Learning Through Play: Liberty or Death, The American Revolution as Historical Teaching Tool

I recently found an online version of my favorite historical video game of all time, “Liberty or Death, The American Revolution.” The game was first created for Sega Genesis by Japanese video game maker Koei in 1994 as a part of its Historical Simulation Series that also included “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (which looks at classical Chinese history) and “Genghis Khan” (which permits players to attempt to conquer Europe, Asia, and North Africa with polyglot armies ranging from French knights and Japanese Samurai to mounted Mongol bowmen and Indian armored elephants). It can take days to complete the game, which involves defeating all enemy army units to free (or recapture) the colonies.

                Players begin by selecting the American or British sides (which I always choose since the British side offers the best chance to win the game in a few hours) represented by real historical figures such as Generals George Washington and Charles Cornwallis as well lesser officers and political leaders on both sides. Players next have the option to request additional army or navy support as well as to answer questions such as whether to divert funds from the officers pay (and risk possible mutiny) in order to hire mercenaries. Players return to this planning portion of the game every three months (six turns), each time receiving a new budget to allocate as they see fit, though also facing the potential to be quite unceremoniously fired if their performance over the course of the last quarter is deemed unsatisfactory.

                Each two week turn consists of short term strategic decisions including a vast array of options that mimic the wide range of real life decisions that military commanders needed to make during the American Revolution such as opportunities to draft more troops, purchase additional gunpowder or food, construct cannons, transport troops by land or sea, improve public opinion through parades, or do battle with enemy troops. Each activity takes ‘energy’ from the local commander, limiting the choices that players can make in each region (such as Boston, Delaware, Long Island, or South Jersey) which they control at the beginning of each two week turn. Most decisions end by the players moving on to make the same set of strategic decisions in a different region, but battles involve their own special mini-game.

                Battles begin by arranging military units around a board that is already littered with trees, hills, rivers, and towns. Regular military units include five hundred troops each (with their level of training and degree of armament among the factors that influence their performance on the battlefield) while three types of special forces (sharpshooters who can climb mountains, cavalry who can cross forests, and engineers who can both build bridges across rivers and fire cannon at forts). Attacking players move their troops into position for a final assault while defenders attempt to outlast them lest they be forced to retreat and risk being captured. Though each battle is short, taken together they help decide the war and in this way Liberty or Death, The American Revolution (in addition to offering an opportunity for students to think strategically and to learn the roles of key participants on both sides of the war) helps to teach players a larger lesson about the relationship of small events to major turning points in history.

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Not Forgotten (A Very Partial List)


This layered map of Korean War Memorial Infrastructure and Monuments shows that Korea is, in fact, far from a “forgotten war”. This very partial list includes six examples of what I term Memorial Infrastructure (including bridges, roads, and highways) and six examples of Monumental Memorials on the local, state, and national level that were chosen as a representative sample within a specific focus on the Northeast and Midwest to allow for a closer map view. I also attempted to weed out both roads and monuments that shared names in order to avoid confusion and to limit my selections to one per state, otherwise there would appear literally dozens of additional sites even in such a limited geographic area. Indeed, I can envision adding a similar but more complete map to my Korean War Online Memory Bank.

I opted to layer the map (in addition to choosing Gold Stars for monuments and Green Circles for infrastructure) because I think this function provides a useful way of examining different types of data both individually and in comparison to each other. I even considered adding another two additional layers to the map which would have dealt with Korean War museums, libraries, and research archives on one hand and Korea veterans’ fraternal organizations, assistance associations, and advocacy groups on the other hand. The first layer of the map depicts the six examples of Memorial Infrastructure including a bridge over Lake Champlain in Vermont, state highways in Delaware and New York, and local roads in Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The second layer of the map depicts the six examples of Monumental Memorials to the Korean War including the national Korean War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, the New Jersey State Korean War Memorial in Atlantic City, the Illinois Korean War Memorial in Springfield, the Wisconsin Korean War Veterans Memorial in Plover, the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn’s Landing, and the Korean Veterans’ Park in Billerica, Massachusetts.

