So, for the past week, as some of you know, I was in Kansas City grading AP European History exams. And what a fun time it was, despite the litany of comical errors I came across; good people, good accommodations, and a sense of commitment to education. Anyway, I’ll write up my impressions of AP reading later. Right now, I am sitting in Union Station, Chicago, waiting for my 9:40 p.m. train, feeling somewhat guilty because I missed Pentecost service (nothing to be done about that, unfortunately), and feeling doubly guilty because I indulged, once again, in a Big Mac and a MacFlurry…Oh, there will be h*** to pay this week. It’s a perfect time to write up my impressions and notes from the Society for Military History conference, which wrapped up this morning in Lisle, Illinois.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Ways of War”—something toward which, as a historian, I am rather skeptical. The title conjures up concepts such as the “American Way of War” (Russell F. Weigley) and the “Western Way of War” (Victor Davis Hansen), and is of intense interest to the American armed forces, especially those segments involved in training and educating future military leaders.
I arrived in Lisle from Kansas City on Wednesday evening, and settled in for a while, waiting for my roommate, John Moremon, to arrive. John was a fellow- “Summer Seminarian” from West Point last year, and I was looking forward to seeing him and other seminarians from that extraordinary three weeks in June. The conference itself didn’t start till Thursday afternoon, and the smaller scale of the proceedings was the first thing that impressed me. I went to the book sale, ran into Rob Clemm, one of THE Ohio State crew, as well as some other folks, and enjoyed the reception. Friday morning, I found it difficult to become acclimated to the atmosphere of this conference—why I wasn’t sure (I figured it out later, as I discuss below), but I was getting grumpy. I heard a bit of Session 1.1, “Ways of War: A Roundtable Discussion,” but I was more absorbed in coming to grips with the “military” side of my historical interests, so I don’t have notes or anything insightful to report (the latter isn’t a given anyway, if you know me at all!).
I think my problem, that morning, was that, this being the first SMH conference I’ve attended, I wasn’t expecting it to be as different as it was from other events I’ve seen—whether Kalamazoo, or the GSA, or even the AHA. The SMH is a very focused, policy- and policy-maker-oriented conference; many of the people in attendance are involved in or associated with military training, policy, and defense programs. And the academics in attendance, even the ones I know, are there in that capacity as well—they have insights to offer the armed forces on historical aspects of current military training and doctrine. There is, therefore, a much greater sense of focus and edginess to the proceedings—not that people were unpleasant, in fact everyone is very collegial. But there is a sense of consequence to the sessions and the atmosphere, in a way that session on, for instance, 13th-century female monasticism simply doesn’t have. You can’t blather on; you have to have a point to what you’re saying. And, though this may sound paradoxical, I wasn’t quite prepared for that. Also, and this is something Kelly DeVries told me, you don’t have to explain your background at this conference; everyone is more-or-less on the same page, military history is a worthwhile pursuit, and everyone is familiar with the broad sweep of (especially Western) military affairs. So, I had to mentally adjust.
Which I had by the second session; I went to Session 2.2, further debate on Counter Insurgency. Excellent debate on the pros and cons of FM3-24/JP 3-24, which is the current Counter-Insurgency doctrine. The talk got rather theoretical and technical, leading off with Conrad Crane’s summary of the three papers (which had been posted before the conference). Douglas Porch’s discussion of the origins of the current COIN doctrine was particularly interesting, but, as Crane said, a 30+ page paper cannot see justice done to it a single session. The thrust of it, as Dr. Crane’s obliging Powerpoint put it, that “COIN is merely a set of tactics,” and that a “ ‘Hearts and Minds’ approach doesn’t achieve stability; fragmenting society does.” Also that this “hearts and minds” approach derives from 19th-century imperial wars, and that this approach was anything but “kind” or “benevolent” in fact. [I think this came from this session] The second paper was by Colonel Gian Gentile, who I met at the Seminar last year, and who I admire very much; the thrust of the paper was much as I have heard from him before, and is the tenor of the book he is currently completing on COIN case studies. The rush to create historically fallacious, triumphalist narrative of counter-insurgency operations is having, and will have, a bad effect on American operations, etc. As Crane suggested, another aspect of Gentile’s argument is a caution over “the way instant current historical narratives are created” [quotes here because I can’t remember if this is a direct quote or not, but it’s at least a close paraphrase]. In response, Crane suggested a few critiques of both papers: that there are straw men in both papers, and that the Petraeus model of COIN is not THE doctrine, it is just one way to APPLY the doctrine.
