickett’s Charge (and back), and stood where Robert E. Lee rode to rally his men after that charge was broken.

I am not a military historian, and to be perfectly honest, I have never been able to muster interest in academic disputes about strategy and tactics. And yet walking the battlefield helped me enormously in understanding what both armies were trying to accomplish. The ground mattered greatly in Civil War battles, and one of the most striking things about Gettysburg is how varied the ground could be.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Much of the setting is bucolic farmland–gently undulating fields dotted with clapboard barns and split-rail fences. A part of the setting is urban; Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps drove Federal forces through the town itself on the first day, and his sharpshooters took up positions on Baltimore St. from which to harass the entrenching Yankees near the cemetery on the outskirts of town. Some of the fiercest fighting, however, unfolded on a landscape straight out of a science fiction movie. I had read about “Devil’s Den,” but I had never fully appreciated how bizarre it really is. I don’t know about you, but when I see Civil War battles in my mind’s eye, I never picture soldiers fighting hand-to-hand atop boulders the size of garbage trucks.

Young visitors to Devil's Den.

Young visitors to Devil’s Den.

The benefit of visiting the battlefield goes far beyond a better understanding of how topography shaped the conflict, and that’s a good thing. Setting aside the occasional sweaty, middle-aged re-enactor, I suspect that few of the park’s two million visitors each year are primarily interested in such technical questions. Most probably just want to gain a sense of what the common soldiers who fought there experienced. I certainly was hoping for that, among other things. There is an unbridgeable chasm that separates them from us, of course. I know that. We can never fully grasp the horrors that they witnessed and endured. (I feel that less as a limitation than as a mercy–thank you, Father.) And yet, I do believe that visiting places such as this enlivens the imagination, and imagination is an indispensable aid to historical understanding. In walking the land where these armies clashed, the landscape somehow connects us to those whose footsteps we follow. The result is a shadowy glimpse of long ago, and that, to my mind, is a treasure.

And now to the less-than-sublime–the town itself: There are numerous circa-1863 structures still standing that help us to envision what the town looked like as Union and Confederate forces converged on it 150 years ago. But much of the fighting on the 2nd and 3rd of July took place outside of town, and in the intervening century and a half there was all kinds of commercial development in that vicinity, and ever since the national park was established in the late-nineteenth century, entrepreneurs have sought to make money from tourism. Thus advocates of historical preservation have fought a battle of their own, heroically defending the ground from creeping commercialism.

They have won that battle, up to a point. The nearest McDonald’s (a good barometer of the balance of power in the struggle) is still several hundred yards from Cemetery Ridge. And yet if you head north from McDonald’s along Steinwehr Avenue, you will immediately encounter a gauntlet of cheap souvenir shops seeking to help you commemorate your pilgrimage to Gettysburg’s “hallowed ground.”

Tourism 4

The range of commemorative items is truly impressive. Notebook in hand, I visited several stores, all within a good tee shot of Cemetery Hill, and compiled a partial list. There were all kinds of caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies, of course. The vast majority referred to the recent sesquicentennial (“Gettysburg, 1863-2013″), but there were others appealing to hikers (“Hiked It, Liked It: Gettysburg Battlefield”) and imbibers (“Gettysburg: A Drinking Town with a History Problem”). For unreconstructed Confederates who might not otherwise enjoy visiting the site of a Union victory, there were declarations such as “Lee Surrendered, I Didn’t” and “Keep the South Beautiful: Put a Yankee on a Bus.”

Beyond this, there were commemorative coffee cups, travel mugs, flasks, beer steins, and wineglasses; refrigerator magnets, lapel pins, zipper pulls, ash trays, plates, jig-saw puzzles, key chains, iron-on patches, tote bags, windsocks, lap robes, piggy banks, paper weights, coasters, golf balls, Christmas tree ornaments, pens, pencils, pocketknives, cigarette lighters, thimbles, mouse pads, and playing cards. None of these much tempted me, but if I had had the money, I wouldn’t have minded bringing home the Pickett’s Charge snow globe, the shot glass with the entire text of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on it, or (my favorite) the Robert E. Lee bobble-head doll.

Maybe on my next visit.

Tourism 5

The Preciousness of the Past, or of Memory and Mirrors:

So I’ve already devoted more than enough time to common misconceptions about the value of history—it’s time to think together about why we should find value in studying the past.  My list is not exhaustive, and it’s far from the last word on the matter, but here is how I typically answer that question at the beginning of the courses I teach.

In our short-sighted pragmatism, we often insist that academic pursuits immediately translate into a higher potential income after graduation, which is another way of saying that we all too commonly equate education and vocational training.  Vocational training is a good thing—we all need to know something about how to make a living—and I do honestly believe that a rigorous study of history has benefits that can help to put bread on the table.  I want all of my students to improve their abilities to read critically, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, and I think that these are skills that are widely transferable to any number of vocations.  And yet these are incidental benefits—as wonderful as they are—and emphatically not the main benefit we seek.  We study history primarily not to earn a better living but to live a better life.

History serves this purpose in several ways.  For the moment let me focus on two, both of which I can best illustrate with metaphors.  First of all, history is a form of memory.  (I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ definition of history as the “remembered past.”)  If we take the analogy seriously, it can teach us a lot about history’s value.  I asked my students recently to list the attributes of memory as an exercise for thinking about the pitfalls and opportunities of studying the past.  Astutely, they noted that memory can be faulty, that it is sometimes selective and self-serving, and that it may change over time—all of which is also true of history.  But they also identified some of memory’s priceless benefits.  “Memory is crucial to our sense of personal identity,” one student noted.  “Without it we would be unable to function,” observed another.  The same could be said for history.  History is crucial to our sense of collective identity.  Just as memory helps in answering the question “who am I?” history helps in answering the question “who are we?”  And because history gives us a memory before birth, it can connect us with the insight and experience of those who have gone before us.  In a figurative sense it actually lengthens our life’s span, broadening our perspective and enabling us, not to predict the future, but to meet it more wisely.

If history is a form of memory—reminding us of who we have been—it can also be a kind of mirror—revealing to us who we are now.   In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul warns us against being conformed to the values of the world.  Unfortunately, many of the cultural values that influence us deeply become invisible to us.  We see them as “natural,” and what we see as natural we eventually cease to see at all.  One of the great benefits of studying history is its potential to remind us that the way things are now is not the way they have always been.  It can be a lot like traveling to a foreign country, except that we are traveling across time instead of space.  As a Christian who focuses on the study of American History, I am struck that we do not have to go back very far in time to encounter individuals who professed the same faith that we do, who lived in the same part of the world that we do, and who nevertheless viewed the world very differently than we do.  When we take such encounters seriously, we become self-conscious of our values in a way that we have not been; they literally become more visible than before.  Thus the study of history helps us to see both ourselves and our world with new clarity, and it is only when we are really see the values that shape us that we can effectively resist the world’s efforts to squeeze us into its mold.

In sum, history’s greatest value is not utilitarian but moral.  At its richest, it furthers our pursuit for a heart of wisdom, the quest at the very center of what it means to love God with our minds.