I opted to include images for each item in order to add an additional visual element as well as suggest some of broad ways in which the Korean War is actively remembered in America through the built environment. While I had little difficulty locating online images of all the Monumental Memorials and two-thirds of the examples of Memorial Infrastructure (specifically the two state highways and the bridge but only one local road) I had to settle for images that instead, in my view, reflect the spirit of the sites (including a Kentucky Korea Veteran’s License Plate with a Bumper Sticker that I think works well and the face of a Veteran next to the word Kansas carved in granite for which I would have preferred to find something else). Lastly, I selected this base map because of the way it clearly demarcates Interstate Highways and thus demonstrates how close these Korean War memorial sites are to major auto arteries. Moreover, by suggesting that these sites were designed to take advantage of prevailing traffic patterns this map also begs the question of whether drivers in Delaware or New York (both so very close to I-95, the busiest road in America) realize that they are traveling on highways built to honor veterans of Korea.

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The goal of this Google Ngram is to better understand how the Korean War compares with other 20th century American wars in its persistence in the public mind over the course of the late 20th century.

Prior to settling on this particular Ngram for analysis, I first attempted searches on several other criteria relevant to the Korean War.  I initially tried comparing the frequency of the term ‘forgotten war’ to use of ‘Korean War’ over the broadest possible time span of years from 1950 to 2008, and discovered a much higher than expected use of the term (most likely because it was also being used in reference to several 19th century conflicts including the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War).  I then attempted a direct comparison of the Korean and Vietnam Wars from 1964 (when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed) to 2004, however this comparison revealed nothing more than an ongoing higher level of interest in Vietnam.  My last attempt before settling on this Google Ngram was a comparison of four military and political leaders: (Douglas) MacArthur, (Matthew) Ridgeway, (Dwight) Eisenhower, and (Harry) Truman over the fifty years after the war from 1954-2004, which revealed a precipitous drop in interest about MacArthur after 1960, a persistently much lower level of interest in his successor in command General Ridgeway, and an interesting political ebb which suggests interest in Truman overtaking Ike from Watergate to Reagan’s inauguration before again rising in the Clinton years.

Having decided that both utilizing additional search terms and using a shorter time span seemed to create more usable data visualizations, I created this Google Ngram by comparing the frequency of the terms World War One, World War Two, Korean War, and Vietnam War over the 25 years from 1976 to 2001 (with conflicts selected based on the number of Americans involved and dates chosen to include the period between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the beginnings of the Afghanistan War in 2002 so as to more accurately assess the comparative cultural memory of each military engagement).    This Ngram is suggestive of a number of interesting observations of these wars both individually and in comparison, beginning with the way that World War II (by far the most persistently recalled of the four) seemed to experience spikes in interest during the 40 year and 50 year anniversary cycles of the early 1980s and 1990s before dropping in the middle of those decades.  While World War One has garnered less and less attention over the decades, interest in Vietnam seems to have spiked from the late 1980s (when several films such as Full Metal Jacket and Born on the 4th of July premiered) overtaking WWI by the year 2000.  Moreover, whereas interest in Korea and Vietnam was closely correlated before the late 1980s, since then the Korean War has appeared half as frequently as WWI and Vietnam and a fifth as often as WWII.

Indeed, in light of this Google Ngram it seems fair to say that in comparison to other major 20th century conflicts the Korean War has increasingly become a ‘forgotten war’ in American public memory.

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Preserving the Past for the Sake of the Future: The Possibilities of Digital Storytelling

There are nearly as many possible pedagogical benefits to the use of Digital Storytelling as there are potential ways to go about constructing websites that make use of that idea in innovative ways.  For example, as Lev Manovich argued in “Database as a Genre of New Media,” New Media makes it possible to construct Digital Storytelling projects that function primarily as archives, projects which are mostly focused on narrating a particular often very local story, and projects that combine these two modes (to offer only a few possible examples).  Through an online oral history archive such as StoryCorps run by NPR or the 9/11 Digital Archive, Digital Storytelling has the chance to open up vast realms of individual memories to scholars and students while simultaneously serving a cathartic function for those who choose to tell their stories.    Through web based exhibits that function mainly as narratives such as Pine Point or that offer any array of local stories such as Small Town Noir, it is possible to generate interest in previously forgotten histories while experimenting with unique approaches to web design.  Through web sites that contain many mini narratives while also serving as archives, such as the document based Digital Vaults: The National Archive Experience or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (which includes images, stories, maps and a myriad of other modes of memory, offering a model for my own project) it may be possible to engage students and impart a larger message that scholarly research can be thought provoking and even fun.  Yet in order to maximize the possibilities of Digital Storytelling it is important not to be caught up by the potential pitfalls of associated with online archives and narrative projects.

