The Official Blog of the Society for Military History
[Cross-posted on Skulking in Holes and Corners blog]
In the debate over cultural vs. practical explanations for military behavior (assuming we need to prefer one over the other), the concept of reciprocity will undoubtedly surface. It’s frequently used to explain why some combatants broke real or apparent ‘rules’ of war, or otherwise violated expected norms of behavior. Often times it’s used to excuse bad behavior: soldiers, for example, may have done something that might be considered ‘bad’ in some circumstances, but they did it only after the other side did it first, or only after the other side’s past actions (or maybe just one action) made it clear that a more acceptable response was too dangerous to their own troops. In other words, their response was not conditioned by culture (e.g. a cultural hatred of the Other), but by pragmatism, maybe a rational desire to avoid casualties, or perhaps punishing the enemy for similarly bad behavior. You also see reciprocity come up a lot as a mechanism when discussing the “laws” of war – that reciprocity was one of the key factors limiting excessive violence. In the early modern context, reciprocity is often alluded to when describing how the post-Thirty Years War period became a period of “limited” war.
Given the frequency with which we mention the concept, I’m surprised how little we seem to understand it, at least in an early modern context. I’m sure it’s quite well covered in the literature on counterinsurgency (the Nazi response to partisan attacks comes quickly to mind), though Roy McCullough’s Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France is about the only early modern study I know of. If reciprocity really does help explain an era of “limited” war, has anybody explained why reciprocity, which would seem to have a universal logic, apparently broke down from 1560-1648? (Yes, wars of religion and all that, but spell it out, e.g. does reciprocity fail when the stakes are so high that you’re not going to be deterred by whatever reprisal the enemy commits? Or more extreme acts are no longer seen as being so far outside the pale that they merit reprisal?…)
I admit I don’t have a really clear grasp of how exactly it worked on the ground, particularly in a conventional conflict between European states, and particularly how it was supposed to work over time. So here are my initial thoughts (and questions) about how military reciprocity was supposed to work in limiting early modern military excess. Somebody should write a book or article just on this, preferably a case study. Maybe somebody already has, in which case, let me know in the comments. I just hope I don’t have to read too much about MAD.
The System of Reciprocity
Early modern contemporaries explicitly discussed the idea, so at least we know it’s not some modern concept anachronistically superimposed onto the foreign Past. That being said, we should probably start by wondering how many moralistic justifications for bad-assery (“I only did it to right a wrong”) weren’t just a mask for some other, less pious, motive – just sayin’. Just war theorists had a thing or two to say about that.
The next task is to figure out what exactly reciprocity is and isn’t. Contemporary theoretical treatises give us an idea of how it was expected to work in many specific contexts (regarding prisoners, when your property is damaged, when you capture a town…). That in and of itself would require a whole book, though the concept of lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) would probably need a pretty big index entry. Clearly, reciprocity includes threatening reprisal if an enemy behaves badly or continues to do so - deterrence, in other words. A graduated system of reciprocity can also go one step further, to actual acts of reprisal that are intended to teach the enemy a lesson, to influence their future behavior. What I’m less sure about is whether reciprocity can consist of acts with the singular intent of punishing an enemy for bad behavior, or to seek revenge. Colloquially that seems to fit the definition, but I’m not sure if vengeance, without the intent to influence future enemy behavior, can be part of a broader strategy.
Sometimes reprisals were not so much about punishing behaviors that violated the understood norms of the period, but they were really just about punishing any kind of behavior that the other side didn’t like, or discouraging any strategy or tactic that you think the enemy holds an advantage in. You let the enemy know they won’t gain any advantage by doing behavior X (so presumably they should stop doing it). For example, if one of Louis’ garrisons was taken prisoner because it poorly defended itself, is his desire to take an Allied garrison that did defend itself well reciprocity, or just being a sore loser? Is honor as important a motive for reciprocity as actual physical harm? More broadly, does reciprocity exist without a moral justification?
Even if we create a reasonable definition of the term, and I don’t know that I have one yet, I want to know how reciprocity works over the long haul. It seems like historians usually focus on two possible dynamics: 1) no bad behavior occurs at all because fear holds both sides in check, or 2) side A’s bad behavior ends after side B threatens them with reciprocal treatment. Of course there’s another possibility: a string of reciprocal actions that quickly spirals out of control, but we don’t hear much about this much (maybe in some of the literature on the wars of religion). Such escalation would seem to be a total failure of reciprocity as deterrent – which seems quite plausible, yet most early modern discussions of reciprocity I can think of, brief as they are, talk about it working effectively. (Maybe that’s because I focus on the late 17C into the 18C).
To understand how reciprocity really worked in practice, I think we first need to have a good sense of the balance between two types of reprisals: actual reprisals, and threats of. Is a threat to reciprocate serious enough on its own, without a precedent? Do combatants play chicken with threats, ignoring the other side’s menaces until somebody actually does something? A stable, functioning system would, I’d think, tend to see far more threats of reprisal than actual reprisals. A very stable system, with opponents who truly understand each other and appreciate their opposite’s potential for reprisal, might not even see the need for an explicit threat at all if the fear of reciprocity was internalized, unless there were explicit agreements banning certain acts beyond the pale. I’d imagine this would take the form of a constant concern that, if you did X, the enemy would repay the favor. Or perhaps a much earlier example would be all that was needed. On the other hand, lots of actual reprisals (tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat…) would indicate that the reciprocity system has probably broken down completely, or that reprisals has become purely about punishment and no longer about deterrence. (Maybe we need to distinguish “reprisals” from “reciprocity”, i.e. some reprisals might just be about revenge and not part of a reciprocity system?)
