The Source of Inspiration for a Book

By Mary Kathryn Barbier, Mississippi State University

In early December 2020, after a Second World War Research Group, North America meeting, Douglas Bristol sent me an email to remind me that I had agreed to write a blog for the Dale Center’s Reflections on War and Society, and I admit to a moment of panic because, while I have written books, articles, and book chapters, I have never written a blog. After an email exchange, Douglas and I decided that I would write about the source of inspiration for a future book project. We all come to our projects in different ways. Sometimes, an advisor suggests a topic that becomes the seed of a dissertation. On other occasions, you might read an article and are curious to learn more, and a research project is born. Hopefully, my path to a project will demonstrate why you should always be open to the possibilities of an idea.

Who was my source of inspiration?

Today, as I look outside on a beautiful, sunny day and anticipate the Saints vs Buccaneers playoff game, I should be reading Paul Kennedy’s Grand Strategies in War and Peace for my grad class. While I was doing laps in my house in an effort to complete my daily 10,000 steps, I started thinking about what I would write in this blog instead of focusing on the Kennedy book. What was my source of inspiration? Perhaps a better question is this. Who was my source of inspiration? I could just give you the short answer – Dennis Showalter – but then what would be the point of the blog? To get to the long answer, however, some background to Dennis’s role in the project is useful.

Six months after earning my PhD, I first met Dennis at a conference. He approached me after I had given my paper, and from that moment on, in typical Dennis fashion, he became my mentor for the rest of his life. I benefited from that relationship in more ways than I could say. Several years ago, Dennis called me with the suggestion for a book project. Although it was totally outside of my wheelhouse, I accepted the challenge, and the result was my last book, Spies, Lies, and Citizenship: The Hunt for Nazi Criminals. After the book was finished and I had submitted my application for promotion, I turned my attention to a project that had been on the back burner since 2014 – a short biography of Lily Sergueiew, who was a double agent for the British for about 7 months during World War II. I had already completed most of the research, and, because I wanted to see if there was any interest in the project, I focused on a formal proposal.

They followed their hearts

When crafting a book proposal for A Candle in the Wind: The Life of Lily Sergueiew, Double Agent, I wrote an introduction to the book in which I set her in the context of other women in the early to mid-twentieth century who did something that set them apart. They were women who broke society’s stereotypes about the role of women. I included pilots, journalists, and a governess, among others. When I finished writing the introduction, I sent it to Dennis for his feedback. The result of my email was a phone call from Dennis. After saying that he liked the introduction, he then, also in typical Dennis fashion, said that I had another book in the introduction. If I expanded the women, whom I included, I could write a book that focused on women who led amazing lives because they followed their hearts, not society’s rules about how women should behave. Dennis went a step farther and suggested other women, including some fictional ones, whom I might consider.

I will admit that I was surprised by Dennis’s suggestion because he knew that I was not a gender/women’s historian and that I would not take a gendered approach to a project such as the one that he was suggesting. Our minds, however, can work in mysterious ways. As I thought about what Dennis proposed, for some reason, a Frank Sinatra Song – “My Way” – came to mind. The verses end with “And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”  Because I couldn’t get the song out of my head, I decided to incorporate it into the title of my future book project – Following Sinatra’s Lead: Determined Women Who Did It Their Way.

Women who were trailblazers

For different reasons, I find each of the women, whom I intend to include, inspiring. Some of them reached for the skies and became pilots, while others joined the military and went to war when few armies accepted women. I’m inspired by a war correspondent, who experienced the Spanish Civil War firsthand. One woman self-educated herself, became an expert on the Middle East, and disseminated propaganda in the region for the British during World War II, and another journalist, who published prolifically, became the concubine of a Chinese poet and an opium addict before supporting a British intelligence officer who was imprisoned by the Japanese. Each of these women, whether they considered themselves feminists or not, were trailblazers and deserve to be recognized as such.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Douglas Bristol. Writing this blog has allowed me to think about a project that has been on the shelf for too long and to become excited about it again. Like Frank Sinatra and the women who will grace the pages of this future book, they did it their way, and I will do it “my way” when I write about them. For any graduate students, who might read this blog, I will offer this advice. Don’t shut the door on a topic just because it might not fit neatly into your wheelhouse. While you won’t find Lucy’s Narnia, you never know what will happen if you walk through the door. You might find a project that will change your life or establish your career as a historian.


Mary Kathryn Barbier received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi in December 1998. She received a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from International Security Studies at Yale University. While at Yale, Barbier worked on two popular books. The first, Kursk: the Greatest Tank Battle Ever Fought 1943, has also been published in five other languages. The second, Strategy and Tactics: Infantry Warfare: The Theory and Practice of Infantry Combat in the 20th Century, was a collaborative effort with Andrew Wiest. In the summer of 2002, she attended a three-week seminar at West Point before starting an appointment at the University of Guelph, where she taught the US history survey and a War & Society course. Since accepting the position as an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University, she has published numerous books and articles, including a brief history of the US Army for fifth graders and D-Day Deception: Operation Fortitude and the Normandy Invasion (2007). Barbier is currently engaged in several research projects, including A Candle in the Wind: The Life of World War II Double Agent Lily Sergueiew, which is related to a recent publication, I Worked Alone: Diary of a Double Agent in World War II Europe (2014). Prior to her promotion to professor, she published Spies, Lies, and Citizenship: The Hunt for Nazi Criminals (2014). In January 2014, she assumed co-editor duties at War in History. She is also co-director of the recently established Second World War Research Group – North America (SWWRG-NA) and co-series editor of a six-volume cultural history of war.

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Exploring Mississippi Experiences during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., University of Southern Mississippi

In the summer of 1865, W. T. Rowland of Tippah County, Mississippi, contacted his governor with a complaint. “At the Commencement of the late rebelion [sic], a few of us remained true to the Old Government . . . [and] went to the Federal lines where we enlisted in different Regts,” Rowland explained. Despite serving three years in the 11th Illinois Cavalry, Tippah County authorities were requiring this Union Army veteran to take an Amnesty Oath, a promise of loyalty to the U.S. government and a pledge to defend it. It “Seams [sic] Strang [sic] that we Should have to undergo the Same process that a Rebel Soldier does to become a loyal citizen of our native State and country,” he fumed to Gov. William Sharkey. Just what does it take “to constitute a loyal citizen,” Rowland asked?

