Casablanca and the Politics of Sacrifice

Casablanca poster

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.”
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Fighting for Other Countries

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,


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).


The History of White People at War

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.

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Laurence Burke: Favorite Archive Find

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.

Signal-army-mil George Squier (2) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Favorite Archive Find: Candice Shy Hooper

**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.  (

Much of the collection is online – the archivists have done an exceptional job of digitizing originals and transcripts of hundreds of letters between Ellen and her husband.  Even though Sherman told his wife (as he was heading to Manassas in July of 1861) that he would tear up her letters because “every ounce on the march tells,” he did not.  He saved nearly all of them, and with the hundreds of his she saved, the collection includes one of the most extensive and intimate views of the war.
The collection also includes their diaries, articles they wrote, financial papers, sketches by Sherman, and the papers of their children.  In addition, the collection includes the papers of Thomas Ewing and those of several of his sons, Charles Sherman (WT’s father) and some of John Sherman’s papers. It is a treasure.  Thanks to the archivists’ work, most all of it is accessible anywhere you have WI-FI. But, of course, some items can be viewed only in the Archives themselves, and I knew I had to go there to see them.
In mid-September of this year, I was able to visit the Archives, thanks to a generous travel grant from the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame ( The major focus of my visit was an item I noted in the finding aid –  a box named “Objects” that had not been scanned (nor was there online a list of items in the box).   It turned out that there are actually three archival boxes in that category, containing fascinating artifacts owned by Ellen and Sherman.  In the third archival box, I found a mystery – a small cardboard box, labeled (in General Sherman’s granddaughter’s handwriting) “Seal of Confederate prison in S.C.”
Opening the box, I was absolutely floored.  Inside is a wooden version of a rubber stamp, one that would be used to validate or endorse official papers.  In overall shape, the stamp itself is similar to a roughly carved wooden pestle (as in mortar & pestle), about three inches long, cut flat at one end, where the actual stamp area is carved.  The shape of the stamp is an oval about two inches at its widest part. The words on the stamp are very finely carved, but in reverse, of course, and that is likely why the label on the box is wrong. Eleanor Sherman Fitch read it read it forwards instead of backwards.  “S.C.” is actually “C.S.”
Around the edges, it says:
Inside those words is carved:
This is the seal of Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, in Georgia, the only man who was executed for war crimes during the Civil War.  In the summer of 1864, Sherman attempted to free prisoners at Andersonville, but the force he sent was defeated. He later wrote, “I don’t think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.”
There is nothing in the archives to indicate how Wirz’s seal got into the Sherman papers, nor have I ever seen any reference to this item in any biography of Sherman that I’ve read.  I’d love to know if anyone else knows about this.
One important footnote – The images appear with the permission of the University of Notre Dame’s Archives.
seal1 seal2

Who gets to name wars?

I had an interesting question from a student in my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course today. He said he’d heard that wars were named according to a formula of sorts: the second of the two countries mentioned was the victor. In other words, the Austro-Prussian war was won by the Prussians, the Franco-Prussian war by the Prussians, the Sino-Japanese war by Japan, the Russo-Japanese war by Japan, and so on.

I admit I was taken aback. I’ve never come across such an idea before, although I have pondered when various wars gain a formal name, shifting from “the present war” to the “Great War” to “World War I”.

We must win World War I!

We must win World War I!

Or the recent preference for naming (small) wars after the military operational nomenclature (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom…), or the historical amnesia that leads people today to refer to the second U.S. war against Saddam Hussein as simply the “Iraq War” (“Gulf War II”?).

So I replied to the student with some skepticism:

  • “What about all those wars that don’t explicitly mention the belligerents at all? If the rule does exist, does it only apply to wars between two, and only two, countries?”
  • “What about wars whose names change over time, e.g. the War of the League of Augsburg becoming the War of the Grand Alliance becoming the “Nine Years War?”
  • “What about the wars that are called different names, depending on the country?”
  • “Besides, who exactly would be in charge of ‘officially’ naming a war? Was there some naming committee that met and named the wars? Kinda like medieval heralds who met after a battle to agree on what to call it?”

Looking back, I think I usually thought about war names in terms of convenience rather than signaling real historical meaning: which country names had a good ‘combining form’? China (Sino-) or Japan (Japo-??). But that clearly is inadequate, since the Franco-Prussian war could just as easily be the Prusso-French war. So now I’m not so sure.

