I don’t actually have any capacity to speak on behalf of the Society for Military History, but I would nonetheless offer the following public service announcement for those who participate in future SMH conferences (and any conference for that matter).
Conferences are useful. Conferences can even be fun. But what’s not fun is when individual presenters go far far over their allotted time. A few minutes over – not a problem. But twice as long as the allotted twenty minutes? Not cool. We all know the time limits, so let’s stick to them, shall we?
The problem is only compounded when the chair fails to do his/her duty – keep them to time. That’s what the chairs are for – to ‘ride herd’ in cowboy-speak. Let everyone know at the beginning of the session that you will be keeping presenters to their time limits. And do it. The audience will understand, even thank you. Remember as well that some people are trying to jump from panel to panel to hear particular papers – going far over time really screws that up.
But what makes it even worse is when the chair, who has failed to do his/her duty and leave any time at all for questions at the end, then proceeds to read his/her own commentary well into the break between sessions. Not cool.
One of the reasons we attend panels is to get some sort of interaction with the presenters. Please, please, please – let’s try to keep to the time limits, and be ready to get cut off. Every year conference organizers make these expectations clear to presenters and chairs/commentators, but we still seem to have difficulty following through.
This public service announcement brought to you by a panel attendee.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli of Australian (and New Zealand, though my remarks here mostly pertain to my own country) troops on 25 April 1915. In the last two decades Anzac day has increasingly been seen as marking the coming of age of the nation, and its annual commemoration has become the most sacred event on the national calendar. And as a military historian I think this is a problem.
The original diggers are gone now, and the numbers of the veterans of later wars are diminishing rapidly too, but dawn services at local war memorials and overseas battlefields seem to only become more popular. Broadcast, print and social media are filled with ritual invocations to never forget. New forms of commemoration appear. Stories of courage and sacrifice are told and retold. This is not in itself a problem. I’m not against Anzac Day, as such, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering. It’s what we’re not remembering, or never knew in the first place, that is worrying. We should be looking to understand, not merely remember.
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.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:
Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy ‘atom bombs’, ‘fatal microbes’, ‘poison gases’, ‘death rays’ and a ‘cobalt warhead’ that could ‘scatter radioactive particles over large areas’. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme — that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.
The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.
Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: ‘It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.’ Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had ‘entered the missile age’.
Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel’s Secret War Against Hitler’s Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard’s article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser’s German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt’s offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.
While I don’t (and can’t) dispute Howard’s account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 — fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads — had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.
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.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
Previously I argued that two books by Frank Joseph, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011), were at the very least bad history and, in the case of Mussolini’s War at least, possibly apologies for fascism as well. I also promised that I’d take a closer look at Joseph himself. It turns out that military history is only one of his interests, and that he is better known as a pseudoarchaeologist and a former neo-Nazi.
It took a little bit of detective work to piece this together, but only a little. It’s in the author biographies supplied by his publishers. Praeger’s author biography of Joseph says that
Frank Joseph is professor of world archaeology with Japan’s Savant Institute, and recipient of the Midwest Epigraphic Society’s Victor Moseley Award. His published works include more than 20 books in as many foreign editions, such as Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935–45.
Helion’s biography is more extensive (Mussolini’s War, 312):
A member of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and a scuba diver since 1962, Joseph has participated in underwater archaeological expeditions in the Bahamas, Yucatan, the Canary Islands, the Aegean, and Polynesia. A frequent guest speaker across the United States, he has lectured in Britain, Slovenia, and throughout Japan, where he was made ‘Professor of World Archaeology’ by Kyushu’s Savant Society. Before the close of the past century, Japanese national television broadcast two different programs about his work.
In 1998, he received the Victor Moseley Award for his work on behalf of cultural diffusionist archaeology from Ohio’s Midwest Epigraphic Society (Columbus). He also received 1999’s Burrow’s Cave Society Award, and his work has additionally commended by the Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation (Marquette, Michigan).
At first blush this perhaps doesn’t sound so bad. The Oriental Institute is perfectly respectable, of course, though becoming a member requires nothing more than paying an annual fee. The ‘Savant Institute’ has very little web presence, at least in English, but it appears to have something to do with archaeology (Nobuhiro Yoshida, ‘President of Japan Petroglyph Society and Professor at the Savant Institute & Japan Academic Center’, spoke at the 2005 conference of the American Rock Art Research Association). The Ancient Artifacts Preservation Foundation exists ‘To collect and preserve evidence of ancient civilizations in North America, and the Great Lakes region in particular, in a manner that supports their study by amateur and professional scholars and to educate the public about the significance’. The Midwestern Epigraphic Society ‘researches the ancient migrations of mankind to the Americas, especially Pre-Columbian and particularly to the Midwest US, as revealed by cultural similarities, archaic writing, ancient world history and evidence found by modern science’.
