The Higgins Armory is Dead! Long Live the Higgins Armory!

Cross-posted on Skulking in Holes and Corners.

I just learned that the Higgins Armory will be closing at the end of the year.

Those outside of New England may be unfamiliar with the armory, but this Worcester, Massachusetts-based museum was built around the medieval/Renaissance arms and armor collection of early 20C industrialist John Woodman Higgins. The resulting museum, lowering its drawbridge in 1931, currently claims 3,000 items, and is “the only dedicated museum of armor in the western hemisphere, housing one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside of Europe,” according to its website. The museum also focused on outreach, offering dozens of educational programs for schoolchildren every year. Unfortunately, it’s almost 60,000 annual visitors weren’t enough to make up for the lack of an endowment.

Given the focus, the interior is quite impressive and well worth a visit in the few months left:

One room in the Higgins Armory (
One room in the Higgins Armory (

It will be closing its portcullis for the final time at the end of the year, and will transfer the core of its collection to the Worcester Art Museum. It looks like WAM has big plans for the transferred items, and they promise within 6 years or so we’ll be able to see 2,000 items from the collection in “open storage.” Stay tuned.

In the next history war

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

The election of Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would ‘re-prioritise’ another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed ‘wasteful’. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody’s bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation’s self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called ‘black armband view of history’. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia’s past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of ‘black armband history’ suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history — my areas of expertise — may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools ‘must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past […] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War […]

He’s right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn’t mean it’s unproblematic — as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can’t erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.

Rethinking the Causes of Wartime Rape

While a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, my new colleague Katherine Marino wrote the following article on the work of Dara K. Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The piece originally appeared in the Clayman’s online publication Gender News in October, 2011. The Clayman Institute has kindly extended permission to reprint it here.

When Eman al-Obeidy burst into the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, desperately relating her tale of gang rape at the hands of Libyan soldiers as international news cameras rolled, the eyes of the world momentarily focused on the problem of sexual violence in wartime. Worldwide attention has grown considerably in recent years, from the United Nations’ outcry against mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the war in Darfur.  However, very little is known about why wartime rape occurs.

Perhaps the most common explanation for wartime rape, bolstered by the examples of Rwanda and Bosnia, is that it is a tool of ethnic cleansing. In other words, the objective of this kind of rape is to impregnate women from the targeted community and in so doing, “cleanse” the group by altering its ethnic makeup.  It is a tool of war designed to humiliate and psychologically terrorize members of the targeted group. Another prevailing reason is that it occurs due to women’s relative inequality as compared to men. The argument, made by many in the human rights advocacy world, is that in places where women are culturally devalued they are put at risk of being brutalized by men.

Moving beyond conventional wisdom about wartime rape

To better understand the causes of wartime rape, political scientist Dara Kay Cohen carried out a research project using two types of methodologies.  Her conclusions? Cohen calls these usual explanations for wartime rape “very powerful conventional wisdoms,” which do not explain most cases of rape in civil war.

First, Cohen conducted an in-depth examination of the civil war in Sierra Leone (1990-2002), in which widespread rape occurred even though the civil war was not an ethnic conflict.  By starting her research in a region without an ethnic conflict, Cohen could focus her research on understanding other explanations of wartime rape. Over the course of her fieldwork, Cohen took three trips there, conducting interviews with over 200 ex-combatants and noncombatants about their varied experiences with violence during the conflict.

Second, Cohen developed the first ever systematic and comprehensive dataset on wartime rape. The dataset, which utilizes information from the State Department Human Rights Country reports, found that of the 86 civil conflicts between 1980-2009, about two-thirds were reported to involve significant rape.  Surprisingly, her statistical analysis revealed that wartime rape is not more likely to occur in ethnic conflicts or in places with greater gender inequality.  Rather, she found a correlation between the choice of recruitment mechanism of an armed group and that group’s use of rape.

“Combat socialization” used to unite armed groups

From her interviews with ex-combatants in Sierra Leone, as well as similar interviews conducted in El Salvador and East Timor, Cohen argues that gang rape often serves as a means of socialization for members of armed groups who perpetrate it, what she calls “combatant socialization.”  The insurgencies and armies that have abducted or press-ganged their members into service are more likely to perpetrate widespread rape than those whose “members are recruited through more voluntary methods.”  She explained in an interview that gang rape “has…[a] benefit to the group unit under certain conditions.  If the people in the group don’t know each other, [and] have no basis on which to trust other, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that…rape, in particular…has an even stronger bonding function than [other forms of] violence.”  Gang rape, she explains in a recent paper, “enables armed groups with forcibly recruited fighters to create bonds of loyalty and esteem from these initial circumstances of fear and mistrust.”

One of Cohen’s most unexpected findings is that these bonds of socialization apply not only to male combatants, but also to female combatants.  On her second fieldwork trip to Sierra Leone, Cohen discovered that the rebel group which committed the most rape, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was also the group with the most women fighters.  She then interviewed female RUF fighters, a number of whom revealed that they were actively involved in gang rapes along with male combatants, holding victims down as well as utilizing bottles and other objects to perpetrate rape.  Others’ survey data confirmed that female combatant participation constituted a wider phenomenon, which, as Cohen explains, challenges the “conventional wisdom…that if you have more women in the armed group, there should be less rape.”

Future research to show that interventions against rape are not “one size fits all”

Cohen’s interest in studying violence against women dates back to her years as an undergraduate at Brown University, when she volunteered for several years at a rape crisis center, and interned at the Rhode Island’s attorney general’s office in their domestic violence and sexual assault unit.

While studying Political Science in graduate school at Stanford, Cohen saw an opportunity to utilize the rigorous social scientific methodology of political science, drawing from models of violence and victimization in wartime, in order to study a subject that has received less attention in the field — sexual violence in conflict.

Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded Cohen a $245,000 grant for a collaboration with the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) to, as she explains, “collect a much more detailed dataset” for the analysis of incidents and patterns of sexual violence.  She expresses the hope that “eventually we will have [data] that is a lot of use to both the policy community and to academics interested in these questions.”  One ultimate goal is for her work to “help policymakers…be more careful in forming interventions that are not ‘one size fits all.’”

Over the past four years, the United Nations has taken unparalleled steps toward investigating, enhancing data collection on, and curbing sexual violence, including Resolution 1820, in 2008, which provides a mandate for the UN to intervene in cases of widespread sexual violence.  Despite such advances in the international realm, better understanding of the root causes of sexual violence in war is crucial if these efforts are to succeed, and this is where Cohen’s work strikingly breaks new ground.  “It is not always the case that ethnic war and rape go hand in hand.  And it is not always the case that gender inequality automatically means that rape happens during wartime,” Cohen says. “Those are the sorts of things…I am hoping that policy makers will hear when I start publishing my work.”


The Professional Historian and Popular History

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.

lee-issue-1985 (2)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.