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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

American Public Schools

Being a proud product of American public education, it almost breaks my hear to live near two cities (Washington DC and Baltimore)  with school systems that by all accounts are in shambles:

All that being said, while it's clear something's very wrong, it's a mystery to me as to what exactly is the correct way to fix the problem.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Is There Such a Thing as Bad Publicity?

Christopher S. Stowe, another historian in the Army's post-graduate educational system (there is something fitting in that three of my reviewers have been Department of the Army civilians), has written an appraisal of West Pointers and the Civil War in Civil War Book Review.  The review concludes with the following:

Last, the author at times exhibits a self-assurance that borders upon stridence in his attempt to refute the findings of numerous honored Civil War scholars. In a work as ill-defined as this and with so few pages with which to examine his subject(s), Hsieh’s tone cannot help but come across at times as pleading. However, despite these deficiencies, West Pointers and the Civil War is a valuable work, one that is bound to stimulate discussion and further evaluation of American military professionalism and its effect upon the sectional conflict’s military course.

Stowe makes what for me were some interesting analytical criticisms, and when I have time (I'm currently mired in grading), I'll post a response to them.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

RIP 1st Lt. Brandon A. Barrett

RIP 1st Lt. Brandon A. Barrett, USMC (USNA 2006)

One of my current midshipmen, a prior enlisted Marine about to graduate, alerted me to this unfortunate news yesterday.  I did not know 1st Lt. Barrett when he was a midshipman (I arrived at the academy in the Fall term of 2005), but I'm sure some of his instructors are still on the Yard, and I know some of the midshipmen still in the brigade know him.

The story, which interviews Mrs. Barrett is especially poignant, seeing as it is Mother's Day.

*Note:  This is another reminder that perhaps the biggest difference between teaching at a service academy and teaching at a "normal" college is that our former students go into harm's way.  I really do dread the prospect of getting bad news about a midshipman I've taught, but it hasn't happened yet--and I hope it stays that way, although statistically, that's probably too much to ask for.  That's even more the case with the Soldiers I worked with in Iraq.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Going Back to the Alma Mater

While I was never terribly "Boola Boola" as an undergraduate at Yale--indeed, I was almost anti-boola boola, although I almost idolized my Professors--for the second time, I will be returning to Yale during the 2011 calendar year, this time as a Henry Chauncey Jr. '57 Fellow, where I plan to use the year away from teaching to write a book about the intersection of academic expertise (defined as anyone with a PhD) and the American military in Iraq.  During the 2004/5 academic year, I had been an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center, where I also got the privilege to teach in the Directed Studies program, of which I am myself a proud alumnus.  Being now an irritable military historian who once spent a year representing American interests in an Iraqi qada of roughly 150,000 people and regularly mocks the comic opera aspects of academic life, it's sometimes hard for me to imagine how I was a wide-eyed 17-year old in 1997 absolutely determined to figure out why Plato's Republic was such an important book, and who saw Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War as something of a revelation.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Casual Readers Need Not Apply

I must admit that I was somewhat bemused by the review of West Pointers and the Civil War in the Charleston Post and Courier that used the headline, "Military book not a casual read." Richard W. Hatcher III described my book as "interesting," and "not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject." Of course, outside of students, does anyone read a history book they aren't interested in?

That being said, while I really did make an attempt to avoid military jargon and make the book accessible to someone without a substantial background in nineteenth-century military practice, it's also true that I aspire to a prose style this both spare and unadorned. People expecting the People Magazine version of Civil War military institutions will thus be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Civil War Times Review

Terry L. Beckenbaugh in the June 2010 issue of Civil War Times has what I interpret to be a positive review of West Pointers and the Civil War, describing it as "thoroughly researched" and a "a more sophisticated version of Paddy Griffith's argument in his 1989 Battle Tactics of the Civil War," which I think is a fair tracing of historiographical influence and lineage.  Anyhow, as always, I thank the reviewer for taking the time to look at the book.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Can Academic Historians Write?

