Associate Provost for Finance and Planning Years at Arcadia: 16 Expertise: post-World War II American political and urban/suburban history Advice to students: “I'm a big fan of complexity. It's a trait of a lot of historians, to try to not reduce things to single causes or single explanations, but to see a lot of layers. So I'm always pushing complexity.”
Memorial Day is an American national holiday to recognize those who died in the line of service, during wars or in peaceful times. However, Dr. Peter Siskind, associate provost for Finance and Planning, sees this as the opening of a conversation about America’s history, foreign policy, and culture.
“I love thinking about and teaching about the United States' relationship with the world,” said Dr. Siskind. “The historian in me, and the foreign policy observer and critic in me, wants Memorial Day to be the beginning of a much larger conversation of what the United States does in its interactions with the rest of the world.”
Although a member of the University’s senior administration, Dr. Siskind spent the last 15 years of his career teaching U.S. history courses to Arcadia students, including “F.D.R. to Obama: U.S. Politics and Reform;” “The Vietnam Wars;” “Philadelphia Revealed: Finding the Hidden City;” “America in the 1960s;” and “America as Empire.” He also teaches the Preview course, “The U.S. & Vietnam: Then & Now,” which takes students to Ho Chi Minh City over spring break.
His teaching and reading has led to a comparative understanding of how American society’s views toward veterans and those who have died in service has changed since World War II.
“I think there's some really interesting questions about who we remember and who we don't remember,” said Dr. Siskind, highlighting the example of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. that remembers those who died in service but doesn’t feature the names of those who died after the war from mental and physical trauma sustained in battle. “There's nothing wrong with focusing on the 58,318 Americans who died in combat, but it also pushes us away from remembering others. It's so hard to know exactly, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ own estimates suggest that more than 58,000 American military personnel who served in the Vietnam War committed suicide over the decades since the fighting ended.”
Remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice is complex, like much of history, and Dr. Siskind notes how the nature of American “memory” depends on the war in question. World War II is so often used as an example of the “good war”—the “greatest generation” soldiers who successfully defeated evil. But then so many Americans never learn about, and therefore forget, soldiers from later wars like those in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“It's just this thing that has escaped our memory,” said Dr. Siskind. “Nobody remembers the Korean War. It's just evaporated.”
Along with remembering the fallen on Memorial Day, Dr. Siskind says additional discussions are needed on assisting veterans who return home. Veterans Affairs estimates that each year over 6,000 veterans commit suicide each year (or 16.8 each day). Additionally, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates about nine percent of America’s homeless adult population are veterans—or 40,056 homeless veterans per day.
“Memorial Day focuses on those who died in service, but fewer Americans have died in service in our recent wars,” said Dr. Siskind. “I think there are many ways in which our culture and society tries, at least with words and symbolic actions. Then, there's the issue of how well do we actually support them in tangible ways? I want it to be the beginning of a much larger conversation.”