The Official Blog of the Society for Military History

The Meeting from Hell: Conspiracy

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
Originally published in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

We’ve all attended this meeting, convened by the leadership to discuss some new organizational undertaking and—ostensibly—to collect and synthesize the views of all assembled. Neophytes among us believe that; the more experienced know the score. We enter the conference room resigned, wary, even disposed to revolt. But the leadership has the clout to cram its agenda down our collective throats.

Such meetings occur in all walks of life: governmental, commercial, educational, ecclesiastical. The conference held on January 20, 1942, in Wannsee, a lakeside district southwest of Berlin, was like any other of its kind—except that this meeting was organized by the Schutzstaffel, and its agenda was the destruction of 11 million European Jews.

Directed by Frank Pierson and released in 2001, Conspiracy re-creates the Wannsee Conference in nearly real time, using as a set the mansion in which the actual event took place. Writer Loring Mandel based his script on the “Wannsee Protocol”—the meeting’s top-secret minutes. The original document is deliberately vague; its language gives no hint that the subject is mass murder. Nor does the protocol paint the conference as anything less than wholly harmonious. But anyone who has watched bureaucrats war over turf knows differently, and a close reading of the minutes suggests fault lines and objections. The filmmakers have fleshed these out to deliver a riveting drama that takes place almost entirely around a large conference table.

Conspiracy opens with SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann (Stanley Tucci) overseeing final touches for the meeting that include excellent wines, fine cigars, and a lavish buffet lunch for 15. As they enter, the guests, who represent some of Nazi Germany’s most powerful men, introduce themselves to one another and the viewer. Two look decidedly glum: Dr. Friedrich Kritzinger (David Threlfall), deputy head of the Reich Chancellery; and Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth), chief architect of the Nuremberg Laws that have legally stripped German Jews of their civil rights, defining “Jew” using formulas of Stuckart’s devising. Kritzinger and Stuckart believe that their offices have resolved the “Jewish question.” Suspicious that the SS, the meeting’s sponsor, is about to hijack that “question” and impose a solution of its own, the two quietly grouse to one another.

Last to arrive is the host, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh), Chief of the Reich Security Main Office. Heydrich, who called the meeting, presides with the jaunty, self-satisfied air of a man who knows that he is going places. He begins by quoting a directive from Reichsmarschall Herman Goering that assigns Heydrich to find “a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe” and stipulates that relevant government agencies are to “cooperate” with the security chief in this endeavor. Kritzinger instantly objects; the Chancellery, he declares, has received no directive on this subject. He fruitlessly tries to gain a hearing but Heydrich smoothly and stubbornly plows on, leaving the sidelined Kritzinger to fume.


The History of White People at War: Responses

My post entitled “The History of White People at War” has so far received four responses.  Once upon a time it was possible for readers to leave comments only on the blog itself.  Nowadays, because it’s possible for blog posts to be placed on Facebook (and probably most social media), comments can appear elsewhere–in the case of the SMH blog, on the SMH Facebook group.  Thus, in order to maximize dialog it seems best to address all comments in a follow-up post. So here goes…

Carson Starkey Excellent analysis. I agree that the use of “war” is highly racialized, with special emphasis on the past 13 years (insurgencies instead of wars).
January 28 at 10:53am [on Facebook]
Jonathan Krause on January 28, 2014 at 2:41 pm said:

The article looks at two things, really (how cultural baggage affects perceptions of war, and how eurocentric Western depictions/studies of war tend to be). I’ll focus on the latter, mostly.

I think that looking at it in terms of ‘race’ is profoundly unhelpful, and slightly misses the point. We are really talking about culture and identity. The vast majority of individuals who teach/research military history in North America and Europe tend to hail from, well, North America and Europe! Their ancestry influences their identity, which in turn (very often) influences their research interests.

For those of us who chose to focus on something which does not have any resonance with our ancestry or identity there is still the issue of language. Choosing to study a nation or group whose language is not you own, but is still European (Latin based or Germanic, we’ll leave out the more exotic linguistic traditions like Gaelic and Magyar), is one thing….choosing to study a nation or group or time which requires you to learn a language which has radically different linguistic roots to your own is something else altogether. The extra effort (which is substantial) combines with an individual’s lack of identification with the place or time or people studied to produce….well, nothing usually. Even if the language barrier is overcome that is merely the first step; a broad knowledge of the region’s geography, flora, fauna, food, culture and religious/ethnic make-up are all also essential, and likely to be (at least at first) completely and utterly foreign.

The real answer to getting over eurocentrism, to my mind, is to do a better job of globalizing the history marketplace. American history students should be taught by a far broader range of international scholars. It would certainly be easier than hoping students (future historians!) will decide, at random, to begin taking more of an interest in the military history of, say, Nanyue/Nam Viet…and then have to set out trying to find a supervisor who knows anything about it. Of course, broadening history curricula to include the entire world will make it incredibly hard for students to get a good grasp on any longue duree evolution, but we can cross that bridge when (if!) we get to it.