There might be a ‘seasonality’ to it all. On the broadest level, reciprocity really only works if both sides believe the conflict will last long enough for retribution to be meted out. Thus, in a war that’s expected to end quickly (don’t most, when they’re started?), belligerents might not feel constrained by the fear of reciprocity. Or, if a side truly believes in a decisive battle ending the war in a day, that day could come at any time. Did millenarian groups abandon all caution to the wind because they believed the end of the world was nigh (or am I giving millenarians too much credit for the strength of their convictions) – what would Thomas Müntzer do? Does the belief in a long war mean that wars which dragged on were more likely to see reprisals? Maybe if you expect the war to be an attritional slog, you try to avoid getting too “hot”? Or maybe an accumulation of little insults and violations eventually reaches a tipping point where some message needs to be sent. Sometimes we explain the winding down of campaigning late in a war in terms of exhaustion – could it be caution as well?
The scale of reprisals also seems important. If the reprisals are small-scale or carefully calibrated, that would suggest a very finely tuned communication between the two sides. But perchance you see a massive reprisal to a small-scale violation (speaking of the Nazis) – is that more effective, or would a more calculated response have worked better? The answer probably depends on knowledge of the intended audience, what their culture expects, how it responds. Similarly, whether a side responds with precision or with overkill may itself derive from its own understanding of how loudly power should speak.
How does the cycle of reciprocity end? Assuming side A carries out a reprisal, how does side B decide whether to a) ignore it and do what they were going to do anyway, b) learn their lesson and stop doing bad things, or c) respond in kind? The pattern of reprisals over time would be important to understanding this interaction – how many back-and-forth responses occur? Is reciprocity self-limiting in that it’s seen as a one-time response, rather than part of a broader strategy?
How do written agreements relate to the reciprocity system? Reciprocity appears to exist either when coercion replaces negotiation/consensus, or when there isn’t any negotiation and direct communication to begin with. Some towns signed accords to place themselves beyond retribution, often in exchange for money – presumably this limited the number of potential targets when a reprisal was needed. Sometimes belligerents made treaties to limit mutually-destructive practices like contributions and even bombardments – is this acknowledgment that reciprocity itself (or the threat thereof) wasn’t adequate, or would only lead to a costly arms race? The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 comes to mind. Or maybe these treaties actually resulted from a series of reprisals that showed both sides that they could not prevent further acts through military means; the agreements were the cementing of an understanding developed through the reciprocity process. It would be interesting to see why some types of acts were considered enforceable by conventions, but not others. When did Europeans develop the mechanics to enforce such treaty obligations? And why, in the early modern period, weren’t such treaties made permanent, or at least renewed at the start of every war? Is it because these reciproc-able actions were actually considered valid acts of war, until the enemy decided otherwise?
If the laws of war were widely established, shouldn’t the need for reciprocity itself disappear? Reciprocity means one aggrieved party ‘takes the law into its own hands’ because there is no ‘legal controlling authority’ to adjudicate, to enforce the law otherwise. So when we talk about limitations on early modern warfare by pointing to the existence of both “laws” of war and reciprocity, isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Or, at least, shouldn’t they be moving in opposite directions – the need for reciprocity declining at the same time as the laws of war gain more force? Or is it the case that different countries actually do have different views on the laws of war?
Whatever reciprocity really means, I think we need to appreciate that it is not as obvious or simple as it might seem.
Reciprocity is a Language Both Sides Need to Speak
If it’s hard for the other side to tell what an intended act of reprisal is in response to, they won’t be clear on the behavior they’re supposed to curtail. Presumably this means serious attempts at deterrent reciprocity will not only perform the retributive act, but also make it clear why exactly they are doing it. I assume one doesn’t expect the enemy’s rank and file to read your propaganda where you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing (maybe the enemy’s State Department), so if reciprocity is really driven by deterrence, we’d expect to find explanatory letters or diplomatic objections to the enemy to clarify the problem, possibly make the complaints known to enemy officers about to be paroled. Has anyone done an analysis of two combatants ‘communicating’ with each other in these various media, sustained over the course of a war? Was there a red telephone hotline in early modern diplomacy? (Need to go back and check my Bély I guess.)
Yet I presume that even without any kind of additional explication, most reprisals are intended to be immediately recognized as such by their intended audience. The very process of reciprocity, to be successful, requires shared cultural sensibilities. It probably requires, for example, a shared sense of fair play – that there are in fact some rules in war that everyone needs to adhere to, and if they are broken, there will be consequences on Earth, as well as in Heaven. Reciprocity also needs those rules spelled out somehow. It might require a shared sense of who is a legitimate target in war and when fighting is acceptable (all things discussed in medieval just war theory and by early modern legal tomes). It might even extend to the question of which weapons it is acceptable to be killed with.