Gordon Wood, an academic historian who has had more cross-over success into "popular history" than most of his academic colleagues has a nice piece in the newsletter of the American Historical Association on the divide between academic and popular history.  The last two paragraphs are worth excerpting:

So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.

The problem at the present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history writing to the nonacademic historians who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.

While I agree for the most part with Wood's defense of the monographic model of academic scholarship, I also think it bears noting that a lot of the unreadability of academic history comes as much from a disinterested quest for "scientific" knowledge as a pedantic desire to establish a perceived monopoly on knowledge.  In all walks of life, knowledge is power, and trying to withhold knowledge from others is one way to establish one's authority and importance, whether it be intelligence analysts working for different parts of the US Government, lawyers creating high barriers on legal practice through bar exams, or academic historians trying to maintain their own social relevance and status.  This doesn't mean that historians don't produce "real" knowledge, but it does mean there's always some degree of self-serving professional enhancement in the way we run our credentialing mechanisms.

One comic irony of my strange career, with one foot in an academic tradition that goes back to people like Perry Miller, and another foot in the American national-security state, is that I'm exposed to two groups of people who love to use jargon, in part to separate themselves from "lay" individuals, and to help maintain a monopoly on knowledge--academics and the military.  While academics like to use jargon drawn from abstruse continental philosophy, the military loves acronyms that are sometimes both indecipherable and unpronounceable (both of these shops, btw, do good work; they just have horrible acronyms). Some of the jargon is rooted in the technical and specialized nature of the expertise in play, but that is certainly an insufficient explanation for all the jargon in use.  However, I will say this, military acronyms can sometimes at least be funny and self-mocking, while academic jargon can only be unintentionally humorous.  Alas, since I want this blog to be PG, I can't give any examples.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Military Historians are Awesome

I recently got a nice card in the mail from Texas A&M announcing the well-deserved appointment of Brian Linn as the Ralph R. Thomas Class of '21 Professor or Liberal Arts.  Linn is the current President of the Society for Military History, and in addition to being a great historian, is also a great human person to be around.  We both first met when I was doing research for my dissertation at West Point.

I recently saw Linn at the George Marshall Lecture at this year's OAH meeting in Washington, and while we've exchanged e-mails, we haven't seen each other in person since I was a graduate student.  His greeting to me was something along the lines of, "When I saw you last, you were this young punk doing research in the archives..."

What makes military historians awesome (in the academic sense of the term) is that Linn meant that greeting as a compliment, and I took it that way.  Academics can be really stuffy people sometimes, with large touchy egos oversensitive to slights and the like--there is nothing necessarily bad about this, but it can really put a crimp on certain types of friendly human interaction, like good natured joshing and the like.  I've always thought military historians have less of this problem, partly because of the connections between the field and the actual American military, which has a high tolerance of mutual mockery and insult given in good fun, embedded in an ethic that encourages group cohesion and team effort.

I've always thought that the necessarily solitary nature of work in the humanities, what Perry Miller likened, if I remember correctly, to closing the door of one's study on the world and acting as a lone wolf, also had the negative side-effect of breeding a certain degree of social maladjustment, which helps explain the strangely contentious nature academic politics can take (something we are thankfully free from for the most part in my own department).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Initial Response to First Reviews

Rafuse's review appears in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Military History.  Also, I think I may given an impression that overstates how much West Pointers and the Civil War focuses on tactical issues; I also talk a good deal about the importance of army organization, ideological views of citizen soldiers, and my chapter on the secession crisis is in large part an examination of notions of duty and Unionism within the old army's officer corps.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Working at History

As a whole, academic historians of the Civil War do not double as re-enactors.  There seems to be a wide variety of reasons for this--differences in cultural background, approach to history, etc.--but I do actually play in a "Vintage Baseball" club (the Chesapeake and Potomac) that plays according to 1860s rules (the most important involving no gloves, but a softer glove, and outs on one bounce).  That's me to the left playing second base and waiting to receive a throw.  However, as I put it to a reporter: "Baseball, for me, is mostly fun. Otherwise, it would be like work."  Thus, while being a huge Dodgers fan, I really know very little about the historic origins of baseball as a game, and this ignorance is deliberate, because, well, as I said, I don't want baseball to be work, and studying the past is quite literally my day job. Some of my teammates, of course, take things more seriously.

