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.
CAPTURED GERMAN WAR-PIGEONS!
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.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.] The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that ‘Hamas’ goal is to kill civilians’; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming ‘In Children’s Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!’ This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.
During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that ‘German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked’ by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:
British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2
As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
This past Sunday was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War in 1918. France celebrates 11 November each year with a series of ceremonies commemorating the dead of La Grande Guerre, as the First World War is often known. This commemoration is arguably much more important in France than it has ever been in the United States, where it is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day, since France suffered many more deaths, in addition to the occupation of parts of northern France and the devastation of the Western Front.
This year’s celebration of 11 November is different, however. Last year, the Nicolas Sarkozy government decided to expand the celebrations « en hommage à tous les morts pour la France ». So, the ceremonies will now commemorate all French veterans killed in any wars, not just the fallen of La Grand Guerre. The new François Hollande government has chosen to continue with this new model and celebrated 11 November with the expanded symbolic format more similar to the American Veteran’s Day.
Libération and Le Monde report on the 11 November ceremonies. Some commentators and politicians have criticized the new ceremonies as obscuring the importance of the First World War and its horrifying legacy of trench combat and attrition warfare.
In addition to the controversy surrounding this year’s ceremonies, questions have been raised about amnesties for French soldiers who were executed during the war, especially during the army mutinies of 1917. Some individual soldiers’ cases have been reviewed, leading to rehabilitations, but some want a general amnesty for all French soldiers. Le Monde reports on one of the soldiers.
The French Armistice Day commemoration reminds us how important it is for historians of war and society to look beyond the history of American involvement in warfare. European and global perspectives often offer strikingly different understandings of the experience of war.
Armistice Day also highlights an important scholarly debate over the historical memory of the First World War has been raging for over a decade, since the publication of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The current controversies over 11 November in France will certainly add to this expanding debate, which has been dominated by historians using cultural methods. Historians of war and society could be more active in contributing to our understanding of the historical memory of the First World War and other past wars that continue to be commemorated.
So where does someone who self-identifies as an “early modern European military historian” start? Ah yes, “early modern.” (Don’t you worry, Clausewitz and Trenchard, you’ll get yours eventually.)
How to define “early modern”? Not easy. Historians necessarily divide up the past into discrete-ish periods for convenience, and hopefully we have some reason behind our madness. But historians can’t agree on what’s the best kind of madness, which means there are competing interpretations of what ‘early modern’ means. Heck, historians have been arguing over periodization since at least the Renaissance and Petrarch’s “Dark Ages” As it turns out, in a recent ‘open peer-review’ online article Newton Key points out that the very term “early modern” really only caught on c. 1970, and then primarily among English-speaking historians. Despite its subsequent recognition in the U.S., few can agree on when exactly it was.
It doesn’t help that the sub-periods which “early modern” is supposedly composed of themselves overlap in confusing ways: Italy’s artistic Renaissance might have begun in the mid-14th century, England’s Renaissance is said to extend well into the 17th century, while women may not have had a Renaissance at all. Reformation historians, for their part, feel comfortable looking back into the 15th century and some argue the Counter-Reformation continued well into the 18th. The forlorn 17th century generally lacks any kind of modern designation whatsoever, other than the vague appellation of “Baroque,” or a generalized period of “crisis.”
How far back the Ancien Régime (or Old Regime) extends is up for debate; the extent to which it coincides with the Enlightenment is yet another question I’ll bring up only to ignore. Fortunately, there’s a bit more consensus as to when the early modern period ends, with the dawn of the French Revolution. But historians are an argumentative lot, which means that they frequently ignore these artificial boundaries: some scholars insist on the early modern parallels with the ‘modern’ era of revolutions, while other scholars talk about the long 18th century (c. 1688 to 1815/1830). With so many countries and so many subjects of study, feel free to draw your own boundaries. Somebody will undoubtedly disagree with you.
So I hope I will be forgiven for not insisting on too strict of a time frame when describing early modern European military history. Anyone familiar with the standard narrative presented in History of War 101 (and the wars of the period 1450-1800 in particular) already knows the traditional time frame: from Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 to the eve of 1789 and the momentous changes ushered in by the French Revolution. Inevitably, recent historians have sought to breach the walls between the periods, insisting that neither Charles VIII nor Napoleon were all that revolutionary. We can leave that discussion for a later day – for now it’s just worth remembering that there are many different understandings of when ‘early modern’ was.
