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On Military History

Shelby Foote.jpg
Dr. Erik Loomis

I must dissent from Brother Loomis on several points. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a political scientist who studies military organizations, which often places me in the company (methodologically, epistemologically, and physically) with professional military historians. Thus, I am generally familiar with professional, academic treatments of military organizations, ideas, and campaigns, especially in the fields of airpower and seapower.

First, points of agreement (with necessary caveats):

1. Erik has an aesthetic distaste for military history. I’ll grant this as a statement of fact about Erik, and as a generally defensible position to hold as a human being. Not everyone finds details of the clash of the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps against the 3rd SS Panzer on the seventh day of the Battle of Kursk all that exciting; my eyes tend to glaze over at some of the more detailed treatments of particular battles, even as I recognize the intense archival, interview, and even archaeological work necessary to establish and contest factual claims about such battles. It’s entirely fine not to care about that, although I do suspect that Erik would get mildly irritable if someone said “I don’t like labor history because stories of workers getting crushed make me feel bored and sad.”

2. The academic study of military history has periodically been kind of a mess. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think I’d settle on two main causes. The first is that, unlike in most other fields (except perhaps biography) there are exceptional rewards to producing popular work that does not usefully engage with relevant academic debates, or employ rigorous methods of inquiry and analysis. This is especially true of particularly “popular” conflicts such as the American Civil War or World War I; it can be very hard to sort out the useful product from the dreck, especially as writers have little incentive to produce the latter over the former. The second is that military history often finds itself tied up in arguments about popular nationalist narratives that academic historian often find a) distasteful and b) dangerous. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that this all goes back to Vietnam era disdain for military conflict and military life, but it’s not completely wrong; the same dynamic occurred in political science, although it seems to have passed more quickly in polisci than in history.

3. Military history is not well-regarded among mainstream academic history departments. This is a big generalization, but while Erik’s views on the question are probably a touch stronger than the mean (that’s why we love him!) my own experience suggests that they aren’t terribly wide of the mark. That said, there are a number of institutions (often although not always associated with professional military education) where academic military history is well-respected, uses the most modern and rigorous methods of inquiry, and is subjected to productive critical analysis.

Now for the points of disagreement. First, I think Erik misunderstands the nature and direction of modern academic military history, and second, I think that he radically understates the contribution that academic military history can make to other historical fields.

Regarding the first, academic military history does not, by an large, focus on recapitulations of particular battles or campaigns. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that modern military history has taken an organizational turn, but only slight. This is to say that military history has become the study of how particular military organizations have developed, changed, and executed their primary objectives. A different way of saying this is that military history has largely become a story of the functioning of large bureaucratic organizations. Even histories of particular campaigns (for example, the air campaign over Korea) increasingly focus on bureaucratic questions; what ideas inspired how the organization explained itself, how did the organization conceive of war, what sort of societal footprint did the organization create, how did it attempt to marshal the resources necessary to conduct war, what kinds of arguments did people inside the organization have with each other and with outsiders, how did the organization react to actual military action, etc. All of these are subject to rigorous historical inquiry, and all of them have been so subjected by professional, academic military historians.

The second disagreement should be obvious in context of the first. Military organizations are, generally speaking, gigantic government bureaucracies. They draw resources from the nation, and in so doing often transform the relationship between state and society. Military organizations tend to produce intense, internally coherent identities that have a broad social impact, including on members, former members, and outsiders. Military organizations both reflect and structure broader social cleavages, including race, class, and gender. Military organizations play a remarkably important role in the creation and sustainment of national identity, for good and ill. In practical terms, military organizations enable or restrict certain kinds of public policy; the state can use military organizations for repression, for the development of cohesive national identities, for the pursuit of resources, or for the defense of territory and socio-political structure against adversaries. Long story short, telling a story without trying to understand the relevance of military organizations to social life is deeply problematic, whatever kind of history you’re working on.

I can hear an objection: None of the above is really “military history,” in the common understanding of the term. You don’t need to know anything about the order of battle at Shiloh to appreciate the broader impact of the expansion of the United States Army (and its corollary, the national security state) on American politics and society during the Civil War. To an extent, this is true; any academic account needs to “black box” certain phenomena in order to conduct a useful, coherent inquiry. Indeed,”the conduct of the Battle of Tannenberg has been dealt with extensively in other works, and will not be recapitulated in detail here” is an extremely common move in modern, academic military histories. But every inquiry also needs to appreciate that what happens in the black box is also the subject of potentially useful, legitimate historical inquiry. The Union won the Battle of Shiloh because reasons, and some of those reasons have to do with social cohesion, ethnicity, communications, and technology, all of which are of legitimate, if variable, interest to professional academic historians.

Let’s give an example. I’m currently pushing through Alexander Hill’s The Red Army and the Second World War, which is an extremely detailed account of the history of the Red Army from about 1921 on. It builds on (and revises) a lot of the secondary English language literature, while also integrating heavy Russian and German archival work and even some quantitative analysis. The book has substantially improved my own understanding of the development and functioning of the Red Army, in both peace and war. And here’s the thing about the Red Army; it was really, really important to the Soviet Union, and it’s really, really important to understanding the functioning of Soviet politics, economics, and society in just about every era of Soviet history. The combat experiences of the Imperial Russian Army, of the Red Army in the Civil War, of the Red Army in Finland, and finally of the Red Army in World War II are immensely consequential to Soviet state policy, and consequently to any useful account of Soviet history. The impact of the specific experiences of the Red Army and its antecedent helped structure ideological conflict (tension between the military and political elite), technology policy (Soviet technology investment was largely driven by the perception of specific aviation and mechanization needs), ethnicity policy (the politics of Russian relations with the periphery are extremely complex, and were often driven by perceptions of military effectiveness), social policy (creating a populace that could be effectively mobilized for war was a key Soviet goal, and one that was formulated in context of the Red Army’s understanding of what future conflict would look like, which was based on experience in the Civil War etc.); you get the idea.

All of these things should be pretty important to historians of the Soviet Union. Rigorous inquiry into the nature and conduct of the Red Army isn’t the only thing that historians should be doing, but it surely should be of interest to historians concentrating on other fields. And while the Red Army may be exceptional in its influence over broader Soviet society, the difference between it and, say, the US Air Force or the US Navy is one of degree, not kind.

And so… yeah.  Brother Loomis should take military history more seriously, as should the rest of his field.  There’s a lot of excellent work out there, and there are plentiful grounds for productive engagement between that work and practitioners of other fields.

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  • I have to run here, but a perusal of this shows none of the following words: race, class, gender, sexuality, environment. In other words, I don’t doubt you have a point here, but my perusal does not suggest that this addresses the central point of mine, which is that military history is way out of touch with the recent advances in the historiography.

    And I grant that I have no doubt there are quality works out there, including I assume that book on the Soviets, which is far outside of my field. But I’m not sure that you have made a compelling case as to why I should care about this field, not so much in terms of my field of writing which wouldn’t be a fair case, but in terms of when I teach the U.S. history survey course.

    And a picture of Shelby Foote is just undermining your own post.

    • Joe Paulson

      The picture is just there to annoy you, probably.

      • Robert Farley

        Well, obviously.

      • efgoldman

        The picture is just there to annoy you

        It annoys the shit out of ME, and I’m not a historian and don’t play one on TV.

        • N__B

          That’s just a happy coincidence collateral damage.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “And a picture of Shelby Foote is just undermining your own post.”

