Portraying violence in public history (part 2): the limits of empathy and the barrier violence can be

From John Hennessy:

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments offered up on Part 1 of this post, which you can find here. Bear in mind that what follows will be far more useful if you read Part 1 first.

Burying the dead at Fredericksburg

It strikes my limited brain that there are three reasons public historians choose to portray violence:  To shock (an easy thing, but rarely useful in itself, and indeed often gratuitous). As a tool to generate empathy (sometimes useful, when used to a higher purpose, but sometimes mis-used). And as a means to greater understanding (of either a major theme of history, a place, or people).

But there is a fourth outcome, invariably unplanned:

While portrayals of violence are often powerful tools for engaging an audience, we also have to recognize that for many people violence is a formidable barrier to understanding. One woman I greatly admired, possessed of an inquisitive, expansive mind, rejected every opportunity to understand the Holocaust because, she said, she simply could not endure the images (literal or described) that invariably accompanied the discussion. Likewise my wife struggles with battlefield interpretation, in part, she declares, because there’s such a focus on stories and images of violence. It is more than she can bear.  She is by no means alone in her struggle. Many people view battlefield interpretation as captive to graphic detail, some of it making little contribution to greater understanding.

Yet, violence is an essential part of history. The violence that permeates our sites and stories tells us important things about human behavior and human struggle–struggle against each other, and against violence itself.  More than that, violence–subtle and brutish, literal and symbolic, psychological and physical–is the birthplace of empathy.

And in turn, empathy is the siren song of public history. Visitors crave it; interpreters love engendering it. Certainly, for any kind of understanding on a human level, empathy is essential.

But, I would suggest, we fail when empathy is the end game, for empathy does not always carry with it understanding, and nor does it always tell us something important. It is, rather, a tool.  Which brings us back to the three accounts we discussed in Part 1 of this post.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, May 3, 1864--perhaps the most immediate image of carnage and destruction made during the war--and one that provokes a powerful emotional response.

All three of them in thoughtless hands can be purely gratuitous–mere tools to provoke shock. I cannot really imagine a circumstance that I would use in a public setting Theron Haight’s description of the field hospital at Manassas. Minute particulars of gore are not in themselves especially useful (though fifth grade boys love them)–and his description is physically revolting. But I could easily see using the the other two accounts to great good with the public. Bliss’s account, for example, might be essential to constructing a program that focused on the numbing power of fear on the battlefield at Fredericksburg (a place that is a particularly vivid testament to fear). Ward’s testimony about the whipping at Sherwood Forest begs the question, why the brutality?  And that in turn can lead to a very useful discussion about the extent, nature, and purpose of physical punishment in a slave society. I suspect few who have been to Sherwood Forest and listened to or read that account will ever forget it. But far more important than that, I’d guess (or at least hope) a significant percentage of them recall still the larger point associated with it.

We have to remember, though, that the use of such narratives or images comes with a cost: by using them, we are simply closing the door to understanding for a significant segment of our population who simply cannot or will not engage history through the prism of extreme violence. At battlefields–the most violent of all our historic places–we have traditionally dismissed such people as uninterested or unrealistic. But, in fact, the Civil War has shaped their world every bit as much as it has shaped yours and mine, and that provokes some interesting questions.

Is it our responsibility to find methods and stories that will convey the significance, meaning, and legacy of the war (and the battles within it) to those people as well? Or, put another way, are battlefields simply not for everyone?  If not, where then do we send those who reject narratives constructed dominantly on violence?

While violence is clearly central to the story of battles, is its exploration and recounting in detail the only path to empathy and understanding?

Is the empathy engendered by narratives of violence essential, or has empathy simply become a cultural imperative?  (It does seem to me that the place of the Civil War in American culture–North and South–is to a great degree wrapped up in empathy, and any threat to the traditional role of empathy in rendering that history is liable to meet stiff resistance.)

In a nation that has chosen battlefields as its dominant vehicle for public understanding and commemoration of the Civil War (a legacy we have inherited), and in a society that revels in both portrayed violence and real empathy, these questions represent no small challenge. And for me, having spent most of my life writing or speaking about the Civil War and, in particular, its battles, the questions rile the brain.

Mind you, this is no summons to sanitize history, smooth its contours to make it universal (I, like most public historians, revel in history’s complexity), or stomp out empathy as an interpretive tool. But I do think we face some significant challenges in reaching the American public, and it’s worth recognizing that our devotion to narratives of violence is both an interpretive boon and barrier. And it seems to me, when we recognize a barrier, we ought to seek ways to circumnavigate it.

Published by John Hennessy

I was, until September 2021, the Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

3 thoughts on “Portraying violence in public history (part 2): the limits of empathy and the barrier violence can be

  1. I’m struggling to get my head around this question, too. I work at a Museum, and we have a Civil War display in which violence and death are very much downplayed — we have a display of weapons, but nothing about how those weapons killed and maimed. It feels “wrong” to me.

