Refugee Shelters by IKEA

Most wars produce numerous refugees, who flee from war zones. Protracted civil conflicts often force millions of civilians to flee from their homes and to seek shelter in safe regions or in neighboring countries. Refugee camps proliferate across the borders from war-torn countries as refugees band together under the protection of a host country’s military forces.

Today’s refugees often end up in refugee camps set up by the United Nations. The UNHCR manages camps around the world for millions of refugees, who often live for years in shelters provided by the organization. UNHCR has long used canvas tents as the basic shelters for refugee families, as seen in this photo of a refugee camp in Jordan:


UNHCR is currently experimenting with new shelters, including one designed by IKEA. The new shelters would be pre-fabricated semi-permanent shelters that could be transported to sites and constructed by refugee families. UNHCR is sending prototypes of the new shelters to several refugee camps to test their effectiveness.


NPR reports on the IKEA shelters and UNHCR’s refugee camps. The UNHCR website has additional information.

Historians and other researchers working on civilians and refugees in warfare will be interested in the testing of these shelters, which may have the potential to transform refugee camp conditions worldwide.

[Reblogged from Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives]

Sex, Gender, and World War II

Marie Louise Roberts explores gender and sexuality among American soldiers serving in France during the Second World War in a new book entitled, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.


Roberts is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she studies gender relations in modern French history.

This post is cross-listed with Brian Sandberg, Historical Perspectives.


Sexual Assault in the US Military

Sexual assault in the United States military has recently been recognized as a serious problem, but the issue has deep roots.

Veterans of the Vietnam War have begun to offer testimony of sexual assaults during the 1960s and 1970s. A number of these cases involve male veterans who were assaulted by other male soldiers and sailors.


These stories of male victims of rape and sexual assault suggest a broader pattern of sexual violence that is often ignored: male-on-male sexual assault.

Recent assessments of sexual violence in the US military indicate that male soldiers and sailors apparently made up the majority (c. 53%) of victims in reported incidents of sexual assault in 2012.

Gendered analyses of sexual assault need to avoid the presumption that sexual violence is “violence against women.” Males are often victims of sexual assault in military organizations. Some incidents of female-on-male sexual harassment and assault in the US military have also emerged. This should remind us that both men and women can be victims of rape and sexual violence.

The problem of sexual assault in the military thus needs to be assessed through a careful study of the violent acts and the perpetrators of those attacks.

The New York Times reports on sexual assault in the US Armed Forces.

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


Accessing the “Black Boxes” of War

In an op/ed for the influential Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, columnist Khaled Fahmy asks, “How do we write our military history?” and bewails the fact that forty years after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the relevant military documents remain classified.  He describes the tension between secrecy and disclosure:

Intelligence agencies believe concealing information forever is the best way to protect security, and we believe it is indeed necessary to seal sensitive information, but for no longer than 20 or 30 years. After that, records should be unsealed and made public. Whether experts or not, people should be allowed to view them.

The main question remains: Why should the public be allowed to view these old military documents? I believe the answer is obvious: to learn from the past and deduce the right lessons. Old war and battle records are like the black boxes on airplanes that take a lot of effort to recover after an accident. Only after the black box is found and its data analysed can one decide the reason for the accident, and thus work to prevent it from reoccurring in the future.

The complete column is here.

The Human Use of Human Beings: A Brief History of Suicide Bombing

I’d like to call your attention to an article that has appeared in the April issue of Origins, the Ohio State history department’s online magazine.  Here’s the overview:

Since the attack on the World Trade Center in on September 11, 2001 the world has grown accustomed to reports of “suicide bombers.” They are often portrayed as deluded or crazed, and they hold an almost lurid fascination for their willingness to kill themselves while killing others. This month, historian Jeffrey William Lewis puts what many of us see as a recent phenomenon in a longer historical perspective. He argues that it is more useful to think about suicide bombers as a type of human military technology that is controlled by an organization rather than as a form of individual fanaticism.

The full text of the article is here.