        Any historian that screws up an important citation, their FIRST citation of a work, should not be taken seriously.

    • Nathan Goldwag

      I can only speak for myself, but my undergrad senior thesis, written on the Russo-Japanese War, was primarily about how a specific British general’s proto-fascistic theories about Race and the Clash of Civilizations influenced his observations of the war and thus, his conclusions. Maybe this was just the university I attended but there was a LOT of focus on the racial and gender aspects of war and military history.

      • My PhD dissertation is primarily about the demobilization at the end of WWII, and the protests about the speed of the demobilization (or lack thereof). The protesting soldiers were led by union organizers, and were often working class (class, labor); in the US the wives of soldiers used labor tactics to protest as well. The women’s protests (which are the heart of my work) appealed to traditional gender roles in words and in motifs (the women used their children as props for the protest, they mailed baby booties to the Senate Armed Services Committee, they marched with baby buggies) – gender.

        More pointedly, the whole compartmentalization of history as a discipline is not a good thing, and, from what I’ve seen, it is military historians who are leading at least one of the charges towards a more universal discipline. Perhaps because we’ve been ghettozied by the rest of the discipline for so long that we’re desperate to be allowed back in…

        • demz taters

          Yes! You can’t separate the working class or gender issues from the business of war, especially in the US where war and the military are so tightly woven into the fabric of national folklore. There are probably more than a few “This day in labor history” posts that could be written around the issue of the military as employer of last resort, of women taking main breadwinner roles out of necessity through separation, and employability issues faced by veterans such as disability and homelessness

          • Exactly! Is a mutiny a labor action? If the military describes it as a “soldier strike,” does that mean they acknowledge the ability of the soldiers to engage in some form of collective bargaining, or is it merely a means of differentiating between what upset white soldiers do and what upset black soldiers do? (Black soldiers mutiny, white soldiers strike, at least during WWII – at that seems to be true for the US military and the British military…).

      • Dudefella

        My Master’s thesis (never went farther) was about class and gender in Zimbabwe from 1980-1985. To address the issues in any meaningful way, I had to talk about how ZANU, ZAPU, and the White Rhodesians fought the war, and how they demobilized after it. I think Loomis’s attitude here needlessly reductive.

    • Thom

      In African historical studies, there are a number of historians who do quite good social history of military institutions (and police) in precolonial, colonial and postcolonial times. Maybe we look at this more as social history than as military history, but these historians definitely spend much of their efforts analyzing race, class, gender and sexuality, as well as environment. These studies are definitely integral to studies of labor and politics, and other aspects of life, in the 20th century at least.

      • Thom

        I should add that I share Erik’s lack of interest in battles, etc, and I agree that on the whole the field of military history suffers from an excessive degree of antiquarianism. But I find Farley’s comments interesting and encouraging.

        • stepped pyramids

          In my opinion “military history sucks” should be something like “high fantasy roleplaying sucks” in the early 2000s. It was true, but some people actually decided to do something about it and now there’s a lot of high-quality fantasy role-playing games that aren’t just lazy D&D ripoffs.

    • Robert Farley

      I mention race, class, and gender specifically in the post. I suspect that if you were more familiar with modern, academic military history you would find that there are many accounts which integrate such questions directly into their analysis.

      • Denverite

        Shorter Farls:


        • N__B

          I have never had honeyed chilis, but I am open to discussion and experimentation.

          • Denverite

            I actually have had a honey-jalapeno salsa before at the student pub at the University of Chicago (this was like 1999 or 2000, so wjts literally may have been on premises at the time). It was OKish.

            • N__B

              I’m relatively unfamiliar with U o’ C, but that’s a hell of a condiment in any school pub. I was happy at Rensselaer when there were no jockey’s whip marks on my burger.

              • firefall

                N__B, you didnt mind the barking noises?

            • wjts

              (this was like 1999 or 2000, so wjts literally may have been on premises at the time)

              It’s practically a certainty. (I don’t think I ever ate anything at The Pub that wasn’t a hot wing or a cheeseburger. No, I tell a lie – I had the pierogies a couple of times. And the carrot sticks that came with the burgers and the wings.)

              • Denverite

                I forget. Was wing night 10 cents or 25 cents a wing?

                • wjts

                  It was 10 cents when I started going but increased to (I think) 20 cents sometime around 2000-2001.

          • I eat my pease with honeychili, I’ve done it all my life.

      • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

        This review is from the British Journal of Military History. I think it shows the kind of broad subjects military history can cover:

        Warren FitzGerald, All in the Same Boat: The Untold Story of the British Ferry Crew Who Helped Win the Falklands War. London: John Blake, 2016. Appendices, photographs, 263pp. ISBN: 978-1-786-06006-8. Hardback. Price £16.99.

        Bacon butties, self-styled poufs and honky-tonk joannas make this probably the lightest book on the Falklands Conflict to date; it is certainly the only one that highlights diverse sexual orientations. The focus is the North Sea Ferries’ Norland, whose steward and Liberace-style pianist Wendy (Roy) Gibson came to national prominence through Para Ken Lukowiak’s controversial memoir, A Soldier’s Song (1997).

        All in the Same Boat compiles ten informal personal testimonies to create a chronological history. This is the partial tale of how a matey, 94-strong, civilian ‘family’ switched from chugging between their Hull homes and Zeebrugge to hosting and transporting thousands of often antagonistic military guests to the far-off South Atlantic: Naval Party 1850; 2 Para; 3 Para; and three lots of Argentinian POWs partook of the Norland’s maternal hospitality.

        Military masculinity encountered camp Norland stewards – Wendy, Frankie and Mimi – and supportive shipmates enjoying that late twentieth-century phenomenon: floating ‘gay heavens’. This book records for the first time the perky tales of that unexpected aspect of war culture.

        Captain Don Ellerby’s announcement on 17 April 1982 that their home was to become one of the fifty-plus STUFT ships in the Task Force begins the fifteen chronological chapters. They conclude in 2014 with the telling struggle to raise funds for a memorial to the Merchant Navy Falklands veterans, who still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

        Unlike some of the commercial vessels, such as the QE2, the Norland was at risk many times because it was as close to the action as many warships. The most telling moments include when Chief Officer Bob Lough asks why the Navy is suddenly making his ship the lead vessel of three going into San Carlos Water. Chilling answer: because the harbour entrance may be mined. ‘You couldn’t deny it was good military thinking,’ comments Bob; ‘a mere passenger ferry was expendable, whereas Fearless and Intrepid, both warships, were not.’ (p. 104). Bob does not protest, indeed the crew seldom complain about the extent to which they find themselves combatants or rejected outsiders. Wendy nurtures audiences with Tipperary on his tinsel garlanded piano and against the RSM’s wishes the Assistant Purser orders 2am bacon rolls just before the amphibious assault: ‘I can’t let those men go off to war without something hot inside them,’ (p. 97).

        It would be a mistake to dismiss this Norland Falklands story as Carry On Camping, or Benny Hill meets RUSI and the Pink Paper. Superficial, an off-the-point chatty romp? No. This is not just a simple story of an ice-cream vs guns contestation either. Nor is it a tale of car-ferry life transposed to Wonderland. Instead it is a deceptively light evocation of a very important interface: a Dionysian carnivalesque culture meets the Apollonian military machine. The book complements John Johnson-Allen’s Merchant Navy history of the conflict, They couldn’t have done it without us (2011), which did not have the space for such cultural riches as jokes.