Needless to say, I am willing to chalk it up to somebody leading my student astray with a shaky generalization from a few cases, but perhaps someone here can enlighten me. Have you heard of this idea? Has anyone written a detailed study of the naming of wars? Is it possible this is, or was, a real convention? Is it possible that all these war names were chosen (in English obviously) at around the same time, and that there was a convention used, at least at that time? Or maybe the first war named with this formula was copied for later wars? I don’t know if this Google Ngram Viewer chart helps or not:

Ngram Viewer: compound war names

Any illumination would be appreciated.

The Higgins Armory is Dead! Long Live the Higgins Armory!

Cross-posted on Skulking in Holes and Corners.

I just learned that the Higgins Armory will be closing at the end of the year.

Those outside of New England may be unfamiliar with the armory, but this Worcester, Massachusetts-based museum was built around the medieval/Renaissance arms and armor collection of early 20C industrialist John Woodman Higgins. The resulting museum, lowering its drawbridge in 1931, currently claims 3,000 items, and is “the only dedicated museum of armor in the western hemisphere, housing one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside of Europe,” according to its website. The museum also focused on outreach, offering dozens of educational programs for schoolchildren every year. Unfortunately, it’s almost 60,000 annual visitors weren’t enough to make up for the lack of an endowment.

Given the focus, the interior is quite impressive and well worth a visit in the few months left:

One room in the Higgins Armory (
One room in the Higgins Armory (

It will be closing its portcullis for the final time at the end of the year, and will transfer the core of its collection to the Worcester Art Museum. It looks like WAM has big plans for the transferred items, and they promise within 6 years or so we’ll be able to see 2,000 items from the collection in “open storage.” Stay tuned.

Rethinking the Causes of Wartime Rape

While a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, my new colleague Katherine Marino wrote the following article on the work of Dara K. Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The piece originally appeared in the Clayman’s online publication Gender News in October, 2011. The Clayman Institute has kindly extended permission to reprint it here.

When Eman al-Obeidy burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, desperately relating her tale of gang rape at the hands of Libyan soldiers as international news cameras rolled, the eyes of the world momentarily focused on the problem of sexual violence in wartime. Worldwide attention has grown considerably in recent years, from the United Nations’ outcry against mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the war in Darfur.  However, very little is known about why wartime rape occurs.

Perhaps the most common explanation for wartime rape, bolstered by the examples of Rwanda and Bosnia, is that it is a tool of ethnic cleansing. In other words, the objective of this kind of rape is to impregnate women from the targeted community and in so doing, “cleanse” the group by altering its ethnic makeup.  It is a tool of war designed to humiliate and psychologically terrorize members of the targeted group. Another prevailing reason is that it occurs due to women’s relative inequality as compared to men. The argument, made by many in the human rights advocacy world, is that in places where women are culturally devalued they are put at risk of being brutalized by men.

Moving beyond conventional wisdom about wartime rape

To better understand the causes of wartime rape, political scientist Dara Kay Cohen carried out a research project using two types of methodologies.  Her conclusions? Cohen calls these usual explanations for wartime rape “very powerful conventional wisdoms,” which do not explain most cases of rape in civil war.

First, Cohen conducted an in-depth examination of the civil war in Sierra Leone (1990-2002), in which widespread rape occurred even though the civil war was not an ethnic conflict.  By starting her research in a region without an ethnic conflict, Cohen could focus her research on understanding other explanations of wartime rape. Over the course of her fieldwork, Cohen took three trips there, conducting interviews with over 200 ex-combatants and noncombatants about their varied experiences with violence during the conflict.

Second, Cohen developed the first ever systematic and comprehensive dataset on wartime rape. The dataset, which utilizes information from the State Department Human Rights Country reports, found that of the 86 civil conflicts between 1980-2009, about two-thirds were reported to involve significant rape.  Surprisingly, her statistical analysis revealed that wartime rape is not more likely to occur in ethnic conflicts or in places with greater gender inequality.  Rather, she found a correlation between the choice of recruitment mechanism of an armed group and that group’s use of rape.

“Combat socialization” used to unite armed groups

From her interviews with ex-combatants in Sierra Leone, as well as similar interviews conducted in El Salvador and East Timor, Cohen argues that gang rape often serves as a means of socialization for members of armed groups who perpetrate it, what she calls “combatant socialization.”  The insurgencies and armies that have abducted or press-ganged their members into service are more likely to perpetrate widespread rape than those whose “members are recruited through more voluntary methods.”  She explained in an interview that gang rape “has…[a] benefit to the group unit under certain conditions.  If the people in the group don’t know each other, [and] have no basis on which to trust other, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that…rape, in particular…has an even stronger bonding function than [other forms of] violence.”  Gang rape, she explains in a recent paper, “enables armed groups with forcibly recruited fighters to create bonds of loyalty and esteem from these initial circumstances of fear and mistrust.”