While studying and teaching history is a great gig, like any other form of employment, there's a fair amount of drudge work.  Perhaps the most dreary is grading, a necessary but important part of teaching.  But every good academic historian has spent his or her fair share of time nosing through archival material, and I sometimes think we over-romanticize the process--the supposed thrill of finding documents, discovering the past, blah, blah.  Or perhaps I've just become overly cynical.  Nevertheless, some of this research involves drudgery, and I sometimes think historians should actually emphasize that more--that doing good history involves countless dead ends, wasted effort, mind-numbing attempts to decipher bad handwriting, etc.  This is hardly manual labor, of course, but I certainly think historians have more than their fair share in the humanities of thankless combing through piles of "stuff"--I've met economists and political scientists who actually have said outright that they draw on historical research and respect it, in part because they would never want to put in the time looking at microfilm reels, sneezing over dusty manuscripts, etc.  But that really is one of the strengths of the field--that we don't construct grand models, and actually *know* things at a high level of resolution--not to be too harsh on my fellow scholars in those disciplines, which have their own strengths--namely that they're sometimes better at seeing the forest, instead of focusing on the trees like us.

But while "popular" history, particularly in the case of work on the American Civil War, frequently rests on a strong foundation of research (I think especially of the work of Stephen Sears), bad popular history's usual vice stems from, to put it bluntly, a lack of work in the necessary sources.  Popular historians usually write better than their counterparts, and are sometimes just smarter, but when popular history is bad, it tends to be from too little time with the sources, and too little time looking at what other historians have already produced, which comes down to not enough work.

Now, being smart obviously helps, but from my own anecdotal impression, the real genius academics in the humanities tend not to be historians--they instead to be folks who can learn absurdly difficult languages, literature professors who have vast amounts of poetry and prose bouncing around in their heads, or philosophers who deal with really abstruse concepts.  But historians do tend to be more practical and level headed, and I think that's because our discipline puts a strong premium on disciplined work in primary sources, and eccentric genius is simply less valuable--and frequently too impatient for truly succeeding at the craft of history.  The nice side-effect of this is that historians tend to be not as utterly hopeless at things like administrative tasks, or just being sensible human beings; I do not think history as a whole, for example, has gone through the debilitating and schismatic theoretical fights that have afflicted disciplines like anthropology and the study of literature.  For example, as a graduate student, my impression of  the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, which I rather sardonically saw as the People magazine of college professors, always seemed to focus more on professors of literature, because as far as I could tell, they always had the preposterous tales of ludicrous faculty infighting and bickering, as opposed to more staid historians, who were just too dull to be covered very much in such a publication.  The downside of all this is that fewer historians are genuine geniuses.  Although, compared to the general population, I'm sure most academic historians come off as pretty strange and hapless people when it comes to practical pursuits, who nevertheless possess abstruse and specialized forms of knowledge that somehow suit us to teach young people.