        The author made some mildly regrettable small decisions: no index; no references; no discussion of how participants’ narrative re-constructions of events are a complex outcome of many factors including tabloid spin and proud gay performativity; and no reference to the 2007 and 2012 commemorative events. In 2012 at Hull’s Norland anniversary party in Frankie’s Vauxhall Tavern members of 2 Para explained to me that they were never anti-gay, just against furtive sexuality. Wendy himself, still glittering on the piano, firmly made clear ‘I may be a pouf but I’m still a Man,’ meaning proud to be semi-combatant.

        Illuminated by this experience and my previous interviews with queer participants from other Falklands ships I am convinced that this is an important book in that new category: military and maritime diversity. It is as valuable as Mike Seer’s With the Gurkhas to the Falklands (2003) for showing how war looks from a minority’s viewpoint. Poignant, rich, and bravely direct it deserves to be on all maritime and Armed Forces reading lists.

        JO STANLEY
        University of Hull, Maritime Historical Studies Centre

    • keta

      Military organizations both reflect and structure broader social cleavages, including race, class, and gender.

      You can run but you can’t hide.

    • wjts

      I have to run here, but a perusal of this shows none of the following words: race, class, gender, sexuality, environment.

      I’m certainly no expert in the field, but I have a couple of military history works on my shelves that deal with those issues: Leisa Meyer’s Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (race, class, gender, sexuality), Richard Slotkin’s Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (race, class, a little bit of gender), Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (race, environment), and Trevor Royle’s Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1660 (class). I’m sure there are others. (Though most of them, admittedly, are of the the 33rd Guards Rifle Corps against the 3rd SS Panzer on the seventh day of the Battle of Kursk variety. Also, sorry for the accidental downvote.)

      • N__B

        Lapore: The Name of War. Race, colonialism.

      • The “Paper Chase” Guy

        Lost Battalions is so good; I actually got an online friend to read it and was proud to do so. That said, I made a point of starting it on Election Day, so it now has connotations on which I really hadn’t planned.

        • wjts

          I like Richard Slotkin a lot. Gunfighter Nation is one of my all-time favorites.

      • Jon Hendry

        TBH I’d love to find out that Stonewall is called Stonewall because the old general was genderqueer.

    • lhartmann

      I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight, but Farley wrote (I used cut and paste) “Military organizations both reflect and structure broader social cleavages, including race, class, and gender.” Maybe Dr. Loomis don’t read too good.

      • Denverite

        If this burn could get any sicker the doctor would tell it that chemo is pointless at this point and maybe it should look into hospice.

      • nick056

        Savage. The history of this particular engagement will be short but entertaining.

        • firefall

          But how many buttons are on Farley’s shirt, and what colour are the facings?

      • Or maybe, as I said in the original comment, I was literally running away from my computer (for a family event) and I did not have time to read the post extremely carefully.

        • M Lister

          perhaps in such cases a bit more humility and care is appropriate.

        • msdc

          And yet you had time to comment on it.

          • Rolf Kirby

            Did Erik walk into a lions den, or a minefield?

            • Erik Loomis

              Mouth of the whale

    • Chet Murthy

      A little reflection made me ask (all of this based on my naive memory of the history, which could be wrong):

      (a) what do military historians say about the Iranian use of children in human wave attacks during the iraq-iran war?

      (b) similar question about Stalin’s use of human waves of peasants and other ethnically disadvantaged Soviet peoples, in front of his tanks, as a minesweeping measure (again: this is what I recall reading, but hey, the books were Western Alliance triumphalism, so at this point in my life, I’m ready to learn that I was utterly deceived)

      and finally (c) I remember reading that the most feared VC fighters were the women. I wonder if this was actually true, and if so, how they were recruited/trained, and what longer-term impact these women (with combat experience, killing *men*) had on Vietnamese society, after the war?

      Uh, I guess I’m saying, Erik might be right, that military history ignores issues of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class. but OTOH, perhaps these sorts of issues are in fact studied, in which case he’s wrong? Seems like an answerable question.

      • I remember reading that the most feared VC fighters were the women.

        And I, who haven’t read any history to speak of since 1966 (and may well go to my grave without reading any more), remember reading—not as history—that nice Mr. Kipling’s poem about Afghanistan, the one that ends

        When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
        And the women come out to cut up what remains,
        Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
        An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
        Go, go, go like a soldier,
        Go, go, go like a soldier,
        Go, go, go like a soldier,
        So-oldier of the Queen!

        So the meme is out there and has been for some time (hell, it’s also there in some Greek mythology, I believe).

        • Chet Murthy

          Uh, what I remember reading wasn’t about women “cleaning up” after the battle, but that female VC guerillas were feared, full stop.

          An(other?) example: I remember reading about how the civil rights movement got sinificant initial impetus from the experiences of black soldiers. I remember reading about the highest-ranked enlisted man in the Army. He’s a black man, and when he comes home, he’s attacked (I forget how — maybe his home was torched? forget). In any case, I remember reading that these experiences galvanized the civil rights movement. No idea if it’s true, but it seems relevant to the history of the civil rights movement, and also to military history.

          • We probably shouldn’t forget that the U.S. military was the first major American institution to (at least legally) desegregate, partly due to the “irony” of segregated units fighting racist Krauts.

        • PohranicniStraze

          Kipling was probably referring to the practice of some of the Afghan women of castrating captured soldiers to use as servants.

      • wjts

        It depends, ultimately, on the sort of history that is being written. If you’re writing a nuts-and-bolts account of the Battle of Dreary Drumlin, with an emphasis on what units were where and what units did what, it’s enough to describe how the 3rd Brigade of Burplington’s II Corps repulsed an unexpected attack on the left flank by Fartlingford’s elite 9th Cavalry Regiment with heavy losses on both sides.

        But what gets left out here, and may be just as interesting, though not necessarily to the same people, is the broader context that informed the battle. Like say that the 3rd Brigade’s commander was a rumored sexual deviant whom Burplington disliked because he thought he was a jumped-up prole who went to the wrong school and the majority of the soldiers in the 3rd Brigade were conscripted Splogbenian immigrants who everyone knew were drunkards without a single martial bone in their oddly-shaped bodies and Burplington positioned them there because he figured that’s where this useless bunch of incompetents he’d been saddled with would do the least damage. And so on.

        • Robert Farley

          I wish to make slow, sweet love to this comment.

          • wjts

            This sentiment, sir, has no place in a well-run army and you have the vulgar manners of a Splogbenian laundress.

            Yours sincerely,

            Gen. Burplington

            • N__B

              Was the Burpleson Air Base named after the general?

              • wjts

                No. “Burpleson” is an Eructatian surname while “Burplington” is Belch.

                • N__B

                  Of course. Intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer.

        • CD

          Plato’s _Republic_ gets clearer once you understand the shared military training of the people arguing.

      • D_J_H

        As others have pointed out, the “New Military History” has been around for a while, and it’s certainly not focused on battlefield minutiae or the mythologizing/hero-making that someone like, say, Ambrose exemplified. Erik is absolutely wrong to say that as a field, military history ignores gender, race, religion, class, etc. Gender especially is a dynamic subfield in military history that has interesting things to say about the ways in which gender constructions, militaries, and societies influence each other. Of course, “guns and trumpets”-type history dwarfs gender and other subfields, but lots of people are doing interesting work.

