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.

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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.



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.

Starship Troopers and the Allure of Fascism

This article first appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

At first blush Starship Troopers appears to have only a superficial connection with World War II. In the 1997 film, transports carry elite troops across long distances to a hostile shore, where the troops clamber into landing craft that carry them into battle against an enemy who neither gives quarter nor surrenders. That sounds like the U.S. Marine invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. But Starship Troopers is set in the late 23rd century. The hostile shore is an enemy planet. And the enemy  are gigantic bugs

However Starship Troopers contains many elements that smack strongly of fascism, the dominant Axis ideology. The very first scene shows hundreds of Mobile Infantry—the starship troopers—at attention in a  stance identical to SS troopers at the Nuremberg rallies. Their uniforms  closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Much of the rhetoric sounds  fascist, as when Sky Marshal Diennes (Bruce Gray) stands at a lectern in a  scene that looks very much like Hitler addressing the Reichstag, and declares  war on the Arachnids (the bugs) to an enthusiastic crowd: “We must…ensure that  human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!</I

Starship Troopers appears redolent of fascism because director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier consciously set out to make a film about fascism. The idea originated with Neumeier, who had co-written Verhoeven’s earlier RoboCop (1987). Told by “liberal friends” that RoboCop was “fascist,” Neumeier reflected that action films are inherently fascist, so why not make one that made the connection explicit? The concept appealed to Verhoeven, perhaps because he had spent his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. And Starship Troopers made a good vehicle for such an effort, based as it was upon a 1959 Robert Heinlein novel widely regarded as crypto-fascist

The first shot in Starship Troopers is a visual quote from Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece. A subsequent sequence introducing the main characters—Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyers)—on their last day of high school also introduces the basic philosophy of their world. “This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy….,” teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) says. “We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Disillusionment with democracy was one of the main attributes of fascism. In the film, only military veterans may vote: they are citizens, while non-veterans are merely “civilians.” Military service has so thoroughly indoctrinated the veterans that, for all practical purposes, the world government is a one-party police state.

The high school chums soon enlist, and when war with the Arachnids breaks out, they are in the thick of the fight. Rasczak, who has re-entered active duty, serves as the  platoon leader of Mobile Infantrymen Rico and Flores, while overhead Ibañez pilots a starship. Rico, Flores, and Ibañez are gorgeous—the 23rd century equivalent of the ideal Aryan youth—and they enthusiastically embrace a worldview that accepts, indeed celebrates, life as violent struggle—another core fascism principle. Moreover, the protagonists willingly subordinate their individual identities to the State, another fascist tenet. As Italian dictator Benito Mussolini said, “There is no concept of the State which is not fundamentally a concept of life

The film also makes clear that the State controls the media. Frequent clips from the “Federal Network” supply exposition for the story, and illustrate how the society works. For example, in a triumph of order over the discredited liberal “coddling” of criminals, a man is accused of murder in the morning, convicted that afternoon, and executed—live on television—that evening. One could multiply the parallels between fascism and Starship Troopers almost indefinitely.

Verhoeven and Neumeier deliberately crafted Starship Troopers to make its worldview
seem appealing. “I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” Verhoeven said in an interview. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Starship Troopers’] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Some critics who got the satirical point nevertheless worried that a younger audience would not—that naïve viewers would embrace this fascist world, much as those of similar age did in the 1930s. Indeed, the film’s success in depicting the the allure of fascism is what makes it an aid to understanding World War II, for we have long been so appalled by fascism that it is difficult to see the mass appeal it once possessed.

Some critics, indeed, mistook Starship Troopers as a celebration of fascism. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven and Neumeier seemed a bit surprised that anyone could believe such a thing. But they reserved their main scorn for TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who concluded his review of Starship Troopers with the words: “[W]e’re looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that’s the movie’s final, deadpan joke. Maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or—best guess—maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.” The filmmakers chuckled derisively at that because, of course, fascism was exactly the subject of the film. Moreover, they added, Schickel got its thesis exactly right: “War makes fascists of us all.” Thus, Starship Troopers does not just satirize fascism. It also warns about its continued allure
in times of strife.

Archival Finds: Dr. Joseph Fitzharris and the Burned Book

The 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry had the misfortune to be surrendered by its Colonel, Henry C. Lester, to  Nathan Bedford Forrest at Murfreesboro, TN on 13 July 1862. Because of the situation and the officers involved (a Crittenden and others with “clout”), one of the research questions became: how did the Third learn to do picket and guard duty. Col. Lester held schools for the company officers and sergeants to teach them so they could teach their men. But that does not answer the question.

