Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers Review - full version

First off, it’s been a couple of years since I read the book, but I do remember that it was not an easy story to tell in a narrative, and that comes through in movie. It’s clear the filmmakers struggled to resolve the two main storylines, that of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the flag-raising, and that of the surviving flag-raisers’ Victory Bond tour several months later. What they came up with was to interweave the two stories, jumping back and forth between them at points of connection. At times, this technique works very well, showing how the Marines could not leave the war behind, even when ensconced in luxury and waited on hand and foot. It can also be a useful way to stress the emotion of what the men had to go through, both on the island and back in the States. At other times, however, it’s jarring and disorienting, even for someone like me who has a pretty good knowledge of the battle and the war in general. My companion, who does not have that advantage, found herself constantly unable to follow the movie, and basically checked out as a result. The biggest problem here, I think, is that the filmmakers don’t just jump around between the two storylines, but also within the storylines, making it all that much harder to know exactly where and when you are watching. After a while, you begin to wonder if maybe they should have just gone with a chronological storyline, and let everything else play out on its own.

This editing becomes more problematic towards the end of the film, as the Iwo Jima storyline falls away, and the post-war storyline then peters out. The result is one of the more common complaints among moviegoers lately: a movie that you keep expecting to end, but that keeps going. After about 20 minutes, you find yourself looking for them to just up the epilogue in text at the end, like we’ve seen a million times. Instead, they batter the audience with more emotional scenes, heaping it on in obvious ways, right down to a bedside confession of inadequacy as a father (I checked; it's not in the book). I was determined to stay to the end, but it really wasn’t easy. In fact, the credits have more emotional punch, using pictures of the Marines on Iwo Jima along with the names of the actors who portrayed them.

Before it sounds like I absolutely hated the movie, I didn’t. In fact, overall, I’d say I liked it, but at least the final third left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Before that, however, there was much to like about it. The visual effects during the war scenes are outstanding. The use of CGI is about as seamless as I’ve ever seen it, and as a result, the experience of the battle scenes is striking. It easily approaches the experience of Saving Private Ryan, and at times might even surpass it. And like I said before, the connection the film makes between what the men experienced on Iwo Jima, both before and after the flag-raising, and what they experienced trying to get on with their lives after their return is very powerful at times. And finally, the movie reminds us that World War II was not always seen as the “Good War”, even as victory was in sight. The need to have the surviving flag-raisers go around the country to sell war bonds in order to keep the war effort supplied is one of the centers of the movie and will probably come as a shock to some viewers. Whether or not the U.S. would have had to accept Japanese terms if the 7th bond drive failed might be questionable, but the movie certainly shows how hard it was to keep the American public behind the war just three years in (one wonders what a Brit, Russian, or German would have thought about that situation, having at that point been through five years of more devastating war themselves), as well as what effect the picture of the flag-raising had on the public, from politicians down to the families the flag-raisers who did not survive the battle.

So while the movie may have been a disappointment (OK, I had pretty high expectations going in, so maybe that was inevitable on some level), I would still recommend seeing it, especially for the historical perspective. Just be prepared to have to pay close attention to the various storylines, and to suffer a bit towards the end.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

On Age and Authority

A note: this entry really isn’t about me. Really. It's about the punditocracy taking themselves very seriously, and who are taken seriously by others. So stick with it.

This is something I think about quite a bit; it's something about which Derek and I have commiserated many times. Those occasions have usually been triggered by the odd tendency among our journalistic friends, the opinion manufacturers at prominent and not-so-prominent websites, magazines, and newspapers, to ignore, utterly ignore, anything we send them for consideration. Derek and I both hold Ph.D.s; we both have been published in a number of formats. We're reasonably well-informed individuals who write reasonably well. And we can’t even get an acknowledgement of receipt for an op-ed to, say, any mid-level newspaper in the continental United States. Mind you, we’re not necessarily asking for a comment on the op-ed, let alone a clear decision on whether they will try to publish. All we want, for now, is for some sort of proof of life for our baby—evidence that it arrived in one piece. This is frustrating, because for the few minutes out of the day when we’re not talking about shotgunning beer and tossing midgets, we are serious people who want to be taken seriously.

Now look at the list of columns at Most days I peruse this list, read two or three of the columns, maybe link one, and ignore the rest. The same goes for Real Clear Politics. Townhall and RCP are more conservative sites, but the same could go for any list of daily or weekly columns. For a variety of reasons, most opinion pieces by established opinion writers simply aren’t very good. Maybe they have been at it for so long that they feel like everything is a repetition. Maybe they lose clarity in their pursuit of the clever turn of phrase. Maybe they just don’t have anything new or different or interesting to say about the issues of the day.

