History, Politics, and Those Pesky WMDs

by Doug Howard.
Soldiers in chemical protection gear, including Sgt. Eric J. Duling and Specialist Andrew T. Goldman, examining suspected chemical munitions at a site near Camp Taji, Iraq, on Aug. 16, 2008. Source: The New York Times

Soldiers in chemical protection gear, including Sgt. Eric J. Duling and Specialist Andrew T. Goldman, examining suspected chemical munitions at a site near Camp Taji, Iraq, on Aug. 16, 2008.
(Source: New York Times)

Although my Google Chrome home page is set to international.nytimes.com, I get my best news from Facebook. The New York Times is great, but it is so conventional, and the articles are so long! I just want to know what happened overnight, or what someone was thinking while I was asleep. For that, I count on my friends posting from BuzzFeed and al-Jazeera and all the blogs they read.

Then former Calvin history prof Randal Jelks, now at Kansas, tweeted this NYT article, “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons,” by C.J. Chivers, published October 14, and I decided I probably better read it before one of my colleagues or students asked me what was in it. So I read it on Wednesday, took me a couple of hours. It was really long, even by NYT standards—over 10,000 words. (It did have photos and videos.) It was a damning series of stories of Iraq veterans’ encounters with chemical weapons, and how the army and the administration of George W. Bush suppressed awareness of their experiences because they proved that President Bush’s rationale for going to war in 2003 was false. And the weapons, many of them, bore the stamp, “Made in the U.S.A.”

Imagine my shock the next day, Thursday, when I saw on Facebook a US News and World Report follow-up, headlined “I bet George Bush is feeling on top of the world today.” This piece, much shorter at about 450 words, claimed that the NYT article had “reignited a debate” about WMDs between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives “pounced” on the NYT story “as evidence that claims by Bush in the lead-up to the war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction were true and that the United States’ 2003 invasion was justified,” while “liberal critics” were pointing out that “Chivers never said the bombs were the same WMDs that Bush described; they were from the 1980s and early 1990s.” By Saturday, October 18, the US News piece had over 140,000 likes, including childhood military brat friends of mine, some now serving in the military themselves—that’s how it showed up on my news feed. I took the hazardous risk of reading comments: Bush was a good president and a great American; his silence showed his humility and graciousness—you can criticize Bush for many things, but being a gloater is not one of them; why didn’t NBC, ABC, CBS and “all the other major news outlets” report this? They owe Bush an apology!

US News offered readers a poll: “What do you think? Do reports of WMD found in Iraq vindicate George W. Bush?” By Saturday, the poll had over 9,600 responses, in which “yes” beat “no” by a 2-1 margin.

Army and Navy technicians prepare unexploded ordnance for demolition in 2003 near Baghdad.

Army and Navy technicians prepare unexploded ordnance for demolition in 2003 near Baghdad. American troops destroyed thousands of arms caches in Iraq, some of which contained chemical weapons, including chemical weapons the troops did not report. (Source: New York Times)

To be clear: We all knew that Iraq had WMDs. There never was any “debate” about it. Saddam Hussein’s army deployed chemical weapons on the battlefield against Iran, in the 1980s. Remember the slogan? “He gassed his own people!” The debate was whether the Iraqi WMD programs still functioned, and whether it justified a U.S. invasion. President Bush’s administration rang the bells of war beginning in 2002, saying that Iraq had defied the U.N. sanctions regime (since 1991) by continuing to manufacture WMDs—even nuclear weapons, according to the suggestion of Condoleeza Rice, the National Security Advisor. It was time to stop inspecting and act! Remember the slogan? “He had twelve years to comply!” Alas, the weapons were not found. They were reported to have been destroyed by the Iraqi regime during the 1990s, under U.N. sanctions. (There is much more to this, but to get the full story you’ll have to take HIST 331, “U.S.-Middle East Relations,” with me this spring semester.)

What the NYT article reported was, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale… The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.”

What was really painful in the article was that the Iraqi regime disposed of these weapons so incompetently, and with such disregard for human beings and the environment, that years later American soldiers stumbled upon them where they lay, unwittingly, and in so doing brought great harm upon themselves. And prompted by the story, the U.S. army has now admitted that it failed to follow its own guidelines for the care of these men. They were not decorated for their wounds; instead, they were told to lie about what happened to them, and they were forgotten after their service ended. Many still suffer ill health.

So, simply pointing out what the NYT article actually says makes me a “liberal”? Okay, I can live with that. And I get it that we all might not have time to read a 10,000 word article, so we just read the 450 words and take the reader poll. That’s what Facebook is for! But before we go commenting on what a great president we had, or what the news media did or didn’t report, let’s go out to the car and read that faded and peeling bumper sticker. Remember the slogan? It’s only three words: “Support Our Troops.” So whoever it is that’s feeling on top of the world today, let’s remember what actually happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen (as Ranke put it), and find the courage to hold our own army and its commander-in-chief, and ourselves, to our moral commitments.

Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. He’s almost finished writing a history of the Ottoman Empire. 

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Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Maraschino Cherries, and the Meaning of Autumn

by Kristin Du Mez.

pslIt’s that time again. The air is turning crisp, the leaves are turning colors, and all thoughts turn to…pumpkin spice. (Actually, just like Christmas shopping starts earlier and earlier each year, pumpkin spice season seems to be inching forward each year as well; this year’s first sightings came as early as mid-August). This pumpkin spice craze has seemingly come out of nowhere in the last few years, and it shows no signs of abating.

As ubiquitous as pumpkin spice has become, the craze has not yet swept the entire globe. Ample anecdotal and internet evidence suggests that affinity for artificially-flavored or scented pumpkin spice consumables tends to be a predominantly North American white girl phenomenon—particularly strong among the yoga-pants-wearing demographic. Additional evidence reveals that pumpkin spice has crossed the Atlantic. It’s already started catching on in the UK, and Starbucks—ground zero for the pumpkin spice phenomenon—has introduced its pumpkin spice latte in Ireland, Switzerland, France, and Austria (and that data was drawn from 2012—the imperial reach of Starbucks promises to bring pumpkin spice lattes to places that have never even seen actual pumpkins.)

card reading "If you say pumpkin spice late three times in front of a mirror, a white girl in yoga pants will appear and tell you her favorite things about fall."As a white girl who admittedly shuns pumpkin spice lattes, and any other artificially-scented or flavored pumpkin spice concoctions (especially those awful-smelling candles that predated the latte phenomenon), I have been at a loss to comprehend the pumpkin spice appeal.

As a cultural historian, I can only assume that the sudden affinity for all things pumpkin spice has some sort of deep cultural resonance—and that our culture’s seemingly insatiable taste for pumpkin spice must be telling us something meaningful about ourselves.

It occurs to me that there’s a disconnect of sorts in this pumpkin spice devotion. It seems that for many, the pumpkin spice flavor and aroma have come not only to represent fall, but in fact to substitute for the actual experience of fall. Fall isn’t fall until that first sip—even if that sip comes in mid-August.

Pumpkin spice’s popularity has risen during a time when more and more individuals’ actual experience of fall—real, natural fall, as in the inevitable (if you live in the north part of North America, at least) turn of the seasons, the reminder that all that is living must come to an end—has diminished to insignificance.

For nearly all of human history, fall has demanded action—hunting game, harvesting crops, storing up for the long, bleak winter. But most of us don’t have to do much in the way of preparation these days. Maybe a bit of raking, if we’re among the few without a bagging mower or a high-powered leaf-blower, or remembering to make that appointment to winterize the sprinkler system. Beyond that, however, fall demands little of us. And so perhaps deep down we long for some way to mark this passing of time, this turn from summer to winter. The irony here, however, is that the thing we’ve substituted for the actual experience of fall—“pumpkin spice”—apparently contains  little that can be considered natural.

cover of the book Kitchen LiteracyIt is in this regard that the pumpkin spice phenomenon reminds me of maraschino cherries. I first encountered the story of the maraschino cherry in Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get it Back, a thoughtful book by Ann Vileisis.

Maraschino cherries are hardly a controversial topic today, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they represented the dramatic changes taking place in American food production and consumption. Harvey Wiley, an early advocate for the first federal Pure Foods and Drugs Act in 1906, had begun his study of food adulterants already in the 1880s, and to Harvey the maraschino cherry epitomized all that was wrong with the adulteration of natural foods.

bow of bright red maraschino cherriesAs Vileisis explains, “the most common method of making them was to soak the fruits in brine and sulfurous acid until all natural color was gone. Washing away salt and acid also removed the flavorful juice, nutriment, and all other soluble portions of the cherry.” Thus, according to Wiley, maraschino cherries could not be “regarded in any sense as resembling even in color the natural fruit, since practically the whole of the natural fruit, except its cellular structure, has been withdrawn and artificial substances substituted in place thereof.” As Vileisis concludes, “the maraschino cherry was a human fabrication of sugar, coal-tar dye, artificial cherry flavor, and almond oil.” Initially intended to imitate nature, the bright color and artificial flavor ultimately came to replace it.

I wonder, then, if our pumpkin spice lattes haven’t become our twenty-first century maraschino cherries. We can purchase our experience of fall at our convenience through the nearest drive through and satiate, at least in part, a deeper need to connect with the natural world. But in doing so, we’re actually further distancing ourselves from that natural world.

autumn leaves on the ground at sunsetWhat is lost, I wonder, in substituting an artificial concoction of ingredients for an authentic experience of the turning of the seasons? Perhaps by wrapping us up in artificial coziness, our pumpkin spice artificial sweetness obscures for us the gentle melancholy of autumn, the reminder that in “the apparent desolation of nature” we witness “the emblem of our own fate.”