In short, crying out for a broader understanding of history, and pointing out how the cultural baggage of generations of ancestors influences our perceptions of war is important….but you have to maintain a realistic expectation for what you can expect ‘the West’ to do. [On the blog]


Jim Williams No argument from me. The practical problems of acquiring enough knowledge (including language) to do a whole lot more pose a formidable challenge. I see it just trying to teach an intro ‘Western Civ’ course, which has now been expanded to give much greater weight to the Arab/Muslim world. To tackle the practical challenges probably requires a shift in the way of teaching and research, from the single instructor/scholar to a team, much as we see happening in some parts of medical practice. That shift may hit some bureaucratic/institutional barriers, as well as resistance stemming from ingrained habits of current practitioners.
January 28 at 5:47pm [on Facebook]
William Hupp on January 28, 2014 at 7:45 pm said:

This reminds me of a current controversy over whether it was a good idea to change The Fort Dearborn Massacre to The Battle of Ft. Dearborn. What did those in the past mean when they named an event a battle or a war, and what does it look like now from our perspective? I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a young member of the Military Book Club and the kids today play Civilization and other conflict games that seem to have very broad definitions of war. If by race we mean group differences, us vs. them is very important. But as in Bloody Kansas, group differences can be created without a racial component. Creasy didn’t seem very persuasive when I first read it in the 70′s, so I don’t think race helps me much think about the nature of war. [On the blog]



Airpower in the War for Cochinchina: “When the stakes are worth the pain”

by  Dr. William Waddell

As the United States seems poised to broaden its military engagement against the Islamic State, it is prudent to consider more extensively how Airpower has succeeded and failed in the past under similar circumstances.  One potential font of knowledge is the First Indochina War (1945-1954) in which a conventionally formidable, though resource-constrained Western army faced off against the hybrid foe animated by a powerful ideology with global reach and popular appeal.

Airpower in the Indochina War was a vexed and variable affair.   Unlike the American Army Air Corps (and ultimately Air Force) the French armée de l’air, while notionally an independent service since 1934, was inextricably tied to terrestrial concerns. During the wars of decolonization it functioned almost exclusively as an adjunct of army operations.  Even more problematic was the severe, nearly crippling, material shortcomings under which it operated for most of the Indochina War.  Equipment, such as was available, came second-hand from the British and Americans.  Pilots and maintenance personnel were in perennial arrears.  Furthermore, unlike the Americans and British at the outbreak of the war in 1945, French aviators were not practiced extensively in the more “strategic” uses of Airpower.  In the main, therefore, the armée de l’air was a tactical force in terms of equipment and mindset, but was often tasked during the course of the war to square increasingly problematic operational/strategic circles, especially in the principal theatre of Tonkin.

In the far south of Indochina, the part known as Cochinchina (i.e. that area which roughly corresponds to the IV Corps Tactical Zone during the American phase of the war), a unique operational rhythm developed.  In this area, centered on Saigon, the armée de l’air faced a poverty of resources an order of magnitude more severe than the relative luxury in the north.  Because of this French theatre commanders were more quickly disabused of the notion that they could effect decisive battlefield operations, relying on an exaggerated notion of aviation’s abilities to reify fantastical schemes of maneuver.   Instead, in the south, the French Expeditionary Force evolved a homeostatic use of airpower that lent suppleness and flexibility to an otherwise rigid defensive posture.  This attitude ultimately allowed the French position in the south to survive, and even thrive after a fashion, while the situation in Tonkin unraveled.

To make this point, it is first necessary to give an extremely brief survey of the disposition and composition of French air assets during the war.[i] At base and for most of the war aviation in Indochina was divided into three tactical groupements or G.A.T.A.C. (Groupements Aériens Tactiques). One was stationed in Tonkin; the second covered the center of the country in Annam; the third was stationed in the south and was centered mainly in Tan San Nhut outside of Saigon.  Functionality within the GATACs was divided into formations de combat (fighter and bomb groups), formations de transport, formations de reconnaissance and finally unités de liaison et observation (liaison and observation units).  One should not imagine, however, that these three groupings were in any way equivalent.  GATAC Nord, which served Tonkin, was substantially larger than the other two after new runways were cleared over the course of 1947.[ii]  By way of example and contrast, for most of the war fighter aviation in the south consisted of a single groupe de chasse. Actual airframes in operation paints an even grimmer picture:  in the summer of 1949, for example, GATAC Sud only had six Spitfires in working order at any one time.[iii]  GATAC Nord had a good deal more, usually at least two groupes de chasse.[iv]


Courtesy, “Lt Humbert devant le Spitfire IX “A” à Sano 1948. Collection Colonel Humbert..”



Given that the bulk of Vietminh formations resided in the north, it is hardly surprising that the French concentrated their limited aviation assets in Tonkin.  Whatever the mix, however, the guiding principle of airpower application in Indochina was “decentralized” operations tied intimately and inextricably to “surface” concerns.[v]  It would be wrong to think that at any point during the Indochina War the armée de l’air mounted anything resembling a truly independent operation.

