Thursday, December 06, 2007

Lincoln's Walk

In September 2007 my wife, Ginny, and I took a “busman’s holiday” to Richmond, Virginia. Our plan was to trace Lincoln’s 1865 visit to Richmond and to travel the route of V Corps, Army of the Potomac, from Petersburg to Appomattox Court House. Let me discuss the Richmond visit first.

James W. Loewen in his splendid book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (Simon & Schuster: New York), 1999, describes President Lincoln’s walking tour of Richmond, Virginia, 4 April 1865 (pp. 310-317).

Five days later, General Lee would surrender at Appomattox Court House. Ten days after his walk, President Lincoln would be dead from assassination.

Loewen provides a detailed account of the walk including a map, which we used to re-trace Lincoln’s steps (p. 311).

In his book Loewen also noted that there were no historical markers indicating the landing site on the James River or the walk itself. Moreover, he was unable to find a brochure or a map that gave a self-guided tour of the walk. When he asked a local expert why that was so, she replied that Lincoln’s walk was not a part of “Confederate history” (p. 310).

Was this still the case?

According to Loewen, Lincoln came ashore at Rocket’s Landing, which he had clearly marked on his map. Today, that part of the James River shore line is under construction for a major urban renewal project of upscale condominiums and offices. Because of the construction, it was impossible to reach the shoreline, but if there were a marker, it had been removed.

Nevertheless, we traced Lincoln’s walk and arrived at two of Richmond’s major tourist attractions: the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy. On 4 April Lincoln visited Jefferson Davis’ White House, sat at his desk, and toured the building. He then visited the State Capitol where he gave an impromptu speech to the African American crowd who had been following him re-affirming their freedom. “You are now as free as I am,” Lincoln said (p. 315).

At the Museum of the Confederacy I spoke to two docents asking if they could direct me to Rocket’s Landing. The poured over their museum map looking for Rocket’s Landing. One of the docents drew a large oval along the James River and said he thought it was in that area.

I said that I thought so too, but had just driven through that area and it seemed to be under construction. I then asked did they know what happened at Rocket’s Landing? After a second or two, one of them asked, “What year?”

“4 April 1865,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said, “Is that where Lincoln landed?”

I told him that it was and that I was looking for a map or markers that would identify the walking route Lincoln took from Rocket’s Landing to Davis’ White House. At the point, one of the docents looked at me for a moment and walked away. The other one said he recalls hearing something about the Lincoln visit but the museum did not have a map nor did he know of any historical markers commemorating the event.

As Loewen argued eight years ago, the failure to mark or commemorate Lincoln’s walk is unfortunate. “His trip is one of the great walks in American history, full of little incidents rich with larger meaning. Richmond needs to recognize it on its landscape” (p. 310).

The next day we headed west in pursuit of V Corps’ march to Appomattox Court House.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Does the Munich Analogy Fit?

My essay below, “Does the Munich Analogy Fit?”, was published in the online journal History News Network on 3 March 2003 (

Analogies appear frequently in historical writing. Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl in their helpful book The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Blackwell: Oxford), 2003, point out that analogies are also used by philosophers, lawyers, and journalists to enhance reasoning, to make arguments, and as illustrations.

Analogies are, according to Baggini and Fosl, “strong” if they “share a large or decisive number of relevant similarities” while at the same time they “do not exhibit a large or decisive number of relevant differences” (p. 47).

To the extent that an analogy does not satisfactorily fit those two conditions, then the analogy is “weak”.

The essay below discusses some of the difficulties of using analogies in historical arguments.

“Does the Munich Analogy Fit?”
By Robert Cook

Recent world events have stimulated an increase of interest into the events of the September 1938 Munich Conference that, among other things, gave us the so-called Munich Analogy for appeasement. Students, journalists, pundits and even neighbors are discussing the current debate about Iraq in terms of British and French foreign policy of 1938.

Historical analogies rely on continuities; that is, the analogy draws on those things that were the same then as they are now. Like literary metaphors, of which historical analogies are a subset, meaning is measured by the strength of the similarity: the stronger the similarity the stronger the historical argument. A brief re-capitulation of some of the salient features of European foreign policy in the 1930s might be helpful.

The remilitarization of the Rhineland by Germany on 7 March 1936 was the key event in the interwar period because it upset the military balance of power between Germany and France and because it destroyed the assumptions of collective security upon which European states had conducted foreign policy since the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty and the inauguration of the League of Nations. Germany's unopposed march into the Rhineland in direct violation of the Locarno Treaty set the stage for Munich two years later.

France and Great Britain's failure to enforce the Locarno Treaty was Europe's last best chance to halt German expansion and Hitler's planned destruction of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.