The drive to reciprocate might be universal, unless you’re a ‘Turn the other cheek’ kind of guy, or a neostoic or Buddhist perhaps. What’s worth responding to is not necessarily obvious. Deciding what is reprisal-worthy, and how the reciprocity cycle is supposed to unfold, isn’t written in the stars. Some groups don’t bother reciprocating to particular acts not because they approve of the act or the result, but because they don’t deem the enemy’s behavior as worth ‘triggering’ a response, perhaps because they lacked intent. Maybe some groups are disciplined enough to refuse to be lowered to the level of the enemy – reciprocity would require perpetuating the same inhumanity that they condemn. The sense of what is proper and what is improper varies – you generally only cry ‘Revenge!’ when (your) norms are violated, and your norms may not be your enemy’s norms. Such issues arise when soldiers are faced with the question of how to treat civilians, how to treat prisoners (whether to take them), and so on. North American military and cross-cultural/frontier historians generally have spent lots of time on this topic, Ian Steele’s Betrayals being one example.
Perhaps reciprocity is the ultimate pragmatist’s argument because it assumes both a universal military value system and a universal language of military communication expressed in acts as much as words. It assumes that, when you put a garrison to the sword after it capitulates, the enemy knows that’s bad, and that you did it in response to their earlier act (not because you yourself like to do that kind of thing). It also assumes that you think your enemy is a rational actor, that they will properly decode the message, “see reason” and desist for fear of another such occurrence.
Who and What Merits a Response?
The decision of when to apply reciprocity is also culturally influenced. It’s not only about deciding which acts trigger reciprocity, it’s also about who’s worth responding to. Acts that are worthy of reciprocity are always there, and there are many possible behaviors that might merit it, yet reprisal is not always invoked. Why not? Within your own military camp, you might respond to a provocation or insult with a challenge to a duel if he’s your equal, but you’re likely to just beat down an inferior who commits the same affront. Foot soldiers might get cut down while enemy officers are granted parole. Or maybe you just massacre the nearby village after your patrol has been ambushed by partisans. You might be hypersensitive to norm-violating behavior in one context, but more lenient in another. In one curious case I’ve come across, a French garrison sallied out during a siege and set a hospital full of wounded Allied soldiers on fire. Yet this failed to become a cause célèbre - why not? There was mention of punishing the garrison commander when the town fell, but that didn’t happen. Another example suggests that it’s quite possible an impending peace forgives all. That could be why more wasn’t made of a 1712 incident where retreating English forces, having agreed to cease fire with the French, barricaded 300 men, women and children into a Flanders village church and then proceeded to burn it to the ground.
Reprisals will suggest which events were considered beyond the accepted norms. It offers other possible insights as well. Within the pantheon of bad behavior, are there particular acts that were more likely to merit a response, more quickly, more decisively? Impressionistically, most of the mention of reprisals that I’ve seen in the sources on the War of the Spanish Succession (Flanders mostly) have to do with abuses over contributions and the treatment of prisoners. Were these domains particularly problematic because they were so common? Because they were so difficult to regulate? Because they were especially important? Because those demanding retribution differed in some way from the norms and expectations of the violator (a question prompted by the fact that many of the threats over contributions seem to come from military administrators responding to marauding troops)?
The types of violations contemporaries felt merited a response tell us something about what they thought was important, while things they ignored hints at what was acceptable. So the fact that were willing to initiate reprisals when the honor of their own men was besmirched suggests that they were hardly indifferent to such insults. As Marlborough vowed to one correspondent upon hearing that his enemy had stripped naked an English garrison: “I hope yet this campagne to return him some of his men as naked as thay came into this world.” Probably not a matter of life and death, but a soldier must have his dignity.
When and Where Can We Respond?
In a mundane sense reciprocity is ‘practical’ because it’s only exercised when it’s practical to do so, which admittedly seems a bit circular. Sometimes you have to wait until you have their troops on which to return the favor. Hopefully the unchastened enemy doesn’t have another opportunity to repeat the misdeed before you can wrap his knuckles in kind. Coalition warfare makes things even more complicated, raising the question of whether you can reciprocate against the troops of the perpetrator’s ally, if you don’t have any others at hand. (Threats were made to reciprocate against prisoners already captured, but this appears to only be a valid response to mistreatment of their own POWs). It also raises the question of whether you can reciprocate on the behalf of your ally, or whether you need to leave that decision to him. Should an English general take a French garrison in Flanders prisoners because a Franco-Spanish force mistreated an Austro-Dutch-Portuguese garrison in Spain? Short of a formal complaint from the aggrieved Imperial party (General Stahremberg), Marlborough decided to hand the matter over to his allies. Was he concerned such a muddy reprisal by proxy would set off an even greater escalation? Or was this more about denying his allies the honor of reprisal?
So I can see how all this would possibly be confusing to the recipient. Not only might they well think ‘You didn’t complain when we did it then, but now you are?’, but if reciprocal opportunities are rare, the practical impact of reciprocity might decrease as well: ‘We don’t need to be hemmed in by reciprocity because they could never respond to us anyway’. But what do I know.
I also wonder whether threats (or acts) of reciprocity have a half-life. Is a threat quickly forgotten as the war moves on? Or maybe calls for revenge multiply once an exchanged officer returns home and is able to plead his case? What role does the press – “Remember the Maine!” – play in whipping up pressure to respond? And what happens in the next war? Do such informal warnings need to be recalled at the beginning of the next war? Does a belligerent issue a generic warning to all enemies in all theaters, or does it deal with each belligerent individually, and only when a violation seems imminent or actually occurs?
How Precise Is Reciprocity?