War in Slow Motion

In 1858 the abolitionist John Brown was an extended guest at Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, New York. Already well embarked on his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown’s imagination extended to the creation of an independent, interracial state in the American southeast. The idea gripped him so tightly that he spent three weeks writing a provisional constitution for the government of such a state. Its preamble begins:

Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is nothing other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . .

I ran across this quote a few years ago when the students in a graduate readings course read a recent biography of Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton.  (Like Douglass, Tubman was acquainted with Brown and his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid. Brown, in turn, referred to her, in complete seriousness, as “General Tubman.”)

No one happened to remark upon the quote during our discussion, which was understandable given that our focus was on Tubman. Still, I was struck by Brown’s equation of slavery with war. Most of us are conditioned to regard that as rhetoric, but Brown meant it quite literally. Gandhi made a similar point when he insisted, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Indeed, slavery, colonization/neocolonization, apartheid, and so on, can all be seen as examples of war in slow motion. Of course, the idea that they are conducting a slow motion war is alien to those in positions of dominance, because they have a vested interest in considering the existing order of things to be normal and in convincing others of that idea, most especially the groups they oppress. But for those alive to the fact of oppression the notion that a war is underway has greater resonance.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an essay published in 2004 by the black scholar and activist Manning Marable:

The political economy of the “New Racial Domain” . . . is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational capitalism, and the public policies of state neoliberalism. From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life. These oppressive structures are mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement. Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, touching the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.

Though Marable never uses the term outright, his portrayal of developments abroad and at home is redolent of the idea of an ongoing war in slow motion.

A Small Essay on A Small Place

I originally wrote this January 2004, while auditing a course on women, colonialism and sexuality.  At the time, I was very curious about the relationship of military history to other, seemingly disparate fields.  This was one of my attempts to relate military history to postcolonialism.

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is a small book–just eight-one pages.  You can read it in one sitting, and since she writes so wonderfully well, you will probably do exactly that.  The book opens in the second-person:  Kincaid addressing the reader directly, a conceit she maintains throughout.  The notional reader is a white American or (worse) European or (worst of all) Briton, and Kincaid leaves you in no doubt that you suck.  You don’t get it.  Notwithstanding the fact that you’re reading her book.  Because if you got it you would neither be reading the book nor, in Kincaid’s imagination, peering down with pleasure at the beauty of Antigua as your plane makes its approach into the main airport at St. John’s, the capital.  You would be reflecting on the fact that “this empire business was all wrong” and would be “wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their [your forebears’] bad deeds [from which you still benefit, you bastard], for no disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did.  Actual death would have been better.”

By contrast, the indigenous population of Antigua is pure and innocent.  Well, not exactly indigenous, the Siboney, Carib, and Arawak Indians having been long since wiped out and replaced by west African slaves, from whom most of the 68,000 citizens of Antigua & Barbuda are descended.  And not exactly pure, since Kincaid makes clear that the government is spectacularly corrupt.  But the Brits showed them how to do it, so the Brits are to blame.  And have I mentioned lately that you suck?

As the book progresses, the tone shifts somewhat.  It’s as if Kincaid, hearing her jeremiad, begins to question one aspect of it, namely whether the Antiguans–even ordinary Antiguans–are really that pure and innocent.  She doesn’t unbend about whites, though.  Or for that matter Arabs, for Arabs from Syria came to Antigua some years ago, made a killing, got hooked in with the government and enthusiastically nursed at the public teat.  (Antigua even maintains, at considerable expense, an ambassador to Syria, and you can easily guess why it does and who gets to draw the salary as ambassador.)

But at the end the tone becomes wistful and heartbreakingly sad.  Here is the conclusion:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island.  It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long.  It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted, there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty–a European disease.  Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually the slaves were freed, in a kind of way.  The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, assuming you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves.  Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being and all the things that adds up to.  So too with the slaves.  Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

It takes Kincaid eighty-one pages to get to that point.  The average white person wants to be at that point on page one, if not the title page, if not the cover.  The average white person wants to object that he himself never held slaves or sat behind a desk in a colonial office, or shot any “wogs,”  so he is in no way responsible for the on-going pain and poverty in postcolonial societies.  And weren’t the Japanese just as bad?  The Moguls?  The Aztecs?  The Africans themselves through their complicity in the slave trade?  Don’t all human societies dominate other groups given the chance?  Well, yes.  But you have to ask yourself–or at least, I have to ask myself–whether questions like that open up terrain for exploration or foreclose further inquiry.