Munich in 1938 was no more than a continuation of that failure. The Sudeten and Czechoslovakian crisis was, as Chamberlain said, "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

If France and Britain were not going to go to war in 1936 to enforce the Locarno Treaty, the idea of collective security and the defense of France, then it was no surprise that no major power was going to war over the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, a faraway country that neither wanted to believe they knew much about.

After 1936, Hitler was increasingly seen within and without Germany as the man of the hour; he was "Europe's new Man of Destiny." In February 1937, well before the Munich conference, in the Munich Hoffbrauhaus in a speech at the annual celebration of the NSDAP's founding, Hitler proclaimed to a cheering audience, "Today we have once again become a world power!" To many in the NSDAP and in Germany, Hitler's long-time promise, a promise that went all the way back to his book Mein Kampf, was now fulfilled.

At the same time, France lost faith in its own policy of containing Germany through alliances. Few in France and fewer in Europe cared much whether Austria became a part of Germany and so in early 1938 the Austrian Anschlus was a fait accompli: Munich was only six months away.

Munich is important because it was the recognition of the changing balance of power in Europe that had been occurring over the previous two years. Munich is remembered because Winston Churchill's ringing objections from the floor of the House of Commons articulated the foreign policy weakness of Britain and France not by a complicated explanation of national power and diplomacy, but rather by focusing on the moral question of appeasement. The Munich Conference, Churchill said, was a major disaster.

In September 1938 few agreed with Churchill. Chamberlain's assurances of peace with honor and peace in our time were far more comforting to the general public, a public whose memory of World War I, then known as The Great War for no one knew an even greater one was coming, left them with little will to sacrifice themselves again for Europe.

Since 1938 the abandonment of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference has become a well-known metaphor, an historical analogy, for policies of real or presumed appeasement.

The actual events in Europe between 1936 and 1938 are far too complex to admit to a simple summary through analogy. But that by no means suggests the 1936-1938 period is devoid of fruitful insight and understanding. If a use of history is to help us understand rather than providing selective ammunition for various political justifications, then this important period of European history has much to say to us today.

A basic assumption of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations was the supremacy of military and political power of France within Europe. However, during the 1920s and 1930s France's relative position of power declined without significant adjustments in the system of collective security. During that time period, neither Britain, the United States nor the Soviet Union stepped in to support the nation-state system of Versailles or to guarantee French borders. France, for the most part, remained oblivious to these changes.

The events of 1936-1938 are also useful for examining the strengths and weaknesses of collective security. What did the League of Nations achieve? How did it react to the Ethiopian Crisis, Japanese expansion, the Spanish Civil War let alone events in central Europe? What use was the Locarno Treaty when its major signatories elected not to enforce it? In the abstract, those questions are relevant today.

The events of 1936-1938 also suggest a discussion of domestic affairs. Britain and France were much more traumatized by World War I than either country suspected in the early 1920s. With each passing year after 1918, the peoples of Western democracies began to re-examine the usefulness of war and the necessity of sacrifice. World diplomacy focused on disarmament as a solution to world security. An unarmed world would be a safe world it was believed. But what if some do not want to disarm? Few in the 1920s and 1930s confronted that question.

What about the idea of appeasement? To appease means to calm, to pacify or to buy off an aggressor through granting concessions while sacrificing principle.

In the early fall of 1938 England and France could not have militarily stopped Germany from occupying Sudeten Czechoslovakia even had they wanted to. Britain had no more influence in the affairs of central Europe than it would a year later. By going to Munich and acquiescing to Germany's limited expansion through what today we would call a summit meeting, kept Britain in the game as a major power. If Britain had ignored the Sudeten Crisis, then Britain would no longer have a seat at the table of the major players. As a consequence, Britain would have lost its position of power and prestige among its colonies and Commonwealth nations and, most importantly, it would have entered World War II as either an ally of Germany (not as unrealistic as it might seem at first blush) or America's very junior partner. Going to Munich, keeping a veneer of diplomatic propriety on events that Britain could not otherwise control, maintained Britain's position as a world power -- weak to be sure, but still on the playing field.

Today France faces a similar dilemma. France does not want the US to defeat and occupy Iraq but is too weak to prevent it. If France is to remain a major player, then France needs to find a way to create a diplomatic environment that makes it appear that France, reluctantly to be sure, allows the US to go forward. France remains weak, but at least still in the game.

Returning to the 1930s, without informing France, Chamberlain cut a deal with Hitler. It was not a good deal, but it was far better than any alternative Britain had or thought she had at that moment. Benes, of course, was stubborn and would not go along, but without British and French intervention, which was out of the question, Czechoslovakia could not defend its borders; besides, Czechoslovakia had its own ethnic limitations, so to speak: Czechs and Slovaks were not all that enthusiastic about dying for Sudeten Germans.