The timing of reciprocity is not the only weak link in the reciprocal chain. This is particularly true when reciprocity crosses categories. A perfect correspondence between tit and tat – you strip our prisoners, we’ll strip yours (which we might want to refer to as tit-for-tit) – sends a pretty clear message. So is reciprocity limited in that you only mimic your enemy’s specific action in order to make the message clear? For example, when a French military administrator argues that they can bombard a few Allied towns if the Allies burn their crops, would the enemy see devastation as a different category from bombardment (maybe worse), and therefore not consider it a legitimate reprisal but actual escalation? Do you spend much effort creating a comparable scenario so that you can recreate the initial act requiring a response, or do you just order ‘No quarter’ at the next battle because that’s what’s available to you? How do such muddy messages get delivered, and how do you check to see if your message has the intended result? Does the reciprocator check to see that the message is being clearly heard, and that it’s having its intended effect? When a reprisal is initiated by events in another theater, how does the commander make sure the Flanders garrison know it’s being made prisoner because of what one of your generals 500 miles away did? Those are some of the clues we need to look for.
Does Your View of the Enemy Influence Your Use of Reciprocity?
Let’s face it, there’s plenty of hypocrisy when it comes to reciprocity, and that might garble whatever message is being sent. The English portrayed their French foes as barbaric for devastating the Palatinate in 1689, yet the Duke of Marlborough was ‘forced’ to lay waste to Bavaria because the Elector of Bavaria refused to surrender. [I can almost hear Louis arguing that German incalcitrance 'forced' him to burn the Rhineland...] We reassure ourselves that we may have been forced to do it, but at least we don’t enjoy it like the enemy does. When the French Marshal Villeroi burned Brussels in 1695 most of the English press portrayed it as French inhumanity. But not when the Royal Navy bombarded coastal towns along France’s littoral for several years previous. Interestingly, some contemporaries (even English) described the Brussels bombardment as a response to English attacks on France’s coastal towns, though France hardly needed an excuse to bombard towns or invent bomb ketches. So if Louis intended Brussels to be a reprisal, and the English failed to see the connection between the Brussels bonfire and the urban conflagrations they themselves unleashed, where does that leave us? Is that a failed reprisal? Or did it lead to an agreement to limit bombardment?
How can you teach the enemy a lesson in moderation if your reprisal only reinforces their perception that you are evil and will not be restrained to civilized bounds? If you believe your enemies are barbarians beyond the pale of human decency, that they are inherently vicious or brutish, or that they are a vengeful race, reciprocity seems kind of pointless – like punishing a puppy for a wet spot you find on the carpet hours after the deed has been done, or expecting the scorpion not to sting the frog as they cross the river. And it might well encourage the enemy to cast off even more inhibitions.
Do They Measure Reciprocity’s Efficacy?
Reciprocity might be intended to achieve a practical purpose of punishing a disapproved-of enemy act (or discourage future similar enemy behavior), but it could just as easily fail miserably, engendering further escalation. Do reciprocators measure whether conduct improves, and whether it was the reciprocity that caused it? How? The impulse to reciprocate might be practical, after all, while the result is anything but. What I really wonder is whether a) practical soldiers honestly assess whether a reciprocal response has actually had the deterrent effect of decreasing the act’s frequency afterward, and b) whether a finding that reciprocity often fails to achieve its intended objective would make such reprisals less common. It would if reciprocity is driven by practical considerations, but I don’t think we should underestimate the cathartic effect of seeking revenge and inflicting righteous judgment on transgressors (even chimps do it, I’m told). Of course then a pragmatist will argue that such cathartic acts are practically necessary to maintain soldier morale and bond soldiers to each other, and around we go…
Reciprocity Assumes Somebody’s In Control
One other way in which reciprocity is very practical is that it assumes that both sides control their own forces, so that a reprisal can be distinguished from all the background noise. If your army is constantly going around killing prisoners, there’s not much point in trying to prevent the enemy from killing your prisoners by killing yet more of theirs. Maybe this is why reciprocity may have taken hold in the late 17C: early modern states finally managed to gain control of their troops (and even their generals) through better pay, greater discipline, and by making service to the State (or Sovereign) the norm. Maybe reciprocity was an inherently prudent Vegetian concept, full of discipline, rationality and measured response.
When individual officers and soldiers mete out vigilante justice, does that strengthen or weaken the system? And if so, what is the response from the brass? This also makes me wonder how wildcards fit into a system of reciprocity, for example the Bloody Tarleton character in The Patriot. Do officers (or particular units, like hussars) with a brutal reputation hinder the efficacy of the reciprocity system by adding more noise, or are they the ones sent to enforce it? Do central authorities try to bring such officers under control, so as to avoid triggering reprisals, or do their other features offset the slight chance that they’d create an international incident?
