Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why History?

Well, it's a happy day here in Fort Worth and Dallas! The Texas Rangers crushed the Yankees last night, 6-1, in game 6 of the American League Championship Series. We're going to the World Series for the first time in the history of our baseball club. It's an historic event.

And it's got me thinking: why do we care about history? I mean, it's already happened. It's done. Why bother to study it? Why look backward instead of forward?

First of all, let's dispense with the platitudes. Let's not lean on Patton's advice that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. Let's see if I can come up with an original thought and put it in my own words.

You can look at my bio and page header and deduce why I care about history. It's about people, about stories, about feats of skill and sport and war and discovery that were impossible--right up until someone did them. I like history because I find stories of the past exciting, interesting, and fun.

But there are lots of other disciplines I find exciting and interesting that I'm not trying to make a living doing. Zoology, paleontology, astronomy, mechanical engineering, pottery, weaving, auto maintenance, medicine...all areas of endeavor I find fascinating, areas that impact our lives in a real way every day. But I'm not writing about those, except as their past developments affect us today.

See, history is where we come from. The stories of the past all run together, weaving through each other and overlapping to bring us the world we know today. The world we live in proceeds directly from the world of the past, just as tomorrow's world will proceed directly from the choices we make today. The "it's already happened" school would say it does not matter that the Rangers won the pennant last night--what matters is that we are going to the World Series next week. But if we had not won the pennant last night, we wouldn't be going to the Series. And you can be sure that in years to come, when the Rangers' play is less than stellar and another Series seems like a far-off dream, people who were in the Ballpark last night will speak fondly of their memories of that game.

Okay--it's an absurdly short-range illustration. After all, the game is only a few hours in the past, and the Series is less than a week away. And it's baseball, not war or politics or literature or art or anything that's supposed to be Important. So what's my point?

For one, I'd argue that it is important to a large number of people. Will it advance civilization in a perceptible way? Probably not. But it will bring people to the Metroplex, and a few of them might stay. It will bring business, and some of that business might find opportunities to grow and flourish here and bring jobs. People who have had a hard couple of years might be able to take advantage of some of those jobs, and lift themselves and their families to better lives. To them, this will have been as big a deal as the war on terrorism or anything that's happening in Washington. And without it, it may not have been possible.

So you see, everything is tied in to history. Our world would be very different if Washington had died of smallpox, if Nixon had not lied, if Columbus had sailed south instead of west, if the Mongols had not conquered China, if the Danes had not conquered much of England. Our lives would be very different without Einstein's physics, Edison's inventions, Gutenberg's press, steel, wheels, or fire. Our families would be very different if great-great-grandma Josephine hadn't put her little brother in a wagon and headed west with no money and no plan, or if uncle Thaddeus hadn't been killed in Vietnam. Our town would be very different if the Cowboys had never won a superbowl. And it's all in the past, already happened, already done and gone.

It's who we are. It's where we come from. And it happened, whether or not we care, whether or not we record it. But our lives might just be a little better for knowing.

That's why I study history. Care to join me?


Friday, October 15, 2010

Histry Nerd is Going Pro!

Right. Here's the deal.

I am not a credentialed historian.

I don't have a Ph.D., or tenure, or a professor's chair.

My Master's degree is in business, not history.

I didn't major in history. Or even minor.

All I have is a bunch of books, a few ideas, and a lifelong love of history.

And for me, that's going to be enough. I'm moving forward with it.

Because I've realized--life is too short not to spend it doing something you love. See, I have a good job. It pays well. I'm very good at it. But it isn't what I love.

History is what I love. So that's what I'm going to do.

I've been teaching a history class to my kids' homeschool group. And you know what? They love it. Not just my kids, but just about every kid in the class. And so do I. None of us--not even the parents--cares that I don't have a history degree. We're having fun, and we're learning, and that's what matters.

So I'm going to figure out how to do this full time. Writing, teaching, sharing... you know, nerd stuff. Histry Nerd stuff.

I'm working on my plan. I have some ideas. I'm not quitting my day job, Mom. Not yet.

But this is where my passion is, and I'm going to make it happen.

Watch this space. This is gonna be pretty cool.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

Status Update: A little over 26K words into my current project, a middle grade novel about a young drummer boy in the Civil War. A little more than halfway to my goal of 50K words for the first draft. At this rate, I'll finish it sometime in 2012, maybe--but I've set a goal to have the first draft finished by September, and have it polished and ready to sell by January. I'll track my progress here, and we'll see how I do.

Now for my second podcast review, this one on Tony Cocks's Binge Thinking History. Aside from the very cool name--I, for one, have often gone off on thinking binges--Tony brings history to life from a different perspective than the one we Americans often get. See, Tony is British, and he unapologetically brings us the British version of events. He's a little more into dates and facts and names than Dan Carlin, but his podcasts are rich in historical detail, just chock-full of the kind of stuff that brings history to life in the classroom. His podcasts, instead of being single-episode treatises focused on a central theme, are long, in-depth investigations that stretch over four or five or six episodes.