What did develop in Indochina in respect to airpower were two different operational rhythms.  The first planners dubbed a régime de croisière (cruise arrangement) in which air assets were used at a sustainable pace with an eye to maintaining a steady tempo of operations.   The second was a régime de crise (crisis arrangement) in which all available assets were thrown at a given tactical/operational problem regardless of loss or maintenance requirements.  As air planners noted time and again, the use of the “crisis” regime necessarily resulted in a dramatic exhaustion of operational potential immediately after the surge.  Airframes pushed to the limit, crews exhausted and parts in short supply meant that air operations were reduced to a bare minimum following major efforts while the logistical services scrambled to put things right.

The problem in Tonkin was that crisis became the norm.   Believing that one more effort might be enough to bring the Vietminh to heel, the French High Command initiated an agonizing system of undamped operational oscillation.  It began in 1947 with Operation LEA, the all-out effort to surround and capture the Vietminh main body complete with leadership and continued with increasing amplitude all the way to the effort in extremis to maintain the beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. At each juncture – e.g. Hoa Binh in 1951/52, Operation LORRAINE in 1952, Na San in 1952/53 and finally Dien Bien Phu in 1954 — French commanders could convince themselves that one more push would be enough to upend the Vietminh threat, restore security to the Red River delta and render meaningful the immense wastage in men and material.  In fact during the effort to support and supply Na San in 1952, a garrison smaller and far closer than Dien Bien Phu, the armée de l’air was already operating far beyond its theoretical flight hour maximums regardless of unit type.[vi]  When these efforts failed, airpower in Tonkin entered periods of prolonged eclipse during which the Vietminh threat would grow greater than before.  As air assets once more came online they would be thrown into new crisis to restore the deteriorating situation, resulting in the same problem yet again, only this time with greater magnitude and on a grander scale.

Truthfully air operations in Tonkin hardly ever settled into a “cruise arrangement;” they instead swung violently between emergency, superhuman effort and the supine licking of wounds.  In short, the extraordinary leveraging of airpower, often against the advice of airpower professionals, allowed the French command to momentarily live far beyond its real capacity.  Each iteration of this gambler’s fallacy made the next try all the more dangerous and inescapable.  In 1953 the staff had recommended that aviation not be employed except “quand l’enjeu en vaut la peine” (when the stakes [were] worth the pain).  In Tonkin, unfortunately, the application of airpower consistently raised the stakes to terrible effect.[vii]


Courtesy, “P63C Kingcobra. Collection C Requi.”


By necessity rather than strictly intent, a far different pattern emerged in Cochinchina.  In February 1948, having failed to achieve a knockout blow against the Vietminh in Tonkin in 1947, the French High Command uncharacteristically pushed substantial reinforcements south to effect a final reckoning with the southern arm of the communist insurrection.  A massive effort, especially for the south, the operation (codenamed VEGA) featured over 4,800 men as well as substantial artillery and riverine assets.[viii]  In terms of aviation, the southern command marshaled enough transport to simultaneously drop two battalions of paratroopers, numerous spotter aircraft and 13 fighter-bombers, a remarkable number for a southern operation.[ix]

In a highly choreographed maneuver, the French intended to surround and destroy the greater portion of the Vietminh infrastructure operating at the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds.  Spotter aircraft would vector in artillery fire, fighters and waterborne infantry to fix and destroy bewildered and trapped Vietminh formations.  In the end, it proved too much.  The Vietminh could not help but notice the amassing of men and machines for the strike.  They slipped from the noose before it was ever drawn.  VEGA was a failure.[x]

VEGA could have been the beginning of the same invidious logic that took hold in Tonkin, i.e. mortgaging the operational future for the pursuit of momentary tactical gains.  Yet the commander at the time of VEGA, General Pierre Boyer de Latour, took the opposite tact.  He understood VEGA and its aftermath as an object lesson in his command’s very tangible limitations.  Rather than bide his time and resources for the next masterstroke against the Vietminh as his northern counterparts did time and again, Latour hardened the core of his position around the major urban/economic zones of Cochinchina.  He built an elaborate network of fortifications manned increasingly by locally-raised troops.  Possessed of little in the way of aviation assets at any one time, Latour used his flyers to give his otherwise rigid, defensive position a flexibility it would otherwise lack.  Perpetually short on truly mobile units, Latour and his successors used reconnaissance aviation and transport to speed relatively small amounts of troops to critical fault lines in the nick of time.  This proved especially valuable in the intense battle of late 1949/1950 when crack Vietminh battalions attempted to break into the French position.  Well-timed, small-scale paratroop drops sustained with firepower from above and kept abreast of enemy movements by spotter aircraft proved indispensable to French survival.

Though airpower in Cochinchina was neither independent of army concerns, nor decisive in its own right, the effective use of aviation assets was indispensable to the maintenance of the French position.  Airpower, even under severe limitations, proved vital to the homeostatic operational perspective that developed in the south.  Indeed French commanders in the south, in an interesting penchant for biological language, liked to talk about building the “ossature” (frame or bones) of their position.[xi]  This was the forts and strongpoints; the line infantry and the partisans.  They furthermore saw Saigon and the surrounding old cities of Cochinchina as the heart pumping the lifeblood of economic activity that came down the rivers and across the canals. [xii] In keeping with our metaphor, airpower became the lymphatic system, part and parcel of the vitality of the whole.

