Thursday, January 5, 2012

Talk at Civil War Institute

A few days ago, I was grabbing coffee at the 7-11 near the Naval Academy (for those who know the area, it's the one with notoriously inadequate parking), and I ran into my colleague at the Naval Academy, LCDR (Sel) Claude Berube, USNR, who made some very gracious comments about a talk I gave at Gettysburg College's Civil War Institute last summer. C-SPAN now has it archived on the web here. The talk was great fun, and I especially appreciated some of the audience members' tips on better public speaking (regarding eye contact and now swallowing the end of my sentences). One of the great oddities of modern academic life is that although we're one of the last professions where public speaking is a necessity, we spend so little time cultivating the art for the most part.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Medal of Honor Controversy

I had heard a bit about the McClatchy article on Cpl. Meyer’s citation for the Medal of Honor, but didn't read it until just now, courtesy Tom Ricks' blog. What a headache... Not having access to the documents McClatchy claims to have looked at, it's hard to make heads or tails of Landay's argument that the citation narrative got crucial facts wrong (Landay himself was at the famous ambush). For me, the crucial part of the piece is Landay's concession that even if one accepts the premises of his article:

"What’s most striking is that all this probably was unnecessary. Meyer, the 296th Marine to earn the medal, by all accounts deserved his nomination."

The article struck me as something of a distraction from Meyer's valor. It's hardly earth-shattering to hear that Meyer's own account of the battle was garbled, or that service politics played some role in the award. The idea that human beings are flawed, or that bureaucracies are driven to some degree by self interest shouldn't be news to anyone, and it shouldn't be confused with the sort of personal heroism the Medal of Honor is supposed to recognize. The Marine Corps might very well have perhaps handled the issue of the published narrative better, but this isn't a question of academic history, where the facts and details are and should be king. The one most important thing for the citation is not the specifics of the narrative, but whether out of the chaos of conflicting data, one has the firm belief that Cpl. Meyer's actions in their totality deserved this sort of recognition. And even Landay seems to recognize that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best military history book I've read in a while...

I just finished reading Beatrice Heuser's The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, 2010), and it's the best military history I've read in a while.  The writing felt a bit clunky at times, and seriously, has Cambridge University Press forgotten how to copy-edit?, but the research and erudition in the book is truly tremendous.  I felt the sections on counterinsurgency and insurgency to the be especially superb, giving this very current pressing issue its due, without overstating its importance.  Air, naval, and nuclear strategy also were extremely well covered.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Return from a Hiatus

So.....  Yes, I've been very, very lethargic about updating this blog, but as my New Year's Resolution for 2012, I think I'm going to try to post on a regular basis again.

Dr. Ira D. Gruber, professor emeritus of history at Rice University, has reviewed West Pointers and the Civil War in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era.  He describes it as "forceful and provocative," and "certainly worth considering."  Although he thinks I overstate the importance of West Point graduates, I will take "forceful and provocative" as a compliment.  I certainly appreciate the fair review, which is all any author can ask.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Military Ritual in Two Republics

Well, after a fair bit of traveling and taking care of various things, hopefully I can get back into some sort of consistent blogging pattern.  As anyone can see, relentless discipline with this sort of thing is NOT my strong suit.  But, partly in response to one of my former students (NOT a former midshipman) exhorting me to keep up with this more, and giving me advice on how to use Facebook (when will I take the plunge?), I've finally gotten around to writing this post.

Anyhow, the picture above is from the National Revolutionary Martrys' Shrine in Taipei, Taiwan.  This is essentially a monument to the war dead of the Republic of China--"revolutionary" refers to the fall of the old imperial system and the rise of a Chinese republic.

This is a shot of one of tourists posing with one of the shrine guards.  The complex was filled with tourists--most of them Japanese as far as I could tell, and a fair number of.... Koreans.  Go figure.  I showed up at the shrine in time to see a changing of the guard, which involves a fairly lengthy march by one set of guards across a plaza to the inner complex to relieve the two guards in the interior (the picture above is of one of those guards).  During the ceremony, the tourists make sure to stay out of the way, and various minders (the fellow in the white shirt and tie above) ensure the relief detail has space to move.  Nevertheless, the whole relief process is surrounded by tourists snapping pictures, children running around, etc.

In all due honesty, I was a bit mystified by this sort of thing, since for me, the "normal" environment of these sorts of war memorials is the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington.  The environment at the Tomb of the Unknowns is as relentlessly solemn as anything else I've seen, with the commander of the relief asking the assembled audience to rise and doff their caps, and a dead silence that surrounds the ceremony, broken only by the sounds of the inspection itself, and the occasional squalling baby.  The memory of it still gives me chills--it's as if the living and the dead merge in these sorts of places, and the weight of American nationalism makes its awesome and relentless presence felt.  Drew Faust's fine study of Civil War dead actually helps explain this cultural trait in historical terms related to the Civil War, but for a better sense of the emotional resonances in present day America, the movie Taking Chance is probably more instructive.

So, in perhaps a striking sign of my American-ness, I found the "touristy" environment I found at the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine.... strange.  It wasn't as if I felt any strong sense of national loyalty at the shrine--I didn't, and as far as I can tell, even a lot of Taiwanese don't feel a strong attachment to the place--it's just that the tone seemed...  off.  But, the reality is that none of the tourists intended any sort of disrespect, and the civilian minders didn't make any gestures of disapproval.  I actually saw the one pictured above take a picture for a tourist. While initially astonished, in the end, it seemed a good lesson in how notions of appropriate martial bearing and memorialization can vary across cultures.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

NYMAS Civil War Book Award

Some people seem capable of blogging even while traveling.

I am not one of them.

I am currently writing this from the annual Society of Military Historians meeting in Lexington, VA. I spent the previous weekend attending a cousin's graduation in New York City, and finishing up my grading. However, I will at least link to the online announcement that my book has won the New York Military Affairs Symposium Civil War Book Award for 2009. I'll try to put some long-delayed posts up this week, although I'm going to be traveling some more soon also.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Belated Mother's Day Post

The relationship between mothers and deployed servicemen and women can be.... difficult. I remember one of my midshipmen telling me how enthusiastic his mother was about his ambition to fly jets, until she watched an extremely realistic documentary about the inherent dangers of flying high performance jet fighters in the US Navy; she became much *less* enthusiastic after that, although I'm sure she was still supportive. I can only imagine the swirl of emotions surrounding someone in a front-line ground combat position. 1st Lt. Barrett's passing was only more poignant, coming as it did so close to Mother's Day.

That being said, as long as the profession of arms exists, those under arms will have to try to explain to those they leave behind why they are where they are. The explanations may or may not be adequate, depending on their circumstance, but the best example I've seen from any war is the following Letter by an Army Platoon Leader in Korea, COL (RET) David R. Hughes, who went on to become a 2004 Distinguished West Point Graduate. The letter is too good to be properly excerpted--it ranges from pride in one's professional competence to ruminations on the motivations of one's battlefield opponents to both the challenges and the rewards of small unit command.