                One of the biggest problems associated with online archives is the ease with which visitors can become lost attempting to navigate through the site, especially if they are inexperienced in finding their way through a myriad of possible pathways and would instead prefer specific directions for proceeding.  One example of this would be the 9/11 Digital Archive, which includes a Browse button meant to make the site accessible to everyone but which links to archive style page that potentially offers far too many possibilities that might confuse casual visitors.  On the other hand, web sites such as Pine Point which provide a clear narrative but offer neither very much contextual information for interested scholars (who may see Digital Storytelling sites as primarily research tools) nor the ability to choose-your-own-adventure (which some non-professional visitors may enjoy) might provide an ultimately limited visitor experience.  Web sites such as the Hurricane Digital Memory bank, which combine collections covering various media that can be both useful for scholars and interesting for the public while also offering a way for informants to record their memories as well as featured pages that offer a gateway to visitors.  Indeed, it seems hybrid archive/narrative web sites demonstrate the Goldilocks effect and are just right.

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Initial Proposal for ‘The Korean War Online Memory Bank: An Online Archive and Classroom Teaching Tool’

The Korean War Online Memory Bank (KWOMB) will serve dual purposes as a repository for the personal memories of Korean War ‘veterans’ as well as a means of facilitating a greater understanding of the Korean War especially among American high school and undergraduate college students.  As a way to encourage individuals to submit their memories and make research in the resulting archive easier I plan to solicit letters, using a standard interview template, as well as videos and recorded oral histories from ‘veterans,’ who will be broadly defined to include not only American soldiers who served from 1950 to 1953 (as well as civilians who remember the impact of the war during those years) but also North Korean, South Korean, and Chinese veterans who later immigrated to the United States as well as American soldiers who have served in South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone in the sixty years since the signing of the Armistice.  I plan to base this project around an Omeka website, as this will allow the posting of various types of items including letters and videos from veterans as well as educational units based around images and documents accompanied by discussion questions and writing prompts for use in classrooms and web-based courses by high school and college students, who comprise one intended audience.  Some of the other intended audiences include ‘veterans’ themselves (who may wish to read the recollections of their comrades or view images that reflect on their own experiences) and graduate student researchers that will hopefully find the first-hand reflections of the combatants to be valuable additions to the available resources on the experiences of ‘veterans’ of the so-called ‘Forgotten War.’

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Defining Digital History: Modern Technology, Activist Scholarship, and the Post-Modern Humanities

Given that it now seems clear in 2014 that digital history (or the digital humanities more broadly defined) is much more than a scholarly fad, it is useful to examine various elements that have enabled this explosion in interest.  The trend towards increasing activism in Public History over the last several decades (and towards increasing inclusion of non-academics), perhaps best marked by Roy Rosenzweig’s adoption of the internet (and creation of Digital History: A guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web) as one answer to the questions posed by his previous project (The Presence of the Past) has helped lay the groundwork for an open-minded field ready to make use of new technologies.  At the same time, the explosion of the communications and computer industries in America since the late 1970s (not long after the founding of The Public Historian) has made it possible for a wide range of scholars to make use of new tools to analyze data, map demographic information, and tell historical tales to a broader audience than ever before.  Moreover, the interest of auxiliary fields including literary theory, linguistics, comparative literature, archeology, and art history in using digital tools has rekindled connections between disciplines resulting in the digital humanities resembling American Studies in its inclusiveness.  All these factors suggest that it might be best to adopt a definition of digital history as a subfield of the digital humanities while emphasizing activist scholarship using cutting-edge technology.

