All about war

Chico State’s Humanities Center presents year-long series on theme of ‘War & Culture

COMMAND PRESENCE<br>If CSU Chico history professor Laird Easton wasn’t busy enough directing the Humanities Center, he’s also written <i>The Red Count</i>, detailing the life of famous turn-of-the-century Anglo-German art patron Count Harry Kessler.

If CSU Chico history professor Laird Easton wasn’t busy enough directing the Humanities Center, he’s also written The Red Count, detailing the life of famous turn-of-the-century Anglo-German art patron Count Harry Kessler.

Photo By Tom Angel

We’re at war.

In the context of modern day-to-day life in these United States, it still sounds odd to say, “We’re at war.” The three-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy is this week, and the immediacy of conflict with “an enemy” of this country has faded considerably from the national consciousness, despite the fact that U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq at a rate of nearly two per day.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, but the enormity of cultural distractions in the modern world definitely makes disconnection from that (or any) horrific reality a fairly simple proposition.

Those who run the Humanities Center at Chico State know we’re at war, of course, and for the 2004-05 school year the center is presenting a series of lectures and events that deal with the theme of “War & Culture.”

The thrust of the Humanities Center’s mission is to “nurture an intellectual community within the College of Humanities and Fine Arts,” and this is accomplished through a variety of out-of-the-classroom activities for students and faculty (and the community as well), such as faculty symposia, visiting scholars, monthly gallery art shows and a weekly film series. Each year the center ties many of the events together under a theme, and this year’s is especially appropriate.

Sitting in his tiny Trinity Hall office, Humanities Center Director (and 2003-04 Outstanding Professor at Chico State) Laird Easton quietly spelled out the plan for the series to me, especially emphasizing the impressive visiting scholars who would be speaking to this War & Culture theme—such as James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, speaking on “The Global Impact of the Civil War,” or German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch talking about how defeat can shape a nation’s culture.

“The purpose of every activity at the Humanities Center is to encourage fresh thinking,” explained Easton. “Ideally, everyone who attends one of the Humanities Center’s events this year should be able afterwards to point to at least one thing they heard discussed and say, ‘I didn’t know that!’ or ‘That puts the matter in a different perspective.'”

TALKIN’ ’BOUT WAR Ehran Tools’ ceramic cups.

For his part, Easton will bring a unique perspective to the table with his symposium titled “War, Sport and Play.”

“My talk will address the attractions of war,” Easton explained, citing a quote from Robert E. Lee: “It is a good thing war is so terrible—otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”

Playing the part of devil’s advocate a bit, Easton hopes to see the typical left-leaning opinions on war (as well as other clichàd responses to war) be challenged a bit by exploring the “play element” in human culture, and what he says some historians call “the quest for excitement.”

“When you ask most people who is responsible for the [Iraq] war, few say, ‘I am.'”

Sculptor/ceramicist Ehran Tool has an intriguing vantage point for commenting on war in his art. As a former Marine who participated in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he’s seen how our culture and war are connected, and in commenting on “who is responsible,” he sees the connections clearly: “If you pay taxes you support the war. If you use any of the technology developed by the military, you profit from war.”

As an illustration, Tool pointed to the “surreal experience of having worn a gas mask in what I thought was a chemical environment, and seeing a toy version of that gas mask for sale for ‘ages 6 and up.'”

Out of the military since 1994, the soon-to-be father ("The boy should be here anytime") is now an artist in Berkeley, but as the pieces for his exhibit at the Humanities Center Gallery this fall will show, he’s still very connected to that time. Entitled Please Accept This Cup I Have Made as a Gift, the show will have as its centerpiece dark-stained ceramic cups, decorated with press molds made from military toys and military insignias, some with bullet holes, while others are just stacked in broken piles like the dishes from some recently shelled kitchen from a war-torn country.

“I don’t like to talk about what the work is about too much,” said Tool when asked about his specific intentions. “I worry I will limit people’s responses. … The cups are just cups. They become more than just cups when the viewer sees more.”

Ron Hirschbein’s peace studies and James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning <i>Battle Cry of Freedom </i>(pictured in sidebar) are three components of an extensive survey of War & Culture at Chico State this school year.

Photo By Tom Angel

In addition to the ceramic pieces, Tool will be showing letters he wrote to “people in some kind of position of power who have some dealings with issues of war and violence,” as well the responses he received.

“When I joined the Marines I really believed that there was going to be a ‘new world order'—that the Cold War was ending, and that the good guys had won and we were going to change a few things,” said Tool. “Things did not work out as well as I had hoped. That disappointment still affects me.”

Twenty years ago, philosophy Professor Ron Hirschbein created the War and Peace “theme"—one of the upper-division general-education choices at Chico State—in response to actually being, as he puts it, “alarmed at the prospect of nuclear annihilation.” With heightened global tension surrounding the nuclear-arms proliferation and posturing of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, there was a huge sense that the world was not safe during the Reagan years.

Hirschbein’s talk, “A World Without Enemies: Why Are We Killing Our Friends?” is another symposium featured in the War & Culture series and will also be a component of a weeklong Peace Festival (Oct. 18-26; see sidebar) he’s organizing through the Peace Center on campus.

His talk will focus on America’s mindset toward war since WWII.

“The good news is, people are not being demonized [anymore],” Hirschbein says, referring to how, since WWII, war propaganda no longer characterizes the people the U.S. does battle with in such an outright disparaging manner.

“Both Bush administrations have referred to the Iraqi people as ‘friends,'” he pointed out.

“Iraqi regime” or, during the Reagan years, the “evil empire” is the kind of language that focuses in on the leaders, leaving the people as innocents, or “friends.”

“The bad news is, we’re still killing them. … These days, in order to kill people, you don’t have to bother depicting them as enemies."