We know his training was good. One officer (Christopher Columbus Andrews) wrote a manual on the duties of  a company officer: Hints to Company Officers on Their Military Duties. This book was very well received and he was complimented by several general officers. From Andrews’ Hints, and its reception, we can conclude that Lester had high expectations and trained the men well. So how were they trained to do guard and picket duty?

In the manual, Andrews almost casually remarks that, of course, all infantry officers (his primary audience) would be familiar with McClellan’s work on picketing and guard duty. That reference was to George B. McClellan, Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1861). If Lester actually used McClellan’s manual and trained the men in that style,, they most likely conducted picket and guard duty in that manner. Assuming he did, the standard story of the regiment (and Col. Lester) at Murfreesboro has serious flaws and becomes another example of General Officer Protective Association at work.

Out of curiosity about the manual, I looked to see if the Minnesota Historical Society had a copy. They did. I ordered it, and when it came out, it was charred on the spine and the edges of the cover. Company officer tents were burned by Forrest after he finally captured the Third’s camp on 13 July 1862. Opening the book, I found inscribed on the fly leaf the name of the owner: Capt. Hans Mattson, company D, 3rd Minnesota!

This charred volume proved that Lester trained his officers and men in the style he learned in the 1st Minnesota under Colonels Gorman and Dana – to McClellan’s model. Thus, we know that the standard interpretation of events at Murfreesboro on the eve of Forrest’s attack are, of necessity, incorrect.

 –Dr. Joseph Fitzharris

University of St. Thomas, Professor Emeritus of History

The Hero’s Adventure in Sands of Iwo Jima

Sands of Iwo Jima Poster



This article originally appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with Permission.  Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of The Stone Age

The next time you’re talking war movie trivia with friends, ask, “Who’s the hero in Sands of Iwo Jima?”  Almost inevitably, they will respond, “John Wayne.”  Or perhaps “Sergeant Stryker,” since that’s the name of the character that Wayne portrays.  But either way they will be wrong.  The hero is not Stryker, as one might expect because he is the film’s central figure.  It is instead the squad he leads into battle, and the story unfolds most richly when this is understood.

In everyday terms, anyone potentially can behave “heroically” in the sense of behaving courageously.  But in mythic terms, “Hero” has a specific meaning.  It refers to the character in a story who undergoes an adventure in which he is challenged and changed, and from which he returns with a “boon”; that is to say, something of lasting value for himself or for others.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell set forth this definition in a classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 (the same year in which Sands of Iwo Jima debuted). Based on a study of cultures the world over, Campbell discovered that each had stories of a hero whose journey of adventure shared a common structure.

Although you may never have heard of Campbell’s book, you’ve surely seen its ideas on display, because when creating his Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), writer/producer George Lucas consciously drew upon them.   The Hero (Luke Skywalker) leaves the “ordinary world” of the planet Tatooine, enters the “special world” of the adventure, learns how to function in this special world, fights an adversary (the Empire), reaches a point of maximum peril (the loss of a hand and of his friend, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back), and finally defeats his adversary and brings the boon of enduring peace to the galaxy in Return of the Jedi.  But although Campbell was the first to identify this structure, story-tellers have unconsciously used it for millennia.  So it was with Sands of Iwo Jima, written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, and directed by Alan Dwan.

As Campbell makes clear, the Hero’s journey invariably contains certain standard archetypes, chief among them the Mentor, who teaches the Hero how to operate in the special world of the adventure.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi.  In Sands of Iwo Jima it is Sergeant John M. Stryker.  Thus, the film opens in the “ordinary world” of a New Zealand training camp. The members of the squad—in mythic terms the Hero Team, because they embark on the adventure together—are the first to be introduced. Only then does Stryker appear.  His task is to prepare the Hero Team to enter the “special world” of combat.  He makes this plain when he and the squad first meet:  “If I can’t teach you one way, I’ll teach you another. But I’ll get the job done.”

Save for the two combat veterans in the squad, Stryker is not particularly well liked by the men.  Nor does he try to make himself likeable.  He even butt strokes PFC “Sky” Choynski (Hal Baylor), who cannot master the foot work involved with bayonet drill.  But true to his word, if Stryker can’t teach Choynski one way, he’ll teach him another, and later in the film he does so using the “Mexican Hat Dance” to give Choynski a sense of the rhythm and shifting of body weight involved.