Miguel La Serna’s paper, on the local dynamics of the Shining Path Insurgency in Peru, was one of the most incisive papers I heard at the conference, and one in which I saw parallels with my own work. Rather than look at overall doctrine to examine why it is or is not working, he presented a comparison of two different villages in Peru, one that was riven by divisions among its denizens who felt that there was no justice to be had in the current administration—these readily joined the Shining Path guerillas. The other felt that they already had a system of justice that worked for them, and massacred the insurgents when they attempted to take over the village (or something to that effect). The point was that the responses of the villages seemed to depend on who could deliver justice in local conflicts—that bestowed legitimacy, and largely determined which side these villages took in the larger struggle. The parallels to medieval society struck me as very strong—one could give a similar explanation for the local dynamics of public order in fourteenth-century England. I’m now wondering if Kalivas’ The Logic of Violence and Civil Wars will have a larger influence on chapters 4 and 5 than Mussen’s, Ormrod’s, or even Richard Green’s work will…
There was so much in this session that I can’t write it all down—the Q&A was equally fascinating. So, I move on the afternoon, and Session 3.1 “Reconsidering the Western Way of War.” The first paper was by David A. Graff, on points of similarity and divergence between Byzantine and Tang military systems. He pointed out similarities in doctrine, weaponry, operations, and strategy, and proposed a “Eurasian” way of war, rather than distinct “Roman” and “Chinese” systems. Next was Kelly DeVries, who used to Ottomans’ success against western powers to challenge the idea of a “successful” Western Way of War—the rare successes against the Ottomans, such as Lepanto, quickly became shrouded in mythology. Hard to argue against—though of course the question then arises, why do the Ottomans begin to fall behind and apart. Afterward, I suggested to Kelly, and he agreed, that there’s still plenty of room to look at why Western Christendom remains convinced of the superiority of its “way of war,” and why that persists even though there was mostly defeat on the menu. Both Christians and Muslims did believe that each had a distinctive way of going about warfare, and I think both spent a fair amount of time trying to distill the opposing tactical systems into a losing formula…I think I have an article here somewhere…Hmmm. The last paper on the panel was by Reina Pennington, on a rather different topic—analyzing where Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fit into Hansen’s “Western Way of War Thesis.” Very interesting, but really, as my friend Sarah said, it’s almost too easy to bash Hansen’s theories, which Dr. Pennington did quite well, bringing out the ideological ambiguities that I believe can be incontrovertibly derived from Carnage and Culture.
The last session of the day for me was 4.8 Counter-Insurgency Case Studies, and offered perhaps the most tightly focused and closely argued set of papers that I heard at the conference. Ayesha Ray led off with a paper on the Indian military’s experience in counter-insurgency. A fascinating topic, and one that highlighted the difficulties they have in formulating and executing a consistent (coherency isn’t necessarily a problem) strategy. Unfortunately, she was feeling very ill, and had to leave before she could field questions, which included a couple criticisms in absentia from John Lynn, who pointed out that India doesn’t have a single military establishment, it has several; but as Dr. Ray wasn’t present to reply, I thought these critiques were somewhat…too vigorously…expressed. Just my opinion. And then Wynne Beers gave a fascinating paper on French operational culture in Algeria, getting inside how the real problems in administration and support affected how the French Army fought and lost. The next paper was by Sebastian Lukasik, on the lengthy attempts of insurgencies to gain and use airpower. Very insightful. Finally, one of my friends from Temple, Martin Clemis, gave a great paper on the supposed “change” in Vietnam after Abrams was put in command, and how “pacification” in fact spread massive violence to every part of the conflict. This reflects a growing and vocal trend to revisit the “savior general” narrative of the war, but I was particularly impressed with how Martin didn’t get bogged down in the ethereal levels of command, but took the debate to how the war was actually waged on the ground. John Hall’s comments at the end of the session were some of the most thoughtful I heard at the conference, and included a great series of definitions of ‘culture’ and ‘experience’ that I loved, but couldn’t write down fast enough. I’ll have to email him to get the direct quote…
