Cohesion and division in Wellington

[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.

Operationalizing Military Operations

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.

Initial Caveats

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:

  1. Number of operational theaters. More theaters create numerous requirements: on the most basic level, there’s more content to cover if we want to construct our narratives at a constant level of detail. For wars fought in a single theater, you can more easily narrate the actions of two armies (unless #2) facing off against each other. For multiple theaters, you have to do the same narrating each theater. That task is only made more difficult by the reality that the literature on most multi-theater wars tends to focus on one or two theaters, largely ignoring others (I’ll also ignore the fact that multiple theaters usually means more languages to read). With a fixed word count, you must necessarily subordinate some theaters to others, shortchanging those operations in the process, or else narrate all the theaters at a broader level of generalization.
  2. Number of armies. Usually related to the number of theaters, but not always. More armies theoretically require tracking and mentioning more people and movements, as well as describing the interactions between them. Military historians tend to personify individual armies as discrete bodies with their commanders as the head (or perhaps with a split personality); more army actors mean more complexity.
  3. Concurrency of theaters. A related complication occurs when there is fighting in multiple theaters at the same time. This concurrency raises the specter of interactions between theaters, which requires additional space (and consideration). It might even serve as an explanation for the length of a war (#5), as John Lynn has argued for Louis XIV’s wars.
  4. Theater variety. Related, but slightly different, from the number of theaters. Fighting in a variety of theaters not only presents a challenge for the combatants, but requires the reader to abandon a universalistic explanation for operational success – overwhelming numbers in a fertile theater might lead to success, whereas similar numbers in a barren theater can end in disaster. At a minimum, narrating such details requires the author to describe the basic geography and logistical constraints of each theater, a need to briefly recount the operations in each theater, and to weigh their relative contribution to the overall outcome of the war. It doesn’t help narrative simplicity when the theaters exhibit contradictory trends – one side winning in one theater while their opponent wins in another.
  5. Duration of war. Longer wars don’t necessarily require more detailed explanations – a long one-sided conflict might be relatively easy to describe and explain – though my sense is that longer wars necessarily are more complicated. In any case, if the operational details are important, providing an adequate narrative will necessarily require more words than a shorter war.
  6. Number of combats. All else being equal, the more big fights, the more words needed to describe and explain them. A short war, it should be noted, can also be conducted at a rapid operational pace with many engagements – a distinction often made between early modern and modern wars, say from the French Revolution onwards. To decide which combats would be worth narrating, we might need to define a minimum size, e.g. number of forces engaged, or perhaps percentage of field forces engaged. Too often military historians simplify their task by declaring certain types of combats, say field battle, inherently more important to the outcome of a war than others. It’s easy to ignore particular types of combat (e.g. positional warfare) if their results are “inconclusive”, unless of course indecision is part of the operational narrative. Often times the editorial decision of which combats to focus on depends how they accumulate, the next criteria…
  7. Number of operational reverses.  One common narrative shortcut is to collapse numerous operations into stages or phases, focusing on pivot or inflection points. But to understand why one side eventually predominated, it might be important to narrate the ebb and flow – that’s how the participants experienced the war – rather than looking at the results in the rearview window. It’s even more confusing when you have a multi-front war where the momentum swings back and forth from year to year, or where one side gains momentum in one theater while losing it in another. All these factors make it difficult to create a tidy narrative of the “direction” of the war. It’s also worth noting that a common editorial decision to divide some wars into smaller segments (say 1805-1807), whereas in other periods multiple wars are collapsed into a single era (say the wars of Louis XIV), has an impact. The narrative of only part of a war will usually be easier to impart: not only are there multiple chapters dedicated to covering such a war (allowing one to overcome the word limit), but those start and end points were exactly chosen because they create a coherent narrative; the timespan has already eliminated much of the trend complexity. If an entire war must be covered in a single chapter, messy operations on the ground present a significant challenge for comprehension.
  8. Personnel variation. Not only does a larger number of countries require a greater amount of information (even if you simply keep each country’s level of detail simple: ruler, type of government, main commanders), but if a combatant goes through multiple commanders, you should theoretically briefly mention the important ones, their particular command styles, and what made them important. This also requires space in your text.
  9. Tactical variation. Particularly important here is whether a given war is fought only with armies, or whether it includes naval operations as well (and airpower in the 20C) – do they interact? Similarly, how standardized are the tactical systems, across combatants and even within an army? One could well argue that if the battles are indecisive, only an exemplar need be detailed at the tactical level.

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:

  1. Number of sides. Alliances necessarily add another dimension of narrative and explanation, often allies serve as scapegoats to explain one nation’s defeat (or less-than-decisive victory). For narrative simplicity, the tidiest alliances are two groups that act in unison. Who’s fighting whom becomes more complicated when combatants switch sides during the war itself – the Italian Wars of the early 16C are infamous for this diplomatic legerdemain.
  2. Domestic political rivalries. On occasion a country’s war effort might be complicated by political change – military strategies, and even commitment to a specific war, quickly become politicized. If political parties with different strategic visions alternate in office, their country’s war effort will be affected. This also applies if the government isn’t dominated by one political party, in which case the country might attempt to pursue multiple, possibly even conflicting, strategies.
  3. Institutional rivalries. Often an extension of political rivalry, a country’s war effort becomes more complicated when different departments seek to implement their own pet projects. Branch and service rivalries (army-navy…) also apply here.
  4. Technological changes. Some wars are waged during periods of significant technological (or other structural) change, while other periods in Western history may witness a century or more of static weapon technology. These technological changes require discussion in the text. Progress can stretch beyond weapons systems of course, encompassing technologies involving energy, transportation, communication, manufacturing, computation, and so on. Nor are broader structural changes limited to technology. Current militaries, for example, seem to consider changes in climate as increasingly relevant as well.

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.

Best Practices in Publishing?

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.

Many thanks,



Refugee Shelters by IKEA

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.


NPR reports on the IKEA shelters and UNHCR’s refugee camps. The UNHCR website has additional information.

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]