Nevertheless, when I read good history at least, I always think of all the work that went into it, and I think that's part of the almost earthy appeal of the discipline.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Upton's Attack at Spotsylvania

Emory Upton looms large in my book, both for his tactical excellence during the American Civil War, and the influence he holds in the American Army after the Civil War's close.  Because I end my book in 1865, I only give a cursory treatment of Upton's role as an important post-Civil War reformer, but I do talk more extensively about the innovative assault he conducted on May 10 at Spotsylvania.  Upton massed his sized force of roughly five thousand me in a powerful column four lines deep, with three regiments in each line, and he made preparations for the attack normally not taken during the Civil War.  These included having only lead regiments cap their muskets, to discourage premature firing--many Civil War assaults failed because troops halted their crucial (and frequently un-restartable) offensive momentum to open fire, leading to firefights where they were at a severe disadvantage--actually giving his subordinates clear objectives to complete during the assault, conducting a proper reconnaissance of the position, etc.  For me, Upton's attack is a useful example of how infantry assaults, even against strong fortified positions, could succeed on a local tactical level, but how even the most successful ones would still become strategically barren due to failures of coordination at the division and corp levels of organization.  In Upton's, case, due to poor staffwork and general confusion, his local success went unsupported and unexploited.

The photo in this post comes from a recent trip I took to Spotsylvania in preparation for the regular staff ride I do for midshipmen there, and I'd like to make a plug for visiting that battlefield, which is something of a hidden gem, even in comparison to the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields that are part of the same larger NPS complex.  The battle is itself an important part of the Overland Campaign, but enough of it is preserved in a compact enough space that you can get a strong sense of the flow of the battle in a one-day visit--something which is not really the case in my opinion at Gettysburg.  And while Gettysburg remains the most famous of Civil War battles, Spotsylvania from my perspective is more interesting, because of its important role in the larger campaign where Grant and Lee duel, and which leads to the eventual demise of the Confederacy. Also, I like taking midshipmen there in large part because I feel many will go or have gone to Gettysburg on their own initiative, and I'd rather take them to a less well-known field.  But I think that also applies to the larger Civil War public, which naturally gravitates to the dramatic ground in Pennsylvania.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ready to be inspired?

While the similarities between current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American Civil War are few and far between, one eerie similarity is the prominence of amputees among wounded survivors.  During the Civil War, this was a result of the low muzzle velocity and soft lead of the minie ball, which resulted in rounds that mushroomed on impact and shattered bones into gruesome fragments, making amputations the only possible treatment at the time.  The primitive state of nineteenth-century medicine also made tourniquets and amputations one of the few useful things Civil War-era doctors could do.

In contrast, dramatic advances in battlefield medicine, especially in relation to stopping blood loss, have made it possible to save troops who in previous wars would have essentially bled out, but while a combat medic can stop leading, he or she cannot restore a limb that was destroyed by an IED.  I once had the privilege of being in the audience of a Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC (an experience I highly recommend), and the guests of honor at the parade were wounded warriors from Walter Reed, most of whom were amputees.  For me at least, it did feel like being at a reunion of Civil War veterans.  While this sort of thing can be heartbreaking, I personally think it a mistake to see these victims as being primarily objects of pity.  Whatever one thinks of the justness or rightness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I will always see figures like SPC Brendan Marrocco as heroes and warriors (and I use that term in a distinctly unironic way) who should be admired, not because they are pitiable, but because they can overcome hardship and difficulty.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

West Pointers and the Civil War Project Origins

Part 1 of my first stab at videoblogging on West Pointers and the Civil War. This is a general introduction to the rationale behind my videoblogging, and a brief synopsis of the book. Part 2. This covers how I became interested in my project, and has some material on historiography (Note that due to a brain cramp, I call my 8th grade social science teacher Mr. Blackwell, not Mr. Blackwood, which is his actual name). Part 3. Wrap up - What didn't fit in the ten minute limit for Part 2. For those more interested in the question of "Why Military History Matters," I suggest you take a look at more formally written piece I did for Mark Grimsley's War Historian blog.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Weekly Standard Review

Barton Swaim in the Weekly Standard has just reviewed West Pointers and the Civil War. Unfortunately, only subscribers can view the full review, but I thought the review did a good job talking about the most important arguments I make. And, of course, I certainly appreciated the positive tenor of the review.