Friday evening was spent at the graduate student reception…at which there were a lot of non-graduate students, interestingly enough. And even more intriguing, at the opening reception on Thursday, drinks were limited to two per ticket (as John wasn’t going, I wound up with 4 drinks’ worth, lucky me). But at the graduate reception, it was an open bar. The organizers obviously trust graduate students more than the older generation. I got to meet and talk to some great people, including a major in the Marine Corps reserves doing his doctorate at Georgetown, and one or two…interesting…people who shall remain nameless. If you’re reading this, it’s probably not you. And I got to hang out with the Temple U crowd, which is always great. Eric and Martin are wonderful guys and great scholars, even if talking with Eric makes one feel a bit like Douglas standing next to Lincoln…
However, Saturday morning presented the annoying issue of having three panels, I think, that I wanted to go to, all in the #5 Session block. So I wound up missing Eric’s paper, and my friend Patrick’s as well (same session), AND my friend Rob’s paper, because of Session 5.3 Teaching the Military Revolution. I’m glad I went, though, as I got a lot of good material, and food for thought, on different pedagogical approaches to a very complex topic. It was weighted very much toward teaching in service academies and staff colleges, however, where the paradigm of “the Western Way of War” is harder to break—nor am I sure that the military wants to break it. As a result, Mark Fissel’s excellent presentation on “Integrating the Military Revolution into General History Courses” received comparatively little attention in the Q&A, much to my disappointment—job app descriptions that I’ve seen recently are geared directly to this type of project, and as I said to Kelly afterward, I’m unlikely to be teaching military officers in the near or distant future. But I AM most likely to be teaching World and Western Civ courses, and having a coherent approach to the global military revolution would for me be invaluable. Ethan Refuse’s talk, on the other hand, gave me some pedagogical tools with which to approach the topic in more limited “Western” perspective in one or two hour-long lessons. And the last talk was by Cliff Rogers, who presented his preferred techniques for asking questions and guiding student writing. In particular, Cliff got very passionate in expounding the goals and objectives we should have as educators—what we hope students come away with. And the biggest thing we can do is to foster good “habits of mind,” based on skepticism toward all information received, questions, analysis, probing, empathy, curiosity, and a “willingness to recognize the often powerful role of chance” in human affairs. I’m always impressed with Cliff’s work, but this I found to be unexpectedly thought-provoking and even moving. Not where I expected a talk on the Military Revolution to go. But I still wish there had been more Q&A on the non-military, general history course stuff!
The next session I attended was 6.6, the Dennis Showalter Festschrift. Excellent papers they were again…I’m saying that a lot about this conference’s papers, but I can’t help it. The quality was quite high. They really needed a bigger room for this session—standing room only when I got there, and I inadvertently took some old chap’s seat, about which I feel bad (granted, my back was really acting up, and he was gone for about half of the session, but still…). The panel began with Richard DiNardo’s paper reassessing von Mackensen as a commander in World War I. Interesting to me because I’ve seen his name on operational maps, but never knew anything about him. DiNardo showed that von Mackensen was, compared to other general officers in the German army, adaptable to new technologies and developments in warfare, was an excellent coalition warfare partner, and tended to learn from his mistakes. Mary Barbier gave paper on a curious legal case in wartime Britain that pitted national security requirements against the rule of law, and interestingly enough rule of law won. MI5 used agents to search for Nazi sympathizers among native Britons and refugees, and seemed to have grounds for unlimited detention against chap named Benjamin Green, who was half-German and a pacifist. Green, not aware at first why he was being detained, brought a habeas corpus complaint to the courts, and MI5 was in the awkward position of having to put agents on the stand. Things went awry from there, and the commission ultimately ordered Green to be released. Weird case, but one that illustrates how civil liberties and national security operated in Britain. The last paper was by the inimitable Rob Citino, on Manstein at the Battle of Kharkov. I have a lot of notes on this one, as you may imagine. Two things in particular I learned, and that Rob emphasized to me afterward in the few minutes’ chat I enjoyed with him: read the original German version of the memoirs, as that is often quite different from the translation, and neither the Germans nor the Soviets possessed a “genius for war.” Kharkov doesn’t demonstrate Manstein’s “genius,” so much as “two armies trapped in their own operational doctrine”—i.e., this is how the Germans and Soviets fought, and the Germans in this case ended on an indefensible river line with a large salient (Kursk, dum-dum-dum) to their north.