And as I have already mentioned, his point of view is definitively British. His podcasts explore the kinds of subjects nerds like me tell ourselves we'll read about when we have time, then never make the time. His most recent subject is a multi-part discussion of the history of the British navy; in six episodes so far, he's up to Nelson and Trafalgar. Before that was a five-part history of the Battle of Britain. And before that--to me, his most interesting subject so far--was a history of Britain's evolution from feudal monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and the gradual erosion of the king's power in favor of something that looks today much like a representative democracy.

And most interestingly, he contends that Simon de Montford--as the leader of Britain's first Republican revolt--and Oliver Cromwell--as the first prime minister who dared to assert Parliament's power over the king's, and won a civil war over the question--should be added to the list of the United States' founding fathers. I can't say I'm entirely convinced, as our founding fathers tend to have been contemporaries with each other, after all, but he makes a strong case. His history certainly does much to show where our founders got their crazy ideas.

And after all, isn't that what history is about? Ideas don't just spring fully formed out of the minds of those we give the credit for them. Like hailstones or snowballs or glaciers, they start small, get passed on from one person to the next, and each one adds a little bit to them until they become forces unto themselves. Ideas don't do anything without people to understand them and take action and make them work, but when the right people get their brains around the right ideas at the right time, they change the world.

I'm happy to recommend Tony's podcast to anybody searching for something new. Tell him I sent you his way. And don't tell me if his only reaction is "Who?"

Happy Independence Day, folks. I'll be hunting for Simon de Montford and Oliver Cromwell in the fireworks tonight.


Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010 - Remembering Staff Sergeant Tommy Folks

Tommy Folks almost didn't have to go to war.

Seems like a strange thing to say, doesn't it? After all, Tommy was a soldier. When you work for the U.S. Army and the U.S. says go, you go. You don't run to Mexico. You don't wait until the call comes and then claim to be a conscientious objector. You don't raise your hand and say, "Oh, by the way, I'm gay." You don't even ask where or when.

You go. It usually sucks, even if nobody's shooting at you. Your family probably doesn't understand. Hell, sometimes you don't understand. It's almost never fair--if you're a member of the National Guard, it seems even less fair. Marriages fail because of it. Businesses go under. Bills go unpaid. Fathers come home to babies they've never seen, or toddlers who don't know them. Some don't come home.

But you go. If you don't come home, like Tommy, we who survive remember you on the last Monday in May. Those who knew you remember every other day of the year, too.

Sergeant Folks--that's how I knew him before he died--was one of the most talented natural leaders I've ever known. He led from the front, and made damned sure he could master any task before he tried to show his men how to do it. And if one of them could do it better, he let him.

He came to my National Guard rifle company from the 10th Mountain Division, finished with the regular Army and ready to decide whether to stay in the Guard to retirement or get out when his hitch was up. Right away he recognized our soldiers--my officers and myself included--had the enthusiasm to be great soldiers, to make a good company great, but not enough knowledge. So he started teaching us, quietly, always aware of his place in the chain of command, but firmly. We made him a Staff Sergeant and a squad leader and let him teach.

By the end of our Annual Training that summer, my dismounted squads were the most proficient in the battalion. And everybody in the battalion knew Sergeant Folks's name. Of course he didn't do it all by himself; nobody ever does it all by himself in the Army. Whoever came up with Army of One wasn't paying attention. But it wouldn't have happened without him.

Eighteen months later, Sergeant Folks made his decision. He was finished with the Army, ready to try another form of service. He felt called to ministry. My first sergeant and I talked it over, and decided to bend the rules for him. He had served with honor, he had six months left, and we decided to let him go quietly, giving him credit for making up drill weekends we didn't make him attend. The condition went unspoken but understood by all: if the call came, he would go with the rest of us.

In April 2004, the call came. The officers and senior NCOs knew right away. We broke the news to the battalion at AT that June. At the end of July, we assembled at our drill stations. And Sergeant Folks was there, his stuff packed, ready to go. No questions, no excuses, no whining. The Army said go, so he was ready to go.

We spent July through December 2004 at Fort Hood, training, getting ready to go. Once again Sergeant Folks shone as brightly as any other leader in the battalion--no glamor, as little spit-and-polish as he could get away with, but all business. By December, his men could have gone force-on-force against any squad in the battalion, and most of the squads I worked with in the regular Army, and come out on top. We decorated him, much later than he deserved, with an Army Commendation Medal. He shrugged it off and got back to work.

We deployed to Iraq as Team Axe in January 2005 with 146 men from all over Texas. Our first job was security at a fortified truck-stop in southern Iraq called CSC Scania, and Sergeant Folks embraced the mind-numbing posting and required his soldiers to stay alert and ready for anything, always on the lookout for that one event that might slip through when you're not paying attention. We paid attention, and any bad guys in the area got the message and left us alone.