Look, writing a column is not shoveling coal or plowing fields or anything like that, but it can’t be easy, especially over the long term. So I am more than willing to cut columnists some slack for writing boring pieces, especially when the columnists are older. I assume, perhaps out of naivete, that established columnists did hard work back in the day to earn their relatively comfortable current jobs. No doubt that is the case for many of them.

But I wonder. Folks like Ben Shapiro, Megan Basham, and Ross Douthat make me wonder. Stephen Glass gives me, and should have given everyone, pause. I'm a big fan of Jonah Goldberg, and he obviously was in the midst of a productive career when he got his big break, but it is worth noting that his current position stemmed from the notoriety that came from his mom telling Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. Obviously, and as with anything, there is quite a bit of luck and who you know in entering the land of the pundits.

This sounds petty, and truthfully there is no small amount of sour grapes to what I've written. I would love to know the right people. A little luck wouldn't be bad either. But--here's where it gets interesting, maybe--who the hell am I to tell people what to think about the most important issues facing the world today?

Sure, I have a Ph.D. And I am certainly an expert in my areas of study and research. That means a lot, but I am also well aware that my degrees did not bring unlimited knowledge. In fact, one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was just how little I knew and know. On the practical side, the everyday life stuff, I'm married with kids, I've got a house, and I've lived and traveled and worked all over the country. I still feel like I haven't experienced anything. And I seriously doubt that there will ever come a time when I'll wake up and my education sand experiences will have combined to reach the level where I'll feel like I've got it all figured out. But I could be wrong.

So I wonder sometimes about the authority with which younger pundits, especially those in my age range, speak. Again, I'm only going after conservative types here, but what did Ben Shapiro pick up at UCLA and Harvard Law that I do not know about to give him the confidence to assert unequivocally that Israel's ceasefire with Hezbollah was "the most ignominious defeat in Israeli history"? Did something in Meghan Basham's personal experiences or education at Arizona State give her the confidence to be so sure that the movie Old School was an assault on the institution of marriage? Is a Harvard undergraduate degree so thorough that Ross Douthat can so blithely judge the approaches of two popes to Christian morality in the modern world? Does Tom Bruscino really think that reading about events on computer screens in Ohio, Washington D.C., and Kansas gives him the wisdom to insist that we are winning the war in Iraq?

Obviously speaking with authority is part of the game--people will only pay attention if you sound like you know what you are talking about. That said, I can only speak for myself, but no matter what happens and no matter where my work gets published and no matter how much authority with which I seem to speak, I want to make one thing very clear: I am always well aware that I could be wrong.

No education, no experiences, and no age will ever give me absolute authority. Just a humble call to remember humility when bouncing around the opinion world.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Follow Up

The "Blaming the Victim" post from Friday has garnered a bit of attention and has encouraged me to add an addendum to my point. Mark Grimsley has put up multiple responses to the post on his blog. The latest comes from Nicholas Palar, a very well-read junior history major at Purchase College SUNY.

Mr. Palar is a self-proclaimed victim-blamer, because military historians have not developed a "coherent “military theory” to explain wars and battles." He continues: "I say this because the center of the canon of military history needs to be a model through which military victory, defeat, and change can be explained." The problem, Palar writes, is that,

There is a primacy given to major battles and negotiations between leaders that is important but fundamentally at odds with everything we have learned from social history in recent years.

History is made through many actors, not just the elites, and history as a process must be examined in a comprehensive manner. Some works indeed have tackled the question of Confederate defeat in a more sophisticated manner; e.g., Why The South Lost The Civil War by Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still. However, the prevailing notion by military historians is to simplify military history into major battles and diplomatic relations.
Well, we can certainly disagree about whether or not more theory will help us understand the outcomes of wars. It seems to me that it is pretty easy to poke gaping holes in most theories that purport to offer standard explanations to complex topics involving humans (see, for example, Marxism). Perhaps that is why the myriad studies on the theory of war, including Clausewitz, Mahan, and both volumes of the Makers of Modern Strategy, have ultimately failed to satisfy. Let's turn the question around: how has any comprehensive theory (on the order of the one Mr. Palar is calling for in military history) been applied to make other historical fields so definitive compared to military history?

In fact, I would venture a guess that more theories have been floated and shot down in military history than in any other field. That is because theories inform good historical study, they do not guide it.

It is interesting, also, that Mr. Palar brings up the example of explaining the defeat of the rebellion in the Civil War, because it refutes his point. Sure, most books on the Civil War focus on battles--I'll get back to this point in a second--but there is a sizable literature on the fall of the rebellion that looks into all aspects of both sides. The titles include Why the North Won the Civil War, How the North Won, The Confederate War, and Why the Confederacy Lost. Remember that several of these books are collections of essays, which means that many of the themes therein have been expanded upon in larger studies. And guess what? Almost every one of the authors is or was an academic military historian with a Ph.D.

