Archives For History

When I find myself immersed in a history book the question often comes, “how would I act in this situation?” This is typically a moot point because I have the luxury of context and a more complete view of history. Yet, I still am tempted to do this and as I read 1944, I kept putting myself in each of the character’s shoes to make an attempt to evaluate how I would react.

I picked up Jay Winik’s new book 1944 last year and recently finished it. Although not his best work, it is an important book. To this day, I believe his book April 1865 is one of the finest popular history books to educate and entertain. I wrote earlier it is a book that will make you love history.

1944: FDR and the Yimagesear That Changed America could turn you away from reading history books. Not because it is a bad book but because it addresses some of the most difficult questions of modern history and what evil humans are capable of. I figured the book would provide a good contextual perspective of World War II but it focuses on FDR, the Allies, and the knowns and unknowns about the Nazi regime’s oppression of the Jewish people.

Known and unknown.

Despite the improvements in society, genocide has not gone away and in fact the majority of the modern western world has essentially turned a blind eye to such atrocities as Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia, and Syria. These situations have proved that we have a long way to go.

The same questions arise,

We know it is going on but what are we able to do?

If we do something, what are the consequences? 

Will our reputation be damaged? 

Will Americans (or our people) perish in an attempt to help? 

Why can’t another nation closer to this take care of the issue?

We have so many other problems that also take priority.

These were similar questions asked when most of the Western world discovered about the Holocaust and the horrors of concentration camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Flossenberg. In the United States, “pass the buck” seemed to be the unofficial policy between the State Department, the military, and even FDR. There wasn’t a clear answer in what to do and it too far too long to do anything to save the lives of these people. Thousands died each day as it was debated. Eventually action was taken and some lives were saved but millions still perished when they possibly could have been saved. 1944 is powerful because it illustrates how we easily we can shy away from big problems.

What do we do?

Anytime there is discussion about these questions, it is helpful to look at the people. If we don’t humanize the oppressed, we will never act. We will never become creative enough to do. I am encouraged to get out of my comfort zone to learn more and to listen to someone who is of the oppressed. Perhaps then action will emerge.

Oppression in this world is far from over and whether the issue is with equality of minorities in America, freedom for a North Korean, or a child standing up for their religious belief in school, we must search deep inside to be creative and act. I may not know exactly what to do next time this happens but I am reminded that I must get out of my chair and move. What can I do to help those in my city? What can I do to help my neighbor? Just get up, move, and love them, Dave.

 

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hod us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

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Over the 4th of July drive this past week I listened to the audiobook of Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of Band of Brothers.

For those of you who have watched the Emmy-award winning HBO Mini-series, Band of Brothers, or read the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, you know Major Winters. His life has been well documented to this point through that story as well as his memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers

urlFollowing the publication of Beyond Band of Brothers, Conversations was a book Major Winters wanted to have written after spending hundreds of hours with Col. Cole Kingseed. There were lessons through Major Winters’ life that needed to be told.

Watching Band of Brothers is something I recommend any person to do whether they are interested in military history, or not. At least do it for the sake of honoring those who served World War II. The book made Easy Company famous. Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg through the mini-series helped make the company legendary. Thousands of baby boomers and people my age were given a unique view into their epic journey from Airborne training, Normandy, Battle of the Bulge, and on to taking Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at the end of the war.

In the audiobook, Winters’ leadership principles were shared, as in Beyond Band of Brothers, and I think it is worth sharing with you. No matter your role in life, it is important to understand what it takes to lead. The military life can teach us a lot of things perhaps because the pressures seem greatest.

I have appreciated Major Winters  because of his “quiet strength” as a leader. Actor Damian Lewis played this very well on-screen in the mini-series.

I am humbled because as a leader I have far from mastered these lessons but they are principles that I need to be reminded of and develop on a daily basis. These lessons are applicable to any leader and not limited to the battlefield.

In the words of Major Winters, “Hang tough”.

Leadership At The Point Of a Bayonet

1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.

2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.

3. Stay in top physical shape–physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.

4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.

5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.

6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.

7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.

8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.

9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect–not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.

10. Hang Tough!–Never, ever, give up.

As a student of American History, I find it fascinating to learn from key figures who have shaped our nation over the past almost 250 years.

Reading about FDR, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Jefferson, and Jackson is intriguing and each one has many admirable qualities. Each has shaped the nation based on the circumstances presented before them.