“When the winds of autumn sigh around us, their voice speaks not to us only, but to our kind; and the lesson they teach us is not that we alone decay, but that such also is the fate of all the generations of man.”

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism is under contract with Oxford University Press, and should be out in 2015. 

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Ancestral Journeys

by Will Katerberg

My blood is about 2.5 percent Neanderthal and 1.8 percent Denisovan. My colleagues and wife say they’re not surprised. The evidence indicates, however, that all non-Africans are about 2 percent Neanderthal and just under 2 percent Denisovan. These discoveries are fascinating stories, and they have been a challenge for scientists and theologians. They’re also very personal.

Heat Map for Maternal Line Haplogroup T1

The arrows on the map above represent the migratory paths of successive groups that eventually coalesced to form a branch of my maternal family tree. It starts with my oldest female ancestor, going forward to more recent times, showing at each step where my genetic ancestors migrated.

On my mother’s side, my maternal ancestors had migrated out of Africa by about 55,000 years ago and lived in West Asia. My father’s side of the family made a similar journey about 65,000 years ago, my paternal ancestors leaving the Rift Valley in East Africa, probably crossing at the southern end of the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula.

Those ancient Katerbergs seem to have migrated west from a refuge near the Balkans across Europe about 20,000 years ago, when the last glacial maximum ended. My ancestors on my mother side of the family, the ancient Visschers, arrived in Europe from West Asia sometime later, probably traveling into Eastern Europe and then Western Europe.

Heat Map for Paternal Line Haplogroup M253

The migratory paths of successive groups that eventually coalesced to form a branch of my paternal family tree.

My story of ancestral journeys continues into the present. My mother’s family migrated from the Netherlands to Canada in the late 1940s, my father’s family in the mid 1950s, both looking for farmland for their sons. One of my aunts gave me digital copies of some documents related to my mother’s family’s immigration experience. This added recent sources to the ancient evidence I received from DNA tests.

More recent and ancient patterns in my DNA indicate that my genetic ancestry is found in a high percentage in northern Europe, about 45 percent. This likely points back to early hunter-gatherers Europe. I also share a significant component of DNA with people from the Mediterranean region, about 35 percent. Finally I have a notable portion of shared DNA with people from India and Central Asia, about 18 percent.

More specifically, the two closest reference populations for me, where my DNA looks most similar, are Danish and German. That evidence fits with what my father has told me about his family’s background. The Katerbergs migrated to the Netherlands from Germany in the 18th century, if I remember right. In the more distant past they migrated from Denmark to Germany, perhaps during the Thirty Years War of early to mid 1600s.

I did these DNA tests, and traced my ancestry back to the earliest humans who came out of Africa about 100,000 years ago, through the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project. The story I’ve recounted here will continue to evolve as more people participate in the genographic project and National Geographic gets new information that allows them to chart my family’s journey more precisely. I can keep going back to the website for updates.

My motivation was partly personal, as a matter of simple curiosity. I also took the test because I am teaching a section of my department’s core course on world history before 1500 (History 151) in the spring of 2015.

early human migrationThe course starts with our early human ancestors, the emergence of our own species, and their migration out of Africa and around the world by about 13,000 years ago. It’s a fascinating story for some students and disconcerting for others, even stressful, because of the religious questions it raises about biblical accounts of human origins. My hope is that, whatever their view of religion, science, and evolution, seeing the story of my ancestors will remind them that this evolutionary history is not an impersonal matter of academic research or intellectual controversy but part of our personal stories.

Our stories, even our creation stories, are not only about cosmic matters, or even familiar human history on a grand scale. They’re also as ordinary as ordinary gets, tracing back our family lines, from mother to mother, father to father, through the generations, thousands of them. The story told here is my family heritage, not mere fodder for debates between advocates of science vs. advocates of religious traditions.


My grather father, Frank VIsscher, and his family in 1949. My mother is in the second row on the left.

The genotype project of National Geographic suggests that even the results of technical scientific scholarship can be personal and mythic. The science can trace back my ancestry through mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes and Haplogroups. But I find genuine truth in imagining ancient Katerbergs and Visschers traveling from Africa to West Asia, and into Europe, and from there to North America six and seven decades ago. The first among them were hunter-gatherers. They eventually became farmers, like my grandfathers who migrated to Canada with their families looking for land for their sons.

My students and I will not ignore cosmic questions in History 151 next February, nor the relationship between religion, science, and critical history. They will have opportunities to explore these issues and come to their own conclusions about them. But it’s useful for us to set aside big questions,  for a time, so we don’t forget to notice generation upon generation of our unnamed ancestors on their journeys.

This post is part of a series on Critical History and Sacred Tradition.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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