As Vietminh pathogens erupted into the system in 1949/1950 Airpower proved its worth.  Attacks against French positions, especially in the west near Tra Vinh went down to costly failure.  Vietminh main force regiments, assiduously trained and constructed over the previous several years, were disbanded after their rout and southern communists were obliged to swear off large-scale offensive action for the remainder of the war.[xiii]  As the war dragged on in the rest of the country, the southern Vietminh never again posed a serious military threat to the heartland of Cochinchina until years after the French withdrawal.


Courtesy, “P63 Kingcobra 44142 du Normandie Niemen. Collection J Houben.”

Though we must be tentative about any direct corollaries with modern conflicts, the experience of Airpower during the First Indochina War can perhaps serve as a warning against relying too extensively on the air arm to fix an otherwise disordered operational/strategic picture.  There is certainly more to the picture, but is also plain that at many points commanders foisted unrealistic expectations on their aviators in the vain hope of leapfrogging their own basic strategic confusion.  This practice usually deepened the confusion and saddled the strategic posture with ever-greater incongruities.  In Cochinchina this by and large did not occur.  Airpower served to strengthen a sustainable presence and created a tempo of operations that was self-reinforcing and denied the enemy the politically and economically vital center of the country.

[i] A review of “lessons-learned” prepared by the French Expeditionary Force in 1953 provides insight into the strategic/operational perspective of the French during the war and will serve as the basis of much of what is to follow. Service historique de la Défense (hereafer SHD), carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[ii] Philippe Gras, L’armée de l’air en Indochine (1945-1954): L’impossible Mission (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001), 149-150.

[iii] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Situation des T.F.I.S., mois de septembre,” 3eème Bureau. Dated Sept 1949.

[iv] At the beginning of the war the primary French fighter was the Spitfire Mk IX.  Over the course of 1949/50 this was replaced by the P-63 King Cobra, and to a lesser extent the F8F Bearcat and F6F Hellcat.

[v] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[vi] Gras, 422.

[vii] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[viii] SHD, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[ix] Gras., 186.

[x] SHAT, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[xi] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Instruction personnelle & secrète pour les Colonels Commandants de Zone,” prepared by Général de Brigade Chanson, Commandant les Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam.  Dated 25 May 1951.

[xii] A.M. Savani, Visage et Images du Sud Viet-Nam (Saigon: Imprimerie française d’outre-mer, 1955), 14.

[xiii] SHD, carton 10H3746.  “évolution des forces V.M. du Nambo de Septembre 1945 à Janvier 1952,” dated 10 January 1952 and prepared by état-Major/2eme Bureau, Forces terrestres du Sud Viet-nam.


War Diaries and Digital Humanities

The growing pace of archival digitization is creating tensions in communities of researchers and archivists. Digital Humanities projects hold great promise, but also substantial risks for today’s researchers and for future generations of scholars.

Andrew Hoskins (Interdisciplinary Research Professor at University of Glasgow) points out that “digital networks and databases appear to crush historical distance. Archives of war increasingly come to us. A simple YouTube search throws up a chaotic mix of official and unauthorised, user-generated content, from helmet cam footage to images of snipers in the field. But this immediacy, volume and pervasiveness can mean less reflection. The rawness of media memory distills a history without horizon and without hindsight. The sheer scale and complexity of digital data as primary source creates an immediate but unwieldy archive. It also hides what is really lost in paper’s demise.”

So, as war diaries and other military records are increasingly being digitized, Hoskins asks: “what are the prospects for the future of the history of warfare?”

The digitization of documents “might make records easier to find,” but Hoskins warns that: “something important is lost. The digital file strips away the subliminal context that comes with the finding, filing, handling and searching through the physical file. The mental map of the archive and its contents dissolve.”

Hoskins raises important questions on preserving, organizing, accessing, and utilizing digitized documents in archival collections dealing with the history of war and society. His own work seems concerned particularly with war diaries as a distinct textual genre. But, many of the issues he discusses are equally relevant for Digital Humanities work in other fields of research.

Hoskins’s article is available online at The Conversation.

This post is cross-posted from Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives.

Comments (1)

State of the Field: Military History/History of the Military

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

These were my opening remarks at an Organization of American Historians Round Table Session (commissioned by the Program Committee) at the OAH Annual Meeting in Saint Louis back in mid-April. My fellow panelists were Christian Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of several books, including American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity; Meredith Lair, an associate professor in the Department of History & Art History at George Mason University, who is the author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War; and Tami Davis Biddle, Professor of History and National Security Strategy at the US Army War College, who is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, as well as Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945.