One of Cohen’s most unexpected findings is that these bonds of socialization apply not only to male combatants, but also to female combatants.  On her second fieldwork trip to Sierra Leone, Cohen discovered that the rebel group which committed the most rape, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was also the group with the most women fighters.  She then interviewed female RUF fighters, a number of whom revealed that they were actively involved in gang rapes along with male combatants, holding victims down as well as utilizing bottles and other objects to perpetrate rape.  Others’ survey data confirmed that female combatant participation constituted a wider phenomenon, which, as Cohen explains, challenges the “conventional wisdom…that if you have more women in the armed group, there should be less rape.”

Future research to show that interventions against rape are not “one size fits all”

Cohen’s interest in studying violence against women dates back to her years as an undergraduate at Brown University, when she volunteered for several years at a rape crisis center, and interned at the Rhode Island’s attorney general’s office in their domestic violence and sexual assault unit.

While studying Political Science in graduate school at Stanford, Cohen saw an opportunity to utilize the rigorous social scientific methodology of political science, drawing from models of violence and victimization in wartime, in order to study a subject that has received less attention in the field — sexual violence in conflict.

Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded Cohen a $245,000 grant for a collaboration with the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) to, as she explains, “collect a much more detailed dataset” for the analysis of incidents and patterns of sexual violence.  She expresses the hope that “eventually we will have [data] that is a lot of use to both the policy community and to academics interested in these questions.”  One ultimate goal is for her work to “help policymakers…be more careful in forming interventions that are not ‘one size fits all.’”

Over the past four years, the United Nations has taken unparalleled steps toward investigating, enhancing data collection on, and curbing sexual violence, including Resolution 1820, in 2008, which provides a mandate for the UN to intervene in cases of widespread sexual violence.  Despite such advances in the international realm, better understanding of the root causes of sexual violence in war is crucial if these efforts are to succeed, and this is where Cohen’s work strikingly breaks new ground.  “It is not always the case that ethnic war and rape go hand in hand.  And it is not always the case that gender inequality automatically means that rape happens during wartime,” Cohen says. “Those are the sorts of things…I am hoping that policy makers will hear when I start publishing my work.”


Operationalizing Military Operations

While working feverishly to complete an 8,000-word (ok, more like 8,600) chapter narrating the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) – a part of West Point’s massive new e-textbook for their History of Warfare survey course – I got to talking with another author. The discussion quickly descended into that classic game of “I’ve got it worse than you.” My self-serving jeremiad was that I couldn’t pity some of the other authors who had the same amount of space to cover just a few years of a war, say 1805-1807 or a few years of WW2. Which got me thinking (famous last words) about how one could more objectively rate the amount of detail needed to adequately narrate and explain various wars. Given a set number of words to explain the conduct of two wars at the same level of detail (i.e. putting aside the editorial decision to, a priori, declare some wars worthy of more or deeper coverage than others), what makes the task more difficult for one war versus the other? This is what I’ve come up with thus far.

Initial Caveats

First off, we should probably put aside the issue of the comparative size of the literature on any given war. A larger historiography could be a disadvantage (so much more to read and discuss), but most undergrad-level surveys aren’t intended to introduce the reader to debates about the war. Instead they provide a narrative of the war’s causes and conduct. Many short, modern wars have massive literatures, so there are lots of convoluted scholarly arguments and dozens of infinitely-detailed accounts at the tactical level. But the overarching operations might be relatively straightforward in their broad outlines. Competing explanations, the dissection of specific operations, historiographical debates over a war – these add all sorts of complexity to a more sophisticated analysis of a war, but it doesn’t really relate to writing a straightforward, broad narrative for an introductory audience.

Second caveat: If we are being objective, we need to apply the same criteria for coverage from one war to the next. If a chapter on war X must discuss tactics at a certain level of detail, we need to see if all the other wars also require a discussion of tactics at that same level to explain their own war. We cannot really argue that because there are more historians writing about tactics in WW2, therefore its tactics are necessarily more important to understanding that war’s outcome than the tactics in the Thirty Years War. (If the tactics are more complicated, e.g. combining land and airpower, they might well require more coverage.) That means that every topic beyond a descriptive narrative of the military operations in the field (e.g. the diplomatic maneuvering leading to the war, the economic underpinnings of war, the role of women, the role of the press in morale, domestic political influence on the war’s conduct…) is, in theory, equally relevant to any war, unless historians studying that war have already determined it isn’t. So we’re not talking about what a particular author wants to include in his chapter: whether an author feels the need to discuss the twenty years prior to the outbreak of war, or whether an author wants to add a section describing the impact of the war for the next thirty years… We’re talking about the minimum information necessary to provide a coherent and comprehensible narrative of the operations of a war, written a the same level of detail, fit into a fixed length of text. Is achieving that objective more difficult for some wars than others?