There is one who set the precedent for all of them, though: George Washington.

Washington today is often seen as a mythical yet distant figure since we get to stare at his face on the one dollar bill, quarter, and other official government documents. But we would be doing a disservice to him if we didn’t understand what separated him from other leaders.

George Washington was an admirable man because of his excellent leadership qualities but what separated him from most was his humility.

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg's most well known painting. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg’s most well-known painting. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Even at the height of his power, Washington set the tone for what being the leader of the President of the United States of America meant. In Europe at the time, the highest power in a nation was typically monarchial. Washington saw his position as a public servant. Although the power of the Presidency has ebbed and flowed over the past two centuries, what echoes most loudly is Washington’s humility.

Indeed, his humility was as much, perhaps even more so, a part of his greatness.

Here are 5 ways we can learn from Washington’s humility. 

  • Reluctance for Power: In 1783 when the war ended, Washington went back to his plantation in Virginia as a farmer. Five years later, he was quite pleased with his life, even despite the war’s fanfare. But he recognized that people needed him and he gave up a very comfortable life to come back to lead the nation in its infancy. It is easy to desire power but it must be at the right time and place and unless we are rooted in humility like Washington, we will fail.
  • Limited Service: Washington only served two terms in office. He saw the position as temporary and realized that the position was more important than his name. Presidents for the most part have followed his example since then. Our time on earth is short so it is important to always look at how we are training the next level of leaders to follow us.
  • A Man of the People: He dressed in civilian clothes as President. He was encouraged by some to wear his military uniform but he felt it would look too much like a military dictatorship and like most of Europe’s leadership. No matter our roles in life, we must always treat others with respect and dignity like Washington.
  • The Name of the President: He refused to be called a monarch or a more eloquent name like “His Majesty”, despite what John Adams and Alexander Hamilton wanted. He simply wanted to be called “Mr. President”. Washington was a man of deep Christian faith and was known to be in prayer often recognizing God’s power over his role. People follow courage and humility, not just titles.
  • Lead in the Hard Times: In the winter of 1777-78, Washington’s camp was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. During this incredibly harsh winter, Washington was found to consistently walk through the camp to encourage and engage with his troops. He was never afraid to lead with them and not from behind.

Last, I found this story (more myth but the spirit is true) about Washington that reveals a lot about his servant leadership.

Once upon a time a rider came across a few soldiers who were trying to move a heavy log of wood without success.

The corporal was standing by just watching as the men struggled.

The rider couldn’t believe it. He finally asked the corporal why he wasn’t helping.

The corporal replied: “I am the corporal. I give orders.

The rider said nothing in response. Instead he dismounted his horse. He went up and stood by the soldiers and as they tried to lift the wood and he helped them.

With his help, the task was finally able to be carried out.

Who was this kind rider?

The rider was George Washington, the Commander-in-chief.

He quietly mounted his horse and went to the corporal and said, “The next time your men need help, send for the commander-in-chief.”

But the humble will inherit the land and will enjoy abundant prosperity. – Psalm 37:11

To learn more about George Washington, I recommend you to read a fascinating narrative of his life, “His Excellency” by Joseph J. Ellis.

I love reading biographies.

I make an effort to read three or four biographies per year about people I have admired or wanted to learn more about.

For those who are avid readers, you may have a genre that you favor more than others. In the past two years I have made an effort to read a greater variety of books, especially by reading (or re-reading) classics and venturing into fiction. These genres are all fascinating and drive my spirit of mind. But, I keep coming back to my first love of biography.

I believe that human lives are beautiful and are meant to be studied. It’s not because I don’t care about myself. It is also not because I think people who have a book written about them (or by them) deserve to be worshiped, either. I do love hearing about their adventures and great triumphs and feel like I am along for the ride.

But, the secret to a good biography is learning that these great people we admire have made mistakes, just like us.

Historian Walter Isaacson said it best,

“When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.”

I believe that God sees each of us as a biography being written. After all, He sees us for who we really are; imperfect people who need grace and an urging by his holy spirit to act. Thus, he sends us on a journey called life. Some of us have a harder journey than others. But, we are all meant to seek it for God’s greater glory and that means taking steps beyond what we could ever have imagined. I believe biographies exist to remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Psalm 121:8

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

I think when I watch a movie like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it reminds me that we need to do more than dream. We just need to obey God and act. And by that act comes a great journey in faith. Watch the movie and the life of Walter Mitty to understand this scene. Although the story is fictional, Mitty’s life represents a living biography. Clearly he has dreamed but it his the transformation that counts.