Rowland’s letter reminds us of historical issues that readers often forget when studying the Civil War era, though they were commonly known to the wartime generation. These include the fact that some home fronts were as divided as the nation during the Civil War, and in states like Mississippi, over 17,000 men fought for the Union. To be clear, the vast majority of Mississippi men served the Confederacy, but 17,000 is no small number. Most of those men were African-American volunteers, some of whom served at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in June 1863. It was here that newly recruited U.S. Colored Troops fought with such determination that they convinced doubtful whites that African-Americans could make excellent soldiers — and note that this took place a month before the 54th Massachusetts is credited with proving the same at Fort Wagner. Also overlooked in Civil War Mississippi history is the number of white men like Rowland who fought for the Union. Historians estimate that number at about 500 volunteers. A search for Mississippi Union veterans in the 1890 Veteran Census, however, indicates that this number could actually be in the thousands.

The Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) is a digital project dedicated to expanding our understanding of this complex era. Our work is grounded in a partnership between the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL), and the USM History program, including the Dale Center. Over the next decade, this team will place online the nearly 20,000 documents that comprise the records of Mississippi’s governors’ offices from the late secession crisis through the war, Reconstruction, and the beginning of the New South (specifically covering 1859-1882).

In the nineteenth century, it was common for everyday people to contact their governor about complaints and concerns, and they wrote about everything from the extreme to the seemingly mundane. As a result, governors’ collections let us hear from everyday Mississippians — who rarely left behind traditional historical sources like letters and diaries — during one of the most revolutionary eras in U.S. history. Thanks to the preservation efforts of MDAH, these records are still available, and thanks to modern technology and generous grant funding, CWRGM will make them freely available online.

We’re still at the beginning of the project, but the CWRGM team recently launched a website featuring about 80 sample documents from the collection. As director of this project, I wanted users to see what collections like these hold and what they offer scholars, educators, students, and the public. These sample documents are divided into four themes:

When you explore the site, be sure to check out the essays at the beginning of each theme that provide historical context and talk about some of the items in that section. These include, for example, two letters from April and September 1862 from Mary Jones, a soldier’s widow who was desperate for help to support herself and her children. You can also hear from Sarah Neece, the wife of a Confederate soldier, as she protested Confederates who seized her horse for military needs. Check out, too, telegrams like this one from Nov. 1863 that indicate how CWRGM will let us explore military campaigns as they unfolded in the state. You can view W. T. Rowland’s letter here, too, along with a telegram from Confederate President Jefferson Davis discussing the Union recruitment of African-American volunteers in Mississippi in 1863, both of which speak to that issue of determined Unionist support in the state. If you’re an educator or interested in using these resources in a learning environment, you’ll want to explore the lesson plans crafted by talented Mississippi educators to help teachers utilize these sources in secondary classrooms.

Coming in June 2021, we’ll launch our official home for the project with the release of the first 4,000 documents, which is almost all of Gov. John J. Pettus’s Letters and Correspondence (1859-1863). These will include digitized images of the original records, with metadata, full transcriptions, and annotations. Site users will be able to search for key events by date or date range, for any place name or individual’s name, to click on terms that will connect them to related documents at the site, and to browse the collection by box and folder arrangement (simulating research in the archives, including the availability of finding aids). If you follow CWRGM on Facebook and Twitter, you can receive word of this launch and our ongoing efforts (including our podcast coming in Spring 2021).

Dr. Susannah J. Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society as the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865, Don’t Hurry Me Down To Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived it, and Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, as well as the edited collection Civil War Citizens. Ural is writes numerous articles, editorials, blog posts, and columns that share cutting-edge historical ideas and research with scholars, educators, and the public. Ural has taught university students about the U.S. Civil War era, U.S. military history, and American history in general for nearly 25 years, and also educates the public through televised talks on C-Span, educational podcasts, and presentations to community groups. Her latest project involves her role as director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project (CWRGM).

Posted in African American soldiers, Black veterans, U.S. Civil War, Union Army, veterans, war and society | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Real Threats of Spanish Flu & Covid-19

By Sarah Savage Hanney, Alumna, The University of Southern Mississippi

Has the Public Remembered Lessons from Past Pandemics?

Historically, the movement of people has always spread disease. We are taught as children about the Black Death that killed a one third of Europe’s population. Those initial introductions to the devastating impacts of epidemics leave lasting impressions upon us into our adulthoods. However, to what extent have the lessons from past pandemics remained in our public psyche?

Back in March, the emerging Covid-19 epidemic began reawakening the public’s awareness of how swiftly viral transmission can occur, especially with respect to a new strain and asymptomatic carriers. Despite panic buying en mass, the question of whether Covid-19 was a “real threat” to the United States became decisive and entrenched in partisan politics. Only a third of Americans had changed their travel plans, and fewer than half had decided to change their social and dining behaviors in order to avoid others from outside their households. The public’s initial assessment of the threat, whether as real or over-hyped, has nonetheless impacted the effectiveness of public health guidance and the ways in which the government has had to impose restrictions.

When governments began to close their borders and introduce quarantines, historians and the media began drawing comparisons between Covid-19 and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Just over a century after Spanish Flu that killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide, our own global community, with its advancements in medicine, epidemiology, virology, and disease surveillance, is now the victim of an ever-evolving invisible threat with seemingly two predominant symptoms: persistent cough and high fever. As rates of transmission continue to increase at expedited rates in the US, we can reflect upon our collective experiences with the swift spread of the virus and the transmission of the H1N1 influenza virus in 1918.

Skeptical Military Doctors and New Orleans

When the second wave of the Spanish Flu epidemic appeared in New Orleans during September 1918, it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of documented cases were within army encampments throughout the city. By October 1918, more soldiers were dying in hospitals than on the battlefields in Europe. For those soldiers who survived the shell-shocked trenches in Europe and the rampant spread of Spanish Flu in September and October within military encampments now faced the new challenge of returning home following Armistice on November 11, 1918, without contracting the deadly flu themselves.  

Despite the virus spreading through army encampments throughout the US in March and April 1918 during the first wave of pandemic, many military officials claimed that Spanish Influenza cases were common colds caused by exhaustion and training. Military doctors also dismissed Spanish Influenza cases in the camps by referring to cases as “colds” and at times attributing them to recruits’ exposure to rain. As the Army medical corps and physicians witnessed increased cases of influenza and pneumonia, they created autopsy drawings and descriptions of Spanish Influenza victims as early as summer 1918.