Which brings me to my more important point, something that is explained a bit more clearly in another one of Professor Grimsley's replies. He quotes Kenneth P. Werrell, writing in the preface to his book on the bombing of Japan:

[M]ilitary history is regarded with suspicion by a segment of the public and by some academics. Certainly, it reveals man at his worst, with much blood and brutality, and despite the 'new military history' that emphasizes non-combat aspects, military history is still basically about wars and battles. To make matters worse, the good guys do not always win. Nevertheless, military history continues to be of interest to the public. As the English writer Thomas Hardy put it so well, "War makes rattling good history; but peace is poor reading."

If the content of military history is a problem, so, too, is its writing. Unlike other fields of history, it is written mainly by journalists, who tend to sensationalize, and by former military men, who tend to justify. Most academics shy away from it, since they are uncomfortable with the content, unfamiliar with the technology, and unsympathetic with the military ethos. To be perfectly honest, academia's intellectual bias is not only against war, but also against the warriors and the study of war. As a consequence, a lower percentage of books in the field of history are written by academics, and myth-making, hero worship, romance, and glory are more the stuff of this branch of history than of any other.
That may be true, but it has little or nothing to do with military history as an academic field. Since when do we judge an academic field by the standard of work produced by people outside of the academy? Why should academic military historians have to suffer for bad or limited books written by non-academics? When I was talking to my friend Derek about this the other day, he was horrified by the idea that as an academic historian of civil rights his field would be in some way responsible for the limitations in all the nonacademic books out there on civil rights. It is a good analogy--I'm not a civil rights historian, but it seems to me that Taylor Branch, Juan Williams, and Diane McWhorter are a whole lot more famous than Steven Lawson, Clayborne Carson, and Anthony Badger. (I've got a feeling that when I mention the name David Chappell, you don't think of this guy.) That is not to say that non-academics cannot write excellent, informative, even definitive books, but I've taught all sorts of advanced military history courses, and with the exception of Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace, (which has its problems) I've always assigned books that were written by academics or those with terminal academic degrees.

The point is that popular histories written outside of the academy might inform the academic field, but they do not define it. If academic military historians write five percent of the thousands of books on military history published in any given year, then the field must be judged on that five percent. Here is a rule that academics seem able to apply to every field but military history: when you see a new military history title, pick up the book and look at the binding and the author's bio. If an academic press published the book and/or the author is a professor or Ph.D. in history, then the book is probably an academic title. It's not tricky. If well-educated folks are unable to make the distinction, then I humbly suggest that it isn't military historians who have the problem.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Blaming the Victim

Some time ago, I wrote a blog entry about military history and the academy. The overall idea was entirely self-serving: military history is important and therefore universities need to hire more military historians. I hoped my cri de coeur would lead to a flood of job offers from America's most prestigious universities. I work for the U.S. Army, so we see how that worked out.*

But ever since I wrote that entry, there have been a few points about it that I thought needed elaborating. A recent request on the message boards of H-Net has inspired that elaboration. On January 30, Professor Victor Macias-Gonzalez of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse queried the members of H-LatAm (Latin America):

I'm a fish out of water . . . help! I am teaching my historiography seminar, and two of my 8 students want to work on Military History. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want the students to work on topics that are close and dear to their hearts . . . any suggestions for germinal works on military history?
The request was cross-posted on H-War (War), and Professor Macias-Gonzalez received all sorts of replies. On H-LatAm, he elaborated on what he was looking for:

Thanks to everyone for their many, many suggestions. I may not have been clear on my comment, however.... What I would like is a historiographical article on US military history, as in, moving beyond strategy, guns, uniforms, and the like. Dare I think there may be something in U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender?

In my entry, I wrote about the efforts of academic military historians to broaden their field beyond battle narratives, to show why military history is relevant to other fields. In the midst of that explanation, I threw in a parenthetical note:

(Still, since when has the standard for fields addressing issues in the past in an academic setting been how well the practitioners of one field explain the importance of that field to all other fields? That is a pretty high standard to which to hold military historians, especially considering that it is patently obvious how important wars have been to history without even broadening the field.)
I did not draw out this point because it seemed contentious in a post that was meant to build bridges. But no one has ever sufficiently answered the question. Battle narratives, strategy, tactics, why one side lost and another won--all of these are incredibly complex issues, as complex as, say, defining who the progressives were, explaining why the New Deal failed to end the depression, or figuring out which side of the women's suffrage movement was more important in getting the 19th Amendment passed.