Start by examining your own life and how the story is meant to be told. Then read the lives of others to see how you can see your stories in theirs.

This past year, I have read the following biographies and here is a quick lesson (of many) I’ve learned from each.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden

  • Insight: Did you know that Churchill’s career was virtually done with at the age of 40? Did that stop him? “Never give in” were his words. And we now know him as the uniter of the English language to defeat Naziism.

Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas

  • Insight: Eisenhower was blamed for not being tough enough on the Soviets in the 1950s. But, it was his restraint and patience that kept the world alive.

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (The Odyssey of Pat Tillman) 

  • Insight: Studying the life of someone like Pat Tillman who gave up millions of dollars to join the military post-9/11 is fascinating. But, think twice of why he really served.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

  • Insight: Ever wondered if CIA agents were all like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt? Think again. This is how real 20th Century CIA work was done.

 

Biographies are meant to inspire us.

They are here to compel us to move.

I dare you to pick up a biography this week.

Report back in on the journey.

Remember, Bilbo Baggins needed to go on his adventures first before his story could be told.

Go write yours.

I am a huge proponent of studying the lives of the great people of history. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a modern-day trailblazer in action but there is something more pleasing about studying another’s life in full to understand their story and what we can learn from it.

I want to know their dreams, adventures, successes, struggles, and what they learned in the process. Then I want to study the life application.

Those who know me and have read this blog are aware that I am a student of Winston Churchill as are many others. The latest book of his I am reading is Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden.

Most people know Winston Churchill by his magnanimous speeches with his deep British accent, his cigar in hand as he walked, and the way he led the United Kingdom with the Allies to victory in World War II. He is one of the most quotable people of all time and books continue to be written about him and I suppose more will continue to be for years to come.

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What most people do not know is that Winston Churchill was considered an incredible failure by the age of 40.

Like Churchill, we begin life with so much promise and hope – the world is to be conquered. Churchill was desperate to establish himself as a fast-moving politician in Edwardian England. He was an astute student of history and knew that he must be daring in how he lived to gain attention. He served in the military for a few years and in 1899 he was commissioned as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Churchill became famous worldwide for his fight in a train ambush and later through his daring escape from a POW camp in South Africa. Most Americans don’t know that he was a celebrity in the US even in his twenties and went on a massive speaking tour in North America to share stories from his Boer War heroics.

It’s easy to canonize Winston Churchill because of his successes. But, pay closer attention to his failures that made him who we know him today. 

During the First World War, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and the chief proponent of the invasion of Turkey now known as the Gallipoli campaign. His strategy was to create a southern link to Russia, their ally. The Turks were a skillful and determined enemy, repelled the allies, and the campaign costed the lives of many young Australians and New Zealanders (ANZAC troops). Perhaps not solely responsible for the tactical defeat on the ground, the campaign was never the less Churchill’s idea and it crippled him politically for years.

Churchill was a big, fat, failure. 

We now know the rest of the story as it didn’t end there.

Churchill entered the political wilderness, dug in his heels, and marched back to eventually become Prime Minister during World War II.

So what do we learn from Churchill’s first half of life?

Churchill said it best,

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We may not live life with the type of drama that Churchill lived but we do share the ups and downs of life. Which honest person hasn’t had setbacks in life? We all have taken a punch or two to the face and even have fallen. It hurts admitting it but it is part of life.

“Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Churchill’s life has taught us that failure is part of our journey and we become better because of it.

For that, we can keep getting back up and moving forward because victory in life is found in how we respond to the punches.

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I was thirteen when my mother took me on a special trip through the midwest. She took me to two special historical homes of great midwesterners: Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois and Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri. As a kid, my mother introduced me to the stories of Tom Sawyer and like every young boy, I wanted to live the adventures just like Tom. As I grew up, I graduated to read more of his classics.

I was born in Missouri and spent my formative years there so Mark Twain has a special place in my heart. I have made it a goal to re-read The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn every couple years to be reminded of the importance of learning about people who are different than me and look at life as an eternal adventure. I read it again this past week and watched Ken Burns’ 2001 Documentary on Mark Twain so he’s fresh on my mind. Every time I read a book by ole Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his real name), I learn something new about him.

Twain possessed a wisdom and originality that was unmatched.