Need for Reciprocity Influenced by National Characteristics
Did stereotypes of national character encourage a country to carry out more reprisals against a particular foe, or expect that more would be needed? Did the prejudice that a particular enemy ‘only understood force’ influence the reciprocity system? Most countries that go to war spend time demonizing the enemy, and many wars see the same countries fighting each other over and over (England and France, anyone?). That means that in any given conflict, the entire history of their enmity will be trotted out (plot the republication of histories of previous wars as a measure), possibly stretching back hundreds of years – the pump needs to be primed. Thus there are always opportunities to point to a case where the enemy did something wrong and rightly deserves retribution. As one social scientific study I read about explained it, everybody can always find an example of where the enemy started it, you may just need to go back far enough and be loose enough in your definition of ‘what started it’ means. To give a concrete example, in 1711-1712 the English Tory administration had to convince the public that Britain should abandon their Dutch allies and sign a peace treaty with the French. In order to do so, a series of anti-Dutch works were published, which reminded readers of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1650s-1670s, this despite the English being allied to the Dutch for the past twenty years, and despite the fact that their last (though admittedly unpopular) King had been Dutch. To justify their diplomatic desertion, English pamphleteers also trotted out the 90-year old Amboyna massacre in Indonesia, where Dutch merchants killed a number of English merchants. Throughout the 17C, every time there was a potential (or real) war with the Dutch, this massacre was dredged up to indicate the need for English revenge – a booster shot for national xenophobia. If you believe your enemy is naughty by nature, doesn’t that encourage interpreting even minor infractions in reciprocal terms? And excusing ‘mistakes’ made by decent folk?
Reciprocity is Nondiscriminatory
While reciprocity might be finely tuned on one level, those being reprisaled against often seem to be caught in the middle, often through little fault of their own. On the one hand, we’re generally not too picky about who exactly we retaliate against. Before the 20C particularly, I don’t get the sense that armies spent much effort identifying those specific individual miscreants and bringing them to justice. My impression is that any enemy soldier will serve as a proxy (again returning to the reciprocity-as-practical practice theme). That makes sense given a particular kind of justice system (‘the sins of the father visited on the sins of his children’), but I could imagine scenarios in which it would backfire as well. On the other hand, as we’ve seen above, some thought was given to at least getting the nationality right.
An Aid to Military Planning
One final, unexpected, practical function for reciprocity, or at least the threat of it, is that the very potential can help simplify military planning. In the 1700s, for example, I’m struck at how the concept of reciprocity is used as a mental reassurance mechanism. I find military planners saying things like: ‘We don’t have the troops to guard this region, but if the enemy were to pillage it, we could just bombard towns X, Y and Z.’ On the one hand this reassurance seems to suggest that contemporaries believed reciprocity had a real deterrent effect (possibly without even threatening it), but that is weakened if they are only talking about discouraging events that weren’t particularly troubling. If, say, they thought there was a plot to assassinate the King, they’d probably do more than just rely upon the potential deterrent effect of killing the other king. Having one of their provinces torched? Could be worse. This takes us back to figuring out what types of damage were hurtful enough to be drawn into the reciprocity system.
So What Does It All Mean?
These musings suggest to me, then, that reciprocity is not an iron law. Otherwise either a) wars would be neat affairs with hardly a complaint of enemy misconduct, or b) wars would constantly escalate, Clausewitz’s ideal war would be real, and soldiers would keep killing until they either ran out of people to kill or ran out of bullets. And then they’d pick up big sticks. War stops at some point because, I’d think, it’s sometimes practical to choose not to kill the guy who just shot your buddy – at some point you need to break the cycle of violence. This is made easier with surrender ceremonies and truth-and-reconciliation commissions, and why feuding cultures have developed ways to de-escalate through ritual and negotiation. At some point soldiers, I’d hope, put aside past wrongs, maybe even start remembering all those enemy interactions that weren’t deceptive and barbaric. How long such an adjustment takes might tell us how deeply held their initial anger was.
So score one for reciprocity, but with the caveat that tit-for-tat is only practical some of the time. When exactly it’s practical, and what forms it takes, and what sets it off, and how others respond to it, often depend on cultural understandings of what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t communicable. Whether reciprocity is pursued even after it’s been proven inefficient is another matter.
I’m just full of questions. What are yours?
Cross Posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, is a publication of the Ohio State University Department of History. Here’s the intro to the most recent piece, with a link to the complete article:
6/6/2014: Top Ten Origins: D-Day 70 Years Ago
By Greg Hope. Greg is a U.S. Army captain who is doing his graduate work in preparation for his next assignment, as a military history instructor at West Point.
The Normandy Invasion (June 6, 1944) was the supreme joint effort of the Western Allies in Europe in World War II and remains today one of the best known campaigns of the war.
Code named Operation Overlord, it was a battle marked by its courage, meticulous planning and logistics, and audacious amphibious approach. It was also in many ways inevitable. Following Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 and declaration of war on the United States in 1941, a confrontation somewhere on the shores of Northern Europe became a waiting game, with only the date and location left to be answered.
On D-Day, over 125,000 British, American, and Canadian soldiers supported by more than five thousand ships and thirteen thousand aircraft landed in Normandy on five separate beaches in order to carve out a sixty-mile wide bridgehead. This foothold would be the launching point from which the liberation of France and Western Europe would proceed. Opposed by German units in strong defensive positions, the Allies suffered more than twelve thousand casualties on the first day of the invasion.
This year we mark the 70th Anniversary of Overlord. To commemorate the battle, Origins offers ten of the most important things to know about the invasion.
Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
This article originally appeared in World War II magazine, vol. 29, no. 1 (May/June 2014):75-76. Reprinted with permission.
The first time I saw Casablanca I was twenty years old, with a date on my arm and hope in my heart. Unsurprisingly, I watched it through the lens of romance. So too, for at least the first five viewings, should anyone watch this most beloved of American films. The journey of its central character, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), from a deep bitterness about love at the beginning of Casablanca to a noble sacrifice of love at its end, is one of the most compelling plots in the history of cinema. But after that, it is permissible to reflect on Casablanca’s political content, just as film critics have been doing for over seventy years.