Many adventures involve both a Mentor and a Shadow Mentor.  The latter tries to induce the Hero into embracing the dark side of the special world.  In the Star Wars trilogy the Shadow Mentor is Darth Vader. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Stryker represents both Mentor and Shadow Mentor.  Most of the squad see only the Mentor.  But one of them, PFC Peter Conway (John Agar) clearly perceives the Shadow Mentor, helped by the fact that he regards Stryker as the epitome of his own father, a flinty Marine colonel under whose command Stryker served on Guadalcanal.  Of his father, Conway speaks bitterly.  “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too soft.  ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. He wanted me to be like Stryker. . . . I bet they got along just fine.  Both with ramrods strapped on their backs. . . .They’re not going to strap one on mine.”  Conway views Stryker as the embodiment of man the violent animal as opposed to man the lover of life, family, and culture.

Conway encounters the Shadow Mentor most directly during the first night after the invasion of Tarawa.  This is the point of maximum peril for the Hero Team, for it has been assigned to hold a sector that ought to be defended by a force three times its size.  In the midst of this tense situation, Conway and Stryker hear the desperate cry of a wounded comrade.  Stryker refuses to help, saying that the cry may be a ruse and that an attempted rescue will give away the squad’s position.  To Conway this response is inhuman. “Sit here if you want,” he says, “I’m getting him. The only way you’ll stop me is to kill me.”  Stryker turns his rifle on Conway, his expression one of icy malevolence: “That’s just what I’ll do!”  Conway stays put.

Then, using Stryker’s trademark phrase, Conway steps forward to lead them. “All right, saddle up!” he growls. “Let’s get back in the war.” The squad has completed the Hero’s adventure.  But myth permits a nuanced reading of the film that leaves us wondering what individual journey Conway has completed.  Has he embraced Stryker as Mentor after all?  Or has he embraced the Shadow Mentor?  Perhaps, as Campbell once expressed it, Conway has “put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life” and has at last submitted “to the absolutely intolerable.”

Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor

Every year the United States pauses for a moment on December 7 to remember the “date that will live in infamy.”  It is only one of a number of anniversaries that Americans mark by the date — July 4, 9/11, December 7 — but among the most important.  The interest peaks every 12/7, as this Google Trends analysis shows:


The peaks are the beginning of December of each year as the nation turns to Hawaii and then, when the moment passes, turns away again.  There are other historical events in the Pacific War to move on to:  the fall of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and so.  The dominant narrative of the war is locked into those highlights, one coming after the other.  Here is the Google Trends graph for “Coral Sea:”


It shows the same, if somewhat lower, peaks and valleys as the Pearl Harbor graph.

While the historical narrative shines its light in various places and then moves on, the actual history kept going in those places.  Those left alive in Oahu after the Japanese attack on December 7 woke up the next day, December 8, and the next, December 9, and set to work recovering the base, the ships, and themselves.  Pearl Harbor, the military base, remained, even after Pearl Harbor, the historical event, had passed.

Wreckage littered the harbor in the water and on land.  Gas and oil slicked surfaces.  The ruins of ships still burned fiercely.  Bodies and body parts were everywhere. The survivors, still stunned by the attack and worried about a renewed assault or even an amphibious landing, had to set about clearing everything.  It was an awful experience.  John Harold Chapman, a sailor on the West Virginia spent the day after the attack dealing with the dead bodies on the USS Arizona:

Geez what a mess.  The men on top were still intact, but the men down below were cooked raw.  They had been steamed.  The fire had been raging underneath them for 12 hours and they were steamed.  We tried to grab them by the leg and the whole flesh would come off the  leg.  We tried to grab the bone and the bone came off.  Men were getting sick and heaving over the side.


In addition to the cleanup, there was resurrection.  Ships, unlike men, could be brought back to life.  The shattered hulks on battleship row were potentially salvageable and so each was evaluated for potential repair.  The Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah were beyond hope, but the rest could be raised out of the water and fixed.  As the months went by, cofferdams sprouted around the gashes in the bulkheads, water was pumped out, and the ships were raised.  The ships that could not be raised were left where they were, blackened reminders of the disaster of December 7.

The foremast of the Arizona, an iconic presence since the attack, was cut down and hauled ashore on 6 May 1942, serving as as good an end point to the recovery as any.  Work continued throughout the war, but perhaps without the desperation of those first few months.  That same day, American forces in the Philippines finally surrendered, and the Battle of Coral Sea continued.  The former could be seen as the end of the beginning of the Pacific War, a period of almost uninterrupted Japanese victories, and the latter the beginning of next phase, as the United States successfully pushed back.  Despite the repairs and its continuing use as a naval base, in some ways Pearl Harbor would never advance beyond December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, as the Sunday bands played, and the Japanese planes first tilted down over the water.  That image, at least, could not be fixed.

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D-Day Plus 70 Years

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.

Full article