        Assuming Erik and others are actually interested in gender and military history, here are some suggestions (though more modern European focused):

        Belkin, Aaron. Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898–2001. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

        Biess, Frank. Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. (A lot on masculinity and POWs in postwar Germany)

        Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

        Dudink, Stefan, Karen Hagemann and John Tosh, eds. Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

        Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jane Jensen, Sonya Michel and Margaret Collins Weitz, eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

        Krylova, Anna. Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

        Moeller, Robert G. War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. (A lot on masculinity and femininity in its discussion of victimhood narratives in postwar Germany)

        Noakes, Lucy. War and the British: Gender, Memory, and National Identity. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

        Streets, Heather. Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014.

        There’s a lot more I could recommend, but that list is already obnoxiously long.

    • CD

      “when I teach the U.S. history survey course”

      I’m wondering, as an outsider to the field(s), if words are being used in ways I don’t get.

      Surely the U.S. Civil War comes up in this course. And while I’d expect Prof. Loomis’ discussion to be bottom-up with heavy emphasis on political and social dimensions, surely, at some point, the specifically military aspects of that war come up. They certainly interested people at the time. And surely Erik has thought deeply about this. So there must be some additional dividing line that “military history” is on the wrong side of…

      • one of the blue

        Standard history rarely covers the very interesting political dimension of the Civil War; the secessionists and their goals; how the Confederacy was organized; the political disputes among various segments of traitor-dom; issues between the states and the Jeff Davis govt.; the slow-running slave revolt characterized by the mass desertion of the plantations; etc., etc. There also is a lot of interesting political and social history in the loyal states; rule of law v. arbitrary power based on military necessity; racial attitudes and slavery remnants; the passage of (relatively) progressive legislation in the absence of the treasonous states; etc., etc.

        The overly military emphasis I recall overrides almost all of this, and if the above is what Eric is emphasizing when he teaches the Civil War, I for one can do nothing but applaud.

        • CD

          But is anyone, least of all Robert Farley, arguing that this (or any) war must be taught mainly as a series of battles and marches?

          I’ll try my question once more, because I’m genuinely perplexed: at some point in one’s effort to understand the Civil War, things like logistics and weapons and training and strategies come up, no? However multi-dimensionally… And here is where, naively, I would think military historians might have something to say, and where someone who is not expert in these matters might from time to time consult with people who are. But apparently “military history” means something different here.

          Nor are we getting at RF’s larger point, that militaries have much influence even when they are not at war. Erik’s hostility seems weird.

    • Paul Thomas

      Right, but there are reasons for this beyond “we’re white men and so the history of anything other than white men is boring.” You’re trying to force analysis of issues that may not be relevant.

      To take the most obvious example, race relations just aren’t particularly relevant to most military conflicts through history. Where they are, they’re covered heavily in the military history literature, the most obvious example of this being the Civil War and the Union’s use of black troops (of which there are numerous first-rate academic histories, as well as discussions of the US Colored Troops’ role in shorter campaign-focused books). I’m also personally aware of some very good discussions of race’s effect upon military effectiveness of the US Army in WWII and Korea.

      Gender, again, is not typically a part of military history for the simple reason that women haven’t historically fought much in battles. And, again, where there are bona fide intersections between women and really important military events, they get noticed and written about.

      Sexuality is problematic not because gay men were not fighting in conflicts– clearly, they were– but because the documentation is so poor. This is history, not storytelling; we can’t invent a record where it doesn’t exist. Where it does (mostly Greek history), it gets covered.

      “Environment” kind of confuses me. Short-term environmental effects (like weird sound phenomena resulting in one part of an army not knowing there were cannons going off a short distance away) tend to get covered as curiosities. Long-term phenomena tend to be minimized or swept under the rug until after the war because armies themselves have tended to do exactly that– so that, again, the documentation sucks. Where it doesn’t, e.g. a recent history I read of the 1944-45 siege of Budapest which reduced most of the city to uninhabitable snow-covered rubble, it gets covered.

      Class is an exception in that it’s omnipresent, and military historians are in fact responsible for a ton of what we know about class in premodern societies, for the simple reason that class hierarchies tended to reproduce themselves pretty much directly in armies. It’s impossible to understand how the politics of the Roman Republic worked without understanding how the legions of the Roman Republic worked, because elections were literally conducted through military organizations (“centuries”). Understanding the differences between English and French feudalism is indispensable to any kind of serious analysis of Crecy or Agincourt. The list goes on. No military historian who is worth the paper his book is printed on would ignore class in discussing a war; analysis of a single battle might not go into it, but a good historian would footnote other works that do.

      • Fats Durston

        race relations just aren’t particularly relevant to most military conflicts through history.

        This statement is nuts. In probably every single bit of military history about the Americas race matters, whether it’s discussing the sides in the conflicts or the composition of the armies. In a vast number of cases in Afro-Eurasian military history, race, or some proxy for it, matters. For Pacific and Australian military history, race matters. Early modern definitions of race (different than ours) also matter greatly to many military histories.

        Gender, again, is not typically a part of military history for the simple reason that women haven’t historically fought much in battles..

        I know American bureaucracies are hellbent on conflating gender and sex, but this shows a misunderstanding of how historians use gender. The gendering of maleness is virtually inescapable when discussing the history of war and militaries.

        • Paul Thomas

          I’m not sure “early modern conceptions of race” is even a coherent discussion point. I mean, there’s always been otherizing of “the enemy,” but trying to frame that in terms of “race” seems unhelpfully confusing.

          Your second paragraph slips completely into PoMo-speak, which usually just leads to me giving you a blank stare. If your point is that militarism tends to affect how a society views the concept of masculinity, I agree, but I tend to think of that as more a sociological than a historical observation.

          • CD

            The point would be that militaries are prominent among the institutions that *make* masculinity, and teach men how to perform it. It should take only slight exposure to military culture to understand this point. Gender is not about women. Gender is not code for women. Women are not “people of gender.” Gender is about the creation of difference.

            Yer gibe about pomospeak is ink from the squid. And is society outside history?

            • Paul Thomas

              I mean, to the extent you’re suggesting that masculinity is a purely socially constructed concept, I can just be up front with you and tell you that I’ve long ago rejected that theory as incompatible with evidence. There’s no point in carrying on a discussion of it.

              It’s possible, of course, that you’re just using hyperbolic terminology (e.g. saying “make” and “creation” when what you really mean is the more modest “affect” and “exaggeration,” respectively). Put in those more modest terms, I’ve already agreed with your statement.

              I also, however, think there are a number of military histories– particularly those focusing on the end and aftermath of more modern wars– which address such topics, though admittedly I can’t produce one off the top of my head.

        • Jon Hendry

          It would be interesting to read about racial/ethnic relations in the Roman military, but I’m not sure there would be much information on that.

          I’m sure Christian/Muslim/Jew interaction in the context of the Crusades has been covered a bunch.

          Much military history wouldn’t involve much racial difference because of a limited racial mix in the participants’ area of activity. Unless you get into considering English vs. French, or Burmese vs Thai whatever.

      • mozzerb

        Yes — that was what didn’t sound right about the original post yesterday. All of these considerations will be relevant some of the time. Other times they’ll be tangential — e.g. while race is central to the American Civil War, in many civil wars it’s a minor factor at most?

      • totalitat

        “Gender, again, is not typically a part of military history for the simple reason that women haven’t historically fought much in battles”

        As someone else has pointed out, this is a deeply fundamental misunderstanding of gender.