We historians like words. So we just love it when computers let us count words really quickly. In fact, I’ve even done it once or twice. So we should all be really interested when the AHA (courtesy of Robert Townsend) comes out with a study of lots of words. The words in 23,000 history dissertation titles since 1920, to be exact. Summarizing the results of the study, reportage from Inside Higher Ed included the following:
‘For the recent titles [1993-2012], some of the analysis may challenge conventional wisdom about the state of the disciplines. There has been much discussion in recent years from some historians who say that issues of race, class and gender have come to dominate history, at the expense of traditional studies of politics and war. But the new AHA study found that “war” appeared in 11 percent of dissertation titles and “politics” appeared in 7.6 percent of titles. By contrast “women” and “gender” appeared in 7.8 percent of the titles, and “race,” “ethnic” and “ethnicity” appeared in only 4.5 percent of the titles.’
I was struck by this interpretation. And I was reminded of the dangers of using single words to conclude too much from a work. I was particularly curious about that word “war. ” What is it good for? What does it really tell us about the extent to which a study adopts a ‘traditional’ approach to war? Does it tell us whether the author is doing ‘military’ history, and if so, what kind?
I don’t claim to know the answer. But while I don’t have those 23,000 dissertation titles at hand, I have played around with Google Ngram Viewer, and done some basic analysis of the paper titles for the upcoming SMH conference. And I’ve noticed how the word “war” really does need some kind of semantic markup (as the digital humanists like to say), because the word “war” could mean many different things. Often times it may refer to the study of war in a traditional sense, but just as often (not sure about the exact proportion) it is actually being used as a shorthand for a timeframe, rather than an approach, much less a subject of study. You can probably think of various titles that deal with, say the homefront during World War II, as examples. These examples clearly indicate a willingness to use the term “war,” and even study life during wartime. But that’s not exactly the same thing as military history, or at least not a traditional approach to military history as the above quote suggests. (I’ll ignore here the odd fact that ‘war history’ sounds more military than ‘military history.’)
If we really wanted to get a sense of the relative frequency of various historical subfields, we should be a bit more sophisticated. Better than “war” might be “wars” and “warfare,” since I’d guess it’s mostly military historians who care about multiple wars and the waging of war. More useful might be terms that traditional military historians actually impart substantive meaning to, that is to say, their disciplinary jargon: military, army/armies, navy/navies, battle, siege, strategy, tactics, campaign, etc. Check out my previous post if you need some additional examples. We might even rank such terms according to how ‘traditional’ they are. You could also search for specific battles, even the years of famous campaigns (1494, 1704, 1812, 1815…). Perhaps best of all would be some combination of “war” and these other terms used by traditional military historians. In short, I wonder how useful a frequency count of “war” really is.
Better software which lets us to see collocations and co-occurrences will allow us to analyze phrases and not just single words (“unigrams”) – Google Ngram Viewer even offers a little of this basic functionality now. As we improve our methodology, we will undoubtedly achieve a better understanding of our discipline and field.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
I recently came across what appear to be two bad books from what are two good publishers. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that — these things happen, a lot of books get published on military history and they can’t all be good. But it turns out that the author of these books is even more questionable than the content. I worry that, having got this far and established a track record, he will be able keep convincing publishers to look favourably upon his work.
The author in question is Frank Joseph, and the books are Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45 (Helion & Company, 2010) and The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe (Praeger, 2011) — the publisher’s pages can be found here and here. I must admit to not having read them, so this is not a review. But enough is available on Google Books, here and here, to cast serious doubts upon Joseph’s reliability, and these doubts are amply confirmed by reviews available elsewhere, for example by Richard Carrier in Global War Studies. I’ll focus on Mussolini’s War, though The Axis Air Forces appears to be pretty bad too — I’ll just mention here the blunt, unsupported claim from that an American experimental VTOL aircraft of the 1950s, the Convair XFY, ‘had been built from Campini’s original plans’ (p. 31) for the Caproni Campini Ca.183bis, a planned ‘futuristic Italian interceptor’ with ‘a highly innovative vertical takeoff and landing design’ (p. 30). The only trouble is that, as far as I can tell, the XFY owed nothing to any Italian aircraft (though it did to a German one, the unbuilt Focke-Wulf Triebflügel), and the Ca.183bis was not a VTOL design at all, but a high-altitude interceptor of relatively conventional configuration (albeit with a Campini compressor, making it a crude jet). The only somewhat unusual feature they had in common seems to have been contra-rotating propellers, but they weren’t actually all that rare. But on to Mussolini’s War.
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.
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.