The result, as I see it, is a field of early modern European military history segmented into three broad eras, usually grouped around the constellation of wars at their center:
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
New York waited for an air raid in June 1918. For thirteen nights from 4 June, much of the city was blacked out to avoid giving German pilots any assistance in locating targets to bomb. The New York Times reported the following day that:
Electric signs and all lights, except street lamps and lights in dwellings, were out in this city last night in compliance with orders issued by Police Commissioner Enright at the suggestion of the War Department, as a precaution against a possible attack by aircraft from a German submarine. A system for signalling by sirens in case the approach of aircraft should be detected was devised by the police and signal officers yesterday to warn persons to get under cover.1
While coastal and anti-aircraft batteries readied their guns, aviators went up to check the effectiveness of the blackout, resulting in its extension. After the third night, it was reported that
The lower part of the city was in almost complete darkness, the number of street lights being reduced and those that burned being dimmer. Every downtown skyscraper was almost entirely dark, the shades in the rooms which were lighted being drawn.2
City officials met to discuss other civil defence measures, including air raid sirens and shelters. A particular concern was the evacuation of skyscrapers during business hours:
It was pointed out that in case of such a raid in the daytime the danger of loss of life from panic in swarming down the stairs and into elevators would be greater than the danger of bomb explosions.3
It was decided that the best thing to do would be to designate certain floors as evacuation points. These plans were probably not put into effect, however, as the last night of blackout was 16 June; on 17 June all police precincts were ordered to ‘Resume normal lighting throughout the city until further orders’.4 There was evidently some embarrassment now, as the War Department and the New York Police Department each claimed that the blackout was the other’s idea. In any event, the exercise doesn’t seem to have been repeated.
For many years now I’ve been fascinated by counterfactual history. I make no claim to coming up with anything original by way of approaching it conceptually, but I’ve written a couple of articles about it for general audiences and contribute a “what if” column to each issue of World War II magazine. (So far I’ve published close of forty of them.) I’ve also done workshops and team taught graduate courses on the subject with my colleague Geoffrey Parker
The genesis of my interest tracks back to a 1997 conference at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, in which several scholars examined case studies concerning the rise of the West and key events that might have “unmade” it. The fruits of the study were published in 2006 as Unmaking the West: “What If” Scenarios That Rewrite World History. It’s the best and most accessibly written introduction to counterfactual history that I have yet seen.
Counterfactual history routinely gets a bum rap, mostly from people who haven’t taken time to explore it and reject “what if” scenarios out of hand. One of the conference organizers, political psychologist Prof. Philip E. Tetlock of Berkeley, noted that many influential historians “have excoriated ‘might have been’ speculation,” adding, “The ferocity and stature of the critics are a bit unnerving.” Nevertheless, when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of “might have been” history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable–an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition–they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently. Moreover, as the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently expressed it: “To assume that what happened was bound to happen is to beg the question of why it happened and to deprive history, at one blow, both of its lessons and its life. . . . If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a colored pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must . . . leave some room for the imagination.”
Counterfactual history is a good corrective to the tendency to see developments as “overdetermined.” “Few predicted World War I,” writes Prof. Tetlock, “the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union but virtually everyone today–who claims professional competence in such matters–stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.” By contrast, the counterfactual approach can help sensitize scholars to the role of contingency in the problems they study.
It can also encourage scholars to think more carefully about the assumptions on which their theories and historical interpretations rest. For example, Prof. Richard Ned Lebow notes that “apologists for the Soviet system insist that communism would have evolved differently if Lenin had lived longer or had been succeeded by someone other than Stalin. Attempts to address this question have not resolved the controversy but have compelled historians to be more explicit about the underlying assumptions that guide and sustain contending interpretations of Stalin and the nature of the Communist party and the Soviet state. Those assumptions have now become the focus of controversy, and scholars have looked for evidence by which to evaluate them. This process has encouraged a more sophisticated historical debate.”