    • MichaelDrew

      Wtf kind of response is this even?

    • “when I teach the U.S. history survey course.”

      …Is the U.S. constitution important for that history course?

      The constitution is a strongly geopolitical document. Many of its articles were drafted primarily in response to geopolitical concerns. These geopolitical concerns arose directly from the experience the framers waging an international war.

      More to the point though: just what is the purpose of your U.S. history class? Have we given up on that ‘ol “we need to train citizens” ideal entirely ? Isn’t war something democracies do? And they don’t just make the decision to start them either, do they? Democracies also decide how to wage them–where to fight, who to reward, who to sack, how to respond to a victory, how to respond to a defeat. Is America better or worse off if only our soldiers can decipher the results of a military confrontation and suggest next steps moving forward? Is America better or worse off if only our soldiers can connect the dots between tactics, strategy, and politics (or tell when the three do not align)? An awful lot of your tax money is spent on aircraft carriers. Is America better or worse off when only soldiers (and their mil-industrial friends) can say whether that is money well spent?

  • mattmcirvin

    The second is that military history often finds itself tied up in arguments about popular nationalist narratives that academic historian often find a) distasteful and b) dangerous.

    And in the popular sphere, it often appears that amateurs who self-describe as military history buffs are either Confederate Lost Cause fetishists or Hitler fetishists.

    • N__B

      And those groups tilt the table away from social issues and history from below, because it’s preferable to discuss battle minutia if you’re supporting a nauseating side.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        yeah- I understand why Erik wouldn’t be very interested in the subject in general but someone like him ought to be otherwise what we’ll end up with will be the equivalent of Carnegie fans writing all the labor history

      • The “Paper Chase” Guy

        I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but there was a fantastic passage Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote–I think it was in Between the World and Me–in which he described taking his son to a Civil War park or battlefield and listening to the tour guides discuss hardtack and troop movements without once mentioning why all that logistical effort. It’s one I’ve often been tempted to break out for potential Civil War arguments.

    • CP

      It doesn’t even need to go that far. More generally, I think they simply tend to be right wing douchebags with a tunnel vision focus on the minutiae of how to defeat the enemy, but very little understanding of or interest in anything beyond that. Basically, they could tell you in exhaustive detail what the best warhead, delivery system, and time frame to nuke Beijing would be, but don’t have the basic common sense to determine whether or not it’s a good idea to nuke Beijing in the first place.

      As with many things related to war and international relations, Tom Clancy may have been the ur-example. Not a fan of either the Confederacy or the Nazis, but illustrative of the problem all the same.

      • kvs

        Their interests in battles have a lot in common with 2nd amendment types who raise a stink when gun control advocates misidentify parts of a gun.

        • CP

          Exactly. Same category of nerds who think it’s all games and shiny toys, and become cranky as soon as anyone reminds them of the human cost of said toys, especially on the people who never asked to be in the game to begin with.

        • To quote Reed’s Naming of Parts here would have been banal; not that that would have kept me from doing it, had I not (to save time transcribing) looked for its text with Google, and found along with that the text of its sequel (indeed, the second of two parts of his Lessons of the War, published in 1942). So here it is.


          Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
          Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
          The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
          How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
          The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
                And at least you know

          That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
          Happens to be concerned—the reason being,
          Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
          There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
          And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly
                That things only seem to be things.

          A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
          Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
          You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
          At five o’clock in the central sector is a dozen
          Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
                Don’t call the bleeders sheep.

          I am sure that’s quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
          The one at the end, asleep, endeavors to tell us
          What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
          After first having come to attention. There to the west,
          On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
                Vestments of purple and gold.

          The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
          And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
          Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
          That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
          And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
                Appear to be loving.

          Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
          Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
          Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
          The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
          And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
                There may be dead ground in between.

          There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
          The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
          A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
          (Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
          At seven o’clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
                Of about one year and a half.

          Why do the anthologists pass this part over?

    • MikeFurlan

      Or those like Victor Davis Hanson who rummage around in ancient history attempting to find support for their odious opinions on modern affairs.

      • rrhersh

        My standard comment when Hanson comes up in conversation: His early work on hoplite warfare is superb. Then he became a right wing hack. The moral is not merely that Hanson is a hack, though he is, but that becoming a hack is the ruination of a good academic, though presumably lucrative for the individual involved.

        • MikeFurlan

          Niall Ferguson, too has done well I hear.

          • CD

            Yep. And though the innumeracy of his more recent writings makes me doubt his grasp of finance, his early work on its history was nonetheless respectable.

        • Mike Schilling

          Hoplite warfare

          E.g. Bud vs. Bud Light.

    • applecor

      Blah. More stereotyping of a kind that would be jumped on in most LGM threads. I self-describe as a military history buff, have been for over 50 years and know many, many others. Beyond that I am a wargamer (the table-top kind, not the reenactment kind).

      I am a solid lefty, marched against the Vietnam war, knew Iraq would be horrible, favor gun control etc. etc.

      It is fair to say that (a) as a group, my co-hobbyists lean slightly right and (b) yes, there are Confederate and Third Reich fetishists, the most famous of the latter (I have heard second or third hand) being Curt Schilling, who is famous in other contexts.

      But there are plenty of “real” amateur historians, with reasonable vlews, among my co-hobbyists.

      • applecor

        Adding: my somewhat scientific support for this is a political discussion thread I participated in some years ago, in which all participants were wargamers. Over about 50,000 posts, I would say the thread leaned left about 60-40. And the vast majority of the posters knew a lot more about BOTH military history and “real” history than I did.

      • CP

        Like I said: forget the most over-the-top categories like C.S.A. or Third Reich nostalgists. How many of them are simply Tom Clancy types with extreme tunnel vision?

        I say this as someone who has more than a few elements of Military History Nerd himself, but the category does seem to draw RWAs like flies.

        • applecor

          I certainly will go this far: this hobby has exposed me to more RWAs than all other life activities combined. However I otherwise exist in a classic “Big Sort” left-wing bubble, so that is not really saying much.

    • Jon Hendry

      “Hitler fetishists”

      Or generalists who are cashing in on Wehraboos and the endless marketability of Hitler/Germany in WW2.

      Or a humorist taking advantage of same.


  • MikeJake

    How did divided Greek city states manage to successfully fend off a powerful Persian empire at its height? What made steppe nomads so dangerous? Those are questions that can be answered almost entirely by reference to battlefield tactics, which on its face seems insufficient. Perhaps not interesting to some, but it is explanatory.

    • kathy Klos

      How did the Athenians come to make an entirely mistaken acceptance of the ideal that Corinth could just add ships it could not pay for (and most would damaged or nonworking anyway) and plunge into the foolish war advised by Pericles. Destroy their empire and very nearly their city.That seem to demand military history to see how a bright people could talk themselves into a ‘ship gap’ worry.

  • Crebitry

    I have recently added history to my driving podcasts (up till now it’s been more philosophy, including Philosophy Bites and Partial Examined Life, if anyone is looking for recommendations). I would love to know how reliable my current sources are, which delve a lot into military history: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Mike Duncan’s Revolutions, and Andrew Wilson’s Masters of War (a Great Courses series). If anyone has other recs, that would be much appreciated–I drive a lot, so listening works better than reading.

    • apogean

      History of England Podcast by David Crowther is excellent. A bit slow to start but by the time he hits the Norman conquest he’s absolutely delightful. And English history is very far from my wheelhouse. Also the original History of Rome by Mike Duncan if you haven’t listened to that, and again, I’m not a Rome person.