Over those summer months, New Orleans cases remained confined to army encampments under the jurisdiction of military authority, while city authorities remained unaware of the potential for civilian community spread later in the year.  Before chaos ensued in the city, New Orleans’ early experience with the epidemic was similar to that of other cities. As early as September 1918, New Orleans saw the first confirmed cases of influenza at Jackson Barracks, the Algiers Naval Station, the West End Naval Training Station, and Camp Martin. National officials in late September, however, argued that there were no proven connections between civilian deaths and cases among military personnel. 

Denial Caused the Virus to Spread

The presence of Spanish Influenza on the New Orleans military bases, and inability of officials to recognize the connection between military and civilian cases directly contributed to the initial spread of the virus in the city. Despite strict base quarantines in late September, the bases released statements that ill soldiers were ‘discharged as cured’ of influenza while the West End Naval Training Station refused to comment on the presence of cases.

Early reports in the American Medical Association Journal recognized that the symptoms of the sparse number of civilian cases resembled the influenza and pneumonia cases in camps. As a result, some military camps remained isolated to the civilian population as a containment strategy. Since physicians could not determine the difference between a healthy or infected adult during the initial incubation, quarantines became the most effective way for military and local officials to control the public’s interactions with the military camps.

Public Health Officials Recognized the Threat from Returning Soldiers

Preventing the spread of Spanish Influenza to civilians proved to be a primary concern for public health officials on the national level and in New Orleans. Before camp-wide quarantines, the military in New Orleans established a fourteen-day isolation policy for new arrivals at Army training centers. However, the reports and precautions could not hide the truth that military bases became havens for the influenza virus. Although military physicians lacked a reliable physical test to differentiate between the early stages of pandemic influenza and the common cold, local officials hoped to avoid public unrest by announcing quarantines. Steadily, public health officials began to note an increased number of civilian cases despite efforts to prevent interactions between military personnel and the public.

It was only when public health officials and the United States Army acknowledged that there was a direct correlation between the core common symptoms among soldiers and civilian communities that quarantines were imposed.  Beginning September 30, 1918, Camp Martin was placed under quarantine due to suspected presence of Spanish Flu. No one, neither the public nor students, was allowed to leave or enter the facility.

Partial Measures Inadequate to Halt the Pandemic

Even though the quarantine had the potential to diminish human contact, the city did not change the St. Charles streetcar operating schedule or route near the base. New Orleanians’ reliance on the streetcars as an important mode of transportation may have influenced city officials’ decision to keep the route open. Streetcars were one of many early modes of transport for the Spanish Influenza virus out of the military camps.

As we prepare for a potential second, more deadly wave of Covid-19 in the autumn, we are left questioning whether it is possible to halt the spread. Face masks and social distancing can only be as effective as our collective cooperation.  In the words of CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, “We are not defenseless against COVID-19… All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Sarah Savage Hanney is an alumna of The University of Southern Mississippi and the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society, where she earned her Masters in U.S. History. Her Masters thesis, Panic Behind the Mask: The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in New Orleans, examined the effects of the 1918 epidemic on the city of New Orleans and how the actions of its residents impacted the spread of the virus. Sarah attended University College London for a PhD in History of Medicine. She currently resides in London, England with her family and is a consulting historian and teacher.

Featured image courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C

Posted in Covid-19 Pandemic, Medical History, Military history, war and peace, war and society, World War I | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

America First: An Idea with Deep Roots

By Heather Marie Stur, University of Southern Mississippi

Isolationism before Pearl Harbor

American popular memory of the World War II homefront centers on the notion that U.S. citizens came together to support the war effort. Families planted victory gardens, bought war bonds, and delivered scrap metal to recycling sites. Housewives followed rationing guidelines, and young men answered their draft notices. There is truth in these images, but they depict a post-Pearl Harbor America. Prior to December 7, 1941, some Americans believed that the U.S. should stay out of the war, that involvement was not in America’s best interest.

The America First Committee was an organization that articulated the U.S. antiwar sentiment prior to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Founded in 1940, America First embodied the ideals that the U.S. Congress had already codified in the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s. In 1935, Congress passed a law prohibiting the U.S. from exporting arms and munitions to other countries, including allies. At its height, the America First Committee had 800,000 members, the aviator Charles Lindbergh the most famous. In a speech he delivered a few months before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh asserted that England was trying to draw the U.S. into a war that it could not win. The U.S. should remain “isolationist,” Lindbergh declared. Focus inward on domestic issues, and let other countries solve their problems themselves.

President Trump’s America First Approach to COVID-19

U.S. President Donald Trump has articulated the ideas of the America First Committee in his responses to global efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. The U.S. has established partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine for use first by American citizens. The governments of Germany, Italy, and China are also working on a vaccines for their constituents first. The World Health Organization, which Trump has said the U.S. will abandon, is working with a coalition of global health groups to create a vaccine it would distribute to poor and developing countries. At issue is the question of whether the U.S. should work with international partners on a COVID-19 vaccine that would be accessible globally or make a “nationalist” pact with drug companies for a vaccine that U.S. citizens would be the first to get.

History of Isolationism & of International Cooperation

The concept of America first, varying in meaning from keeping the U.S. out of a war on foreign soil to privileging domestic over global public health, predates the America First Committee of the 1930s and 1940s. We can trace it at least back to the aftermath of World War I, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson emphasized the League of Nations as the way to prevent another global conflict. Congressional opponents of the league argued that it would hamstring U.S. policymakers who might need to make quick decisions regarding national security. The U.S. never joined the League of Nations as a result of Congressional resistance to it.

By the end of World War II, though, Americans had changed their minds about international cooperation, widely supporting the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. At that time, Americans saw an opportunity to lead in the crafting of a postwar order according to the needs and aspirations of U.S. security and economic primacy.

More Deaths Than Pearl Harbor

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed Trump’s mind regarding the potential value of international cooperation even though other countries have been more successful in containing it. Absent a vaccine, Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea have kept death rates low with strict enforcement of masking, quarantining, testing, and tracing. More than 2,000 Americans died at Pearl Harbor, the event that awakened the “sleeping giant” to enter World War II. COVID-19 has killed 140,000 Americans so far, yet in a July 19 interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Trump dismissed the death toll with the words “it is what it is.” Trump’s America first approach to COVID-19 has involved ignoring international containment strategies that have worked while Americans continue to die.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final post in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in USM’s Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of three books, most recently Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020) and co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II (Johns Hopkins 2017). In 2013-14, Dr. Stur was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam.

