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Americans at War

A new exhibition explores the personal dimensions of war: valor and resolve—but also sacrifice and loss

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Time and again throughout the nation's history, Americans have paid the price of going to war. America and its founding values were born of conflict, and wars subsequently helped to set the physical boundaries of the nation. More important, for two and a half centuries wars have proved to be defining episodes in the development of our national identity. That epic tale of continual transformation is now told in a sweeping new exhibition, "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War," opening in the National Museum of American History (NMAH) on Veterans Day. The exhibition guides visitors through the major wars the nation has fought, on native soil and in foreign lands, from the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War in the 18th century down through this century's operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" occupies more than 18,000 square feet in NMAH and encompasses a greater chronological span of American history than any other current exhibition in the museum. The straightforward subtitle, Americans at War, makes an essential point about the approach: though nations declare wars, individuals fight them, sacrifice and suffer in them, often far from battlefields and combat zones, and are altered in their course. Military history may seem a narrow prism through which to view national life, but the perspective it offers is surprisingly wide, embracing social, cultural, economic and technological dimensions that sometimes have a long afterlife indeed. The Civil War did not end with Appomattox, or the Vietnam War with a peace agreement in 1973; the confidence that came with victory in World War II lifted America for decades.

More than 800 objects will be on display, not just the guns, uniforms, military and medical equipment, medals and flags that one would expect, but posters, magazines, furniture, games, cookware, money, musical instruments and more—emblems large and small of each remembered era. The section on the War of 1812, for example, contains three fragments of the Star-Spangled Banner that were clipped off as souvenirs in the 19th century. (The flag itself, the central object of NMAH's collections, forever associated with American resolve during wartime, can be seen undergoing meticulous conservation elsewhere in the museum.)

The smallest items in the show are flakes of the gold that lured thousands of settlers West to California soon after Mexico ceded the territory to the United States as a prize of war. The largest object is a Huey helicopter, the Bell UH-1, some 57 feet long and 15 feet high, the whomping workhorse of the Vietnam War. Thousands of Hueys took part in that war, and even for Americans who knew the conflict only through the media, the images the Hueys evoke are still indelible. In addition to the hundreds of objects, the exhibition features a striking introductory sound-and-light display, large graphic murals and maps, including a three-dimensional map of the Battle of Yorktown, and a series of interactive audio and visual installations. Visitors so inclined will get to fire the shot heard round the world—and restart the Revolution.

Winston Churchill once wrote of great battles that they "change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres." That is surely true of America, and the NMAH exhibition offers abundant evidence of just how influential and how sobering the country's long record of military engagement has been. But the exhibition's insistence on the personal dimension of warfare suggests something else as well: that material evidence is not the only gauge of war's effects. In the end, the price of freedom may be incalculable because its true costs lie buried so deep within individuals, where no one can fully take their measure.

About Lawrence M. Small
Lawrence M. Small

Lawrence M. Small was the eleventh secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 2000 to 2007.

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