SMH 2013 in the cloud

The long-awaited program for the New Orleans SMH conference has finally been released. And, sure, you could download the PDF yourself and read through that long list of paper titles, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an impressionistic ‘blink’ of the conference in its entirety? Of course it would be. So here it is:

Wordle cloud of SMH 2013 paper titles

Wordle cloud of SMH 2013 paper titles (click to enlarge)

In future posts I’ll analyze what the 2013 program suggests about the interests of SMH members by delving a bit more into the details, but for the time being, a few painfully-obvious conclusions based solely off of the titles of the papers:

  • I think the Society of Military History is interested in the Military and War. Though a few do promote Peace, at least in the paper titles.
  • Befitting a conference themed “War, Society and Remembrance,” Memory is a popular word, Remembrance (bottom left) not quite as much. Other synonyms of note include Memories, Myth, Legacy, Remembering, Remembered, Unremembered, and Forgetting. Some have clearly figured out how to get their papers accepted!
  • SMHers are an Anglo-centric lot, with multiple papers on American (including African-American), British/English and Canadian subjects. France also has a respectable showing, although the Germans are perhaps a bit too close for their liking. But aren’t they always? A smattering of other papers are dedicated to the history of all those other countries that Americans still can’t locate on a map, such as China and Sweden.
  • Among the wars (in gray), no surprise that World War II (Second World War, D-Day, Eastern Front) rules the roost. WW1 (Great War) also makes a strong showing. The American Civil War (Civil War) seems to be comfortably in third place, while the War of 1812 and the Cold War jockey for a respectable fourth. The War of the Spanish Succession can see the Vietnam War ahead of it, but has been dropped from the peloton (last session!). Here’s hoping for the lanterne rouge.
    [Update: In a stunning development prompted by the discovery of a scoring error, a recalculation of the results allows the Vietnam War (Vietnam) to vault into third, stripping the American Civil War of its bronze medal. The League of Concerned Nineteenth Century Historians says it plans to protest the decision.]
  • The most popular varieties of military history are fully represented: intelligence, command (Decision), politics (Political), campaigns, foreign policy, strategy and defense, and military-civilian interactions (Occupation).
  • Army can’t seem to beat Navy in the stadium, but the opposite is true at the podium.
  • A new historical record, with explicit historiographical mention of sieges actually eclipsing that of battle.

That’s all for now.

Short, sharp shocks

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

(Or, ‘Trenchard at sea’.)

Jamel Ostwald’s recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it ‘The lesson of the naval bombardments’. Stated negatively, this lesson was that ‘it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities’.1 Or, stated positively, ‘there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives’, mostly (but not exclusively) ‘those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy’s military effort and to which, therefore, the term “military objectives” may be broadly applied’.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn’t even necessary, because airpower itself ‘is the great disarmer’.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, ‘it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare’.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that ‘an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked’.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: ‘the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist’.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument — the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years — but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan’s palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it’s easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight’s prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.

  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92.
  2. Ibid., 93.
  3. Ibid., 165.
  4. Ibid., 235.
  5. Ibid., 234-5.
  6. Ibid., 95.
  7. Ibid., 96.
  8. Ibid., 95.