What does any of this have to do with military history?  It happens that Kincaid thinks that “race is a false idea. It’s just an invention to enforce power. So I never talk about race. I talk about the inflammatory thing which is power.”  She thus has something in common with military historians, who seldom talk about race but have as their core concern that inflammatory thing called power.  It’s just that Kincaid hits it from an unusual angle of vision.  An angle in which Admiral Horatio Nelson, by preserving British command of the seas, makes it safe for British ships to carry British goods, British officials, British soldiers everywhere and thereby perpetuate the British colonial project.  Which makes him “a maritime criminal.”

So that’s one thing.  Another is that it also happens that Jamaica Kincaid lives in Vermont with her husband and two children.  She wrote for The New Yorker until she had a falling-out with the editor. She writes and gives readings and is, for all the anger in her work, harmless.  Give her an AK-47, however, and she would look quite differently.  One might say that Jamaica Kincaid articulates with flowing prose what other postcolonial men and women articulate with streams of bullets and book bags filled with plastic explosives.  That makes her of interest to military historians.


Piazza Fontana and Romanzo di una Strage

Major historical events often have to wait for years to receive serious treatment in historical film, especially in the case of controversial episodes that produce sharply opposing narratives of those events.

For the first time, the bombing in Piazza Fontana in 1969 is the subject of a major feature film, Romanzo di una Strage. A large bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milano on 12 December 1969, killing 17 people and wounding 88. The bombing shocked Italians and produced outrage across the country, a crucial moment in the so-called strategia di tensione campaigns of right-wing and left-wing radicalism and violence in Italy in the late 1960s.

Piazza Fontana launched a period of intensified political and social conflict, known as the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) throughout the 1970s.

Romanzo di una Strage (2012) is directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. The film focuses on the competing investigations, political murders, and cover-ups in the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969-1972. Giordana controversially places a sympathetic portrait of police commissioner Luigi Calabresi at the center of his political thriller. The Piazza Fontana case still remains unsolved today, despite several investigations, trials, and overturned convictions. The film posits its own theories on various threads of the complicated story, but hesitates to present its own definitive verdict on the case and the cover-up.

Marco Tullio Giordana explains his perspective in an interview published by Nouvel Observateur. Giordana actually witnessed the Piazza Fontana bombing from a passing tram and was interviewed by Luigi Calabresi as an eyewitness. It seems that Giordana’s personal experience strongly shaped the narrative structure and cinematography of the film.

The film’s interpretation of the Piazza Fontana bombing and its protagonists has provoked much interest and also sharp criticism. Republica TV published a video review of the film in Italian. Nouvel Observateur, Marianne, Libération, and Le Figaro provide reviews in French. For the reactions of Luigi Calabresi’s son, Mario, see a story in Corriere della Sera.

For context on the Piazza Fontana bombing and film representations of political violence in Italy during the Anni di Piombo, see: Alan O’Leary’s Tragedia all’italiana: Italian Cinema and Italian Terrorisms 1970-2010 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), Alan O’Leary and Pierpaolo Antonello’s Imagining Terrorism: The Rhetoric and Representation of Political Violence in Italy, 1969-2006 (London: Legenda, 2009), and Paul Ginsborg’s A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Romanzo di una Strage is released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy.

[Note that this article is cross-posted from my blog.]

Cry ‘Havoc’ And Let Slip The … Pigeons of War?