In April, I rotated out of command and moved to Camp Echo, outside Diwaniyah, to serve as the liaison officer to the Polish-led multinational division headquartered there. Sergeant Folks and the rest of the company took on a new mission: convoy security from Tallil Air Force Base in the south down to Kuwait, North to Turkey, East to Jordan, all routes converging in Baghdad. If it rolled across Iraq from June to November 2005, chances were good somebody from Team Axe was rolling with it.

2005 was a pretty quiet year in Iraq, compared to the three years that followed, but that didn't stop the bad guys from trying. Those convoys got hit every night; sometimes they managed to disable a tanker or a cargo truck, but they never managed more than a bruise on any man from Team Axe.

Until the night of 19 October 2005. That night Sergeant Folks was leading from the front, as usual. His Humvee was right out in the lead, where he could identify hazards and radio back to his squad if he needed them to take action. He never saw the IED that got him, never felt a thing, as far as I know. It was rigged with a trip wire/pressure plate combination, and it stove his door and his head in before anybody could blink. He survived to the hospital in Baghdad, but never regained consciousness. The rest of the guys in his truck were returned to duty with minor wounds. He was the only man Team Axe lost that whole year.

So Tommy Folks is the soldier I remember every year on Memorial Day. He is only one of more than a million who have fallen to defend the Constitution and the flag they salute, but he's the one I can put a face to.

I don't have a picture of Tommy, so I can't post one here. But you have his name now. If you have no one to remember by name on this day, feel free to remember Tommy.

Do you have friends you'd like remembered for Memorial Day? Send me their names and stories. We'll honor them here next year.

Thanks and have a great week.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Well, I'm Back.

It's been a while. Honestly, I'm not sure how the big bloggers do it: between work and writing and family and running my household, time for posting here just trickles away. But here I am again, with thoughts of making this a more regular thing than I have in the past. We'll see how it works.

Let's see: where to start? We can start with a status update, I suppose: I've stuck my previous project in a drawer for now, in favor of one that's holding my interest a little better at the moment. I'm just over 21K words into the first draft. Shooting for 50K, so I'm almost halfway there. I may describe it in a future post, but not now.

In this post, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite newly-discovered pastimes: listening to podcasts. My old iPod didn't have the space to hold my music and podcasts at the same time, and I'm too lazy to continually load and reload new content--I'd much rather just have my library at my fingertips when I want it. Well, with my new iPod (a gift to myself for my birthday a few months ago), I have that. And I've started listening to podcasts.

So far, my hands-down favorite is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. You can find it here or on iTunes. I'm in no position to send him money right now--although his work is certainly worth paying for--but I figure people may read this blog eventually, and maybe he'll get some hits from it one of these days.

Dan is an amateur historian, like me. He makes no pretense of being a credentialed academic. What he does is approach history from a different angle: rather than focusing on what happened, or even on what it means to us, he focuses on the human aspect of historical events. What was it like, he asks us to imagine, to live through the Punic wars? What must it have been like to fight on the Eastern Front during the Second World War? What was life like for the Apache as they watched their territory shrink, watched their loved ones die, watched their way of life trickle away?

His interests are eclectic, all over the range of historical exploration: as I mentioned above, his podcasts address the Punic wars, World War II, and the Apache. He devotes whole episodes to the possible impact of factors like alcohol and drugs on historical events, invites us to imagine what it might have been like to live through (or not) a medieval plague, ponders the lot of children through most of our human past. His most recent podcast carries the provocative title "Globalization Unto Death," but rather than railing against the "evils" of expansionism and western colonialism, he ponders why it was white Europeans, and not the Chinese or the Arabs, who ultimately colonized the New World.

Dan pulls no punches, handing out blame and approbation wherever it is due--both, in varying measures, to both sides in every conflict he explores. For every admirable trait the Apache may have possessed, we can't forget the impact Apache raids had on pioneer families throughout the American southwest and northern Mexico. As much as we can admire Hannibal for bringing Roman legion after Roman legion to its knees, we must also consider that he was a man driven by hatred, as surely as any man in history. And whatever wickedness white sailors visited upon the, er, idyllic societies of the Pacific and Caribbean, the hardships they endured crossing the oceans and the receptions some of those societies gave them are at least worthy of some consideration.

If you are at all into podcasts, or history, or are thinking about getting into either--you could do a lot worse than listening to Dan Carlin. You can tell him I sent you, if you want; he won't have any idea who you're talking about, but I'll feel as if I have done a good deed by sending you his way.

I'll try to chime in on another podcast soon. Or I may post some of my own rantings; my experiment with Associated Content has shown me I might just as well post those words here and try to drive interest to this site as make money there.

So until next time, have a good one!