If you have never seen Casablanca, then stop reading this column, get hold of the DVD, and return after you’ve watched it. The rest of us may reflect on the film as it would have appeared to movie goers who saw it during its initial run. Casablanca debuted at New York’s Hollywood Theater on Thanksgiving Day 1942, not quite a year after the United States entered World War II. By February 1943 it was playing in over 200 theaters across the country.
At one level, of course, Casablanca is indeed an extraordinary romance. It centers on Rick’s Café Americaine, whose clientele comes to drink, gamble, and attempt to buy and sell escape from Casablanca, in French Morocco, to Lisbon in neutral Portugal and departure to freedom in the New World. (French Morocco was then under the control of Vichy France, the authoritarian, pro-German rump state established after France signed a humiliating armistice with Germany.) Rick himself is hardened and bitter. It transpires that Rick has come from Paris, where he loved and lost the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Then Ilsa suddenly appears in the company of her seeming new lover, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” Rick later glooms in a fog of liquor, “she walks into mine.”
Laszlo is among those trying to escape to Lisbon, closely pursued by the menacing Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). In Casablanca Laszlo enjoys a fragile safety, because it is under the jurisdiction of Vichy France. But Vichy is after all virtually a German satellite, and sooner or later Strasser will find a way to seize him. Laszlo is saved only because Rick ultimately decides to discard his cynicism and, in an intricately planned gambit, ensure Laszlo’s escape.
Few could miss Casablanca’s references to pre-war American foreign policy. Early in the film, Rick rebuffs an overture by the black marketeer Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) to go into business together. “My dear Rick,” Ferrari chides, “when will you realize that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” Warned by the Vichy police prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) not to intervene on behalf of the weasel-like Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who is correctly suspected of murdering two German couriers carrying letters of transit—priceless to anyone seeking to flee Casablanca—Rick responds, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Renault observes, “A wise foreign policy.”
By Heather Marie Stur
John Allan de Cerna was 41 years old in 1964, and he wanted to help the Republic of Vietnam fight the communists. So he wrote a letter to General Nguyen Khanh, head of state and prime minister of the RVN, a.k.a. “South Vietnam,” offering his services. De Cerna was an experienced pilot, having flown missions in Europe during World War II, which landed him in a German POW camp for a year and a half. After the war, he worked for “U.S.A. security services” throughout Asia, including stints in Korea and Laos, he wrote. When his Laos assignment ended, de Cerna joined a private business in West Germany, but he wanted to get back into the fight against communism, he explained in his letter. He asked to come to Saigon, at his own expense and without rank or pay, to join South Vietnam’s armed forces as a soldier or a pilot. “Herewith I would like to offer my service, my knowledge, and if necessary my life to your government in your fight against the communist forces which are trying to destroy the liberty and democracy of your beloved land Vietnam,” de Cerna wrote in his impassioned letter to Khanh.
I discovered de Cerna’s letter, along with similar ones from two other American men, while doing research at Vietnam’s National Archives II (Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia II) here in Ho Chi Minh City. James E. Brittain, a 21-year-old Chicago native, wrote to Khanh in 1964 asking for admission to flight school so that he could eventually be commissioned into the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). According to his letter, Brittain had served two years in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1961. Also in 1964, Patrick Lee Miller wrote a brief letter asking to “enlist in your National Armed Forces” because he was “very interested in helping your country combat the communists.” Miller stated in his letter that he had been “rejected by the United States Army for certain health reasons.” I did not find any letters or other documentation indicating a response from the RVN government or military, so what happened to these three men remains a mystery to me.
Their letters got me thinking about mercenaries, adventurers, ideological passions, and the thrill of the exotic that could lure a man (or a woman) to a faraway land to fight for a nation that is not theirs. Not necessarily mercenaries—de Cerna stated in his letter that he would serve without pay—the men reminded me of those who have joined the French Foreign Legion or those who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Alan Seeger, an American poet and uncle of Pete Seeger, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 so he could fight for the Allied cause in World War I. In 1936, George Orwell went to Spain to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. About 2,800 Americans served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain’s civil war, in support of the republicans. Patrick Miller, in his letter to the RVN, asked if there was a “United States Volunteer Organization” going to Vietnam. Perhaps he was thinking of the Flying Tigers, the 1st American Volunteer Group that joined the Chinese Air Force against Japan during World War II. Ideology, adventure, and escape have motivated those who joined these groups. Orwell was quoted as having announced, “I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism,” when he arrived in Barcelona; Neil Tweedie, writer for The Telegraph of London, described legionnaires as men trying to escape failed marriages and unemployment.1
Although we can only know so much about de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, through their letters to Khanh, placing the letters in the context of the early 1960s can provide some guidance about what might have motived these men. They all sought to join RVN armed forces in early 1964, an important year in the history of the Vietnam War. The year began with Khanh leading a coup which deposed General Duong Van Minh, who had headed the coup that took down Ngo Dinh Diem the previous November. The U.S. had not yet begun sending combat troops to Vietnam, but American military personnel were advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as it battled the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF or VC). In the U.S., Americans were still grappling with the assassination of President Kennedy, and we can speculate that de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller might have been inspired by Kennedy’s call to Americans to serve their country. At 21 years old, Brittain, especially, was part of the generation that Kennedy’s idealism motivated. It was also the year in which Barry Goldwater, a staunch anticommunist, announced his candidacy for the presidency, and both de Cerna and Miller wrote that they wanted to help the RVN fight communism.