Photo Caption: Charles Lindbergh speaks at a rally of the America First Committee at Madison Square Garden in New York, on May 23, 1941. (Source: AP, NPR:

Posted in American exceptionalism, Covid-19 Pandemic, diplomacy, Donald Trump, Foreign policy, international relations, Post-Cold War, war and society, World War II | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How Poorer Eastern European Nations Have Largely Kept Covid-19 Cases under Control

By Derrick Dyess, University of Southern Mississippi

The entire world has been grappling with the deadly effects of the Covid-19 virus. The virus spread quickly across oceans, continents and countries without mercy. Millions have fallen ill with Covid-19, and more than half a million people were left dead in its wake. The number of cases, and deaths continue to rise, especially in the United States. Although the virus is indiscriminate as it brings destruction from country to country, the scale of the pandemic is not the same in some countries and some regions.

Puzzle of Lower Numbers in Eastern Europe

Several countries in the Eastern European region have experienced significantly lower numbers of Covid-19 cases than most. At first glance, they appear to be ill-prepared to handle Covid-19.  These countries are not known for having robust and healthy economies. They are also not known for the quality or size of their healthcare systems. Furthermore, most of these countries belong to the European Union, so workers and trade move freely in and out of those countries. So, given these factors, how have they managed to contain transmission of Covid-19, and not be as devastated as the rest of the world?

Legacy of Authoritarian Governments

The answer seems to be that countries in Eastern Europe, such as Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, have a long history of being governed under authoritarian regimes, which created a society that is more reactive to government actions and government demands. These countries, overall, acted faster than most nations to enforce a strict lockdown, limit travel, ban public gatherings, ban international travel, etc. These measures were bold, and more successful in slowing the spread of the virus, thanks in part to having a history of strict governance over their people.

The Czech Republic, for example, reported it is first Covid-19 case on March 12th, and by March 16th, the country was under full lockdown. The country did not see its first death until March 22nd.  By contrast, most countries to the West, such as the UK, US, Italy, experienced swift increases in deaths from Covid-19 before lockdown efforts were fully in effect. Many Eastern European nations have used similar strategies as the Czech Republic and have managed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The swift lockdown actions came into effect to not overburden their already poor healthcare systems. If cases were to spread as they have in Italy and in the United States, it would decimate their populations. These factors play a role in Eastern European countries experiencing less suffering and death as compared to other countries. However, this is not the only cause of such a phenomenon.

Countries like Slovakia are making use of a controversial tactic to limit the spread of Covid-19 by tracking its citizens. The country is making use of harnessed telecoms data. This technology allows the government to track locations of Covid-19 positive patients, where they have been, whom they may have become in contact, and can be used to monitor and enforce quarantine lockdowns. This tactic is highly controversial and is in use in only a few countries, as it raises significant privacy issues.  Yet tracking citizens appears to be a factor in slowing the spread of the virus.

Assessing the Numbers

The data for assessing the effectiveness of authoritarian measures in Eastern Europe is incomplete.  It is important to note that countries of Eastern Europe test on a much smaller scale for Covid-19, and only report positive cases. As a result, the number of cases is likely higher than reported. It is easy to count suspected deaths from the virus, so there are other means to monitor the spread of Covid-19 than just relying on testing. The death rates, measured by this approach, still remain low in comparison to elsewhere. Although some of these measures to fight Covid-19 could be characterized as being draconian, the measures nonetheless appear to indicate that the measures have achieved positive results in the combating Covid-19.  

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Derrick Dyess is a Graduate Student at the University of Southern Mississippi – Gulf Park. He is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Political Science in the School of Social Science and Global Studies. His Master’s thesis examines the adaptation and focus of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

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Dancing in the Time of Corona

By Allison Abra, University of Southern Mississippi

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

A couple of weeks after the social distancing and lockdown measures designed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus in North America were first implemented, a good friend of mine in my hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, turned 40 years old. Given the prohibitions on celebrating this milestone in any of the customary ways, she invited people she knew all over the world to participate in a virtual dance party over Zoom. Friends from Asia, Australia, Europe, and across Canada and the United States logged on at the same time, and we danced together for about 45 minutes to music she played from her laptop. From my home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I danced along with her and her family, and 65 other screens worth of people, to many of our old favorites, including  “Home For A Rest” by Spirit of the West (which basically makes any Canadian around 40 go completely wild on the dance floor… or living room carpet). Still only at the beginning of our strange new reality, with the shock of the abrupt changes to our everyday lives created by the pandemic feeling really visceral, this virtual dance party lifted my spirits, and helped me to feel connected to the friends, and the strangers, also on the call.

Dancing during World War II

Dancing has served this same purpose at many moments in history. In my book Dancing in the English Style, I discussed the ways that this artistic and leisure form was put to work in Britain during the Second World War – in service to the war effort, and to help people grapple with the life-altering events that erupted around them. When the war first broke out in 1939, Britons talked of a “dancing boom,” and public dancing spaces continued to do a robust business throughout the war. Military personnel often received free or reduced admission to dances, which were also used to raise money for wartime charitable causes or to build airplanes and tanks. New songs and dances were written around war themes, from the “Black-out Stroll” to the “Tuscana,” which was designed to mock the military setbacks of the Italian Army in Greece (“one step forward, three steps back”). Both of these were so-called “party dances,” which were simple and accessible to even the most amateur dancer, and all performed together in a group (think “hokey pokey,” another example from this era).

These group dances and dancing in general helped to forge and express the good cheer and community spirit that became such a part of Britain’s self-image during the war. As a magazine correspondent described the scene in a Manchester dance hall one night, “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.”

Perhaps most evocatively, dancing became one of the most visual and dramatic expressions of the so-called “Blitz spirit.” Britons sang and danced in Tube stations and public shelters, or refused to leave the dance floor even in the midst of an air raid. As one report described it, ‘Dancing has often continued while bombs were falling and when the crash of anti-aircraft guns has almost drowned the music.’[i]  People also danced in rubble-strewn streets after a raid to display their fortitude and resolve, such as in the case of the photograph that serves as the cover image for my book.

Dancing during the Covid-19 Pandemic

With this history in mind, I have been struck by the ways people around the world have danced their way through the pandemic, and the expressions of feeling that have been conveyed in these moments. As “shelter in place” orders spread across the world, people danced to alleviate cabin fever, cheer themselves up, and feel connected to others. Residents of the Italian city of Turin performed the 1990s song and dance hit the “Macarena” from their respective balconies. A professional dancer in Britain danced down the road in an exuberant parody of Tina Turner performing “Proud Mary,” entertaining onlookers and thousands of YouTube viewers. A large number of professional and amateur DJs have hosted socially distant dance parties for their neighbors, while professional dancers have staged at-home performances online, and thousands of housebound people have participated in virtual dance classes, or tik tok dance challenges. A simple google search of “dancing during the lockdown” yields countless results.

