I was a writer before I was an historian, and a “pop historian” long before I became an academic historian. I started publishing in magazines like Civil War Times Illustrated when I was twenty. I enjoyed it. I researched and wrote it as well as I knew how, and I naively supposed that people in the groves of academe would respect what I had done.
To a considerable degree they did. When I applied to graduate school the writing sample I provided was a 25,000-word special issue on the life of Robert E. Lee. While no one mistook this for a scholarly article, it did convey to the graduate studies committee such useful bits of information as the fact that I could write effectively, that I had sufficient organizational skills and follow-through to complete a manuscript of that length, and that I had a certain amount of savvy in that I’d learned the ropes of publishing.
Even so, I was lucky, because there’s an undercurrent of disdain for popular history within the academy and if my application had landed in a different department I would have been far better off turning in the usual undergraduate research paper.
Just now I used the word “undercurrent.” It might have been more apt to use a word like “cloud” or “fog,” because as with many of the less savory aspects of academic culture, you can rarely point to a faculty member who will explicitly and openly denigrate history written for the non-specialist. And yet the undercurrent/cloud/fog exists, and every graduate student with an ounce of perception learns it very early in her career.
For instance, in 1994 a quartet of graduate students at Indiana University used precisely the term “undercurrent of disdain” when giving their perception of the profession’s view of history written for non-specialists:
Despite avowals to the contrary by a profession whose democratizing impulses led to “people’s history,” our professional culture still contains an undercurrent of disdain for works written by amateurs or for public audiences. There is a hierarchy implicit in our definition of ourselves as professional historians, and it is, not surprisingly, reinforced in our professional training. As graduate students, we hear this in the classroom, where popular works may be credited as “good narratives” but ultimately derided as lacking “sufficient rigor.” We absorb it through hallway conversations and professional newsletters, where we find our colleagues more readily acknowledging one another’s presence on prestigious conference panels than their infrequent addresses to county historical societies or rare columns in the local newspaper. We rehearse it by learning to write historiographical essays in a style that favors subtle distinction and academic jargon at the expense of accessibility. We read it in the book review sections of scholarly journals, where academic reviewers of popular works so often feel compelled to add the curious disclaimer–“this work is meant for nonspecialists”–as a gesture of forgiveness for some perceived lack.
— Chad Berry; Patrick Ettinger; Dot McCullough; Meg Meneghel, History from the Bottom Up: On Reproducing Professional Culture in Graduate Education, Journal of American History Vol. 81, No. 3, The Practice of American History: A Special Issue. (Dec., 1994), pp. 1137-1146. You will need J-STOR to access this article online.)
Despite the baleful way that the academy regards “popular history,” however, I have met many historians who do in fact write in order to engage with a general readership. My colleagues in military history do so as a matter of course, because the level of popular interest in our subject area is so great they would have to actively loathe and despise non-academics to avoid it.
I suppose, however, that a prudent graduate student might object that one should take up popular history only after achieving the safety of tenure. Maybe so. But I remember a discussion in a graduate course I took during my first year as a PhD student. The subject of popular history came up, and the professor and grad students batted it around briefly in exactly the way you might imagine from reading the block quotation above. Finally a student next to me said, with an eagerness balanced by a certain professional smoothness, that he had a real interest in writing for a general readership and after he got tenure someday he would like to try it.
The student never got to try it. He never got tenure. He never even got his degree. He died less than a year later.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
The Australasian Association for European History XXIII Biennial Conference — ‘Faultlines: cohesion and division in Europe from the 18th Century to the 21st’ — lived up to the high standard set by its predecessor. Wellington was much colder and windier than Perth, but the locals were friendly, the locations historic and the history stimulating.
Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of airpower history on offer (apart from my own effort). However, James Crossland (Murdoch) mentioned during his discussion of Britain’s participation in the Geneva convention process, noted that as late as 1948 the Soviet Union proposed banning aerial bombardment altogether. A real throwback to the days of the World Disarmament Conference in the early 1930s! There was a tiny bit of aviation in the account given by Andrew Webster (Murdoch) of his intervention as a historian into a matter of law and policy — well, an aeroplane was mentioned. The question was whether Nationalist Spain was a combatant in the Second World War; at stake was compensation for the family of a Wellington pilot who had been shot down over France but escaped over the Pyrenees only to be interned by Franco’s security apparatus. Surprisingly, history (and the family) was the winner. And, as part of her argument that universalist ideals of human rights are being eroded by a reversion to us vs. them thinking, Joanna Bourke touched on the rhetoric used by western air forces about ‘accidental’ bombing of purely civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere, noting that when you look at concepts such as CEP (circular error probable), the probability of not hitting the target is built in. In other words, accidents are not accidental. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the (no-fault) admission of mistakes now is precisely because the weapons have become more accurate; they are much more likely to hit where they are aimed, and so if the wrong target is hit then that requires an explanation, an admission of error.
While the conference was not explicitly about war, there was plenty of it to go around. In fact, one of the speakers — unfortunately I can’t remember who — criticised its continuing prominence in our narratives. It’s not the only thing going on in European history. But so often, even when we’re talking about peace we’re still talking about war as well (or vice versa). For example, Maartje Abbenhuis (Auckland) looked at neutrality and humanitarianism in the Franco-Prussian War, arguing that it was seen as having been successfully limited, with little risk that it would spread. Separately, Neville Wylie (Nottingham) and Christine Winter (ANU) examined the role of third-party powers in protecting civilians of belligerents in wartime, the former in terms of the big picture and the longish durée, the latter using Swiss oversight of German internees in Australia during the Second World War. Wim Klinkert (Amsterdam) gave a fascinating paper on the Dutch-Belgian defence relationship in the early twentieth century, which was far more complicated than you might think: in 1919 and 1923 there was even serious talk of war. Marjan Schwegman (NIOD) explored the public controversy over a seemingly slight change in the status of her home institution, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, which originally started out in 1945 as a state archive for documenting the German occupation of the Netherlands. Chloe Ward (Melbourne) reassessed the Left Book Club’s intervention in British politics, particularly in post-Munich by-elections. Bodie Ashton (Adelaide) looked at the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, specifically the little-known, and ultimately doomed, attempt to create a Federation of the United States of Southern Germany to counterbalance the Prussian surge. And Andrew Graham Watson (Adelaide) discussed Anglo-American press reactions to the rise of Gorbachev and the disaster at Chernobyl, a topic which bemused those of us who are old enough to remember the late Cold War!
There was much else going on, including a roundtable in honour of Richard Bosworth (Oxford), contributions by Omer Bartov (Brown) and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chicago), and keynotes by Peter McPhee (Melbourne) and Geoff Eley (Michigan). And that’s just the stuff I got to see. Hopefully I can make it to Newcastle in 2015 — at 390km away, it will be practically next door to Armidale.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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]
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 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.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
An interesting Flickr set of photographs evidently taken in the south of England in the last year of the Second World War was recently posted to a WWII mailing list I’m on. Many show aircraft of various types; others are of people and places. The photographer is unknown but judging from the content was in the US Army Air Forces, stationed at RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire.
I’ve picked out a few interesting aircraft shots: some are aesthetically pleasing, some show unusual types, and one shows something I’d never come across before. But first is one of a person, perhaps the most intriguing. It shows an unidentified, uniformed woman on a bed: the negative is labelled ‘Xmas Office Party 1 75w bulb overhead f2 25th sec 02′ which says much, but not enough: we are drawn into speculation. Perhaps she has something, or someone, on her mind; perhaps she’s just tired and had a bit too much to drink. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know, but then that’s what intrigues.
There’s a neighborhood bar not far from where I live. I drop by often enough that the bartenders know me and automatically get me my beer of choice. It’s a friendly place and easy to make conversation.
Back in mid-December the coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was almost wall-to-wall. One evening it was silently unfolding on one of the bar’s muted televisions. I noticed a Hispanic man watching the images, his eyes wet with tears. A short time later we began talking and I found out why.
