Written on September 5, 2014 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Rolf Strom Olsen, Academic Director of the IE Humanities Center.

The famous US film-maker Ken Burns, whose name is familiar to North American audiences thanks mostly to his ground-breaking 1990 film on the US Civil War, has perpetrated another epic documentary. Burns latest subject is more war, this time “The War”  (as the documentary is called, a depressingly ambiguous title for a European audience). But for Americans, “The War” is World War Two, a conflict that has produced a seemingly never-ending spate of nostalgic and sentimental homages to what is modestly coined (in US collective memory) as the “greatest generation.” Among the more recent grandiose offerings, we have had director Steven Spielberg’s film, “Saving Private Ryan,” US broadcaster Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” and a wildly popular television adaptation of historian Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers“. Burns’ film follows in the same vein, insofar as it is an unapologetically US-centred examination of World War Two (there is not a single non-US voice in the film). But the film avoids the theatrical triumphalism of these other efforts and achieves a degree of nuance and dignity by focusing on individuals remembering what they experienced. This parochialism might turn off a non-US audience (I was watching in Canada), but in its depiction of war as a remembered event, Burns is asking a subtle question about history that lifts the film above its narrow national focus: what is the value of memory to our understanding of history?

“Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost” wrote Walt Whitman, not counting on modern filmmakers to prove the sentiment wrong. Burns’ apparently decided to make a film about The War in 1999 when he discovered that upwards of a thousand US veterans were dying every day.  That’s an impressively large number, and a sombre reminder not only of how many people actually fought in the conflict, but just how many lives were intimately affected by it. Indeed, the scope and impact of the conflict is hard for us to fathom, wherever we are. As one interviewee commented: “it was like our lives were suspended for the duration”. Burns is a historian of a peculiar sort – he describes himself as an archaeologist of emotion.  As such, he asks:  how does that happen? More importantly, how does thatfeel?

Emotion, not cold historical analysis, is the central theme in this 15-hour outpouring. But these are not the yellow-patina memories of old snapshots, or whitewashed celebrations of heroism. I can remember one of Burn’s interviewees, Paul Fussell, a noted historian, author and himself an infantryman in The War, commenting that when people die in war, they usually don’t die well: they die in a fusillade of agony, of mutilation and disfigurement. For Fussell, this is an important point: war is gruesome. Burns follows him lockstep; he wrenches from his subjects the horrifying carnage they witnessed. It is a mighty thing to see a kindly grandfather figure reminisce about shooting down a fellow twenty-year old, still agonising fifty years later over what he has done. War dehumanises; the philosophy of war strives to offer a simple choice to the young men and women who are called to prosecute it: them or us. But, we learn through the uneasy recollections of the now-elderly men who actually pulled the triggers and threw the grenades, not completely, nor forever and, for many, not at all. That’s an important point that most histories of conflict are not comfortable, or perhaps even capable of making.

Americans have memorialised The War as Their War. Despite the savagery unleashed by the conflict, The War is still seen in American eyes as a virtuous, even noble, enterprise. Even fifty years later, the enemy are still easy to loathe, and still comfortably fit the stereotypes which made that “us/them” trigger-impulse possible. The War earns its definitive article because, even with the passage of time, it is still imbued with an aura of epic righteousness. In American memory, liberation is pitted against Buchenwald, freedom against the Bataan Death March. Lest we fail to get the point, the film’s narration helpfully frames the question for us: anger, arrogance, bigotry, victimhood and the lust for power on one side; courage, perseverance, selflessness, faith, leadership and the hunger for freedom on the other. No points for guessing which side the Americans were on. 

Clarity, particularly ideological clarity, makes an uneasy bedfellow with historical fact. But this is a different specie altogether: memory-fact. The War exists as a set of specific events and geopolitical forces. But it is also how a society remembers, or wants to remember, the conflict. It is how that conflict was (and still is being) shaped, and how it in turn shaped people’s lives. Some critics have noted the inevitable distortions (errors really) of a historical narrative that coalesce around individual memories. Pre-war America is recalled by many of the film’s subjects in idyllic terms: all sunny afternoons and cherry blossoms. Given the extraordinary deprivations of the Great Depression, this is factually absurd. 
However, from a historical view that gives the curious entropy of memory its due, such recollections are a fascinating and deeply-moving testament to how cataclysmic The War must have been for a generation looking back, even for those far-removed from the theatre of war. The breadlines, unemployment, dust bowls and general misery of the 1930s were shaded by the events that follow into an American Pastoral. Accurate? Of course not, but no less true for it and, for a historian, well worth noting. 

The War exists as a collective memorial in varied ways: urgently, as an epic struggle of Good against Evil, but parochially as sons sent off to fight leaving behind their families, narrowly, as small groups of men who fought more to save each other than for any greater purpose, and tragically, as lives cut short and friendships savagely ended. For the tens and tens of millions of people caught up in the immediate events, such a revelation is hardly surprising. But for those who were thousands of miles away, the fact that the War had a similarly monumental, intimate and profound impact is well-worth considering.
“The War” is not a rejoinder to the current imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan – its origins predate both. But it makes an implicit point about current events. Even if the triumphalism of the Allied victory in 1945 can be overstated, the larger contours of that struggle highlight the lack of focus and intent in America’s current missions. Clarity of purpose matters: its absence does not just undermine the present; it promises to despoil the memory of events for generations to come and will be an important part of how we write its history. 