American culture may have motivated de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, too. Pop culture aimed at men and boys in the early 1960s emphasized adventure and frontier fantasies, from westerns to pulp magazines such as True, For Men Only, and Man’s Life. GI Joe action figures made their debut in 1964.2 It seems quite possible that both politics and culture influenced the men’s desire to go to Vietnam. Based on their letters, we cannot know for sure, but if we analyze them in their historical context, what we can conclude is that in the early 1960s, the longing for an adventure in faraway Vietnam, as well as a sense of duty to battle communism, likely inhabited the dreams of numerous American men.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011) and is currently working on a book about Saigon intellectuals in the Republic of Vietnam. Stur is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City.
1 For Orwell’s quote, see George Orwell, Orwell in Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001) 7. Regarding the French Foreign Legion, see Neil Tweedie, “The French Foreign Legion – the last option for those desperate to escape the UK,” The Telegraph, Dec. 3, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/3546207/The-French-Foreign-Legion-the-last-option-for-those-desperate-to-escape-the-UK.html
2 Tom Engelhardt and Richard Slotkin have written notable books about violence and war in American Cold War culture. See Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune‘s daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:
The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.
Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1
Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good — at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate’s anonymous astrologer.
War is often perceived as completely unethical, yet the people who engage in warfare always have ethical systems and cultural frameworks that shape their military practices and individual behaviors.
Classic texts on warfare from Thucydides to Clausewitz grapple with ethical issues, and many modern historians of war, culture, and society raise ethical questions in their work.
The New York Times has published an article showcasing Professor Robert H. Latiff’s Philosophy course on the “The Ethics of Emerging Weapons Technologies,” at the University of Notre Dame. Latiff was a major general in the United States Air Force who retired in 2006. The Notre Dame website indicates that Latiff earned a Ph.D. in Material Science at the University of Notre Dame and is currently teaching there as an Adjunct Professor at the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.
According to the New York Times, “Dr. Latiff has written forcefully of his concerns about ‘emerging robotic armies’ with ‘no more than a veneer of human control.’ He has served on a committee that is producing a report on ethics and new weaponry for the National Research Council. It will be the subject of a conference at Notre Dame in April.”
It is refreshing to see a major news organization report on the teaching of ethics in warfare. Historians and philosophers have been actively researching and teaching ethical considerations of war since the 1960s, integrating ethical issues into military history, peace studies, political philosophy, and related disciplines.
The New York Times reports on the ethics of war.
Reposted from the Center for the Study of Religious Violence, led by Professors Brian Sandberg and Sean Farrell at Northern Illinois University.
I originally posted this on October 6, 2004. Still trying to figure out the degree to which it’s still applicable to the present state of our field. My sense is that we’ve come a pretty good ways toward conceptualizing military history in a global rather than western context. But I’m not sure we’ve yet discovered a world military history “master narrative” that’s as coherent as the familiar “Plato to NATO” master narrative.
Two weeks ago I promised to report on the first meeting of History 873 [a graduate research seminar] in “tomorrow’s entry.” I should have known better. In the great scheme of life, a good many things take precedence over this blog–sleep not least among them.
The seminar has now met three times. The first was, indeed, just a get-acquainted session. I have ten students: two early Americanists, two “civilian” military historians, and six active-duty officers (three West Point Army officers, one Navy ensign, an Air Force major, and a Republic of Korea army captain). Initially I had some worries that some of the students wouldn’t twig to the seminar’s organizing concept–race and racism in the American experience. But as nearly as I can judge my fears were quite definitely misplaced. Thus far people are engaging with the material as well as I could wish.
[By the way, I turned out to be dramatically wrong about this. Within a few weeks I faced a full-scale revolt. But then it was a graduate cohort unusually zealous in its preference for "traditional" military history. The subsequent cohort dubbed their immediate predecessors, with some bemusement, "the Old Guard."]
I’m also about five lectures into the [intermediate undergraduate] History of War course. The first meeting was an extended, ninety-minute lecture-discussion on “The Nature of War.” I showed the roughly 140 undergraduates in the class four film clips: a Luftwaffe air raid over 1940 London (from The Battle of Britain), the 1943 liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by SS troops (from Schindler’s List), the planting of time bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1957 (from The Battle of Algiers), and the march of Gandhi’s followers on the Dharasana salt works in May 1930 (from Gandhi). Afterward I asked the students to tell me what the film clips had in common. A number recognized that in each, one of the contending groups was armed, the other wasn’t. I then asked them to tell which clips were depictions of war. Everyone considered the air raid an act of war, albeit perhaps regrettable or immoral. Opinion was more divided concerning the scene from Schindler’s List, with a number of students wanting to call it an act of atrocity, genocide, or ethnic cleansing in contradistinction to war. They seemed implicitly to reserve the term war to describe something that was, if not noble, then at least morally defensible. The same division occurred, to a lesser extent, with regard to the time bombs, while the scene from Gandhi struck most as an act of civil disobedience, not war. There wasn’t any correct answer, of course. The point I wanted to make was that “war,” and many terms associated with it, are inherently politicized and that it’s important to think in terms of who is making the claim that a particular act is or isn’t war; also to think about what any definition encompasses or excludes.