    Still, I’m not sure that including images of maimed bodies, or agonized soldiers, is the answer. It may be, but I am concerned that folks coming the the Museum will be very put off by encountering those images when they may not expect to see them (we aren’t a war museum, per se). I totally haven’t figured out what I think, but I wonder if we need to think about exploring the idea of sometimes separating death from showing violence, even when we are talking about a violent war. I, too, am one of those people who is put off by violent images (it took me FOREVER to bolster myself up to watch Schindlers’ list, for example). And yet I think, when it comes to the Civil War it’s really important to get people thinking about what it was like for a generation of people to experience so much death (even if they didn’t see it happen on a battlefield). How did it affect them, their families, and their lives well beyond the grim four years of 1861-1865? You don’t have to focus on gruesome scenes to do that: you could maybe encourage your visitors to imagine what it would be like by askign them to imagine how their lives would have different if whatever the right proportion of their senior class had died within four years of graduating. That might encourage people to start thinking about the consequences without making them dwell on battlefield death.

  2. It is an on-going issue. Images without interpretation are impossible to understand. I think museums (and I, too, work for one) do not do justice to the pain and suffering felt during times of war if they do not offer (or attempt to offer) an explanation to go with the images. Battlefields more often than not explain the military strategies behind the images, but miss the mark on explaining the human suffering. I think in the last several years this has changed, and the Fredericksburg NPS has done a remarkable job in expanding their interpretation. It is the shift in interpretation that we need to have in order to better understand the horrors.

    My family and I made a trip last year to Eastern Europe to explore Jewish history. Remarkably, this was a trip my 19 year old requested to make (we have no Jewish lineage which is all the more remarkable.) I was very hesitant, apprehensive, and even downright stubborn when it came to making the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Plaszow, the Warsaw getto, to name a few. Alas I went and the experience changed me in ways I cannot express. Why? Because the horrors were real, the smells of the places, the names engraved in the walls. The interpretation was all to real, and it changed me. Do looking at images in a book still make my skin crawl? Absolutely, but they have taken on a completely different meaning. Rather than turn away because I can’t bear to look, I do look, closely, with a new understanding (if it is possible to understand such horror.) So- images and portrayal of violence? Yes, but only with the means to begin to understand.

  3. War is an obscenity that is routinely sanitized for basic marketing purposes. Civil War prints produced by modern artists have been all the rage, but very few (if any) show anyone bleeding. There is a tendency to sentimentalize wars, perhaps to put them at a safe distance. An interesting example with local connections is Stephen Crane’s book Red Badge of Courage. There is evidence that Crane wrote a somewhat bitter anti-war story, but that his editor insisted that he give the public what it wanted – something more uplifting (the sun breaking through the clouds at the story’s end is one such edit). A few changes here and there and the book many of us have read reached publication. The editor’s point, probably valid, is that the public is not ready for the reality. Even today, we are bombarded with the nonsense that troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting for our “freedoms.” Wow.

    John asks whether battlefields are for everyone. I would respond that they are not. Battlefields have been preserved for several reasons. Some are heavily memorialized and the memorials themselves have become as much of the lanscape’s story as the day(s) of battle. Battlefields established after most of the veterans passed from the scene have an entirely different feel – compare Gettysburg with Chancellorsville. The battlefields initially preserved by the War Department, though heavily memorialized, were also places where soldiers could hone their craft (graduate seminars in uniform). Military men, then and now, examine the terrain within the context of the decisions made there under intense pressure. That level of study is not for everyone, though. Thanks to the NPS and its visitor centers, all visitors have the opportunity to take the longer view and learn why the war came to a certain place and see what its impacts were (social, political, economic).

    The different experiences all have validity, but understanding requires that those first person accounts to be presented. Slavery was not a benign institution, but an inherently brutal one, even when no beatings took place. The battlefield was also an exceptionally scary place to be. Much attention is directed to learning why men joined the army, but we should also examine why men stayed. The responsibility to cause and comrades can be powerful, but we also have to remember that soldiers could be shot for desertion. Many men mustered faithfully with their regiments, but still managed to become scarce when it went into battle. A basic understanding of battlefield realities makes us more empathetic of human failings (or should).

    In the end there is no easy answer, but we ought not to try to cater to everyone. Not everyone cares initially. The military men will still come, as they prepare for their own wars. Enthusiasts will still come, some to spend their time on the manicured landscape, while others disappear into the woods to make their own discoveries. The battlefields, at least those preserved over generations by people who cared about these landscapes for different reasons, are there for when a person is ready to learn their sometimes difficult lesssons

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