Nor has dancing remained confined to those enduring the lockdown: it has been an inspirational and moving part of the experience of patients and medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic. Back in February, patients and medical staff danced together to raise their spirits in one of the temporary hospitals established in Wuhan, China. When an 84-year-old woman in Massachusetts recovered from the virus, she  danced a few ballroom steps as she made her way back to her room in a nursing home. And there is a hospital in Ontario where health care workers dance in the halls to celebrate each occasion when a Covid-19 patient is removed from a ventilator. Similar stories about dancing health care workers abound.

It should be noted that in both contexts, people have danced despite – or sometimes in response to – profound social fissures and conflicts that have transcended the root crisis of global war or global pandemic. For all of the ways that Britain’s World War II experience produced predominant and long mythologized ideals about national unity, equality of sacrifice, and community spirit, it has been well established by historians that significant social inequalities persisted or were even exacerbated by the war. Social unity could be tested even by events in dance halls, where, for instance, tensions or even violence occasionally erupted over interracial dancing.

It has been a similar story during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have witnessed unequal levels of suffering owing to job losses and food insecurity, differing access to quality health care, disproportionate burdens placed on frontline workers, and higher rates of infection and death within communities of color. Just as during Britain’s war experience, dancing itself has sometimes produced additional tensions, if it has caused people to breach social distancing regulations, or when it has been associated with affluent celebrities who were accused of being tone-deaf or out of touch. It’s worth noting too that participating in a Zoom dance party is dependent on reliable internet access, which not all people have.

Dancing during Protests

Even as I have been developing this post, the current global crisis has deepened in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, with feelings of grief and anger being expressed, and protests erupting across the United States and around the world. But significantly, this too has induced some to dance, as a part of marches (which have sometimes become spontaneous dance parties), as a specific form of protest, or in a bid to inspire and “spread joy.”

Why People Dance in a Crisis

So what is it about dancing that has moved so many people to, well, move during this current crisis, and during other moments of great challenge across time and place? First of all, it’s just fun. As one of the DJs providing socially distant block parties suggested, dancing brings people “a lot of joy.” It’s physical, and provides exercise when other options for that might be limited. It can often involve interaction with other people – face-to-face or virtually – creating feelings of connection and camaraderie. It offers a way of celebrating cultural traditions and expressing identities. In all of these ways, dancing can be a form of escapism, and provides a distraction from the anxieties of the moment. And yet, I would argue that a desire to dance is not simply about disconnecting from or forgetting the crises that swirl around us, but rather about finding ways to absorb, acknowledge, and ultimately power through and resist them.

Earlier this month, Adrienne Burns, a 38-year-old North Carolina woman who had been hospitalized for 43 days battling Covid-19, including periods on a ventilator, recovered and was released from the hospital. As she left the building, she danced alongside some of the nurses who had cared for her, and later explained this impulse to dance in a local news report: “It’s fun. And you want people to know you overcame something.”

I think the idea of overcoming – but also perhaps to be witnessed overcoming – is key here. Following a description of the raucous scene at a New Year’s Eve dance at the height of the German bombing campaign against London, journalist Phyllis Warner recorded in her diary: ‘Would that Hitler could have seen us. I think he’d have found it darned disheartening.’ As the comments of both Adrienne in 2020 and Phyllis in 1940 reveal, in times of historic crisis, dancing offers a very visible and whole-bodied display of continued existence and resolve, whether it’s in the face of a dangerous disease or of an enemy leader, or outside a hospital or in a bomb-ravaged street. Through the feelings of fun and joy it bestows, it enables people to dance out or through some of the fear, suffering, and grief, and expresses their hope and their determination to survive.

Allison Abra is Associate Professor of history and a Fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. In 2018-2019, Dr. Abra was honored as the Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year for Southern Miss. She was also recently named 2019-2021 Blount Professor in Military History in order to support the research and writing of a new book on gender and emotion in British espionage during World War II.

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History Lessons Ignored: The Trump Administration and the Mobilization for World War II

Mark Wilson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

Trump Administration Fails Mobilization

It is now clear that in the early weeks of the current coronavirus crisis, in February and March 2020, the Trump administration failed Mobilization 101.  By late February, we know now, several government officials, including White House economic advisor Peter Navarro and Rick Bright, then head of the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, were calling for the ramping up of industrial output of key items.  But in March, it became clear that the effort to acquire ventilators and masks, among other items, had become a chaotic mess, comparable to the early months of the Civil War in 1861, with individual state governors bidding against one another to acquire scarce supplies.  President Trump, at a press conference on March 19, endorsed this decentralized approach. “[G]overnors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work,” Trump stated. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping.  You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

Although the Trump administration refused at first to oversee procurement, in more recent weeks, the administration has edged toward doing more to coordinate industrial mobilization.  In March, the General Motors Corporation (GM) negotiated an agreement with Ventec, a manufacturer of ventilators, to have GM mass-produce those items in a big Kokomo, Indiana plant, in which it had formerly made electronic components for automobiles.  At the end of March, President Trump signed a memorandum declaring that the Defense Production Act (DPA) would be used to facilitate the GM effort; in early April, the government signed a $500 million contract with GM, for ventilators to be delivered in the coming months.  The government then announced similar ventilator contracts, again invoking the DPA, with several other companies. 

Strong Echoes of World War II

GM Buick Melrose Park aircraft engine plant July 1942, Library of Congress

Here there were strong echoes of World War II, not just in the use of federal powers, but also in the deals such as the one between Ventec and GM, in which a specialty producer allowed a big industrial corporation to mass produce its designs under license. That was one of the main methods of US military-industrial mobilization in World War II, which saw big automakers, including GM, Ford, and Chrysler, turn out thousands of units of aircraft engines, bombers, and other weapons that had been designed first by specialty firms, such as Pratt & Whitney, Consolidated Aircraft, and Sperry Gyroscope.

Despite this evidence of a policy shift in the direction of a more World War II-style industrial mobilization, President Trump’s comments in mid-March suggested that today’s leaders remain ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of many relevant historical lessons.  During the world wars, the Cold War, and even more recently, US leaders took it for granted that national authorities could and should use the available legal authority—including the National Defense Act of 1916, the First and Second War Powers Acts of 1941-42, and the DPA—to coordinate crash mobilization programs. 