                One particularly good example of digital history scholarship (done at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason) that I personally see as a useful model is the “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank,” recounting the experiences of those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:


This website is especially useful when used in conjunction with an essay about how it was constructed:


I believe that the project title may be meant to reflect the idea of the bank of a river overflowing, which got me thinking about the implicit differences among referring to  a project as an ‘Online Web Archive’, ‘Digital Document Repository,’ or a  ‘New Media History.”  Since I like the breadth that “memory” as a concept offers I’ve opted to tentatively title my project KWOMP (Korean War Online Memory Project).  

                My particular interest in the Korean War led me to another website that I think provides a good example of digital history scholarship, this one done in Canada partly through government funding. The Memory Project was created to tell the stories of Canadians in both World War II and the Korean War:


The website is bilingual in (French and English) and has grown to include oral histories of participants in WWI and Canadian Peacekeeping missions in the 20th century.  The website also includes image galleries that are tied to each speaker, transcriptions for easy search-ability, and various resources for educators.

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Those Who Forget The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It: History Wars and the Cultural Politics of Memory


In a world where nuclear weapons hold the potential to usher in a post-apocalyptic future perhaps best imagined by science fiction writers, George Santayana’s statement about the consequences of forgetting the past takes on an eerie prophetic quality.  Moreover as Edward Linenthal, Tom Engelhardt, and many other historians detail in the now-classic History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, the forgetting of the past is often due not to unintended ignorance but is rather the result of conscious attempts to reshape American understandings of their history.

                The essay collection begins with Linenthal’s analysis of the “Anatomy of the Controversy” over the context where-in the Enola Gay was to be displayed for the fiftieth-anniversary of the end of World War II, which provides a useful micro-history of the exhibition’s evolution from 1993 to 1995 while also highlighting the key role of influential lobbies such as the Air Force Association in reshaping the initially proposed portrayal of the plane that they thought focused too much on the Japanese as victims.  John Dower expands on this idea of victimhood in an essay exploring “Three Narratives of Our Humanity” in relationship to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguing refusals by the American public and US museums to deal with the results of using nuclear weapons has allowed their Japanese counterparts to ignore the war crimes of the imperial military during WWII.  Memorial debates also revived longstanding arguments about the strategic necessity of using atomic bombs to save lives on both sides that would doubtless have been lost in an invasion of Japan, and as Michael Sherry notes in his essay “Patriotic Orthodoxy and American Decline,” this “saving-lives theme came to bear enormous moral weight for some,” despite disputes about the number of American soldiers and Japanese civilians that were saved.[i]

                The controversy surrounding the exhibiting of the Enola Gay at the NASM also provides insight into broader debates over cultural politics that were extent in the early to mid- 1990s, especially seen in Mike Wallace’s essay “Culture War, History Front.”   Wallace places the Enola Gay debate within the context of attempts by influential conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Lynne Cheney, and Newt Gingrich to attack what they saw as liberal historical revisionism by radical members of the Vietnam War generation that highlighted only negative aspects of American history while downplaying any and all successes.  The importance of Vietnam for how Americans remember World War II is also discussed by Marilyn Young in her essay “Dangerous History: Vietnam and ‘The Good War’” where she concludes that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome has spread to engulf all of America history,”[ii] including WWII and by Tom Engelhardt in his essay “The Victors and the Vanquished” where he examines how film, fiction, and memorials of Vietnam have made the righteousness and success of WWII seem all the more important.

                In some ways History Wars is very much a product of the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War seemed to signal an opening for historians to re-evaluate American actions during and after WWII even as the shadow of Vietnam continued to haunt the nation, despite recent victory in the Persian Gulf.   At the same time, it is a work that transcends its own particular context by speaking to fundamental and ongoing debates between historians and the public over how to represent the past, and as such History Wars remains an extremely useful case study to better understand the cultural politics of memory.

[i] Michael Sherry, “Patriotic Orthodoxy,” in Linenthal and Engelhardt eds. History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) p. 107

[ii] Marilyn Young, “Dangerous History: Vietnam and ‘The Good War,’” in Linenthal and Engelhardt eds. History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) p. 208

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