    • If you want to continue the war theme, David Blight’s series on the Civil War on Yale open university is good. I think it’s 11 or so lectures of an hour each.

  • keta

    What I find most curious about Erik’s position on this issue is his dismissal of the interconnectedness of military history to, well, history. In his admirable posts on a whole host of issues Erik consistently makes salient points about how action y in environment x has consequences not only in a, and b, but sometimes c as well. I’ve learned a lot reading Erik here, and he’s opened my eyes to sometimes subtle connections often missed. So I find this is a weird issue on which Erik has dug in his heels (even allowing for his penchant for heel-digging in general.)

    Anyway, this is an excellent piece, RF, and your final line especially should be sung from the ramparts.

    • stepped pyramids

      Unfortunately “I don’t find it interesting, and what I’ve seen I don’t really like, so it must actually be bad” is a really common form of cognitive bias.

    • zabieru

      Yeah, it’s weird. Like, as a “fuck that noise, don’t care” position it’s perfectly valid (as Farley states in his first point), but it seems like Erik wants to push it farther than that?

      If nothing else, how can a labor historian really dismiss entirely the history of many of the largest and oldest employers in the world? Granted, Shelby Foote is about as relevant to that labor-history-of-militaries perspective as Boeing’s official histories are to the labor history of the aerospace industry… but just because someone is writing histories full of irrelevant details doesn’t make the field irrelevant.

      Aside to Erik: you know there’s such a thing as military labor history, right? I mean, they don’t call it that, but it exists. There’s a long history of military strikes (for example, the Spithead and Nore naval ‘mutinies’ during the Napoleonic Wars, or quite a few massive strikes during WWI where entire divisions refused to advance. I’m scare-quoting ‘mutiny’ because while they were called that, it was spin and a legal strategy: they were absolutely strikes by our understanding of the word, the sailors involved didn’t want to take over or desert or whatever, they just wanted better working conditions and timely payment of wages.) For that matter, you could probably make a case for SLA Marshall as a sort of military Taylorism.

  • Thanks for this post. I think I hadn’t fully thought about some of these aspects of military history before, and so this was clarifying.

  • wjts

    Very good post. I’m inclined to suspect that some of Erik’s distaste is colored by the proliferation of popularly-oriented books that aren’t out to answer specific questions about the past or make a broader argument but to provide the reader with a narrative of certain (usually famous) battles or campaigns and have become synonymous in a lot of peoples’ minds with “history”. These books are fine, if you like that sort of thing (I do, more or less), and aren’t worthless, inasmuch as there’s a value in reconstructing that sort of thing, but what they do is very different to what most academic historians do. There are also too many of them, rehashing the same things without a whole lot of novelty. If someone were to ask me which book on Normandy they should read (Ambrose, Atkinson, or Beevor), I’d probably go with Beevor but would be hard-pressed to give an especially good rationale.

    • Denverite

      Agreed re: Beevor. I don’t trust Ambrose.

      • wjts

        Yeah, Ambrose is definitely more into myth-making than history. But is Beevor better than Atkinson? I guess his book is focused (and therefore more detailed) on Overlord/Cobra while Atkinson covers the whole Western Europe campaign, but that’s just a matter of how much detail you want.

        • Denverite


        • Leigh Grossman

          Haven’t re-read it in years, but I loved Cornelius Ryan’s oral history of the battle (The Longest Day), although Hollywood kept making bad blockbusters from his good books. (I remember one review of the movie version of A Bridge too Far which commented, “If you enjoyed World War II you’ll love this film, because they both cost about as much.”)

          • Just_Dropping_By

            What would you consider good blockbuster war movies if “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far” are “bad blockbusters”?

          • Bri2k

            Let me piggyback on your comment to mention Ryan’s “The Last Battle” which is about the Soviets taking Berlin. When I first read it, it was probably one of the few detailed accounts of that battle written by a western writer.

        • The “Paper Chase” Guy

          Upvote for Atkinson; I haven’t read Beevor (at least on WW2; his Spanish Civil War book was at least more accessible than Thomas’s) but I was a little shocked at how much I liked the Liberation Trilogy. Ian Toll’s been doing the same thing the last few years with the Pacific War; I read Pacific Crucible around the beginning of the year and it was startling and depressing how much his description of Taisho Japan reminded me of the US, c. Nov. 2016.

          • wjts

            I’ve read Beevor’s books on D-Day, Stalingrad, and the Fall of Berlin. If you’re interested in the subject and don’t already know the details, they’re worth reading.

    • gwen

      Aye. I think a simpler way to put this is that it’s really easy to find bad military history books (of the “Stonewall Jackson really loved JESUS” variety) at dusty little booths at your local gun shows, and this seems to bring down the entire enterprise.

      Modern American society is in some ways an aberration, in that the military is a professional volunteer force. For this reason, contemporary academic military history becomes sort of a history of a particular profession, whether that be the tactical battlefield decisions of an Army company or the bureaucratic deliberations of the upper echelons of the Chair Force.

      To many people outside the military profession it will seem dry, the same way that legal history is often very boring to people outside the legal profession, or history of amateur radio (“gather round children while I tell you the story of the first confirmed VHF contact from Southern California to Hawaii via tropospheric duct”) is going to be esoteric to anyone who isn’t a ham radio operator.

      Still, the military is one of the few professions where history is taken seriously, and that is doubly remarkable given the secrecy one would expect from an organization responsible for national security. That to me seems admirable.

      Sure, other professions have documentation — legal opinions for example — but these artifacts rarely tell the whole story. With regard to legal history — in most cases Supreme Court justices actually seem to be obscuring history by destroying notes and keeping secrets (a trend within most of the judiciary); and of course attorneys generally keep their confidences rather than dishing on the “real story” behind disputes. So we rarely have opportunities to dig deeper.

    • Linnaeus

      I’m inclined to suspect that some of Erik’s distaste is colored by the proliferation of popularly-oriented books that aren’t out to answer specific questions about the past or make a broader argument but to provide the reader with a narrative of certain (usually famous) battles or campaigns and have become synonymous in a lot of peoples’ minds with “history”

      I’d go further – I don’t think that what you describe here only colors Erik’s distaste, but is probably the crux of it. While I’m much closer to Rob’s position on this issue than Erik’s (though I’m not at all a military historian), I can understand where Erik’s coming from. Academic military historians may, with some justification, feel a bit marginalized by the profession as a whole, but in literature for nonspecialists, military history is quite dominant – it’s what many, if not most people, first read when they read history and it frames what they see as significant about history (and, just as importantly, what isn’t).

    • Jon Hendry

      This book cover may embody a large part of Erik’s distaste for the field.


  • MacCheerful

    It’s not clear to me why the details of battles, how they were fought and won, should be considered of merely minor interest in history or in describing how cultures and countries understand themselves.

    The development by Swiss farmers of an effective use of pikes in battle is significant to their maintaining an independence from other countries in Europe.

    Describing France after 1815 seems difficult without taking into account how people understood the campaigns of Napoleon before 1815.

    Faulkner’s claim that in every (white) Southern boy’s heart ” not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o clock on that July afternoon in 1863…” makes more sense if you have an idea what what was actually going on that afternoon.

    The details of the slaughter on the Somme, or at Paschendaele or at Verdun are significant in describing the attitudes of large numbers of people in post war France and England had regarding foreign policy.