The man–I’ll call him Fernando–was thirty-eight years old and had grown up in El Salvador during its long civil war (1979-1992). The conflict was between the right-wing government, with its death squads, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF), an umbrella term for several left-wing guerrilla groups. Fernando’s parents were afraid of both sides. For them it was simply a matter of los hombres armados: the men with guns.
When Fernando was a little boy, he told me, his parents would sometimes take him from their house and spend the night hiding in the woods, with a hand cupped over Fernando’s mouth to keep him from crying out. We think of school shootings and civil wars as worlds apart. But for Fernando, the former was irresistibly reminiscent of the latter.
I have since talked to Fernando on several other occasions. We never speak of the civil war but it plainly haunts him. At some point–I have never asked how–he acquired an M-16, perhaps because he eventually joined one side or the other. Although he left the weapon behind him in El Salvador, he once told me he has never felt comfortable without it, and he alternates between having thoughts of violence and thoughts of running away. He becomes tearful easily and indeed, never seems far away from weeping. Although his case is undiagnosed, he almost certainly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As a military historian, I have never quite known what to make of Fernando’s equation of the Sandy Hook murders with his own childhood. But it is the same equation that others make who have to live with the threat or reality of mass killing. For military veterans present at the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, the scene resembled the aftermath of an IED blast. People residing in neighborhoods wracked with gang violence must know the same fear that Fernando’s parents did. Fernando is a reminder, I suppose, that although we define the boundaries of our field as centrally concerned with political violence, the lived experience of people caught up in violence is essentially the same.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
Despite appearing in the Times Literary Supplement a month ago, Eric Naiman’s astounding exposure of independent historian A. D. Harvey’s fraudulent scholarship seems to have been little remarked upon by historians. (Naiman’s piece is quite long, but worth the read; for a much shorter version try here.) Admittedly, the true extent of Harvey’s transgressions, which includes fabricating primary sources and reviewing his own work under pseudonyms, is unclear; but as Naiman argues, from what we do know they are not the sort of thing the academy can let slide:
It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey or Trevor McGovern, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.
Some prominent academic blogs in cognate disciplines have discussed the affair, namely Crooked Timber, Languagehat, and Lawyers, Guns and Money, but with some exceptions the predominant reaction in the these posts and comments seems to be wry amusement, rather than concern, say, or disgust. Harvey himself (apparently) twice commented himself at Languagehat (without quite defending or explaining his actions), but strangely was all but ignored by the other commenters.
Perhaps I feel more strongly about it than most. Harvey is an independent historian and has been for much of his career, apart from some periods inside the academy. I’m also currently an independent historian, and worry that this sort of misbehaviour will make it harder for people in my position to contribute to academic scholarship from outside the academy proper. That’s unfounded, perhaps; I’ve encountered no undue difficulties so far and Harvey’s case is probably odd enough to be sui generis. Also, I own one of Harvey’s books (Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence) and, I notice, praised him on Twitter. Certainly I was impressed by the range of his research in period, topic and discipline, from sex in Georgian England to literary criticism. So I feel foolish for having been taken in by him. Finally, and most importantly, a significant proportion of Harvey’s prolific output comprises military history, and even airpower history (though ironically this is the part of his work I’m least familiar with): Arnhem, Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945, A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War, English Literature and the Great War with France,’The French Armée de l’Air in May-June 1940: a failure of conception’, ‘The Spanish Civil War as seen by British officers’, ‘Army Air Force and Navy Air Force: Japanese aviation and the opening phase of the war in the Far East’, ‘The Royal Air Force and close support, 1918-1940′, ‘The bomber offensive that never took off: Italy’s Regia Aeronautica in 1940′ and so on. To be fair, as far as I know there is no evidence that any of these works is fraudulent in any way. But how can historians extend Harvey the benefit of the doubt now? If we should be patrolling the borders of our discipline against incursions by pseudohistorians, then we should also sound the alarm when there’s an enemy inside the gates.