In an interview with The Carolinian, Chris Kelly, American historian and writer of several works, spoke with me about the historical significance of Memorial Day. He has co-authored “America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American Soil,” “America Invades: How America has Invaded or Been Militarily Involved With Nearly Every Country on Earth” and “Italy Invades: How Italians Have Conquered the World,” with British historian Stuart Laycock.
In order to understand the present significance of Memorial Day in America, Kelly looks to the past.
“I think it [Memorial Day] is a time to reflect and to remember those who served and the enormous difference in the world that this made. And then I think that as a historian I was kind of going back. In 2017, we have these kinds of anniversaries to kind of think about; on April 6, it was the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, with President [Woodrow] Wilson. And that kind of fundamentally changed the way that Americans think about the world… And in a way, I think that’s related to, things that are going on since then, that Americans have become much more engaged in the world,” said Kelly.
Kelly connects this shift in American consciousness towards engagement with the world to the present political conflict between the United States and Syria.
“And we remain engaged in the world. I would relate it to the first week in April, when you had the Trump attack on airbases in Syria; after Assad had launched chemical weapons at some people. And I see like, kind of a like, continuum of say — well I’m not going to try to get political here and bash or praise — but I think it’s interesting that we started getting engaged about 100 years ago with Wilson in World War I, and we continue to, to um, take sides, if you will, in conflicts. We took sides 100 years ago with the start of World War I, and we uh, I guess, that was after, you know, red lines had been crossed, according to Wilson and the American Congress and the American people, and then in April, you had, again, a redline I suppose was crossed with the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” said Kelly.
I then asked Kelly about whether he felt there is room to be critical of America and its global engagements with the world on Memorial Day as well.
“Well that’s interesting, in the books that I’ve written like ‘America Invades,’ we tried as hard as possible to not be political. To not make political judgements and just try to lay out the facts about what happened. We try to kind of lay out the facts and let readers make up their minds for themselves. Whether they think that these engagements, that these interventions have been a good thing or a bad thing, or a bit of both. If you have to ask, if you ask me, which one do I subscribe to? I’d say probably, come down on the last option, that some engagements have been really important. I mean some American engagements certainly changed the world. And I think there’s no question about that, and that from D-Day to, you know the Americans landing at D-Day, on June 6 in 1944, and liberating France. And you know in the holocaust — and we certainly didn’t do that single-handedly — we had some help from our allies, the British with the Soviet Union. But, I mean, I think that that is certainly something that Americans can be very proud of,” said Kelly.
Kelly then went on to qualify that not all of America’s global political conflicts have had positive effects.
“And on the other hand, there have been engagements where, that had not gone as well. The, well, I take, I suppose you could talk about, the intervention in Lebanon in 1983 where Reagan deployed troops to the Marines to the barracks in Lebanon, who are engaged in a peace-keeping mission. The barracks were blown up by a terrorist attack. Here we just had a terrorist attack in London, UK, and obviously with the Manchester attack. And in 1983, there was a devastating attack on the Marine barracks of Lebanon, and about 300 American Marines were killed. Also, several allies, casualties of them as well. And not only did we take these casualties, people being killed, but also, there’s some people who suggest that Saddam Hussein was actually embolden by the American response, or lack of response, after the Marine attack, that have led him to attack Kuwait in 1990. So you have, not only the negative aspect of the casualties, but also the fact that it kind of led to, you can kind of interpret it as leading to even worse things down the road,” said Kelly.
The next question I asked Kelly was whether he believed one could then draw the conclusion that U.S. intervention in world affairs can lead to further conflicts.
“Well, after that one—this is in ’83, this is with Reagan, of course, going back a few years, but, I think it’s easier historically, to talk about things that are a little bit more, I mean, my rule of thumb is that if it’s 25-years-old, people can call it history. If it’s less than 25-years, I think it’s more or less, journalism. I mean, what happened in Manchester, and we know from the headlines that 22 people were killed, and you can puzzle around that, but we don’t know really everything that happened with this terrorist attack. But, from 1983, we can have more of, a historical perspective on it, and kind of understand the consequences that it had as well. And I mean, nobody knows what the consequences of the Manchester attack will be. But we kind of have a sense with events that are further back in time. You know, what was the consequence of these actions too?” said Kelly.
Continuing with the concept of a journalistic versus a historic interface with how Americans conceptualize the world, this writer then asked Kelly how these frameworks influence his thoughts about Memorial Day.
“It’s just a journalist’s role and a historian’s role, are two different things. I think as far as today, we tend to be focused on what happened in the last couple years or so, and to think that that is what it’s all about, and I think we have a tendency to lose historical perspective, and not have a historical perspective on things. And you know I could take another example of, again I don’t mean to get political, but, Trump was saying something that, he’s been attacked by the media more than anybody else in history. Well, I mean, what about Abraham Lincoln? A lot of presidents have had a lot of challenges, over the course of time and history, and that is what comes to mind. As far as Memorial Day, I think it does kind of call on us to reflect back to the past a little bit more, and so that kind of makes it maybe more special because it kind of tries to maybe take us out of just the bubble of the moment that we seem to be perpetually caught in, and to think back to, more distant history, I suppose. With World War I, it’s unusual these days, because of course you don’t have any veterans that are still alive from World War I, at all, who can interview; they’re all gone. And so, I think it’s important to remember those who can’t speak any longer,” said Kelly.