It started as one of those crazy ideas.

Looking over the massive readings and hefty writing assignments for History 497: “Wastes of War: A Century of Destruction,” one student asked, “Where are we going for a field trip?” After some heated discussion, another suggested, “New York City.”

“The wheels started spinning in my head,” recalled Anne Berg, lecturer and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History. “I thought Freshkills, 9/11, Global War on Terror, and its ripples.” The class could explore all of this firsthand. So she ran with the suggestion.

The course was inspired by Berg’s interest in how war and the waste it produces affect and sometimes structure our physical, social, and political environments. From the South African (or Boer) War to the War on Terror, Berg and the students looked at wars as destructive and transformative processes rather than simply events.

The trip to New York would get them up close to a recent example.

It was also exciting. After dropping their bags at the hostel in Brooklyn, the group took the subway to the Staten Island Ferry and embarked for Freshkills, where New York City’s trash had been buried since the 1950s and where remains and debris from Ground Zero were sorted and eventually buried. A team from the Freshkills Park Authority shared the history of the landfill and its ongoing transformation into a park. The tour demonstrated just how the massive the place was.

The Manhattan skyline viewed from Freshkills Park. (photo: Ezra Gerard)

“What stood out for me was how rewarding it was to bridge classroom knowledge and first-hand experience,” said Jacob Ziff, a senior majoring in history. “I think we are often so busy focusing on a concept for the sake of succeeding in class that we lose focus on why what we are studying is actually important in the real world.”

Day two took them to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. After a self-guided tour, they met with the vice president of exhibitions and asked some tough questions. The discussion lasted more than an hour and a half. 

“We were not satisfied that an emotional response, which the museum clearly and powerfully elicited, would necessarily lead to insight, active citizenship, reconciliation and healing,” Berg said. “For instance, the museum did not explain US engagement in the Middle East, but reported historical developments there as purely local.”  

The vice president observed that Berg and the students were “studiers,” not the strollers for whom the museum had been designed.  When the students returned to the exhibit to fact check and corroborate their earlier impressions, sure enough, Berg said, “It felt different the second time around. We talked about the museum’s flaws, strengths, and the strategies it uses to make arguments.”

Inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum. (photo: Ezra Gerard)

“This was the epitome of history majors in their natural state: inquiring, interpreting, and considering our society,” said Nicole Pugliese, a senior history major.

The last day they headed to the United Nations, where they met with Ahmed Kamal, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the UN, who filled in the part of the story the museum had left out. He spoke of poverty and global inequality as a structural problem. He talked about terror as a weapon of the weak. He recognized the inertia built into the UN as an institution.

The students disagreed with some of his views. They posed careful questions, but they left the meeting somewhat disillusioned. Later, on the official tour, they heard the rose-colored account of the UN and its programs. The contrast was stark.

Back in Ann Arbor, the conversations have continued. And soon the class will be able to share their experiences with a wider audience. A team is in the process of editing video and photographs from the trip into a short documentary that will be screened at the Michigan Theatre later this spring.