Based on learning about Mark Twain, here are Mark Twain’s top five secrets about life.

Mark Twain

1. He traveled.

Early in his life, Twain recognized the power of ‘travel’, living on the Mississippi River. Early on in his writing and reporting career, he ventured out to the western United States and then Hawaii, Europe, and other places throughout the world.. This inspired him to write classics like The Innocents Abroad and Following the Equator. He was inspired by travel to write and learned more about other people by doing so.

2. He never forgot his roots.

After writing great travel classics like The Innocents Abroad, he would go back every few books to write about his life. He mastered the idea of ‘write what you know.’ His heart was all over the world but it started on the Mississippi River in Missouri. Start reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn to see.

3. He took time to get to know people who were very different than he.

Once, Twain supported a young African American to pay his way through Yale and then law school. That man was one who later mentored a young Thurgood Marshall, our first African-American on the Supreme Court. Twain used his writing style and influence to help shape post-Civil War America.

4. He failed and he failed.

Throughout his life, Twain published numerous books. Not all achieved the success of The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn but he continued to write. I work in publishing and most books fail to achieve an acceptable level of financial success. He was not immune to failure with his books but he kept writing and trying new things until the day he died.

5. He found humor, even in the dark.

Mark Twain was known as one of the first stand up comics. He dreaded speaking tours but he treated his lectures became like standup comedy. Laughter is what makes life special and he was the master of his day.

The Quotable Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of the most quotable people to have lived on earth. Here are some of my favorite quotes from him.

“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

“I would rather have my ignorance than another man’s knowledge, because I have so much more of it.”

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

“Classic: A book which people praise and don’t read.”

“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

“There’s one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him; if he says yes, you know he’s crooked.”

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Take some time this year to read a book by Mark Twain and study his great life.  Enjoy his wit and be inspired by his adventures.

The human race has never had access to more information at our fingertips than ever before. There is no practical reason to visit any of the places we learn about in life. But, I am reminded again of the conversation between Robin Williams’ and Matt Damon’s characters in Good Will Hunting.

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

Williams’ character is pointing out how important it is to live and breathe places and experiences as opposed to being on the sideline to comment about it.

Since the earliest days of time, man embarked on pilgrimages.

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.

There are many types of pilgrimages.

  • Pilgrimages to see where we grew up
  • Pilgrimages to visit world history events
  • Pilgrimages to see the last live show the Beatles ever played
  • Pilgrimages to see old friends
  • Pilgrimages to remind you of your faith (and strengthen it)

History is a mere textbook without visiting in person because humans were meant for pilgrimages. 

My mother and father are about to embark on their own pilgrimage. My dad spends much of his time in St. Louis serving with a group of veterans whom are part of an organization called Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Although my father served during the Vietnam era in the Army, he does this for those who served before him, especially his now deceased father, my grandfather Branch . It is a miracle that my grandfather even survived The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 since he was severely wounded from shrapnel during one of the early days of the battle. My father has realized that their story is worth telling and more importantly to him, it is necessary in order to more fully understand our family and human history, to visit these hallowed grounds.

In 1999 while I was in college I had embarked on a similar pilgrimage to visit Normandy with my friend Heath Hildebrandt. Normandy is only an hour train ride from Paris and an essential visit for any American. I remember the how beautiful it was there but learned how it wasn’t then and how dire the circumstance were for the Allies attempting a foothold in Europe to repel Nazi Germany. This invasion was so critical and risky that Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter in advance to acknowledge defeat if needed they failed to secure the beach. Thankfully the allies did secure the beach. You’d be surprised to learn that securing the beach was a first step of many and it took another month to actually push-off of the beach. I wrote about it in an earlier post called After D-Day.

By visiting these vast beaches of Normandy stretching dozens of miles, I learned more about D-Day and its importance than decades of history classes and World War II shows on HIstory channel.

It was a pilgrimage that I’ll never forget. 

Sadly, in 2001 I also visited Bastogne in Belgium and sites where The Battle of the Bulge occurred but my camera was stolen with the precious photographs. I am excited my dad can complete that pilgrimage with photographs to share. Perhaps the pilgrimage will be complete with him?

 

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In the middle of the Normandy National Cemetery and Memorial.

 

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Omaha Beach, Normandy

What has been your most meaningful pilgrimage? What did you learn about yourself and the place you visited/ 

What pilgrimage to yearn to go on and what do you hope to learn?