Fresh out of graduate school, Jon Parrish Peede embraced the chance to travel, arriving in Eastern Europe during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. A last-minute decision to see the opera Don Giovanni in Vienna—and a startling conversation with a local ticket-taker—opened his eyes to the double-edged legacy of American military intervention. During that same trip, a somber pilgrimage to the former German Nazi Auschwitz extermination camp and museum in Poland offered yet another perspective on World War II.

Peede’s encounters with the humanities complicated his understanding of the world around him. For him, they impart a lesson articulated by the French writer Andre Gide: “Don’t understand me too quickly.” The history contained in music or memorials, Peede reflects, is a “web” with living, breathing implications. In these cases, the importance of the moments lies not as much in what happened then as much as what they add up to in retrospection.