Here's an utterly not random example to illustrate the point: whether or not you think we are winning or losing in Iraq, the primary explanations will come from strategy, tactics, weapons, logistics, and battle accounts--all topics that are in the traditional province of military historians. It will be military historians who ultimately sort out the issues of the Iraq war. That is no small thing--look at all the smoke and fire and confused and confusing first drafts of what is happening right now.

Another example, one that should resonate with folks who teach modern U.S. history: how much time do you spend in your classes on the war in Vietnam, not the protests at home, after the Tet Offensive in 1968? How much time does your textbook spend on the war on the ground in Vietnam after 1968? The Tonkin Resolution was in 1964, Tet was less than four years later. The American portion of the war went on until 1973, another five years after Tet, and the war went through all sorts of changes in that time. But most accounts go something like this: Tet, Cronkite, LBJ doesn't run, protests at home pick up, Nixon bombs Cambodia, U.S. withdraws. You know why? Because only recently have military historians started to sort out what happened on the ground in the last half of the war.

Military history, even the traditional stuff, shouldn't have to prove anything to other historical fields to be considered a viable part of the academy. That said, academic military history has expanded, as I wrote, to "include all manner of discussions on race, class, gender, social life, cultural issues, memory, and politics." It is right and good that this is so. The inclusion of these considerations makes the study of military affairs even more complex and more interesting. It must continue apace.


Lots of military historians, usually those outside the academy, just throw up their hands at their field being tossed from academic departments. But many who actually engage the issue all too often resort to blaming the victim. These blamers fall into two groups: the enablers and the ignorant (dear God, I'm starting to sound like Dr. Phil). The enablers are military historians themselves. I was one of them in my entry. They are usually people in the academy who want to reason with their colleagues. Enablers make comments disparaging the supposed narrowness of their field so that they can get conversations started with the ignorant. "Sure, there has been too much drum and bugle military history." "Who needs another study of Napoleon?" "Of course in part it is our own fault. Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals." It is pathetic and we know better.

Take my sentence: "Military historians have at times been far too caught up in the traditional end of our field--discussions of battles from the perspective of generals." First, as I explained already, there is nothing wrong with being caught up in the complexities of the traditional end of the field, at least when it comes to military history being a viable part of the academic world. Second, and more troubling, is that the spirit of what I wrote is not true. Sure, "at times" military historians (implying military historians as a whole) have been caught up in the traditional end of the field, if by "at times" I meant "at times prior to thirty years ago." Maybe I seem like I'm being too hard on myself, but this sort of quasi-diplomatic nonsense only enables the ignorant. And reinforcing the ignorant, especially this ignorance, does not create knowledge.

Take Professor Macias-Gonzalez: "What I would like is a historiographical article on US military history, as in, moving beyond strategy, guns, uniforms, and the like. Dare I think there may be something in U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender?"

First off--I'm getting repetitive--there is nothing wrong with strategy as an area of historical study. Second, academic military history has never been about "guns, uniforms, and the like" in the sense that he most likely means. Academic military history journals like the Journal of Military History and War and Society and even official military journals are not for gun collectors and guys whose primary concern are the buttons on a nineteenth century cavalryman's coat. Aw heck, check the current contents for yourself.

Third, Professor Macias-Gonzalez wonders whether there have been changes in U.S. military history over the last 15-20 years. The answer is "Yes! For the love of God, Yes!" Only it began more than 15-20 years ago. Check out the titles of these military history historiographical essays cited by Professor Mark Grimsley. There are two articles about the "new military history" from 1984. For the uninitiated, and put simply, the new military history is what military historians called the effort in the field to get off of the battlefield and into other issues of military affairs. (As a corrollary, there is also the new combat history, which looks at war from the bottom-up, that is, from the soldier's perspective.) Lest you think the two essays on the new military history sprung from the aether in 1984, note that in 1975, Professor Dennis Showalter wrote an article entitled "A Modest Plea for Drums and Trumpets." Professor Showalter was worried about the trend in academic military history away from important studies of generals and battles--over thirty years ago. The late Russell Weigley expressed the same concern in the preface to his 1981 book Eisenhower's Lieutenants.

I'm being harsh toward Professor Macias-Gonzalez. At least he asked. But the way he asked says so much. Say I were to have a job interview for a position teaching American history with a focus on women's history, and I had to give a lecture on the passage of the 19th Amendment. I would go to women's historians for help. I would not say, "I've been asked to give a lecture on the 19th Amendment. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want departments to teach subjects that are near and dear to their hearts. Is there a historiography on women's history that goes beyond burning bras?" I would not make unsubstantiated implications about the field. No, I would go hat-in-hand, honestly announcing my own ignorance, and assuming that there was a well-developed and serious academic literature.** I have no problem with honest ignorance and an honest effort to learn.