By Robert Bateman

We all know that being a historian is sometimes a slow way to spend one’s days. Hmmm, well, actually it is always slow.  But that is part of what we love.  At times, however, even the best of us know that it can be a periodically mind-numbing experience to spend day after day among the stacks of a major libraries or deep in the bowels of yet another archive in search of the ever-elusive “smoking gun” which will bring life to your current project. Yet interspersed in those hours spent pouring over the arcane scribblings of obscure War Department clerks long dead and gone, there are moments. One might have the much-treasured experience of finding some long lost letters of T.J. Jackson, or perhaps the luck to stumble upon a previously unsuspected battle plan written by Patton prior to a major training event, before he was famous.  Moments like those are the stuff of legends, repeated by military historians with a hushed tone of awe and passed on into the lore of the profession when ere several or more gather at the local watering holes during the academic conference season.  These moments make a career.

This is not about one of those moments.

The United States Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, is a wondrous place for a historian to lose himself. Housed in their archives are the personal papers of military leaders, famous and obscure, from the late 19th through the 20th Century.  The attached library, as well as that of the Army War College itself (which is the major tenant of Carlisle Barracks), also contains a magnificent collection of works on all aspects of the art and science of war.

So it was that one fine spring day a few years ago that I found myself spending day after day examining the archival files for materials in support of my own quest for knowledge.  As the topic du jour was the interwar (1918-1941) Army of the United States, there was a host of material from which to choose, and the days seemed to fly past. At least that was the case so long as the weather outside was gray and overcast. But with the coming of the spring and the sun breaking through the clouds, even the spirit of a dedicated historian may wander and require a periodic break from the seemingly overwhelming task of synthesis.  Fortunately the USAMHI is blessed not only with a top-notch team of archivists, but ones with a sense of humor and a finely tuned acuity for the absurd.

As any budding academic historian soon learns not long after entering graduate school it is an utterly futile exercise to ever attempt to best an archivist. These people are the Ents of the academic world. Operating without the burden of classes, but with a fine education and sufficient time (often measured in decades) to dedicate to the pursuit of knowledge in their own areas of interest, archivists will always know more than any mere graduate student, no matter how obscure the topic. If their archive has the material, one can rest assured that the archivists know not only who the last person was that came looking for that material but they have at least a rough idea of what is in the files.  Thus, the simplest and most effective research tool in the world is to be very, very, friendly to all archivists. After all, they hold the keys.  At Carlisle Barracks that very intelligent and wonderfully well-balanced (see?) individual that had the ‘keys’ I needed was the Chief Archivist, Mr. David Keough.

Keough also has a well-developed sense of the absurd.

“Dave,” I started, rubbing my eyes as another full day of staring at chicken-scratch took its toll, “bring me something light, huh? I swear, if I have to read another report on the nature and effect of Amplitude Modulation of radio waves in the interwar army I’ll go nuts.”

Dave smiled his somewhat inscrutable smile and disappeared into the stacks. After a few moments he returned and dropped a single thin file onto my desk.  Pushing back slightly from my hunched over position at the desk I opened the file. There was a black-and-white photo of a World War One era flatbed truck in what was obviously a victory parade. The caption indicated that this was 1919, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Standing at the position of “port arms” with their Springfield rifles on each end of the flatbed were two scowling doughboys.  Though they looked about 19, these men wore serious expressions befitting the nature of their guard duty.  This was serious duty.  Between them was a large cage made of chickenwire.  Hanging down the side from the bed of the truck was a massive sign, at least six feet long and several feet high, explaining to all in capital letters just what was in the cage.


In seconds I was rolling with laughter.  All I could think about was the title of this blog entry (bellowed in a fine Shakespearean voice), or alternately, the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knights confront the dreaded beast guarding the cave of doom.  (“Yes, but he’s a vicious bunny, with teeth like this!”)  Like I said, Dave had a finely tuned sense of the absurd. The rest of the file contained similar artifacts.

One rarely hears a serious belly laugh booming through an archive.

So, am I alone here? Who else has found themselves, when deep in the halls of an academic shrine, be it a library or an archives, laughing uncontrollably about some artifact of history you’ve uncovered?  (And a note to my non-historian friends, feel free to contribute as well.) Leave your comments below.