During World War II, when close to half the national economy was mobilized for war, the government, working through emergency civilian agencies such as the War Production Board, as well as military organizations, allocated key materials, prioritized orders, and compelled companies to produce for the war effort.  During the Korean War, the DPA provided legal authority for similar actions, without much controversy.  (It was the DPA’s provisions for price and wage controls, not its powers over allocation and production, which caused most of the political struggles over mobilization on the Korean War home front.)  During and after the Cold War, the DPA has been used frequently to provide priority for Defense Department orders.

Ignoring the Lessons of History 

Although there are some recent indications that US leaders are beginning to apply lessons from history, by using more national coordination and expert leadership for ongoing efforts such as the crash vaccine development program, “Project Warp Speed,” it is far from clear whether the tide has turned in the right direction.  In 2020, more than in the early 1940s, there is a widespread reluctance, at all levels of American government, to increase levels of public coordination and regulation, even in cases where the need seems obvious. 

This is a result of a decades-long, bipartisan effort to denigrate government, while celebrating private entrepreneurs and capitalism. As I and other historians have argued, this ideological assault on public capacities has been going on for nearly a century, and has warped our understanding of the history of the US industrial mobilization for World War II, among many other subjects. It is likely that many American leaders in 2020 misunderstand the World War II record as one in which the industrial mobilization was won by heroic entrepreneurs, without any positive contributions from government (or workers). 

World War II Showed the Government Is Essential

This misreading of past and present helps to explain the Trump administration’s missteps in February and March; unfortunately, it may well limit the efficacy of current and future programs, including the race to develop and produce vaccines.  During World War II, political leaders and mobilization officials did not hesitate to combine a diverse assortment of solutions, which ended up including not only conversions of private plants and creative licensing deals, such as the one struck between Ventec and GM, but also a heavy reliance on government-owned, company-run factories, along with some fully government-run facilities.

In the coming months, we would benefit from similarly pragmatic, heterogeneous, and imaginative approaches to tough problems, some of which may rely mainly on agile private actors, and some of which may require heavy national intervention.  With thousands of lives and billions of dollars at stake, we will all benefit from thinking about the real, complex records of past crises, including the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

Mark R. Wilson is a professor in the Department of History at UNC Charlotte, where he also directs the program in Capitalism Studies.  He is the author of the books Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).  He is presently working on a history of the U.S. military-industrial complex since 1950.

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World War II: When the Government Protected All Essential Workers

By Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Dale Center or the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Sickout” Protests Over Coronavirus Safety

Strikes, work stoppages, and protests on International Labor Day (May 1) at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and other workplaces may not have done much to shut down the nation’s stores and warehouses, but they sent America a very loud and potent message nonetheless. The thousands of men and women who pick and pack at hundreds of giant fulfillment centers, the millions who stand behind retail counters, and the legion of gig workers tasked with delivering food and medicine to your doorstep now stand at the vital heart of the world’s largest economy. The fact that such work is now dangerous, that these low-wage workers are “first responders,” highlights the social and economic indispensability, as well as the insecurity and impoverishment, of this multi-million segment of the American working class.

If coal miners, mill hands, and auto workers once stood at the iconic heart of our 20th century industrial imagination, this crisis has finally, but decisively, put those who staff the nation’s retail/distribution complex in their stead. East Asia is now the “workshop of the world,” so world capitalism, and most certainly that in North American and Europe, could not run without a series of global supply chains. The connective tissue consists of all those seamen, longshore workers, truck drivers, distribution center workers, retail clerks, and delivery workers whose labor power holds it all together.

And yet they are getting the short end of the stick. For most pay is low, hours are erratic, benefits are skimpy, turnover is rapid, and in a further insult, the wizards of Silicon Valley have constructed a set of apps and legal scams designed to force millions into a spurious world of “independent contracting.” Except for some grocery chains, most retail/distribution employers—from Sam Walton to Jeff Bezos—are militantly anti-union. It is time for workers to organize and the government to protect their right to do so, at the same time that it mandates the safety protocols demanded by this pandemic.

War Labor Board Protected Worker Rights

It happened before, in World War II, another crisis that highlighted the centrality of once marginalized workers now recognized as essential to the larger national purpose. During the war a higher proportion of Americans worked in factories than at any other time in history. But they had to eat, dress, and buy household goods. So grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, and retail outlets were all deemed part of the war economy. The Office of Price Administration rationed—and set the price of—meat, candy, tires, and gasoline; dressmakers were required to limit their use of fabric; and the government determined when and if consumer goods manufacturers could get back in business. Sewell Avery hated all of this. In 1944 he was the 70-year-old autocrat who ran Montgomery Ward, one of the great catalog sales and retail store empires headquartered in Chicago.

Avery was violently hostile to President Franklin Roosevelt, to the New Deal, and to the unions that were trying to organize his warehouses and stores. His lawyers argued that wartime regulations, including protections for the right to organize, should not apply to the civilian goods Montgomery Ward distributed across the country. But the work clothes, auto parts, and farm equipment the company shipped were deemed essential war goods by both the New Dealers and the dollar-a-year corporate executives who ran the wartime mobilization agencies. The showdown came in April 1944, when Avery refused to comply with yet another order of the National War Labor Board mandating that his company fully recognize the United Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The union went on strike and FDR promptly seized the company.

A Famous Photograph

The photo was a sensation because to Avery’s like-minded business associates, it demonstrated just how powerful the wartime New Deal had become. To unionists and other workers, it seemed to assert that the power of a militarized federal government could be enlisted on their behalf.

Donald Trump is in the White House, but in our own moment of national peril, we again need a powerful, progressive state to stand with those on the front lines. The federal government’s failure will undoubtedly be responsible for many unnecessary deaths in the supply chain. Meanwhile, state and city governments, no matter how well led, simply lack the power and resources to insure that workplaces in their jurisdictions are safe.

Jeff Bezos has far more public relations savvy than a Sewell Avery, likewise executives at Instacart, Grub Hub, Walmart, Uber, and other service sector employers. A direct confrontation with the government, state or federal, seems unlikely. But these firms are just as recalcitrant as the Montgomery Ward chieftain. To weather the pandemic, executives at these firms have grudgingly conceded as little as possible when it comes to sick leave, safety standards, and worker voice. They want to get back to an autocratic normality once it is all over. Our job, following the lead of this month’s heroic supply chain strikers, is to make sure we construct a new order post-pandemic, one where workers are valued and have the power to protect themselves.