Here is the problem: military historians have been doing the enabler thing for decades now. Obviously, it doesn't work. It only emboldens the ignorant to be offensive about their ignorance. It only reinforces their stereotypes and keeps them comfortable with all their false assumptions. Military historians continue to struggle in the academy--in large part because the ignorant think that anyone can teach advanced courses and write academic books in military history. It's time to educate the ignorant.

What should military historians do?

For one thing, I don't know what the statute of limitations is on calling something "new," but the new military history was new long before there was a New Coke. It was new when "That 70s Show" was just "That 70s." A modest suggestion: it's not new anymore; come up with a better name, or better yet, just call the field military history, and assume that it covers these other issues.

More importantly, stop enabling. Military historians have no need to apologize for the history and historiography of their field. When other academic historians say or imply that military history is for History Channel buffs, gun collectors, and reenactors, correct them. Point them to the Journal of Military History and War and Society and the graduate reading lists in military history from Duke and Ohio State (the Ohio State one is being updated).

Academic military history, from the traditional works to the latest topics of study, is a dynamic, complex, interesting, and important field of study. Stop playing the victim. If we won't stand up for ourselves, no one will.


* I like my job.

** True story.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Seattle Story (Night Before the Super Bowl Edition)

It is not often that someone can claim that they are less than a day away from the biggest sporting event in a city and region's entire history. Yet that is exactly what tomorrow's Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers (sorry, Tom--Pittspuke)is for the entire Pacific Northwest. It really is that big of a deal. Lest I be accused of hyperbole, it is worth keeping in mind that the history of Pacific Northwest sports (especially professional sports) is quite short when compared with most other areas of the country. Only two professional sports championships have ever been won in the Pacific Northwest, by the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and the 1979 Seattle Supersonics (no, the WNBA championship won last year by whatever team plays in Seattle does not count). Both of these took place B.A.S.S. (Before All Sports Stations) and before the NBA went MegaNational, so most people outside the Pacific Northwest don't remember those championships unless they watch ESPN Classic religiously.

Those championships also came at a time when the only pro football and baseball teams in the region--the Seahawks and Mariners--were in their infancy and, unknown by locals at the time, well on their way to defining "mediocrity" and "abysmal" ('Hawks the former, M's the latter) in the Unofficial Yet Universally Recognized As Authoritative Sports Dictionary. As a result, since 1979 Pacific Northwest professional teams have not won a championship in any major sport, and thus for the most part have been off the national sports radar screen. And with the exception of the Sonics, no post 1979 Northwest team has even played for a championship (and that 1996 Sonics team had no chance against Michael Jordan and the Bulls).

But to me and most other Pacific Northwest sports fans, the NBA pales in comparison with football and baseball. And that is why tomorrow is such a big deal--none of us have ever celebrated a Lombardi or a World Series trophy. I know that the longevity of this drought does not compare to cities like Cleveland, but for this 32 year old who does not remember not having the Seahawks and Mariners to beat my head against the wall about, this remains a lifetime drought.

Not that there have not been opportunities, particularly for the M's. But despite their success between 1995 and 2003, the M's have only broken hearts and caved in groins with their playoff runs (no more so than in 2001, when 116 wins in the regular season culminated with a collective five-game pants wetting against the Yankees). Yet if the M's were death by bludgeoning, then the Seahawks have until this year been death by boredom. Or slow asphyxiation. Never downright awful, but never downright good, either, despite having had some great players over the years. Steve Largent may remain the best wide receiver most football fans never saw. Curt Warner was one of the better running backs of his era. Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg were constantly reliable, if not dominating. Ricky Watters had some great years here, as did Warren Moon. Unfortunately, the one Seahawk most people outside the Northwest do remember well is Brian Bosworth, and usually the accompanying memory is of Bo Jackson implanting the Nike logo on the bottom of his cleats across Boz's chest. The 'Hawks' biggest NFL stage came back in 1984, with their loss to the Raiders in the AFC Championship. And since then, not much to talk about. Other than a number of 9-7, 8-8, and 6-10 seasons. In short, Seattle sports teams have mirrored the city's weather--mostly cloudy, damp, and dull.

So forgive me and every other Northwest sports fan for treating these past two weeks like a giant sun break--marveling at it and just standing in it to make sure it is real; or just to enjoy it before it disappears. Claims that the Seahawks are "just happy to be there" in Detroit apply more to their fans than to the team. We just don't know what to do with ourselves. This is new to us. But unlike the rest of the country, we know this Seahawk team. And we love this Seahawk team. Unlike the rest of the country, we saw this team play every week. Unlike the rest of the country, we have seen how much this team has matured since week four of the season (after a loss at Washington). Unlike the rest of the country, we have seen every team that lost to the Seahawks underestimate their O-Line, their running game, their QB, their Middle Linebacker, their pass rush; they accurately found the weaknesses in the secondary and special teams, however (these are big liabilities, ones that could hurt them in XL). But, unlike most of the rest of the country, we still think that these 'Hawks can win this game (special thanks to Dcat the Pats fan for thinking the same.... Solidarity, brother).

