Schama Looks At History For 'American Future'

Cover of 'The American Future'

In the recent presidential campaign, in which an African-American man competed against a woman for the Democratic nomination, the word "historic" figured prominently.

The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and global financial crunch both feel unique, and even, historic.

But are they? Are these events true firsts? Historian Simon Schama looks to the past for some context in his new book, The American Future, and concludes that while much of it is indeed historic, little of it is really new.

Excerpt: 'The American Future'

Author Simon Schama

hide captionSimon Schama's book The American Future looks at the events of our past to tell us where we may be headed in the future.

Margherita Mirabella/Harper Collins Publishers

Chapter One: American War

Veterans Day: 11 November 2007

"America has never been a warrior culture."

Just because it was Dick Cheney saying this didn't automatically make it untrue, even on Veterans Day in Arlington National Cemetery, a year before the election. Patriotic chest-thumping from an impenitent vice president was not what anyone, least of all the veterans themselves, wanted to hear. Bodies of young American men and women were showing up regularly at Section 60, at the foot of the grassy hill. Mustard-colored backhoes stood parked in a row, steel claws raised, ready to dig. Every so often, on the hour, a soft clop of horses' hooves could be heard coming over the dips and rises of the cemetery park before a reversed gun carriage rolled into view. Most weekdays, every hour or so, those small, sad parades do the funerary honors as tourist buses are diverted to alternative routes, heading for the Unknown Soldier or JFK. But if you walk the green vales of Arlington, you can catch young soldiers of the 3rd Infantry getting ready for their next duty, operating the forklifts that hoist coffins onto the carriages. Others grab a quiet smoke beneath the plane trees before dressing the horses and getting on their ceremonials. Out in Samarra and Helmand and Mosul and Kandahar a great many more mutilated and eviscerated bodies, not American, are being tended to as best as possible without benefit of flag or drums. Only the keening sounds the same.

But at Arlington, on Veterans Day 2007, in Memorial Amphitheater there was no howling, except from small children squirming against the captivity of their mothers' laps. Cheney would utter the consolatory pieties with studied quietness, his voice falling at the end of the sentence, as if the avoidance of vocal histrionics were itself a symptom of truth-telling. Perhaps he has Theodore Roosevelt's injunction to "speak softly and carry a big stick" framed over the vice presidential desk. When, every so often, an infant would let rip with an aaaighw, the note bouncing off the columns, Cheney would look up from the teleprompter, sight line briefly changed and then move impassively to the next homily, like a tank rolling over a cat.

It was warm on 11 November, and the temper in the amphitheater was jocund. Sunlight falling on cherry-red caps and coats turned veteran marines into a gathering of jolly elves. The oompah from the big orchestra was classical lite, and the procession of colors into the amphitheater could have been any high-school parade but for the many years of the standard-bearers. Studded biker jackets decorated with Vietnam insignia — "Hells' Harriers," "Dragon Breath" — draped the gutswagged bodies of old grunts, but behind the bandannas of yore they had lost their heavy-metal menace, their righteously roaring grievance. Now they were just living exhibits in the museum of stoned-age warfare, the walking wounded of the Sha-Na Na-tion. More speeches droned; more Andrew Lloyd Webber chirped; and the volunteer "service" being eulogized was rapidly turning into social granola: "veterans helping out in communities" more akin to the coast guard or the scouts; nothing to do with bombs and bullets. If Iraq and Afghanistan had turned out not to be a picnic, Veterans Day at Arlington certainly felt like one.

But America has two specified days of military remembrance; one when the leaves are fallen, the other when they spread into full spring splendor. Created after the Civil War, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day from the spontaneous habit of military widows decorating graves with wreaths of white flowers. In 1868 the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, decided to institutionalize a day of remembrance — for both the Union and Confederate dead — and specified the third Monday in May. For most of the country, Memorial Day is about the inauguration of warmth. Garage sales lay out their wares in driveways. America's men go through their tribal ritual firing up the grill for the first cookout. Meat meets heat, beer cans pop and hiss, and somewhere, everywhere, a microtractor is harvesting a suburban lawn. But even if the lines of spectators at the parades are thin, some remembering does get done in small-town America. In Sleepy Hollow, New York, where a statue commemorates the "honest militiamen" who caught the British spy Major André in 1780, a dozen or so veterans, some of them octogenarian survivors of Pearl Harbor and Normandy, followed behind a high-school marching band of big girls dressed in glossy black boots, pleated black miniskirts, and scarlet jackets, strangely reminiscent of the British redcoats the "honest militiamen" had thwarted. The band murdered "Sloop John B" (a baffling selection) and "God Bless America," and an endless procession of fire trucks from neighboring towns followed, each bearing heraldic insignia ("Conquest Hook and Ladder 46"), before the parade ended up at a flower-decorated "Patriots' Park" (named for the Revolutionary War). There, amid the dogs and babies and aunties and wives, the dignitaries did something surprising: they connected with history. The commander of the local American Legion, a World War II survivor, read the entirety of General Logan's Order Number 11 from 1868, as though it had just been issued, stumbling a little over its great flights of Lincolnian rhetoric, asking for the perpetuation of tender sentiment for those "whose breasts were made barricades between our enemies [that is, other Americans] and our country." The Lincolnian tone was sustained when the mayor of Tarrytown read an abbreviated version of the Gettysburg Address, although why he thought fit to shorten a speech that is only 400 words in the first place was mysterious. The dead of that immense slaughter and the president in his high hat were summoned from November 1863 to cookout day 2008, to mix and mingle with the old Vietnam grunts in Ranger hats. But was this just an empty flourish? Was it safer, easier, to invoke Gettysburg and Antietam than dwell on the fifty-two American servicemen and women killed just the previous month in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Excerpted from The American Future by Simon Schama with permission from Harper Collins Publishers.

Books Featured In This Story

The American Future
The American Future

A History

by Simon Schama

Hardcover, 400 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The American Future
  • A History
  • Simon Schama

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: