The Official Blog of the Society for Military History
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.
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:
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:
That’s all for now.
[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  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.
An earlier post on Trenchardism naturally prompts this early modernist to muse on the early modern art of bombing civilians. Consider it a late Christmas present.
Like many aspects of warfare, the early modern art of bombardment was quite similar to the theory and practice of its modern counterpart, only on a smaller scale. The practice of launching nasty objects over tall walls is as old as catapults, and it has always been easier to hit the broadside of a town than precisely strike a specific point on a wall. Almost as soon as gunpowder weapons made their appearance in 14th century Europe, warmakers envisioned their use against towns. As powder and projectiles increased in performance and availability, gunners targeted the inhabitants of fortified places as well as the walls they sheltered behind. Solid shot could pulverize stone walls, while iron cannonballs heated glowing red over an iron grate (“red-hot shot”) threatened to set buildings ablaze inside the town. In the 16th century, the parabolic trajectory of bombs fired from mortars made bombardment more efficient, particularly after bombardiers (eventually) figured out how to light the bomb fuse from the ignition of the main powder charge in the tube. Ever-growing arsenals, supplemented by yet more technological advances, significantly expanded the use of bombs throughout the 17th century: the French development of the bomb ketch under Louis XIV made coastal bombardments a more practical matter; howitzers’ arcing trajectories could also target the interior of a town; while the development of the man-portable Coehoorn mortar allowed thousands of double-grenades to rain down on a besieged garrison, and any unfortunate inhabitants as well. A few other “inventions” were even more fanciful. As one 1688 periodical reflected on the state of the early modern military art:
“But this Age affords more refined Wits, and better fitted for Malice. They have invented Bombs, Balls and Carcasses, full of all nocent [harmful] things, Nails, Knives, Sharp-pointed Contrivances, Grapples, Pistols firing, and several other Diabolical Inventions; which shot up into the Air from the Mouths of the Brass Mortar-pieces, upon their falling burst with such a Violence, as immediately occasions a Total Ruine among the Besieged, and to their Houses; and when the Cities, are of a small Extent, their Havock and Destruction presently forces them to lay down their Arms, and no longer to resist their fury.
But of all Inventions of this Nature, that seems most marvellous of certain Mortar-pieces, which by the force of people and Instruments fill’d with Wind, throw certain great Bombs made of six round and Convex Iron Plates, wherein are contain’d twenty five persons well provided with Arms. These Bombs may be shot into the Enemies Fortresses four times in an hour, and by this means fill them so invisibly with such a vast number of Soldiers, (since twelve Mortar-pieces of the same Bulck will be discharg’d each time) that the Place will be presently taken; for their Sergeants can in an Instant draw them up in good order, and make them seize on the Sentinels and Guards, and by this means obtain a more certain Victory, then ever did the Romans by their Bucklers, or Clypeus Contextus, since they can enter the Towns without any resistance.” Early modern air cavalry, Trojan Horse style.
Bombardment technology developed slowly, but the justifications for the semi-indiscriminate attack on civilian population centers remained constant, and are familiar to us today. Most garrisons were quartered among urban civilian populations, and while mortar fire might have been relatively accurate, the ability to distinguish military from non-military targets within a town was limited. Nor was such discernment a priority, since early moderns believed that the bombardment of towns could achieve positive tactical objectives. First, indiscriminate bombardment was used as a threat – declare your neutrality, deliver up the demanded ransom, and nobody needs to get hurt. If compliance was too long in coming, or perhaps if a message needed to be sent, bombardment might serve as a punishment, witness Louis XIV’s 1684 bombardment of Genoa, an Italian port-state that had dared to assist France’s Spanish enemy. On a narrower tactical level, as our quote above suggests, targeted bombardment of a garrison’s barracks and posts might sap the defenders’ morale. But more widespread destruction could also cause the enemy harm – whether the intent was to burn the fodder magazines and mills within the town, or to create a more general conflagration that damaged the enemy’s ability to continue the war through lower tax revenues and destroyed infrastructure. In wars of attrition, such destruction could be its own objective. But, fortunately for contemporaries, this was not the age of the chevauchée: bombardment was rarely used with wild abandon, likely due only in part to the arguments of the cooler heads, who noted that destroying too many towns made little sense if the attacker intended to occupy them and extract their resources.
Even though early moderns refrained from spreading fire and death across the enemy’s lands as a matter of course (at least after the Thirty Years War), the tactical application of bombardment was standard practice. The need for speed encouraged most besiegers to accelerate their attacks by lobbing exploding carcasses in among the townspeople. Besieged burghers, after all, were just as ‘guilty’ for allowing garrison troops to continue their defense, even if they didn’t actively support the garrison. The suffering of innocents appears to have been a non-issue for most military practitioners well into the 18th century, and for many civilian observers as well. Neither Louis nor his Secretary of War Louvois apparently gave much thought to the civilian casualties caused by the bombardment of Luxembourg, nor did the English overly concern themselves about the citizens of Saint-Malo, Dieppe or Dunkirk – the inhabitants of these ‘pirate nests’ facilitated the war effort, and they further benefited economically from the prizes captured by French privateers.
Not even the Christmas season overrode such military expediency. Towards the end of December 1708 the Duke of Marlborough received a civilian deputation from the besieged town of Ghent (population 51,000) begging him to save their homes from destruction. Grinch that he was, the Duke informed them that “since they had brought this misfortune upon themselves by their own folly or negligence [Ghent had had a small British garrison in its castle that was surprised earlier in the year], they must either assist us against the garrison or expect we should use all manner of extremity to reduce them to their duty.” Red-hot shot pelted the town for several hours until the French garrison beat the chamade and negotiated their surrender. Civilian suffering wasn’t always the primary objective of early modern bombardment, but it often was a supplemental tactic. Humanitarianism rarely provided a check on such methods.
Same as it ever was, just on a smaller scale. Like modern airpower theorists, early moderns sometimes hoped that a massive bombardment of the enemy capital would quickly force them to their knees, and on rare occasions it might actually work (as with Genoa in 1684 and Algiers the same year). More often, however, early modern bombardment was intended to terrorize the civilian population on a city-by-city basis, usually coupled with an attempt to capture the town. As so often happens, military capability slides inevitably into military use, with theoretical limitations on war preempted by immediate military expediency. Whether a Coehoorn mortar, a B-29 or a Predator drone, it’s usually easiest to shoot first, and chalk up ‘collateral damage’ to the vagaries of war.
With my apologies–updates to the blog platform have made it more difficult to deal with images, which Dr. Ostwald has included in this posting on his own site. They are great visuals that add a great deal to his point, so I respectfully direct your attention thataways.–M.S.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
It’s been a good year for reading military history, but then it always is. If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Penguin, 2012). Stevenson’s previous book, 1914-1918 (published as Cataclysm in the United States), was a good survey of the First World War, even an excellent one; but it didn’t hint at the magisterial nature of this book. In fact, I was worried that With Our Backs to the Wall might simply prove to be a padded-out version of the 130-odd pages in 1914-1918 covering the same period. Of course my fears were groundless.
The first third of With Our Backs to the Wall provides the narrative backdrop for the rest of the book. Here, Stevenson explains the events of 1918: in particular the German gamble on the Western Front in the spring, the successful Allied defence and the ultimately even more successful Allied offensive leading to the Armistice. This section by itself is almost worth the cover price (especially if you bought it in paperback like I did): it’s easy to focus on the ‘classic’ period of trench warfare between 1915 and 1917 and forget the return to a war of movement in 1918. But where Stevenson really shines is in the following thematic chapters which explore how the war was fought in 1918, how it had changed since 1914 and why it didn’t continue into 1919, as was widely expected until the autumn. There’s something for everyone here: technology, intelligence, logistics, morale, finance, economics, gender. Of course the approach is necessarily largely synthetic, though Stevenson does often use primary source material to great effect. Each topic is treated in depth to a satisfying degree: even if you are familiar with the scholarship you are likely to find something worthwhile (as I did in the section on airpower), and if you aren’t you’ll learn a lot. But despite the density of the text and its length (nearly 550 pages excluding endnotes), I found With Our Backs to the Wall a compelling and even gripping book. Highly recommended. (But if it’s not to your taste, perhaps try Claudia Baldoli and Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, London and New York: Continuum, 2012.)
So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?
Major historical events often have to wait for years to receive serious treatment in historical film, especially in the case of controversial episodes that produce sharply opposing narratives of those events.
For the first time, the bombing in Piazza Fontana in 1969 is the subject of a major feature film, Romanzo di una Strage. A large bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milano on 12 December 1969, killing 17 people and wounding 88. The bombing shocked Italians and produced outrage across the country, a crucial moment in the so-called strategia di tensione campaigns of right-wing and left-wing radicalism and violence in Italy in the late 1960s.
Piazza Fontana launched a period of intensified political and social conflict, known as the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) throughout the 1970s.
Romanzo di una Strage (2012) is directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. The film focuses on the competing investigations, political murders, and cover-ups in the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969-1972. Giordana controversially places a sympathetic portrait of police commissioner Luigi Calabresi at the center of his political thriller. The Piazza Fontana case still remains unsolved today, despite several investigations, trials, and overturned convictions. The film posits its own theories on various threads of the complicated story, but hesitates to present its own definitive verdict on the case and the cover-up.
Marco Tullio Giordana explains his perspective in an interview published by Nouvel Observateur. Giordana actually witnessed the Piazza Fontana bombing from a passing tram and was interviewed by Luigi Calabresi as an eyewitness. It seems that Giordana’s personal experience strongly shaped the narrative structure and cinematography of the film.
The film’s interpretation of the Piazza Fontana bombing and its protagonists has provoked much interest and also sharp criticism. Republica TV published a video review of the film in Italian. Nouvel Observateur, Marianne, Libération, and Le Figaro provide reviews in French. For the reactions of Luigi Calabresi’s son, Mario, see a story in Corriere della Sera.
For context on the Piazza Fontana bombing and film representations of political violence in Italy during the Anni di Piombo, see: Alan O’Leary’s Tragedia all’italiana: Italian Cinema and Italian Terrorisms 1970-2010 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), Alan O’Leary and Pierpaolo Antonello’s Imagining Terrorism: The Rhetoric and Representation of Political Violence in Italy, 1969-2006 (London: Legenda, 2009), and Paul Ginsborg’s A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Romanzo di una Strage is released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy.
[Note that this article is cross-posted from my blog.]
[The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Society for Military History or the Journal of Military History. Cross-posted at Airminded.]
While they only apply to journals published in the UK, the recommendations of the recent Finch Report on open access (OA) have some worrying implications for historians overseas as well as those working in the UK, especially if they are working independently of any institutional base. If adopted, they would mean doing away with the current subscription-based model of access to scholarly articles. Instead, articles published under what is known as Gold OA would be free for anyone to download (ideally, though there will likely be a transition period). The cost of publication would instead be covered by charges paid by the authors themselves, the so-called Article Processing Charge (APC). The Finch Report suggests an APC of £1450, and envisages that this would ultimately be borne by the universities who employ the authors, or by the granting bodies who fund them. The Cameron government has already accepted the recommendations of the Finch Report.
This is fantastic news for libraries, struggling with increasing subscription fees and reduced budgets. It would also make the results of research directly available to the wider public who currently need to pay a not-inconsiderable amount to download a scholarly article, unless they can get access through a public library. These two reasons, which provide much of the impetus for OA, are self-evidently good ones.
Independent historians (like me) will likewise benefit greatly from being able to freely download articles under Gold OA. But they will lose more than they gain. In general they cannot look to their employer to pay the APC for any work that they wish to publish in academic journals. Similarly, they are unlikely to have grant money to draw upon to cover the costs of publication. Most of the time, independent scholars would have to pay the APC out of their own pocket. It’s already difficult enough, and expensive enough, to do academic-level research outside academia; adding a £1450 charge for the privilege of actually publishing that research will make it effectively impossible for many independent historians. Perhaps some funding could be set aside for non-academics to draw upon for APCs, but any such scheme would likely be competitive and would at best mean a lengthy delay in publication; at worst, it would mean that research that has passed (or is capable of passing) peer review would not get published. Or maybe the APC could simply be waived, but somebody would ultimately have to pay it: if it’s the journal itself, that might make it harder for them to accept work from independent historians (though twenty-one leading UK history journals have already stated that ‘all our decisions about publication will be taken regardless of whether an author is able to pay an APC or not’).
There is also the impact on historians working outside the UK (again, like me), including those in academia. Research funding in the UK might be restructured around Gold OA, but it won’t be elsewhere in the world. Historians working outside the UK quite likely wouldn’t be able to draw upon universities or funding bodies to pay the APC. Even if they could, they might find it difficult to justify spending scarce funds to publish in the UK when they could publish somewhere else in the world. This is a problem for historians of Britain (yet again, like me) who naturally wish to publish in British history journals. But it’s also a problem for historians working on other areas who might wish to publish in, for example, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies, or First World War Studies.
If implemented, the recommendations of the Finch Report would open access to research from the point of view of the consumer, but it would perversely narrow access from the point of view of the producer. In the sciences, where nearly all academic research is fully funded or carried out in universities, Gold OA will work wonders. It may well do so in the humanities too, but the collateral damage will be much greater. What is to be done?
Sceptical responses to the Finch Report from learned societies and scholarly journals include: American Historical Association; British Academy; International Society of First World War Historians; Journal of Victorian Culture; Royal Historical Society; and, as previously noted, the collective response from a number of journals (including First World War Studies). Most heartening is Past & Present‘s position:
We want to state clearly and unequivocally that merit will be the sole determinant of Past & Present’s decisions to publish articles.
Whether an author can pay an APC or not will be irrelevant.
We will accept APCs and will also publish the articles of authors who cannot pay APCs. This means that all authors outside the UK and all within can continue to be published free of charge in Past & Present.
By Robert Bateman
We all know that being a historian is sometimes a slow way to spend one’s days. Hmmm, well, actually it is always slow. But that is part of what we love. At times, however, even the best of us know that it can be a periodically mind-numbing experience to spend day after day among the stacks of a major libraries or deep in the bowels of yet another archive in search of the ever-elusive “smoking gun” which will bring life to your current project. Yet interspersed in those hours spent pouring over the arcane scribblings of obscure War Department clerks long dead and gone, there are moments. One might have the much-treasured experience of finding some long lost letters of T.J. Jackson, or perhaps the luck to stumble upon a previously unsuspected battle plan written by Patton prior to a major training event, before he was famous. Moments like those are the stuff of legends, repeated by military historians with a hushed tone of awe and passed on into the lore of the profession when ere several or more gather at the local watering holes during the academic conference season. These moments make a career.
This is not about one of those moments.
The United States Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, is a wondrous place for a historian to lose himself. Housed in their archives are the personal papers of military leaders, famous and obscure, from the late 19th through the 20th Century. The attached library, as well as that of the Army War College itself (which is the major tenant of Carlisle Barracks), also contains a magnificent collection of works on all aspects of the art and science of war.
So it was that one fine spring day a few years ago that I found myself spending day after day examining the archival files for materials in support of my own quest for knowledge. As the topic du jour was the interwar (1918-1941) Army of the United States, there was a host of material from which to choose, and the days seemed to fly past. At least that was the case so long as the weather outside was gray and overcast. But with the coming of the spring and the sun breaking through the clouds, even the spirit of a dedicated historian may wander and require a periodic break from the seemingly overwhelming task of synthesis. Fortunately the USAMHI is blessed not only with a top-notch team of archivists, but ones with a sense of humor and a finely tuned acuity for the absurd.
As any budding academic historian soon learns not long after entering graduate school it is an utterly futile exercise to ever attempt to best an archivist. These people are the Ents of the academic world. Operating without the burden of classes, but with a fine education and sufficient time (often measured in decades) to dedicate to the pursuit of knowledge in their own areas of interest, archivists will always know more than any mere graduate student, no matter how obscure the topic. If their archive has the material, one can rest assured that the archivists know not only who the last person was that came looking for that material but they have at least a rough idea of what is in the files. Thus, the simplest and most effective research tool in the world is to be very, very, friendly to all archivists. After all, they hold the keys. At Carlisle Barracks that very intelligent and wonderfully well-balanced (see?) individual that had the ‘keys’ I needed was the Chief Archivist, Mr. David Keough.
Keough also has a well-developed sense of the absurd.
“Dave,” I started, rubbing my eyes as another full day of staring at chicken-scratch took its toll, “bring me something light, huh? I swear, if I have to read another report on the nature and effect of Amplitude Modulation of radio waves in the interwar army I’ll go nuts.”
Dave smiled his somewhat inscrutable smile and disappeared into the stacks. After a few moments he returned and dropped a single thin file onto my desk. Pushing back slightly from my hunched over position at the desk I opened the file. There was a black-and-white photo of a World War One era flatbed truck in what was obviously a victory parade. The caption indicated that this was 1919, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Standing at the position of “port arms” with their Springfield rifles on each end of the flatbed were two scowling doughboys. Though they looked about 19, these men wore serious expressions befitting the nature of their guard duty. This was serious duty. Between them was a large cage made of chickenwire. Hanging down the side from the bed of the truck was a massive sign, at least six feet long and several feet high, explaining to all in capital letters just what was in the cage.
CAPTURED GERMAN WAR-PIGEONS!
In seconds I was rolling with laughter. All I could think about was the title of this blog entry (bellowed in a fine Shakespearean voice), or alternately, the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knights confront the dreaded beast guarding the cave of doom. (“Yes, but he’s a vicious bunny, with teeth like this!”) Like I said, Dave had a finely tuned sense of the absurd. The rest of the file contained similar artifacts.
One rarely hears a serious belly laugh booming through an archive.
So, am I alone here? Who else has found themselves, when deep in the halls of an academic shrine, be it a library or an archives, laughing uncontrollably about some artifact of history you’ve uncovered? (And a note to my non-historian friends, feel free to contribute as well.) Leave your comments below.