Portraits

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

Xmas Office Party

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.
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Los Hombres Armados

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.

Enemy inside the gates

[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.

A PSA from the SMH

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.