I didn’t go to any of the 1:30 panels; I wound up talking with my friend Sarah about our mutual dissertation topic—medieval English warfare and logistics. I was thinking about the “Getting Military History Published” round table, but the doors were closed, and I was worried about walking into what might have been a half-full room—I hate that all-eyes-on-you feeling, especially as a grad student. So, I missed all the 1:30 sessions, but did get to talk to Rob Citino for a bit, which was great. Again, though, I was faced with an unpalatable choice between sessions at 3:15; 8.1, The German Way of War, or 8.4, Dissecting the Decisive Battle. I went with the latter, as Steve Morillo was talking about the Battle of Hastings, and I have to stick to medieval whenever possible! It did not disappoint—the concept was I indeed dissected. Steve posited a couple definitions and divisions for discussion—Militarily Decisive vs Historically Decisive, the latter being a purely historical construct, historians looking backwards as it were. The precise definition of this latter type of battle is “battles with which not X; where X is a set of developments of world significance.” In this case, X was the subsequent development of English law, society, and institutions after the Norman Conquest (as I said to him afterward, the great James Campbell would be very disappointed with this lack of faith in the Anglo-Saxons!). Then, Douglas Streusand looked at the virtually opposite phenomenon: how is it that Babur’s tremendous victories(such as Panipat in 1526) in the subcontinent were actually NOT decisive in the long term? The answer seems to lie in precisely the same area as what made Hastings decisive—local institutions. They didn’t change after Panipat, but they did after Hastings. Finally, Rich DiNardo gave a great paper on why the Tullahoma-Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaign was more decisive than either Vicksburg or Gettysburg. He made a good case, too—this was heartland that supported Lee’s army, and its loss exposed the Confederate industrial heartland. The Q&A was interesting: how many of these battles were intercultural? Are there any decisive battles that are not conquests? (this from Kelly) Would it be better to say “historically directional” or “inflexive” or “axial” than “decisive,” since technically if we’re looking backward, we can’t talk in terms of decision-making? (this from Cliff). The final comment was from the moderator, Kate Epstein, a wonderful person who I just had the pleasure of meeting at this conference: the problem with counter-factual history (which this very much is) is that it tends to privilege structure over agency.
And that was about it…I was going to go to the banquet, as I assumed that that’s what people did, and I blew off my Ohio State friends who were going out for dinner. But I wound up having dinner across the street with Cliff Rogers and Steve Morillo, for which I fully expect to catch justified heck from the OHU crew. I had figured that I would see these two gentlemen scholars at the banquet, and I wanted to ask Steve a few things about his paper. It was a good dinner, both for the company and the food—I discovered that they had Shiner Bock on TAP. It used to be that you couldn’t get it outside of Texas, and as Cliff and I are both Rice B.A.s we found its spread beyond Texas quite satisfying. Same goes for Fat Tire, of course, which when I graduated in ’05 was just being exported outside of Colorado. Now it’s everywhere…
Final Impressions: the SMH is definitely a worthwhile conference, and a very fine and fun one. It’s useful for making one think outside one’s normal comfort zone. For me, it does spark reflection on my identity as a historian, because in a sense I’m doubly isolated being a) at Rochester, where the culture of the SMH would be rather foreign and b) deep in the dissertation, from whence one always loses perspective. So I have to be reminded on occasion of what goes along with being a military historian, how one writes and thinks, how one deploys intellectual, critical, and theoretical frameworks. As an observer, I did notice some collegial but real tension between military personnel and historians on matters of focus and function. Military officials seem to have to emphasize the “lessons learned” aspects of history, regardless of the pitfalls involved, while historians have to constantly resist that pull while still showing how historical research is relevant to current affairs. Thus, the two interests converge, but are not the same, and in some of the discussions the difference became apparent. Keeps things interesting, I guess. Hopefully I can make it next year, but that will depend on how the Kalamazoo schedule shapes up—if my session(s) are placed on Friday or Saturday, that will be difficult, to say the least, as the two conferences are at exactly the same time. What a bummer. Of course, I plan to have defended by then, so I’ll be in a different situation entirely, and choosing between conferences in the spring of 2012 will be the least of my problems. On that note, I’m going to sign off see about knocking out another chapter by the end of June.