Operational Complexity Operationalized

Historiography aside, numerous (more objective) factors make a difference when comparing the strategic, operational and tactical complexity of one war to another. The amount of complexity goes beyond the amount of information to be presented – it also gets at the complexity of understanding the dynamics of any given war – is it even possible to construct a straightforward narrative of a complicated war? What follows are what I see as some of the most important factors needed to determine the relative complexity of a war.

First, the operational factors, including some of the variables Quincy Wright and Jack Levy used to measure the statistical patterns of wars across the centuries:

  1. Number of operational theaters. More theaters create numerous requirements: on the most basic level, there’s more content to cover if we want to construct our narratives at a constant level of detail. For wars fought in a single theater, you can more easily narrate the actions of two armies (unless #2) facing off against each other. For multiple theaters, you have to do the same narrating each theater. That task is only made more difficult by the reality that the literature on most multi-theater wars tends to focus on one or two theaters, largely ignoring others (I’ll also ignore the fact that multiple theaters usually means more languages to read). With a fixed word count, you must necessarily subordinate some theaters to others, shortchanging those operations in the process, or else narrate all the theaters at a broader level of generalization.
  2. Number of armies. Usually related to the number of theaters, but not always. More armies theoretically require tracking and mentioning more people and movements, as well as describing the interactions between them. Military historians tend to personify individual armies as discrete bodies with their commanders as the head (or perhaps with a split personality); more army actors mean more complexity.
  3. Concurrency of theaters. A related complication occurs when there is fighting in multiple theaters at the same time. This concurrency raises the specter of interactions between theaters, which requires additional space (and consideration). It might even serve as an explanation for the length of a war (#5), as John Lynn has argued for Louis XIV’s wars.
  4. Theater variety. Related, but slightly different, from the number of theaters. Fighting in a variety of theaters not only presents a challenge for the combatants, but requires the reader to abandon a universalistic explanation for operational success – overwhelming numbers in a fertile theater might lead to success, whereas similar numbers in a barren theater can end in disaster. At a minimum, narrating such details requires the author to describe the basic geography and logistical constraints of each theater, a need to briefly recount the operations in each theater, and to weigh their relative contribution to the overall outcome of the war. It doesn’t help narrative simplicity when the theaters exhibit contradictory trends – one side winning in one theater while their opponent wins in another.
  5. Duration of war. Longer wars don’t necessarily require more detailed explanations – a long one-sided conflict might be relatively easy to describe and explain – though my sense is that longer wars necessarily are more complicated. In any case, if the operational details are important, providing an adequate narrative will necessarily require more words than a shorter war.
  6. Number of combats. All else being equal, the more big fights, the more words needed to describe and explain them. A short war, it should be noted, can also be conducted at a rapid operational pace with many engagements – a distinction often made between early modern and modern wars, say from the French Revolution onwards. To decide which combats would be worth narrating, we might need to define a minimum size, e.g. number of forces engaged, or perhaps percentage of field forces engaged. Too often military historians simplify their task by declaring certain types of combats, say field battle, inherently more important to the outcome of a war than others. It’s easy to ignore particular types of combat (e.g. positional warfare) if their results are “inconclusive”, unless of course indecision is part of the operational narrative. Often times the editorial decision of which combats to focus on depends how they accumulate, the next criteria…
  7. Number of operational reverses.  One common narrative shortcut is to collapse numerous operations into stages or phases, focusing on pivot or inflection points. But to understand why one side eventually predominated, it might be important to narrate the ebb and flow – that’s how the participants experienced the war – rather than looking at the results in the rearview window. It’s even more confusing when you have a multi-front war where the momentum swings back and forth from year to year, or where one side gains momentum in one theater while losing it in another. All these factors make it difficult to create a tidy narrative of the “direction” of the war. It’s also worth noting that a common editorial decision to divide some wars into smaller segments (say 1805-1807), whereas in other periods multiple wars are collapsed into a single era (say the wars of Louis XIV), has an impact. The narrative of only part of a war will usually be easier to impart: not only are there multiple chapters dedicated to covering such a war (allowing one to overcome the word limit), but those start and end points were exactly chosen because they create a coherent narrative; the timespan has already eliminated much of the trend complexity. If an entire war must be covered in a single chapter, messy operations on the ground present a significant challenge for comprehension.
  8. Personnel variation. Not only does a larger number of countries require a greater amount of information (even if you simply keep each country’s level of detail simple: ruler, type of government, main commanders), but if a combatant goes through multiple commanders, you should theoretically briefly mention the important ones, their particular command styles, and what made them important. This also requires space in your text.
  9. Tactical variation. Particularly important here is whether a given war is fought only with armies, or whether it includes naval operations as well (and airpower in the 20C) – do they interact? Similarly, how standardized are the tactical systems, across combatants and even within an army? One could well argue that if the battles are indecisive, only an exemplar need be detailed at the tactical level.