Snapshots of the current state of a given field can be among the most interesting and valuable sessions at a conference, so when I was asked to participate in this one I accepted the invitation with pleasure. But once I began preparing these brief opening remarks I found myself with questions, mostly centering on what it means to speak of the “state” of a field. It seems to me that the term can indicate at least three things. It might mean the intellectual state of the field—the questions currently being asked most urgently, new conceptual frameworks and methodologies, and so on. For younger fields it might also mean the state of the field in terms of its maturity: for instance, just how many historians are now at work within it, how many history departments regard it as important enough to justify the creation or maintenance of one or more faculty lines? Related to this second meaning is a third, the general acceptance of the field within the overall discipline.

For me at least, it’s impossible to think of the state of military history, in any of the above meanings of the term, without being reminded that military history in the United States is an unusual field. Although it has been an academic field—in the sense of having PhDs trained specifically as military historians—since about 1970, the field has always had a powerful connection with an entity outside academe, namely the American military establishment. Indeed, our flagship organization, the Society for Military History, is a descendant of the American Military Institute, created by a group of active and retired U.S. Army officers as well as interested amateurs in the early 1930’s. Over time, as civilian scholars emerged who self-identified as military historians, they more or less glommed on to the AMI until around 1990 they acquired sufficient critical mass to turn the AMI into a conventional academic organization. Under academic leadership the organization changed its name, began to hold an annual conference, and created a refereed journal, the Journal of Military History.



Re-posted from Dr. Mark Grimsley’s blog (

A guest post by Dr. Frank Blazich., Naval History and Heritage Command.

The views expressed in this post are his alone, not those of the NHHC, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Thousands of men and women across the United States and overseas are engaged in the pursuit of a doctoral degree in history. Most desire an academic position upon completion of their studies (preferably a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution), a career marked by the familiar rhythm of instruction, research, writing, and intellectual development. Unfortunately, a downward trend in tenure-track positions, budget cuts, and a growing reliance on adjunct positions has sharply reduced the odds of satisfying that desire. Yet as Daniel Drezner recently argued in the Washington Post, most graduate students have “drunk the Kool-Aid”: they get so fixated on the academic track as the only track that they will prefer an adjunct slot—and the increasingly naked exploitation that goes with it (crappy pay, few or no benefits, scant job security)—to any of the other tracks available. Indeed, they may have their eyes so fixated on the academic track that they don’t even know that other tracks exist. There are, however, alternatives to consider and pursue while in graduate school.

Sure, I too drank some of that metaphorical “Kool-Aid” too (as Drezner observed was practically inevitable) but only enough, as it turns out, to have but temporary effect. Instead, I’ve found my way to gainful, fulfilling employment, and a salary comparable to that of starting tenure-track assistant professors.

I did it by following a road less frequently traveled. And therefore my task is to make suggestions that can benefit graduate students in military history who are nearing the defense of their dissertation.

Everything started for myself with the omnipotent question: “What do you really want to do with your life?” The answer: “To be a professional historian,” a goal I believed I could and would achieve within traditional academe. Just how to get there also seemed straightforward. A BA in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then an MA from North Carolina State University, and at finally a PhD from Ohio State—got me to my destination. I was indeed a professional historian. Now what? The inevitable guidance I received from a number of advisors, with minor variation, resembled a Philip Glass composition, a minimalist melody of “. . . and you can teach . . . and teach . . . and then teach . . . teach, teach, teach. . . .”

The only problem was that I didn’t particularly want to teach in the sense that they meant. I saw more self-fulfillment from researching, writing—and teaching in a different way, through public engagement. I thereafter resolved to pursue a federal or private industry position as a historian, and fairly quickly found a position in the federal government that allowed me to be a professional historian on the terms I truly desired. The famed scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, counseled his students, “Follow your bliss.” Well, I had done just that. So permit me to make a somewhat more than modest proposal, based on my personal journey, as an antidote to the Kool-Aid. I direct that proposal to graduate students, to suggest a different way by which to follow their own bliss, to provide them with fodder to reexamine the doubts they almost certainly have—doubts embedded by the mantra of “teach, teach, teach” within academe—on being a historian outside of the academy.

1. Find work outside of academe. Plenty of organizations can use a trained historian with skills in research, communication (oral and written), analysis, and interpretation. In my case, one such organization came to me—the Civil Air Patrol—and asked, based on my doctoral research on civil defense and emergency management, if I could help research their history. I joined the organization and began volunteering anywhere from five to twenty hours a week. I began as an unpaid internship, but shortly rose to become the CAP’s Chief Historian. Another possibility is to pursue contract history; that is to say, researching and writing reports or white papers for businesses, governmental bodies, or “think tanks”. During the final stages of completing my Master’s thesis, I signed a contract to write the fiftieth anniversary history for one such think tank. I will not claim that after earning the doctorate that I wrote a masterpiece, and certainly not one that traditional academe would recognize. But the work provided me with the equivalent of a post-doc in research, analysis, oral history, and business principles.

