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).