Category Archives: Maj. Sjursen’s Classroom

Maj. Danny Sjursen, is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives in Lawrence, Kan.

Sjursen: Whose Empire?

The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our previous president promised to “Make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

“The Death of General Wolfe” (1770) by Benjamin West. In this scene from the French and Indian War, the artist—a colonist—depicts in the sky the light of British conquest overcoming the dark clouds of French rule in Canada.

If Americans have heard of the Seven Years’ War – a truly global struggle – it is most certainly under the title “The French and Indian War” (1754-1763). Popular images of the conflict are likely to stem from the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis. When Americans think of this war at all, or discuss it in school, they generally situate the central theater of the conflict in the northeast of North America. Yes, the savage Indians and their deceitful French allies were beaten back along the wooded frontier, allowing pacific English – soon to be American – farmers to live in peace. Ending in 1763, and saddling Britain with debt, the French and Indian War is often remembered as but a prelude to a coming colonial revolt over excessive taxation. Perhaps it was, but not in a direct, linear sense. Nothing historical is preordained. Chance and contingency ensure as much. Continue reading

Were the Colonists Patriots or Insurgents?

A British depiction of Bostonians tarring and feathering a British customs officer, John Malcolm, several weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The drawing was made by Philip Dawe in late 1774.

Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?” John Adams once asked. “Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?”

“Nobody,” Thomas Jefferson replied. “The life and soul of history must forever remain unknown.”
Continue reading

American History: Roots in Religious Zealotry

“The First Thanksgiving, 1621” by J.L.G. Ferris. The Pilgrims of first-Thanksgiving legend were soon followed to the New World by the Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

It is the image Americans are comfortable with. The first Thanksgiving. Struggling Pilgrims – our blessed forebears – saved by the generosity of kindly Native Americans. Two societies coexisting in harmony. If Colonial Virginia was a mess, well, certainly matters were better in Massachusetts. Here are origins all can be proud of.

Our children re-create the scene every November, and we watch them with pride through the lenses of our smartphones. But is this representation of life in Colonial New England an accurate portrait of Anglo-Native relations at Plymouth, or, for that matter, in the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony? Of course it isn’t, but nonetheless the impression – the myth – persists. That’s a story unto itself. Continue reading

American History: Original Sin

American Slavery, American Freedom (Colonial Virginia 1607-1676) The swampy environs of Jamestown, Virginia, claim the life of another 17th-century English settler in this painting by National Park Service artist Sydney King.

Origins matter. Every nation-state has an origin myth, a comforting tale of trials, tribulations and triumphs that form the foundation of “imagined communities.” The United States of America – a self-proclaimed “indispensable nation” – is as prone to exaggerated origin myths as any society in human history. Most of us are familiar with the popular American origin story: Our forefathers, a collection of hardy, pious pioneers, escaped religious persecution in England and founded a “new world” – a shining beacon in a virgin land. Of course, that story, however flawed, refers to the Pilgrims, and Massachusetts, circa 1620. But that’s not the true starting point for English-speaking society in North America. Continue reading

JFK’s Cold War Chains

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of each other when they met for the first time, in Vienna in 1961. (Google Images)

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. This moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”? Continue reading

A Broken Union (1851-1861)

“Tragic Prelude,” a circa 1937 work by John Steuart Curry, depicts abolitionist guerrilla fighter John Brown holding a rifle in one bloody hand and a Bible in the other and standing over the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers. The painting hangs in the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our recent president promised to “make America great again,” and our current “president” is systematically destroying what is left – this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”? ~ Ed.
Continue reading

Where Have You Gone, Smedley Butler?

Major General Smedley Butler, pictured left, at a Marines vs. American Legion football game in 1930. (USMC Archives / Flickr)

There once lived an odd little man — five feet nine inches tall and barely 140 pounds sopping wet — who rocked the lecture circuit and the nation itself. For all but a few activist insiders and scholars, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler is now lost to history. Yet more than a century ago, this strange contradiction of a man would become a national war hero, celebrated in pulp adventure novels, and then, 30 years later, as one of this country’s most prominent antiwar and anti-imperialist dissidents. Continue reading

FDR and His Deal for a Desperate Time

Editor’s NOTE: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

A cropped version of Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of Florence Owens Thompson and some of her children, photographed at a California migrant camp in 1936. “Migrant Mother,” laden with trouble, would come to be seen as a depiction of the mood of a nation gripped by the Great Depression.

FDR was neither radical nor conservative, no matter what his defenders and critics claimed, both then and now. One part “traitor to his class” and another part defender of capitalism, he was both dangerously power hungry and the savior of American-style liberal democracy. This man was—like his party’s co-founder, Thomas Jefferson—an enigma, an unknowable sphinx. And yet he was the man for his moment. Indeed, FDR and his “New Deal,” as both a response to economic depression and reorganization of society, represent one of the most profound transitions in U.S. history. FDR served as president (1933-45) longer than anyone before or since, elected four times by wide margins. His opponents feared the man, and his supporters canonized him with rare and remarkable passion. Continue reading