I wonder if the term “war” is not also racialized. At first blush this will seem a reach, but I think I can make the case in two easy stages. The first stage is simply to note that people of European heritage tend to think of war in a particular way, really a Clausewitzian way: the continuation of a political struggle–usually an interstate political struggle–by violent means, and also involving the employment of violence by both sides. The second stage is equally straightforward: to note that people of European heritage are white.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn’t happen more than those that didn’t. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There’s much more in here, reflecting Sabin’s years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it’s an essential book if you’re interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).
So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?
I am a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. The main thrust of my dissertation is the history of technology, but the particular technology I am studying is military. Specifically, I am looking at how the U.S. military services adopted (and adapted) the airplane, and comparing that development across Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from 1908-1925. (I keep saying this, but I hope to be done soon!)
In April of 2008, I started the archival research for my dissertation by visiting the Air Force Academy library’s special collections. As this was my first intensive research visit, I had not yet developed any clear ideas as to what, exactly, I was looking for, so I was looking at a bit of everything. I knew, however, that I needed to see the papers of General George Owen Squier, an important officer in the development of aviation in the U.S. Army. This collection is what brought me to the Academy.
Though he never underwent flight training himself, Squier remained an aviation promoter and enthusiast once he had been exposed to flight. I had not yet read deeply in secondary sources, but I knew that Squier had been Chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, for the last year or so before Army aviation separated from the Signal Corps in 1918. I also knew that, from that position, he had supported the development of Army aviation.
But in reading his papers, I discovered that Squier was much more involved with (and important to) Army aviation than I knew. One interesting thing I discovered concerned Squier’s time in London as military attaché in 1914. In a presentation in 1930, Squier’s sister, Mary Squier Parker (the two were close – she survived him and was the one to donate his papers; the collection includes many of her papers as well), told members of a local Michigan club that her brother had been allowed to visit the British sector of the front in 1914 – this at a time when the U.S. was still strongly neutral, and when representatives of Britain’s declared allies (Russia and Japan) were reportedly denied similar access. Since she was relating the story in an informal setting (academically speaking) many years after the fact, I mentally discounted the tale. I figured that that this was just a sister’s pride in her brother’s achievements, combined with the inaccuracy of memory inflating his importance over time. However, I soon found some other documents to corroborate the date and nature of George’s visit, and moved on with my research.
Toward the end of my scheduled time in Colorado Springs, I had been through everything I knew I wanted to see, and was at the point of just looking at other things on speculation. The finding aid identified a collection of “News Clippings, 1899-1958” in “Package 7,” and I figured I would see what kind of stories were in these clippings. But there was a problem: “Package 7” could not be found. In fact, as I recall, none of the “packages” could be located. They were not on the shelf with the document boxes. After a good bit of searching, the archivists found the “packages” back in the oversized documents storage.
The packages were little more than oversized envelopes, apparently untouched since their accessioning, as the envelopes were glued shut. The reason the archivists had had a hard time locating Package 7 is that several of the packages had been placed together in a large Hollinger box and stored with the oversized documents. As I opened the envelope that was Package 7, I could see that the contents were all loose clippings and odd-sized papers. Since the archivists had no idea what was in the envelope, I promised to try to sort through the papers and report on their contents. It quickly became clear that this envelope probably contained the contents of a desk drawer: there were multiple copies of articles from the local paper mentioning George, including perhaps two dozen copies of his obituary, along with other odds and ends.
But while sorting through these clippings, I found an odd-sized piece of very heavy paper. The paper bore a letterhead consisting of a seal and the address, “War Office, Whitehall,” embossed on the paper, with nothing else to highlight them. The document was a short letter, typed, with a firm, clear, handwritten signature. Dated “14th November 1914” and addressed to “My dear French,” the letter introduced Squier, mentioned that he would be traveling to France, that he would “doubtless want to see something of our troops,” and encouraged French to “give him facilities for doing so as far as is practicable.” It was signed simply, “Kitchener.” This was Squier’s free pass to visit the British lines in France and see practically anything he wanted. (The vague wording was diplomatically necessary to avoid putting in writing exactly what Squier would be doing in France.) The archivists were just as excited as I was to discover that this document survived, unknown, in their collection. They immediately gave it its own acid-free folder in the last document box, removing it from the rest of the contents of Package 7.
The letter itself makes no new revelations. It was not needed to confirm Squier’s visit to the front; other evidence (beyond Mary Squier Parker’s memories) exists to prove the visit occurred, though the letter does wrap it up and put a bow on the story. Instead, the interest is in the provenance: written (or at least signed) by Lord Kitchener (at that time, Britain’s Secretary of State for War) and delivered to General Sir John French (commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France) just a few months into the war. Such a document might have been thrown away after its purpose had been served, or even deliberately destroyed to prevent any diplomatic problems should it come to light. But Squier kept the letter, only to have it become just another anonymous piece of paper in his collection until I rediscovered it.
**This is, hopefully, the first in a series of guest posts–I’d love to hear about your best, favorite, surprising, provocative and inspiring archive finds. Please email me ([email protected]) if you’d like to share!
In 2008, I received my Masters degree in History from George Washington University (after thirty years working on and around Capitol Hill). Since then, I’ve been working on a manuscript about how the wives of four of Lincoln’s generals influenced their husbands’ Civil War careers. One of them is Ellen Ewing Sherman, and I have spent many hours exploring the William T. Sherman Family Papers Collection in the University of Notre Dame Archives. (http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/xml/shr.xml).