A few other points warrant mentioning. Many Seahawks fans have been complaining way too much about the lack of "respect" or the "bias" of the media against the 'Hawks. They whine about all the latte cracks, rain cloud jokes, and "suburb of Alaska" blasts. Guess what? The only possible way to stop all of that is to win. So until that happens, expect more of the same. But, don't be surprised if there is more of the same if the 'Hawks do win.

And if they do win, and the barbs keep coming, who cares? I, for one, am not interested in the 'Hawks (and M's) winning in order to get national respect. I want them to win for us, their fans. For our enjoyment. I could care less what people like Skip Bayless and Rick Reilly think. Sure, it would be nice if a Super Bowl win or perhaps a future World Series win (surely that will be the first sign of the coming Apocalypse) made Seattle a "legitimate" sports town in the eyes of the rest of the country. But if that doesn't happen, so what? I'm interested in the hardware, the peace of mind, the sense of reward, and the commemorative T-Shirts, not national love. They can call my teams (and their fans) any name in the book--someday (hopefully tomorrow) I just hope those names include "champions."

Strangely, I feel more at ease before this game then I did before the NFC championship (though my wife is taking 9-1 odds that this doesn't last once my eyes open on Super Bowl Sunday morning. I know she's right). I have no idea what this means, but I do know that one way or another, tomorrow night about this time I will be shedding tears for one reason or another. And having a(nother) beer for one reason or another. And talking to my dad about the game, no matter what happens. And looking back on one hell of an enjoyable year, no matter what happens. And looking forward to another run next year, no matter what happens.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go throw up.

Go Seahawks. No matter what happens.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Big Tent Holiday Reading List - 2005

Here it is: a list of books that we all read in the last year or so (but weren't necessarily published in the last year) and recommend for the holiday season. Believe it or not, we did not share notes on the list yet there were no repeats. Considering our areas of interest and expertise, it should come as no surprise that twentieth century history, especially military history, dominates. But there are a few surprises, and quite a few bargain books. Enjoy. (Of course you must first purchase and read Derek Catsam's, Bleeding Red: A Red Sox Fan's Diary of the 2004 Season.)


The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America's Cold War Victory, by Derek Leebaert. An interesting argument on the Cold War, with some provocative points about some of the accepted truths of American policy.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin [series]. Very good fantasy series that combines fantasy elements with a story (loosely) based on the Wars of the Roses. Martin doesn't shy away from sex and graphic violence, and isn't afraid to kill off his heroes, which is rare in fantasy books.

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson. An intriguing argument, whether you think it's right or not, and it makes me feel better about watching so much TV.

Utah Beach by Joseph Balkoski. Building on his previous works of Beyond the Beachhead and Omaha Beach, this book gives an excellent one-day look at American military forces in WWII. With a little luck and good leadership, the Americans were virtually unstoppable.

Arabs at War by Kenneth Pollack. Good for two reasons. First, he provides a larger cultural explanation for poor Arab military performance in the 20th century. Second, it provides, in one place, detailed accounts of almost all Arab military actions between 1948-1991.

The Cold War edited by Robert Cowley. Consisting of 27 separate essays, it gives a much deeper understanding of the military background to numerous Cold War events. Many of the essays make use of recently available documents from the East bloc countries, and many give glimpses of paths untaken in the Cold War.

Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders, by Gerhard L. Weinberg. The newest book from the foremost living historian of Nazi foreign policy and the author of the magisterial World at Arms, this short book looks at how the most important leaders of the Second World War understood the war, and how they envisioned how the postwar order would emerge after their nation proved victorious. Each chapter explores an individual leader (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Chiang Kai-Shek, Stalin, Churchill, De Gaulle, and FDR are his subjects) and Weinberg provides excellent citations for other studies of these men and their exploits. Weinberg's excellence as a writer and historian are on fine display here, and this one is just as accessible for general readers as it is for scholars. An excellent read.

The Myth of Hitler's Pope, by Rabbi David G. Dalin. A controversial book, and one that does not quite accomplish what it wants to, but nevertheless an important contribution to the still-vociferous debates over Pius XII's response to Nazism and the role of traditional anti-Semitism in Catholic responses to the Holocaust. Dalin's book does not break a lot of new ground as far as source material goes, but it does summarize well the opposing viewpoints by scholars about Pius, and does an excellent job illustrating why those who demonize Pius go way too far. The polemical nature of studies of Pius XII is clearly illustrated, though Dalin does not do enough to make his own book an exception to this trend. But, for anyone wanting to read a fine book that summarizes the issues and makes a strong case for those who consider Pius to have done good things for Jews despite his other flaws, then this book is a must read. (Note: for what I consider to be one of the best treatments of this issue, see Martin Rhonheimer's 2003 article from First Things.)

Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, by Stephen G. Fritz. This book focuses on the interactions between American GIs and German civilians during the American push into the heart of Germany in 1945. Focusing mostly on American forces moving through Franconia, Fritz examines the initial contacts and points of difficulty that emerged between conquering forces and conquered. Of particular interest to me are his discussions of the initial attempts by American military forces to govern areas under their control. The clear ideological divide between the victorious Americans and citizens whose own ideas about their nation (and its enemies) had proven to be so utterly wrong gives this study a poignancy not seen in a lot of other studies that explore the immediate days after Germany's defeat.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean GULAG, by Kang Chol-Hwan. This is a crushing book. The author, now a journalist in South Korea, provides a searing firsthand account of his own experience in the Gulags of North Korea. Though much of his story will sound familiar to those who have read memoirs of victims of Stalin's Gulag (i.e. Gulag Archipelago, Man is Wolf to Man, etc.), Hwan's account is all the more important because it illustrates clearly the true nature and threat of the North Korean regime. I am assigning this book for the students in my Totalitarianism in History course this spring.

A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, by Matthew J. Hockenos. An excellent study of how German Protestant leaders in the postwar years confronted their dubious history under the Nazis. This serves as an excellent corrective for any who think that only German Catholics and the Vatican have to explain their past interactions with Hitler. In fact, as Hockenos makes clear, German Protestants have as much--indeed, more--to confront than their Catholic counterparts. Just a tremendous book.

First Great Triumph, by Warren Zimmerman. An engaging account of the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Elihu Root to make America into a world power. Zimmerman's conclusions are sound and he has a keen eye for anecdotes. For example: "Yet even in his decline Hay's humor remained as sharp as ever. He described to a friend a meeting during the Boxer Rebellion with the Chiense minister Wu Ting-fang, who was not noted for clarity of expression: 'Minister Wu came by this morning and stayed for two hours, at the conclusion of which Wu was Hazy and Hay was Woozy.'" At the very least, you will find great material for lectures.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones. Men of Tomorrow is a history of the origins of the Golden Age of comic books. That might not sound too interesting, but Jones does biographies of the great names, and in so doing touches on all sorts of topics, including Jewish American culture in the 1920s and 1930s, prohibition, gangsters, World War II, and some of the key issues of the 1940s and 1950s. I don't agree with all of Jones's conclusions, but I learned something new on every page (for example, did you know Charles Atlas--the guy who made skinny weaklings strong--was an Italian immigrant born Angelo Siciliano?)

The Americans at D-Day and The Americans at Normandy, by John McManus. These are really two parts of one large study. I reviewed the two books, and even though I am familiar with the material I found McManus's writing and use of original sources compelling. Individually, the Normandy volume is fresher because the D-Day material has been gone over many times. But together, the two books are as good and readable account as you can get of the American war effort in Northern Europe in the summer of 1944.

Harry Potter (all of them), by J.K. Rowling. Resistance is futile...and unnecessary. I'm not saying the Potter books are as good as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. But they are in the neighborhood, and I can't really think of a better compliment

My reading turns out to be pretty humdrum. I went to my purchase history and saw the new(ish) books I have purchased in the last few months. Some of them turned out to be quite good:

Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Much better than I expected. Great book for the non-specialist who hasn't read the book from the 1930s that covers much of the same material. She is a very good writer. I have already pulled material from this book to put in my lectures.

The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, by Christopher Andrew. Spies, documents, the third world... what's not to like. I haven't tried to read this book from beginning to end, but I pull it off the shelf at least once/week to look something up. I am not sure what that says about my life.

Henry Adams and the Making of America, by Garry Wills. Another book I wasn't expecting to like as much as I did. Wills is a good writer and an interesting thinker. I was impressed at what he was able to draw out of a story about the writing of a story. Making intellectual history this much fun to read is a pretty impressive feat.