All these factors interact with one another. Especially important from an operational narrative perspective are the interactions of duration + theaters + operational reversals.

Then there are political, strategic and diplomatic factors that also affect the complexity of a war narrative:

  1. Number of sides. Alliances necessarily add another dimension of narrative and explanation, often allies serve as scapegoats to explain one nation’s defeat (or less-than-decisive victory). For narrative simplicity, the tidiest alliances are two groups that act in unison. Who’s fighting whom becomes more complicated when combatants switch sides during the war itself – the Italian Wars of the early 16C are infamous for this diplomatic legerdemain.
  2. Domestic political rivalries. On occasion a country’s war effort might be complicated by political change – military strategies, and even commitment to a specific war, quickly become politicized. If political parties with different strategic visions alternate in office, their country’s war effort will be affected. This also applies if the government isn’t dominated by one political party, in which case the country might attempt to pursue multiple, possibly even conflicting, strategies.
  3. Institutional rivalries. Often an extension of political rivalry, a country’s war effort becomes more complicated when different departments seek to implement their own pet projects. Branch and service rivalries (army-navy…) also apply here.
  4. Technological changes. Some wars are waged during periods of significant technological (or other structural) change, while other periods in Western history may witness a century or more of static weapon technology. These technological changes require discussion in the text. Progress can stretch beyond weapons systems of course, encompassing technologies involving energy, transportation, communication, manufacturing, computation, and so on. Nor are broader structural changes limited to technology. Current militaries, for example, seem to consider changes in climate as increasingly relevant as well.

Other factors probably have little impact on how complex a narrative must be. Take combatant motivation, for example. Soldiers likely drew their inspiration from the same range of sources, particularly if one equates modern ideological motives (e.g. French Revolutionary republicanism or Cold War communism) with the religious motives of earlier centuries.

The reality is that every author must make a decision of which information to include and what to exclude. Some wars will have far more of this information to sift through, and some wars won’t have a clear trend or pattern to narrate. An author must often decide which would be worse: a bloated narrative filled with all sorts of contradictory details, or a narrative lacking coherence when so many factors have been left out.

But back in the real world, other factors are more important than all of the above. Military history in the US will necessarily be focused on American wars, and the most recent wars (at least from the Civil War on) will receive the most attention because they are seen as the most relevant to current concerns. My task here is rather to envision what an alternate universe would look like where nationalistic and current professional considerations didn’t apply. That would be a very different world.

A future post will look at the case of the War of the Spanish Succession, and how we might visualize such operations, making it easier to compare such operations across wars.

Now it’s your turn. Other factors I’ve left off? Examples from the literature of scholars already addressing this issue? Sound off.

Best Practices in Publishing?

Dear SMH Colleagues,

As an experiment, I’d like to crowd source some great advice.  As graduate students and new military historians get into publishing their research, what would you tell them about the best way to proceed?  How do you locate potential journals receptive to your research?  What are their usual policies?  What can you expect from editors and peer reviewers?  As colleagues, how do departments view publishing and research in various venues for tenure?  Are some journals and presses more prestigious than others, and does it matter (and to whom does it matter and how much)?  What about glossy history magazines? For book manuscripts, what is the submission process like?  How should you approach the editor of a series you’ve identified?  What presses these days have strong military history lists?

Ultimately, I’d like to be able to take all the brilliant responses to this post and collate them into a general guide that will go on the SMH website as a reference point.  In order to keep this manageable, please respond to the blog post, not the Facebook links.

I know that the SMH membership includes some of the best supervisors and advisers around, and although this is an extra demand on your time, I’d like to make that expertise more widely available.

Many thanks,