    It’s true that many people enjoy the minutiae of military technology, battlefield tactics, military campaign strategy to the exclusion of the issues of race, class, culture, gender that influenced them all. People enjoy competitions and games. Working out, for example, what happened when a Napoleonic column hits a British infantry square will have an abstract interest for some like following the moves of an old game of chess. And it probably doesn’t really count as interesting history, in itself, beyond that.

    But people will remember battles because battle can and have changed the political future of countries, and also tend to kill lots of people who have relatives and friends interested in what happened. And so simply ignoring military history seems to be ignoring what is in the heads of people in their countries, which strikes me as problematic for any historian of a country, a people or a culture.

    • The development by Swiss farmers of an effective use of pikes in battle
      is significant to their maintaining an independence from other countries
      in Europe.

      Now you’re just trolling Eric.

      • MacCheerful

        I had forgotten actually, his tortured relationship with long poles with sharp metal ends.

    • efgoldman

      The development by Swiss farmers of an effective use of pikes in battle
      is significant to their maintaining an independence from other countries
      in Europe.

      It’s all tied up with politics and science, but the development and first/exclusive use of nuclear weapons in 1945, certainly changed the possibilities for national military actors, as well as major socio-political and international relationships for the decades since. Whether Farley and Loomis agree that that was “military history” is sort of a nitpick.

      • MacCheerful

        It’s a good example; and the decision to use the bomb against Hiroshima/Nagasaki is difficult to understand without knowing something of the bombing campaigns that preceded it in Europe and Japan.

    • Breadbaker

      Look up the restrictions placed on Australian travel for the centennial of Gallipoli to see the impact on a national psyche of a particular military event. I believe it was eventually set up as a lottery to avoid overwhelming the battle sites.

  • Denverite

    Please. We all know Loomis looks much more like that Nazi dude with the amulet burned into his hand from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  • Mutaman

    When i google the image of Dr Erik Loomis, I get this:


  • applecor

    I’m sure Erik will weigh in eventually but I’m going to guess that his primary objection is to the History Channel/Steven Ambrose “WWII as an exciting fairy tale with a happy ending” type of military history. Maybe he doesn’t care that General X moved his reserves to Country Y rather than Country Z because the terrain was more favorable for offense in Country Y, but presumably he WOULD care if General X moved the reserves to Country Y because it was important politically to liberate Country Y prior to Country Z. I’m sure he would regard Truman’s integration of the US armed forces, draft evasion during the Vietnam War and the fate of today’s Syrian refugees as “real” history rather than boring “chess game report” military history, but it is pretty hard to draw a line.

    Meanwhile I have always been interested in both kinds of military history and coincidentally just slogged through 2000+ pages of Shelby Foote on the Civil War. Yes, the endless recounting of details of battles, which take up an amazingly large part of this book, were pretty boring. But still, I came out of it with a much better understanding of both the era and the residual effects of the war on subsequent US history than I had going in.

    Meanwhile, I’ll be off to see “Dunkirk” soon. Hopefully Farley will tell me whether it is accurate. I think he’ll know.

  • Downpup E

    The big story in military history is the inability to be ready for the nest threat. Consider, 1957

  • gwen

    Incidentally, I wonder if Farley has had a chance to watch any of the “Great War” series on YouTube. It really digs into all sorts of stories relating to WWI. Watching it almost gets exhausting.

    • Murc

      The Great War series is wonderfully, especially as we pass through more and more important centennial milestones related to WWI with barely a peep in popular culture.

      I remember when WWII’s semicentennial happened in the 90s, and everyone rushed to suck the cock of the Greatest Generation. Fifty year anniversary of D-Day! Of Iwo Jima! Of VE and VJ day! Hooray! U-S-A!

      But the Somme, Verdun… nobody seems to remember those anymore. Maybe it’s different in Europe?

      • CP

        Seems obvious why – there’s simply not much to be proud of in WW1. If WW2 is remembered as the ultimate “Good War,” then WW1 was the ultimate bad one.

        • weirdnoise

          There are still WW2 vets around. That seems to pique some folks interest.

          • Jon Hendry

            And there were many more around in the 1990s.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          Also seems obvious in that very few, if any, Americans were involved in most World War I battles prior to 1918, consequently they are not going to get any significant coverage in American media. I suspect you’ll see a lot more coverage for the 100th anniversary of Belleau Wood and other battles where there was a substantial American presence.

      • Taylor

        The popular culture has fed a fascination with WWII, particularly the Nazis, from Captain America to The Guns of Navarone to Inglorious Bastards.

      • MacCheerful

        Very different in France, anyway. WWI is in your face in every small town with its memorial, and Verdun is a totem. The WWII equivalent memorials are smaller, and (it seems to me) that the primary focus of WWII memory is that of the ambiguities and divisions and desperation of Vichy/Resistance and the process of liberation, D-Day and Paris. Strangely, it seems to me, that contemporary French people are stil openly grateful to Americans for the liberation. I had the experience of being at a party, knowing few, when an old man came up to me and said some of the little English he knew – “June 6th, thank you” and shook my hand repeatedly.

        And I was embarrassed because I hadn’t been on any of the beaches, but what the hell, it was clear he felt this emotion very strongly.

        When I think of what Trump is throwing away, I want to cry.

        • The WWII equivalent memorials are smaller, and (it seems to me) that the
          primary focus of WWII memory is that of the ambiguities and divisions
          and desperation of Vichy/Resistance and the process of liberation, D-Day and Paris.

          As I’ve mentioned before, but perhaps never so appositely, once when I drove into Italy from Switzerland the tiny town where we stopped for lunch had a memorial to its WWII dead—who must have been a very large fraction indeed of the town’s male inhabitants—listing all their names, alphabetically by surname (far fewer surnames than names), each one annotated as either “soldato” or “partigiano”.

          Are there (I am now moved to wonder) any similar US Civil War memorials anywhere—I suppose they’d have to be in a border state? or maybe in western Virginia?

          • MacCheerful

            Italy would be an interesting case – WWI, a bloody stupid fiasco redeemed by undeserved victory, or WWII, a bloody stupid fiasco culminating in defeat and occupation. I don’t really know how it all plays out, though the resistance/collaboration dynamic of II probably plays a role.

      • Bloix

        I have no personal knowledge of France, Germany, etc. but it is very different in England. As an American who does business with English clients, I have been in London many times in the weeks before and on Armistice Day, and the obsessive focus on the catastrophe that was WWI – not just in the media, but in conversation with people whose grandparents or great-grandparents served – is remarkably different from the total amnesia here in the US.

        • wjts

          Pittsburgh, for some reason, is the American city where WWI is the most visible, in my experience. One of the main streets is the Boulevard of the Allies and several neighborhoods have memorials to the local war dead (the doughboy statue in Lawrenceville in particular is still used as a neighborhood symbol).

  • Just to add to the joy here: You know who teaches the Civil War course at the largest public university in Rhode Island? Me. And I talk about the military as little as humanly possible while still teaching the course appropriately.

    • N__B

      Why talk about the military when you can discuss Tom Jackson's personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

    • Murc

      The largest public university in Rhode Island only has one (basic, intro) course about the civil war?

      The shitty little community college I attended for part of undergrad had four whole sections of that, which always filled up and went to waitlist.