The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, by Forrest McDonald. Some critics say that the first half of this book is better than the second half. Who cares? McDonald is one of our greatest living historians. Even when I disagree I am glad to hear what he has to say.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore, by James T. Patterson. So much great material here. Patterson has a good eye for the best line, best quotation. Again, a must read for anyone who writes

Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s by Gil Troy. This book will not be the final word on the Reagan years, but it is a damn good start. At least he takes Reagan seriously.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

World War I and Soldier Motivation

From a paper given at the 2005 SMH:

...As Peter Kindsvatter has pointed out, it is a mistake to describe the soldiers in any war by universal clichés—the enthusiastic doughboy, the resigned World War II GI, the resentful Vietnam soldier. In World War I, despite the federal government bombarding them with great causes—beginning with President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that it would be a war “to make the world safe for democracy”—some American fighting men began to exhibit skepticism toward idealistic declarations of why they fought. According to doughboy Lt. Howard V. O’Brien, “A soldier, toting a 100 kilo pack and cleaning harness, tends to get cynical and bored about ‘making the world safe for democracy’ and all that. He wants to clean up the Boche and get home….” Another man noted, “In truth I have not heard more than a half dozen times during my year in the army a discussion among the men or even the officers, of the principles for which we fight. We read of them here, there and everywhere but the men of their own accord and in an informal way seldom or never talk of them.”

Still, it would simply be untrue to declare that the doughboys ignored ideology in their descriptions of why they fought. Historian Ronald Schaffer has noted that various men wrote home to describe how they were, “engaged in a crusade,” and that their efforts would, “…save Liberty for the world…,” or “…save the world for democracy,” or provide, “…freedom and justice to all.” Lt. O’Brien, who talked of the cynicism and boredom of the soldier with making the world safe for democracy, also wrote, “Consciously or not, we are here to fight for democracy even if we make ribald remarks when you mention it.” In addition to this idealistic talk about causes, many of the men said that they went to war for a great adventure, or as a chance to get away from their ordinary lives. And, like those who came before and after, they also discussed comradeship.

An ambiguity had entered into the overall picture of how American soldiers described their reasons for fighting. These men were torn between a collective memory of Civil War soldiers divorced from causes but valiant and enthusiastic in combat and an all-out effort on the part of the federal government to make World War I an ideological crusade. However, the war would come to have a less ambiguous effect on the next generation of American fighting men. The memories of the Civil War and Great War would combine to shape the way the American fighting man in World War II described his reasons for fighting.

World War I all but completed the trend begun after the Civil War. The veterans themselves, much like their Civil War predecessors, individually went through a variety of feelings about their service. Some became disillusioned with the war, some did not. But in the decade following the armistice, the First World War grew less and less popular overall with the American people. This popular disillusionment began when the peace settlements that ended the war seemed to do anything but lead to a world safe for democracy. The unsatisfying peace led Americans into to a period of isolationism, during which many began to question why the United States entered the war in the first place. A popular view arose, backed by academics and intellectuals, that greedy financiers and munitions makers—the so-called merchants of death—had driven America to war to turn a profit. By the mid-1930s, Congress even convened a committee under Senator Gerald Nye to look into the issue. The Nye Committee’s proceedings supported the merchants of death view, entrenching that image into the American understanding of the war and effectively killing the notions of liberty, freedom, justice, and democracy that had seemed so important less than two decades earlier. Popular culture supported these conclusions. One teen from the 1930s later remembered that movies of the era taught that big business and war generally were the “siren call of the devil.” A poll taken in 1937 found that seventy percent of all respondents thought the United States should have stayed out of the war.

Although the ideological reasons for American entry into the war had been discredited, the veterans of the fight stood apart. Their intentions, at least, remained pure. Still, the understanding of their service also changed in the memory-making of the 1920s and 1930s. The most acute transformation occurred in high culture. There the American war experience could not be separated from the European. The war had been devastating for that generation of Europeans, and the literature and poetry of era reflected the devastation. Most famously, European veteran authors and poets like Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Erich Remarque treated the war as a total catastrophe, with no redeeming qualities. American veteran writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos mirrored the theme in their work, and thus became part of the so-called Lost Generation. For them not only did war have no great causes, but it did not lead to valor or heroism or any other noble traits in the fighting men. At least one World War II veteran discussed the influence of this literature, “My generation, brought up on A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and plays such as Journey’s End, was not easily persuaded that modern war made any sense at all. Most certainly none of us thought any longer of glory or military heroics.”

The influence of the Lost Generation conception of the soldiers’ war can be exaggerated, both in Europe and the United States. For one thing, as David Kennedy has written, “The postwar writers of disillusionment protested less against the war itself than against a way of seeing and describing the war.” The romanticism of their work portrayed the war as a personal escape for individual soldiers from the monotony of civilian life. And interwar American popular culture still exhibited plenty of romanticism for the fight. Although the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was popular in the United States and repeated the same disillusionment themes as Remarque’s book, other widely-seen films took a different tack. Movies such as What Price Glory? (1926) and The Road to Glory (1936) emphasized the valor and bravery of the common fighting man in the war, and films on the air war treated individual pilots like latter-day knights.

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