Visit by the Hon. Ray Mabus, US Secretary of the Navy

Written on September 4, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in International Relations

mabusWe are pleased to announce that on September 5th IE will receive a visit by the Hon. Ray Mabus, US Secretary of the Navy.

Given the importance of the visitor and a unique opportunity to meet one of the top members of the US Government, we highly encourage you to register for the event below.

Please remember that it is important to attend the event once you register. We have extended the deadline to sign up until September 3rd, 6 pm, and we highly recommend you to sign up as soon as possible due to the expected interest in the event.

The Secretary will give a talk about leadership and management in the US Navy, followed by an open Q&A session. The event will be held on September 5th at 11:00 am in Aula Magna.

To see more details on the visitor, please visit this link to the Secretary’s biography.


Irresponsible gods

Written on September 3, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

sapiensAn absorbing, provocative history of civilisation that peers into a post-human future

According to Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who teaches in the faculty of humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, what makes humans different from other animals is not reasoning, toolmaking or a capacity for morality, all of which are found to some degree among our animal kin. Humans are different because they inhabit an imagined world, created from their own ideas, myths and fantasies, which they take as real. Inhabiting this virtual world, humans have achieved things no other animal can match. The power of the imagination has turned the human species – at the beginning, “an animal of no significance” midway up the food chain on the African savannah – into “self-made gods”. But these “deities” lack self-restraint. Wiping out other species, they have dominated the planet without making themselves noticeably happier. Now, with new technologies enabling them to create artificial forms of life and alter their own natures, they hardly know what to do with their new dominion. “Is there anything more dangerous”, Harari asks, “than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Already a bestseller in Hebrew, Sapiens mounts a fundamental challenge to the predominant contemporary view of humans and their place in the world. “Liberal humanism,” Harari points out, “is built on monotheist foundations.” Take away the soul and the privileged place in the world accorded to humans by a creator-god, and it becomes difficult to explain why humans are so special. The task becomes harder if we perform a thought-experiment based on the facts of human origins. We’ve grown used to thinking of ourselves as the only species of humans. But for most of its history Homo sapiens shared the planet with several humanoid species – the Neanderthals being only the best known. “The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man”, writes Harari. Suppose some or all of these species had survived alongside ourselves up to the present. What would become of the cherished sense that we are set apart from the rest of the natural world by having some peculiar transcendent value? Human uniqueness, Harari concludes, is a myth spawned by an accident of evolution.

Continue reading in Financial Times


Dry spell at Stonehenge reveals secret that has eluded archaeologists

Written on September 2, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many mysteries of Stonehenge may have been solved, not because of a scientific breakthrough or painstaking research, but after a maintenance team’s hosepipe turned out to be a little short.

Archaeologists have long argued over whether the ancient monument was once a perfect circle or if it was always, as it is now, an incomplete ring.

When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle.

Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”. “I was standing on the public path looking at the grass near the stones and thinking we needed to find a longer hosepipe to get the parched patches to green up,” he said.

“I remembered that the marks were where archaeologists had looked without success for signs that there had been stone holes. I called my colleague over and he saw them and realised their possible significance as well. Not being archaeologists, we called in the professionals.

“I am still amazed, and very pleased, that simply looking at something that tens of thousands of people had unwittingly seen, can reveal secrets that sophisticated machinery can’t.”

The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned before the rain could come and remove the brown patches, and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.

Other brown patches corresponded to recorded archaeological excavations, included trenches dug by the engineer William Gowland in 1901. That some of the patches matched the site of the trenches supports the theory that they indicate disturbed ground.

Continue reading in The Guardian


flamencoOn a sweltering late August afternoon in the center of Madrid, workers are putting the finishing touches to what will be the first educational institution anywhere to offer an undergraduate program in that most Spanish of art forms, flamenco.

Uflamenco, or the University of Flamenco, has taken more than a decade to get off the ground, explains Antonio Suárez Salazar, the 59-year-oldcantaor, or singer, better known as Guadiana, as he leads us into the welcome cool of the four-story building that in October will open its doors to around 400 students of flamenco dance, singing and guitar from around the world.

Waiting for us inside is Pepe Habichuela, one of Spain’s finest contemporary flamenco guitarists, and patriarch of the Carmona family, from which sprang the three members of the now-defunct group Ketama, which played a lead role in reviving and popularizing flamenco three decades ago.

With him is Pedro Ojesto, composer, performer, and founder of the Escuela de Nuevas Músicas, one of Spain’s most-respected private music colleges. Along with the Carmonas and other partners from Spain’s leading music schools, Ojesto has been a driving force behind Uflamenco.

“We are going to attract the best here, and provide students with the highest level of training possible,” says Ojesto, who a decade ago published Las claves del flamenco (The fundamentals of flamenco): “The first book to codify every flamenco style in a format that music students can understand, using the same approach as at Berklee, with the goal of providing an understanding of every aspect of flamenco, both musically and technically.”

“We are going to create a sensation here,” says Habichuela, looking round the empty rooms, smiling.

“We’re going to attract students from around the world. That’s why it’s been so important to get official recognition for what will be an innovative program that integrates dance and music,” adds Ojesta.

Continue reading in El País

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