      Notwithstanding that, if the students have signed up to take a course about the Civil War, it kinda seems like teaching them about the war part should, you know, be a pretty big part of that. I remember not liking being bait-and-switched; I once signed up for an English lit course featuring an instructor who was far more interested in indoctrinating us into Marxism than anything else. Not that I have anything against that, but dammit, woman, I came here to learn something about George Eliot.

      • Erik Loomis

        Why on earth would a school have more than 1 course on the Civil War? I’ve been at many institutions, student and faculty, and have never heard of any more than 1 course on that 4 year event.

        First day of class, I tell the students that this course is about the important part of the Civil War–slavery and politics and the issues surrounding that. If they want to know about Longstreet’s troops or whatnot, go watch the History Channel.

        Moreover, I was hired to teach the Civil War course and was very open with how I would teach it, to go back to how my colleagues feel about the field of military history.

        • Murc

          Why on earth would a school have more than 1 course on the Civil War?

          Ah, okay, I see how I fucked up here.

          When you said you teach “the” course on the Civil War, I interpreted it as there being only one section, not only one course. As in, you were literally the only dude teaching it. That’s what I took away from your comment.

          That’s on me.

          Having said that…

          I had always just assumed that actual-factual history majors would have access to more advanced, in-depth, and/or specialized courses on the American Civil War during their academic career. The Civil War is really fucking important! It is basically still being fought! Surely it needs more focus than a single one-size-fits all course? Yes? No?

          First day of class, I tell the students that this course is about the important part of the Civil War–slavery and politics.

          I would submit that cannot meaningfully disentangle either of those things from the actual warfighting. They feed into, and inform, each other.

          • Erik Loomis

            Well, I am indeed the only person teaching the course, yes. And I only teach it every other year. I do tend to teach 2 sections of it, to make my teaching load easier. As for its importance, sure, it’s important. So is every other topic. It’s not really more important than our courses on Native American history, history of slavery, or women’s history.

            • Murc

              I had always assumed that history majors took more advanced and specialized and in-depth courses in those things as well as they progressed through their academic careers as well.

              Although as I consider this much more in-depth than I’d ever had occasion to before this evening… it probably isn’t feasible for intensely advanced and specialized things in something this broad to be offered to undergrads, is it? I have an associates in the Liberal Arts, but my actual stab at a four-year degree (which I did not complete; full disclosure) was in a technical field, and the course arc was very much “you have access to courses that teach you basic things about X, and then you have access to courses that teach you intermediate things about X, and then you finish with courses that teach you advanced things about X.” And each tier up was more specialized and in-depth than the tier below it despite nominally being about the same topic, because “Advanced Routing Algorithms” had assumed that you’d taken a whole shit-ton of math and “Basic Routing Algorithms” to get there.

              I had assumed that the humanities would be the same. That seems superficially logical. You learn basic shit about the subject at hand, then more advanced shit, then the REALLY advanced shit.

              But… there’s just… so much history, and so much of it is important. Do history undergrads get that specialized, or is this more of a post-graduate thing?

              Also, it would appear that the populace around here was simply… unusually very interested in the Civil War. Or was fifteen years back, at any rate.

              • Erik Loomis

                Our students take 10 courses in history for the major. They have no time to become specialized in anything. Of course some do follow certain professors around and take all their courses. But this is no different than it has always been.

                • Murc

                  This seems mind-bendingly obvious now that I actually think about it, yes. I now feel rather silly, but at least I learned something. And I didn’t even have to cut a check to URI to do it!

        • I went to a smallish little Ivy liberal arts college and majored in history. We didn’t even have a specific course on the Civil War. The main American historian in the department taught a course on the 19th century because he didn’t think you could isolate the Civil War from the decades before and after it. I kind of agree.

          • Erik Loomis

            I don’t disagree with said professor. I just teach at a school with enough US history faculty that we can overlap.

            • The guy had had Oscar Handlin as his thesis advisor and so was a straight up social historian before it was all the rage.

          • wjts

            I studied History as an undergrad, focusing on 19th century U.S. history, and didn’t take a single class on the Civil War, but a few classes went into the issues surrounding the war (the one on the intellectual history of 19th century New England was the best). I did, however, read Thucydides and Herodotus for three separate classes and Xenophon’s History and Cyropaedia.

      • Jon Hendry

        “Notwithstanding that, if the students have signed up to take a course about the Civil War, it kinda seems like teaching them about the war part should, you know, be a pretty big part of that.”

        Time is limited, and it’s probably more important to cover the other aspects about the Civil War, since those are the things that have had more profound after-effects on the country.

        Lord knows the battles and movements and whatnot could consume an entire semester on their own.

    • M Lister

      how’s that family event that kept you from using minimal care when reading a colleague’s post going?

      • News Nag

        Whaddayou care, smarmy smartass?

        • M Lister

          It was just funny that Erik didn’t have the time to show minimal care or competence in reading a colleague’s post, but did have time two write some nonsense, and then reply to a bunch of comments. Nothing Smartassish about noting that.

  • M Lister

    What I like about this post, in addition to it providing a lot of useful information, is how it shows a contrast to Erik’s typical practice of being a dick for… well, I really have no idea why he acts like a dick so much. The best I can think of is that he thinks it’s funny, but really, it’s just being a dick.

    • weirdnoise

      It’s almost as if they put ketchup packets in MREs.

    • News Nag

      Projection much?

      • M Lister

        Nope – total swing and a miss on this one for you.

  • JamesWimberley

    No love anywhere for John Keegan? “The Face of Battle” is a brave attempt by a card-carrying military historian to look at battles from the viewpoint of the ordinary (British) soldier. So it’s a lot about class. Did you know that British infantry officers at Waterloo were unarmed? Killing was for the lower orders.

    • Yeah, I think Face of Battle was a groundbreaking book in the way it tried to grasp the lived experience of soldiers. I think the chapter on the Somme was amazing.

    • JSC2397

      Well, I’ll raise at least one cheer for the late Sir John: not least for – as a “card-carrying military historian” – his occasional ruminations on his own craft: as in the intro to “The Face of Battle”,
      The problem with Keegan, though (IMO) is that while he was quite good at getting into the “personal” aspects of war and combat, and could write very well (not a given for historians) he tended, in so many of his works, to wander off into huge overreaching overview analyses (like the whole histories of WWI and WWII in single books) which, unfortunately tended to reinforce, rather than counterbalance the typical critiques of military history as a genre.

      • jmwallach

        It’s pretty amazing for him to give the thoughts of archers at Argincourt. Honestly as someone that grew up in the 90s I have a hard time to relating to Seinfeld because they don’t have cellphones; how is a professor going to get in the mind of the yeoman class from the 15th century?

    • Rolf Kirby

      Or any of Lyn MacDonald’s books on the British experience in WW I.

    • zabieru

      I definitely read Erik’s complaints about historiography as an unintentional echo of Keegan’s similar, though more exact, complaints in ‘Face of Battle.’

  • firefall

    I”m not sure who’d be more outraged by the photo, Loomis or Foote.

    • Deborah Bender

      I guessed it was Donald Sutherland.

  • Bloix

    One of the most interesting and (for me) educational threads ever on this blog was an argument that Prof. Farley was good enough to have with me about military strategy on the Western Front during the First World War. I think about the issues raised on that thread fairly often – it was as good as a seminar session and I’m thankful for it. (Worth the price of admission for sure!)

  • I appreciate this post.

  • jmwallach

    I quite miss updates to Grimsley’s “Blog Them Out of the Stone Age”

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