2. Diversify your historical skills. Many graduate programs—though far from all—equip students with valuable, albeit somewhat rudimentary, teaching skills, either through specific courses or by the osmosis inherent in repeated years of coursework. But that skill set can be deployed in places other than academe. A professional historian in the academic sense is more than capable of preparing graphic display panels, storyboard a museum exhibit, or engaging in archival screening. Yes, these are public history skills, but a public that seeks its own version of a liberal arts education values precisely those skills. Therefore give serious thought to “following your bliss” by a different path.

Pursue the opportunities (many yielding salary and benefits as good or better that that of a career in academe) to use your teaching skills in another way. For those with knowledge of foreign languages or cultural knowledge from work overseas, apply your specialized knowledge reflected in a PhD to working within a law firm, business, government or museum. They value someone who has that kind of knowledge—and is usually more ready, willing and able than academe to place a realistic price upon their services. And the more you can demonstrate to potential employers—in ways not all that different from the conference presentations and referred articles you ought to generate, if you know what’s good for you, during your years as a PhD candidate—that you are capable of applying your education on terms other than those demanded by academe, the more you can demonstrate that you’re capable of performing an array of tasks and jobs.

3. Embrace the public. History is a popular field with the general public. Moviegoers spend billions annually to watch films “based on a true story.” Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and blogs populate the Internet with historical morsels, nourishing seemingly every intellectual palate. A cartoon making its round with historian emails carries the caption “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” This begs the question, why on earth would qualified historians choose to resign themselves to that fate?

Public historians have plenty of ways to achieve Campbell’s “bliss”. We build massive libraries, devote resources to rescue and save textual and non-textual records, and devote lifetimes to the study of the past. How much of your work is shared with the public? How much is written in a form and language accessible to the general public? Put a bit more brutally, how much are you fulfilling the social responsibility obligation demanded by a society in return for giving academe the freedom it long ago granted the earliest professions (law, medicine, and clergy): the freedom to generate expertise by making its own selection process, establishing its own criteria for the acquisition of that expertise, and providing its own mechanisms by which to assess whether an aspiring professional has in fact demonstrated that she or he has achieved professional status.

Academe replies: we “teach, teach, teach,” knowing all along that it really views teaching as secondary to the generation of a scholarship overwhelmingly directed toward specialists within academe, scholarship nearly incomprehensible to anyone other than those specialists.

Actually, fulfilling that social responsibility obligation to extend education to society at large is not all that difficult, even for those whose bliss truly lies within academe. (My reservations about academe come mostly from my observations about academic administrators rather than academic practitioners). It is easy to get angry at an inaccurate internet or media article about a historical topic. You don’t have to seethe about it, to do nothing to “speak truth to idiocy”. Do not remain silent, but tactfully respond. Offer your insight, share your knowledge, stand up as the subject matter expert and embrace the communication tools of the present day.

One obvious tool lies within the blogosphere, where you can fight blog post with blog post. Perhaps you found the misleading article via Facebook. You can fight back through Facebook. Fight dubious Twitter tweets with counter tweets. People beyond academe appreciate the appraisal of a true expert. And surprising number of them will beat a path to your door, contract in hand, and employment options will materialize.

4. Consider your perspective. Don’t just react to misguided assertions based on flawed, misguided, or outright bogus historical perspectives. Be proactive about engaging the larger public. Historiography is the ideal example of this, where historians can analyze and examine the differing perspectives allotted to a topic by multiple scholars. Now apply this outside of academe. If you are a business executive, would you not want to know what courses of action your predecessors took? Which ones succeeded and why? Why did others fail? What if an organization’s history is exclusively institutional memory that exists only within the memories of a handful of long-standing employees who could retire? Your training as a historian is ideal for bringing real expertise to bear upon these and myriad other questions, to provide the needed—and therefore valued—answers to a corporation or non-academic institution. Leveraging an organization’s heritage, creating a usable institutional memory, can easily save untold resources by avoiding past mistakes, or perhaps targeting new geographic or demographic markets.

Academe does not have a monopoly on such thinking or thought process. So why would you place your career in the hands of an institution that increasingly, and pretty remorselessly, will treat you like a commodity (in the sense, as expressed in the filmTrading Places, of “gold, silver, platinum, heating oil, propane, cocoa and sugar. And, of course, frozen concentrated orange juice.”). Why would you limit your employment options only to academe if academe is frequently (though not yet always) unable to remunerate you in the way you need and deserve in order to carve out the larger life—the bliss of a family for which you can adequately provide, the bliss of traveling to faraway places other than archives, the bliss of having the ability to provide substantial funds to the charities whose commitments you value.

The wider world needs the talents and capabilities of historians, be they in the government, business, law, medicine, or public service. Furthermore, as someone trained to craft and defend a position with evidence, why not use this as an asset when speaking with a recruiter or hiring authority? Consider their perspective, and make a compelling case how hiring a historian opens up possibilities to strengthen their organization they may never have considered.

5. Know thyself. This last point is perhaps mundane or irrelevant, but has pertinence. As chiseled in stone at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “know thyself” is worth remembering. “Historian” is not exclusive to academe but rather becomes an inner calling and integral component of your mental and intellectual processes. The job market is terrifying only if you restrict yourself to the restrictive market of academe, if you disregard the fact that the market is much larger than academe indoctrinates you to believe. As long as humanity exists, there will be a need to study and utilize past actions and accomplishments for the betterment of tomorrow. You can and will be hired because of your skills as a historian, and those skills will always remain the defining characteristics of your position.