Nelson Lichtenstein is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author or editor of 16 books, including Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (1982); The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (2009, 2010); and Achieving Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy (2016). His reviews and opinion pieces have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Dissent, New Labor Forum, American Prospect, and academic journals.

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Historians Explore Comparisons between the Covid-19 Pandemic and World War II

By Douglas Bristol, editor of Reflections on War and Society

On March 31, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Covid-19 pandemic is the worst crisis since World War II because the virus threatens every nation.  Other world leaders joined him in making that historical comparison. At the epicenter of the pandemic, President Xi Jinping invoked the People’s War, fought against the Japanese Army during World War II, to explain how China would win the battle against the disease.  Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare broadcast, urged her subjects to emulate the discipline and resolve that Britons displayed in World War II.  President Donald Trump said U.S. efforts to fight the virus called for shared sacrifices like Americans had made during World War II, drawing a parallel between young men volunteering to serve in the military and workers sleeping on the floor of PPE factories.  These historical references to a global conflict that symbolizes duty, unity, and above all victory make sense for leaders who need to rally their countrymen, but one has to wonder: are they true?   

Several journalists have investigated this comparison, but their findings are at odds with each other.  Greg Ips of the Wall Street Journal said the innovative responses of corporations to the pandemic, such as True Value Hardware producing hand sanitizer, amounted to “a 21st-century version of the ‘Arsenal of Democracy,’ the mobilization of industrial might that helped win World War II.”  By contrast, Arthur Sullivan, a reporter for Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, said “that the current crisis, as serious as it is, is not comparable with what Europe and the wider world faced when confronted with the rubble, both literal and metaphorical, of summer 1945.” Each reporter, much to their credit, interviewed historians for their articles, and historians ultimately will answer the question of whether the Covid-19 pandemic should be compared to World War II.

To add more scholarly viewpoints to this public discussion of history, Reflections on War and Society will publish a series of posts by four distinguished historians, who explore the parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and World War II from the perspective of their field of expertise.  The posts will start on Friday, May 15 and will continue through July 15.

  1. Nelson Lichtenstein, the author of Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II, will use the Sick-Out protests by workers at Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart on International Labor Day (May 1) as a point of comparison with the government treating retail supply chain workers as essential workers during World War II.
  2. Mark Wilson, the author of Creative Destruction: American Business and the Winning of World War II, will discuss similarities and differences between the federal government’s efforts to use the Defense Production Act to obtain medical supplies to fight Covid-19 and the federal government’s mobilization of industry in World War II. 
  3. Allison Abra, the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, will discuss the ways dancing is being deployed as an expression of community, morale, and fortitude during the pandemic, comparing that to its uses during the Blitz.
  4. Heather Stur, the author of the forthcoming Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties, will offer some context regarding the “America First” movement of the World War II era as a point of comparison for the Trump administration’s responses to the international dimensions of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
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War Stories: The Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team Deploys for Operation Iraqi Freedom

By Kevin Green, University of Southern Mississippi

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about the National Guard and the Reserves.

In January of 2005, The Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team (155 ABCT) mobilized and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the end of 2004 until January of 2006. This deployment marked the first for one of Mississippi’s largest National Guard units.  The 155th had previously mobilized for deployment to Iraq in 1990 for the Gulf War, but the brigade never left the United States. In the fifteen years between the two American Middle East conflicts, the Mississippi National Guard and the 155 ABCT transformed dramatically. In less than three decades, Mississippi’s weekend warriors and disaster-relief response teams evolved into a globalized, kinetic fighting force trained for combat and capable of landowning important strategic cities in and around Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

One soldier’s career in the Mississippi National Guard has mirrored this important, but overlooked transition.  Lieutenant Colonel Paul A. Lyon commissioned with the MS Guard in 1992 and has been involved with 155 ABCT’s 150th Engineer’s Battalion since 1990, even serving as Battalion Commander from 2017 to 2019. During the 155’s first deployment throughout 2005, Lyon served as a Captain and Bravo Company Commander for the 150th Engineers.  Lyon remembered of his first deployment:

So on 18 January [2005] we went in, and then on 24 January we got a change of mission before the unit even got there, so when we arrived, we actually did an assessment, initial assessment, and we started upgrading some of the bunkers.  We were in the tent, me and Sergeant Odom and Sergeant Cooley, my two platoon sergeants, and when I laid down in my first bed in Iskandariya [Iraq], I looked up, and there was a burned-out hole in the tent that’s been patched.  I was like, “What happened there?”  He said, “That’s where a mortar shell went through.”  I’m like, “Well, great.  Maybe lightning doesn’t strike in the same spot.” And then we got hit with a bunch of mortars.  It was my first mortar attack, there was a bunker out back, so we’re grabbing gear, and we’re all sitting in the bunker, nervous.  It was the first hit.  And I looked down; I had my flak vest on backwards. Crazy nerves get you your first time, and anyway, it was kind of funny, looking back on it.[1]

These types of stories are incredible.  More important, they highlight the transformational experiences of National Guardsmen and women as they have become integral cogs in the US military’s machine against the global war on terror. SFC Sean Cooley would later give his life in February, 2005, becoming the fifth Mississippi Guardsman killed in Iraq.  The 155 has since deployed two other times, once more to Iraq in 2009 and to Kuwait in 2018.  And the 155 is but one of dozens of Army National Guard brigades from across the fifty states and four territories deployed to the Middle East over the last few decades.  Right now, there are over 400,000 men and women serving in the United States Army and Air National Guards, many of whom have deployed multiple times and whose stories are as equally rich and revealing as LTC Lyon’s.

This change in the role of the Guard has formed a quiet revolution in the way that the United States fights its wars.  It also has transformed the relationships between the Guard and the local communities it has hereditarily served.  These transformations must be understood and documented as matters of international strategy and national security.  On the local level, in some cases, entire communities sent guardsmen and women to multiple deployments, devastating families and straining local economies.  The War Stories: National Guard project aims to capture and chronicle the documents and oral histories of the Guard to make them publicly available for researchers, students, and teachers.  Every branch of the military has research centers and archival collections through which official histories and warfighting strategies are created.  Sadly, the National Guard—one of the spear points of American warfare in the twenty-first century—does not. 

