Archive for the ‘military history’ Category

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

1. What is the point?

2. What does victory look like?

3. Who is the enemy?

4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

5. How *could* you defeat the enemy?

6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

11. Or, are they due to the nature of war?

12. What is war?

To break these down somewhat:


The nerves of war are not revolution, but money. Seriously, Cicero’s dictum that “the sinews of war are money” remains accurate. If you doubt it, just read analysis of DoD’s new budget. From an historian’s perspective, I think that we often forget this basic fact when trying to assess military innovation. One of emphasis of my 14th-century research has been that we need to distance ourselves from the phrase “the rise of infantry,” which tells us little and obscures the fact that there were many periods throughout “medieval” history in which infantry was an important or even dominant combat arm. To my mind, Stephen Morillo, in Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings, basically wins the argument when he says on page 181 “[M]oney strengthens central authority, strong central authority tends to favor good infantry.”  (I’ve been reading Morillo’s work for a small project I’m trying to wrap up over break.) Now, whether the pursuit of war leads to new ways of accumulating money is still debated. Recent works such as David Parrott’s outstanding The Business of War suggest that the relationship is more complicated that we thought.

Thankfully, I think we have moved past “revolution in military affairs,” discussion of which seems to have dropped off after 2010. Interestingly, there have been a couple important articles this month on the RMA phenomenon, one from the always-interesting War on the Rocks titled “Top 10 Failed Defense Programs of the RMA Era.”  The other is a fascinating review of Krepinevich and Watts’ new biography of Andrew Marshall, director of the Office of Net Assessment and the person largely responsible for introducing the RMA theories that many historians have used in Parzival-like wanderings for the last thirty years. It’s possible we might be seeing a new resurgence of the concept, which I don’t think would be a good thing. Lt. General H. R. McMaster has expounded in multiple venues on the intellectual bear-traps posed by the RMA, and I think the director of ARCIC has been proven right far more often than wrong.

This isn’t to contest Emile Simpson’s recent talk at the IISS, regarding the trends in current and future conflicts. I think in this, as in much else, Simpson’s work is fascinating and on track. But as an historian, I would say that as a general rule it is societies that make war, not militaries. If you want to understand a given conflict, study the societies waging it. Don’t be so focused on bellum that you forget the pecuniam, and by extension the societatem, that keeps the gears of war turning.

After seeing some startling scenes of German fortresses in the 2008 The Red Baron, I developed a curiosity about what the Hindenburg Line, the Siegfriedstellung, really looked like. So, here are a few pictures that turned up after a simple image search.

The line near Arras in 1917:

A bunker, keeping a weary watch over the landscape after everyone has forgotten:

The line, west of Wancourt, March 1917:

And an outpost bunker. The picture is part of a really stunning photo essay on Neuve-Chapelle and Richebourg, which can be found here.

And finally, this little guy, forgotten in the Bourlon Wood for years:

Oh, and before I forget, Operation Michael, the first of the German 1918 Spring offensives, began on March 21.  As of April 1, it is running out of steam, and German attacks are repulsed along the line. See “On This Day” for these kind of updates.