James Hinton on The Battle of Red Cliffs

The Han dynasty was in trouble.

For four centuries the Han had ruled China. Founded by a peasant rebel named Liu Bang, they had ascended to rule in 206 B.C.E. By 196 C.E. they were in clear trouble, however. Civil War had forced Emperor Xian to move his capital to Xuchang. From there he had little practical control over China, but rather sat as a figure head while powerful warlords ruled their individual territories unchecked.

By 208, twelve years after the move of the capital, Cao Cao was one of the most powerful of these warlords. Xuchang was in the heart of the territory he held. When the Imperial court had moved, he had been a small timer. However, he took advantage of his stranglehold over the court’s line of communications to rise from a small time warlord to being the man who ruled the entire north of China in the name of Emperor Xian.

The southern half of China, however, had become very much aware of who was actually ruling Northern China, and they were refusing to play along any further. Combined, they wielded a strength in arms and political will that Cao Cao that was virtually insurmountable. Unfortunately for them, they were anything but combined. Several warlords ruled most of the south, and they did not get along.

In 208, one of those warlords, Sun Quan, defeated an army belonging to another warlord, Liu Biao. This allowed him to carve out a significant chunk out of Liu Biao’s territory. Sensing an opportunity, Cao Cao swept south to snap up most of what remained. Realizing that, rather than becoming more powerful, he had actually weakened his own army while giving Cao Cao an opening, Sun Quan desperately arranged an alliance with what little remained of Liu Biao’s holdings, led by Liu Biao’s successor, Liu Bei.

Even with this alliance, Sun Quan was in trouble. Cao Cao was bragging that he had an army nearly 800,000 strong. In truth he probably only had around 250,000 men, but this was still sufficient to outnumber Sun Quan by at least five to one. He needed an angle to even the odds, and he found it.

In order to control Sun Quan’s territory Cao Cao would need to control the Yangtze River. The key to this was the naval base located at Jiangling. From there he would be able to sail all the way down to the mouth of the river and control the entirety of China’s most important river and the entire trade and agricultural network built around it.

Recognizing this, Sun Quan determined to blockade the river. Under the command of Sun-Liu, Sun Quan’s entire force took to ships and sailed up the Yangtze, where they encountered the vanguard of Cao Cao’s army. Located in a swampy area, the fight that took place was small and relatively insignificant. Cao Cao pulled the vanguard back to meet up with the rest of his army somewhere near the town of Wulin and the Red Cliffs lining the river banks.

Cao Cao had successfully captured Jiangling, and so had plenty of ships at his disposal as well. He marched his army aboard and prepared to fight a 300,000 man strong ship to ship action that would become known as the largest naval battle in history.

It would prove to be a disaster. Cao Cao had not accounted for one simple little detail in his plan. While Sun Quan’s men were all able marines with experience aboard ship, Cao Cao’s army had little to know experience aboard ship. Already demoralized and sick from the forced marches necessary to take Jiangling, Cao Cao’s men became seasick. In order to attempt to stabilize the ships and ease the seasickness, Cao Cao ordered them to be lashed together.

This was the opportunity Sun Quan had needed, and he seized it with alacrity. A portion of his army led by Huang Gai was ordered to pretend to defect to Cao Cao’s side. Certain of his success, Cao Cao saw nothing deceptive in this. The supposed defectors were allowed to sail their ships up the Yangtze unmolested.

As they approached, Huang Gai’s men lit their ships on fire. Packed to the scuppers with oil and kindling, the ships quickly became floating fireballs, propelled upstream by a favorable wind. Huang Gai’s men took to small craft and escaped.

Lashed together, Cao Cao’s ships were helpless. They had no room to maneuver, and no ability to escape. Cao Cao’s army, already sick and exhausted, was thrown into chaos. Much of the army drowned attempting to escape the coming conflagration while many more died in the ensuing deathtrap of burning ships.

Devastated by the losses, Cao Cao was forced to escape through the swamplands surrounding the Red Cliffs. Sun Quan’s healthier and better organized forces pressed them hard, pursuing as much as they could. Cao Cao’s already decimated army was further whittled down during this attempt at escape.

By 209, Cao Cao had fallen back to his holdings in the north. Much of the territory he had taken from Liu Biao had slipped from his fingers as a result of his need to reconsolidate his weakened forces. Sun Quan had been further weakened as well during the battle, and thus had been unable to capitalize on his victory. He would remain in control of his own lands, but expand no further. Liu Bei, however, would suddenly find himself in a position to control large swaths of territory, including very important and strategic choke points on the Yangtze.

The three commanders, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei would continue to fight off and on for another decade, but never with such lopsided odds or results. All three would eventually declare themselves to be king of their relative regions during this time.