Right now, Southern Miss’ Dale Center for the Study of War and Society and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage are developing critical partnerships with the National Guard Association of the United States (NNGAUS), The US House of Representatives, The Mississippi Army National Guard, and The Mississippi Department of Archives and History to perhaps make this critically important work a reality.  Our hope was to have things up and running by the late spring and early summer.  COVID-19 has certainly slowed our progress but not our resolve. For more information about this project please contact Dr. Andrew Wiest ( or Dr. Kevin Greene (       

Kevin Greene is the Nina Bell Suggs assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, and a fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of war and Society. Through the Center, Dr. Greene is currently the principal investigator for the Mississippi Oral History Project, a research initiative funded by the Mississippi state legislature to document Mississippi’s culture and heritage in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is the author of The Invention and Reinvention of Big Bill Broonzy, a cultural and intellectual examination of William “Big Bill” Broonzy with the University of North Carolina Press for their catalogue in African American Studies.

[1] Greene, Kevin and Andrew Wiest. Interview with LTC Paul A. Lyon. The Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, The university of Southern Mississippi, December 18, 2017.

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The murder of Pfc. Guillen “shocked” military leaders, but it shouldn’t have

By Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.

Sometime during the night as 2020 ended and the New Year began, two U.S. servicewomen died in Texas.

Emergency services personnel at Fort Bliss, where 19-year-old Pfc. Asia Graham was stationed, found her unresponsive in her barracks on New Year’s Eve and later pronounced her dead. Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Jessica Mitchell was found shot to death in her vehicle on I-10 in San Antonio. Army and civilian authorities are investigating the cases, and as details about the servicewomen’s deaths come to light, one is particularly glaring. Back in June, Graham had filed a sexual assault report with Fort Bliss command, alleging that a fellow soldier had raped her in December 2019 shortly after she arrived on post. Days after Graham’s death, Fort Bliss public affairs issued a statement announcing plans to court-martial her accused assailant. Whether the deaths of Graham and Mitchell, who was stationed at Joint Base San Antonio, are connected remains unclear.

A few weeks earlier, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy announced the suspension and firing of 14 officers at Fort Hood following an investigation that found “a pattern of sexual assault, harassment, suicides, and murder” at the post in Killeen, Texas.[i] McCarthy launched the investigation in July, two months after the murder of Pfc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood. Authorities believe Spc. Aaron David Robinson bludgeoned Guillen to death with a hammer in the armory where she worked repairing small arms and artillery. Guillen had told her family that a fellow soldier had sexually harassed her, and a lawyer for the family said that Guillen intended to file a harassment complaint against Robinson. An enraged Robinson allegedly attacked and killed Guillen, and then he and a girlfriend dismembered her body and buried it in a shallow grave near the Leon River in Bell County, where Killeen is located. When law enforcement officers attempted to arrest Robinson, he shot and killed himself.

In an interview with CBS News, McCarthy said that the murder of Guillen “shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems” in the Army regarding sexual assault, harassment, and violence.[ii] Yet Guillen was not the first servicewoman to die at the hand of a comrade. In 1995, 25 years before Guillen’s murder, U.S. Army veteran and former Ranger Louis Jones Jr. kidnapped 19-year-old Pvt. Tracie McBride on Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. Jones drove McBride to his home, raped her, and beat her to death. Twenty-five years before McBride’s death, in 1970, Army investigators implicated GI Gregory Kozlowski in the murder of Red Cross donut dolly Virginia “Ginny” Kirsch on the 25th Infantry Division’s base in Cu Chi, Vietnam. Although Kirsch was not in the military, her Red Cross program was in Vietnam at the Defense Department’s request. Within those 25-year intervals, incidents of sexual harassment and assault that did not result in murder have shown the danger servicewomen face on the military posts and bases where they are stationed.

Pentagon authorities are aware of the problem. In 2004, they established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). The Army has its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program (SHARP), and the Navy created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program (SAPR). A 2012 Pentagon investigation revealed 26,000 sexual assaults in that year, although only about 3,000 victims filed reports. A 2019 Defense Department study found that sexual assault cases increased from about 15,000 in 2016 to more than 20,000 in 2018 across all branches of the U.S. military. The thousands of sexual violence cases that the 2012 and 2019 studies revealed should have shocked military leaders into action before Guillen’s death. For officials to have not seen it coming, they had to have been looking the other way.

McCarthy’s study concluded that that’s exactly what leaders at Fort Hood did. They created a toxic command climate that allowed sexual harassment and assault to occur by dismissing reports of it. Neither the existence of SHARP nor the Pentagon’s evidence of sexual violence in the military motivated Fort Hood’s commanders to take the problem seriously. The Army’s decision to discipline the post’s top authorities is a bold move, but past experience shows that the removal of leaders does not necessarily change a culture. In the 1991 Tailhook scandal, Navy and Marine Corps aviators sexually assaulted more than 80 women, as well as seven men, at the Las Vegas Hilton during the Tailhook Association’s annual conference. Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett later resigned, and Chief of Naval Operations Frank Kelso took early retirement after Tailhook victims complained about his mishandling of the affair. Yet sexual harassment and assault has not disappeared. In 2019, nearly 1,700 alleged victims filed assault claims with the Navy.[iii]

Studies, strict reporting protocols, and disciplinary action have not changed the toxic culture that permits the use of sexual violence as an expression of power and dominance over women – and men. Servicemen’s reports of sexual assault by other men are on the rise, most often as forms of hazing, not due to homosexuality. One way to transform the culture is to focus on respect, from basic training on up. Soldiers should not have to “earn” respect by surviving a hazing ritual, and violent dominance is not a way to command respect. Humiliation doesn’t foster healthy unit cohesion. Also, personnel at all ranks must view servicewomen as soldiers, not as daughters or sisters. They are soldiers who perform the same duties as their male counterparts, not weaker members of the unit simply because of their gender. This kind of mindset shift will take hard work and commitment. Ideas about gender difference, masculine strength, and feminine weakness are deeply engrained in American culture, and they take hold of the mind beginning in childhood. But a cultural shift could save soldiers’ lives. Pfc. Vanessa Guillen’s death should not have been the spark that finally awakened defense leaders to the long history of sexual violence in the services. May it be the catalyst for the difficult but necessary effort to create a safer, stronger military.

Heather Stur, Ph.D.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D. is professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author and editor of four books, including The U.S. Military and Civil Rights Since World War II (ABC-CLIO 2019) and Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020).

[i] Ella Torres, “Military sexual assault victims say the system is broken,” ABC News, August 28, 2020.

[ii] Graham Kates, “14 fired or suspended following Fort Hood investigation into Vanessa Guillen’s death,” CBS News, December 9, 2020.

[iii] Graham Kates, “14 fired or suspended following Fort Hood investigation into Vanessa Guillen’s death,” CBS News, December 9, 2020.

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