Upon the death of Cao Cao in 220, Emperor Xian abdicated, formally handing his title over to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi. Eleven years after the fateful battle of the Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was no more, and in its place the three commanders had become the rulers of Wei (Cao Pi), Shu (Liu Bei), and Wu (Sun Quan). The Three Kingdoms period had begun.



James Hinton is an armchair historian and former army veteran. When he isn’t busy writing on topics related to military history he spends his time attempting to train his daughters to row Roman galleys in the middle of the Idaho desert.

Comments (1)

SMH President’s Remarks on “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy”

Prof. Gregory Urwin of Temple University, who will shortly conclude his term as president of the Society of Military History, has a valedictory column in the current SMH newsletter.  [Society for Military History Headquarters Gazette, vol. 27, no. 4 (Winter 2015):3-4].  In it, he takes time to comment at length on the recent SMH White Paper, whose preparation he regarded as one of two principal tasks he wanted to accomplish during his presidency.  Here’s how he portrays its genesis, rationale, and purpose:

On the eve of my accession as your president, I informed the SMH Council of my intention to commission a white paper to promote the teaching of military history in American colleges and universities. I had grown tired of seeing those occasional whiny newspaper and magazine articles filled with quotations from military historians claiming that our field does not command enough respect from academe. Whether that charge is true or not, such a negative and confrontational approach – especially since it is often driven by conservative special interest groups – is counterproductive. I thought it would be far better to address a paper to university and college administrators, non-military historians, and the general public that summarized how much military history had matured during the past half century, why it is vital to an informed citizenry to understand the most fearsome (and most expensive) tool wielded by their government, and how military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.

I turned to then Vice President Robert M. Citino to ramrod this effort. Rob recruited Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College to join him, and the two of them went to work with a will. When Rob resigned as vice president just before our 2014 Annual Meeting,  Tami soldiered on, completing a compellingly argued and beautifully written essay. As I draft this column, Tami and Rob’s masterpiece, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy, is at the printer’s and should be released before you read my words.

The SMH plans to distribute this white paper to the news media, educational leaders, and history departments across the United States. We hope that Tami and Rob’s vision will cause academe to take a new look at military history. If all goes well, the ensuing discussion will result in the creation of some additional teaching positions in our sub-field, and further elevate the Society for Military History’s position in the humanities community.

Urwin is wise to specify the main academic target audience as university administrators rather than faculty.  I recently sent the White Paper to ten faculty members at various institutions, members whose views of our field I knew to range from polite skepticism to something approaching outright disdain.  Most took time to reply; I was surprised and pleased to find that some of the faculty I expected to be most dismissive instead sent thoughtful, insightful responses–and that all of them acceded to my request to quote them without attribution.  I’ll summarize their views in a follow-up post.  For now, I’ll just say that they did not exactly perceive the White Paper as devoid of the defensive tone Urwin sought to transcend, nor did it put much of a dent in their existing perception of the field.  University administrators, on the other hand, may well be intrigued by the White Paper’s assertion that “military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.”  Faculty can airily dismiss such workaday possibilities as a kind of academic whoring.  Administrators cannot.

Comments (1)

Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? – Pt 2

(Cross-posted, with minor changes, from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age)

It turns out that Megan isn’t the only writer in the blogosphere to comment on these two articles, and I’m not the only one to comment on her post.

Over the holiday break, the staff of Civil War History compiled a list of online blogs and articles that relate (both directly and more indirectly) to the think piece by Earl Hess. The staff has shared the list on the CWH Facebook page  “in hopes that it continues to inspire a thoughtful and productive dialogue.”  With that hope in mind, here’s the list as they have it thus far (leaving aside the link to my own post, previously reprinted):

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, What Do We Need to Know About Traditional Military History? (December 7, 2014)

Megan Kate Nelson, Historista, Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out (December 10, 2014)

Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, And the Dead (Fields of History) Shall Rise Up (December 11, 2014)

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, In Defense of Hess, Gallagher and Meier (December 11, 2014)

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, Civil Discourse Blog, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History”:  A Response (January 5, 2015)

Kevin Gannon, The Tattooed Professor,  Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s “Dark Side” (January 6, 2015)

(NB.  Actually, it’s no longer accurate to refer to the “blogosphere,” at least not as a self-contained entity, because when links to posts are shared on Facebook or Twitter (as they frequently are), most of the ensuing dialog takes place on those sites, especially FB.  The update on the Civil War History Journal Facebook page is itself a case in point.  The resulting dynamic is worth a post in its own right–something I’ll have to place on my long list of things to blog about.  In the interim, it’s time to write part 3 of  my own response.)

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy

The Society for Military History has just released a white paper entitled “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.”  In it, notes the SMH web site:

 co-authors Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas provide a compelling chronicle of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assess its current place in American higher education. In addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future leaders in the world’s mightiest military power.

The SMH intends this white paper to generate a dialogue with history professors, college and university administrators, journalists, politicians, and citizens regarding the key role the study of military history can play in deepening our understanding of the world we inhabit and producing an informed citizenry.

The white paper is available here. (It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format.)

Powered by WordPress