None of that, of course, worked. The following year Britain's bluff was called. There would be no side-deals for Poland. Chamberlain hesitated but the angry outcry in the House of Commons made it clear, as it had not been clear the previous year, that Chamberlain's government would fell unless war was declared on the principle of the pledges made to Poland. France falls the next year and the lights went out in Europe — which was just as well for the King of England was now naked.

Yet, even at the time the new-founded indignity of the Commons was hollow. After all, Poland could not be saved, there were no Germans at Hastings, the Royal Navy still owned the English Channel. Some of that could come later, but for the moment the Commons could rise to the occasion.

To describe Britain's foreign policy of the late 1930s as a policy of appeasement is inadequate. Rather, it was a foreign policy of tragic ineptitude equaled only by France. Neither nation had the military power with which to enforce their foreign policy goals and gravely lacked the diplomatic skills with which to play a weak hand. The costs of their mistakes are not to this day paid.

There are also numerous and important dissimilarities between the events of 1936-1938 in Europe and those of today concerning a likely war on Iraq.

To name just a few: in the late 1930s the League of Nations had become ineffectual on all fronts, the system of collective security through multi-national treaties was bankrupt, the world was in a deep economic depression, the United States was not an active let alone dominant military or political player in the world, the Soviet Union was following an unsteady as well as unpredictable course and most minor nation states had very little to say or do in the world of great power, imperial diplomacy. Comparisons between Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein are only superficial at their very best.

Today there is only one dominant political and military power in the world. Unlike the late 1930s, small and economically weak nation states can play significant although hardly positive roles on the world stage. Through the tactics of terror non-national entities can play highly dangerous and disruptive roles. Colonialism and imperialism are gone. Political ideologies have been replaced by religious fanaticism. Yet large numbers of people live in conditions of extreme poverty and political impotence with little hope that the benefits of economic globalization will ever grace their hovels. Unlike the late 1930s, demographically it is the least developed nations that are growing in population while the most developed nations are not.

With only a very cursory glance one can see that the world of today is quite unlike the world of the late 1930s. Historical parallels and analogies between the two periods are few. Those that do exist are often overlooked because they appear to be truisms. Let me suggest three. Military power does count; it counts a great deal. Secondly, as Adam Smith reminded us in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), man's moral limitations are defined by his egocentricity — and the behavior of nation-states follows accordingly. Last but not least, history is the result of many individual decisions, not all of which are consistent or predictable.

What we can learn from the late 1930s is that individuals will make decisions based on their own perceptions of power and self-interest. Whether or not those decisions will be inept or wrong will not always be immediately clear. By extension, however, we can understand what happened and what went wrong in Europe in the late 1930s; and to that extent we can discern what, if any, lessons of that period may be appropriate for consideration today. To do so, however, one must take into consideration both change and continuity.

Historical analogies are indeed powerful, both as heuristic constructs for learning and models for political polemic. Unfortunately, historical analogies do not always account for change. However, examining what is different from one historical event to another is as much if not more of an historical enterprise than formulating and applying historical analogies and metaphors. The above discussion of European foreign policy in the late 1930s is by no means intended as a definitive discussion; rather it is offered as a stimulus for further discussion on both historical continuity and historical change; that is, to what extent do the discontinuities negate the application of the Munich Analogy to contemporary events?

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Unknowable

On 23 February 1991 VII Corps crowded against the Iraq border. At that time, it was the largest United States Army Corps ever deployed in the field. VII Corps included 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), 1st Armor Division, 3rd Armor Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 11th Combat Aviation Brigade, and hundreds of combat and combat support units. In round numbers, VII Corps had over 1,500 M1A/2 Abrams tanks, over 1,500 M2/M3 IFV (Bradleys), over 300 attack helicopters, over 600 artillery cannons and MLRS’, and over 147,000 soldiers.

It had taken only 108 days to move this august force from Europe and the United States to the border of Iraq and ready it for battle.

VII Corps was not alone. Left and right the entire might of the coalition forces were coiled for the attack. The United States Army XVIII Corps. The British 1st Armored Division. The French 6th Light Armored Division. The 1st United States Marine Corps Division. The 2nd United States Marine Corps Division. All poised with their allies: the Saudis, Egyptians, and Syrians

Below are extracts from my oral histories from the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor. These are some of their remembrances of the day before the day the war began.


Major Cook: Captain Torro [Captain Vaughn E. Torro, Commander Company B, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor], what was your unit strength on 23 February 1991?

Captain Torro: Team Bravo on 23 February consisted of two platoons of M1A1 Tanks, four tanks each, total tanks ten; one platoon of infantry, having four M2 Bradleys, 25mm chain guns on them, had a total of, well, I also had one platoon of Engineers who had one AVLB [an M60 Armored Vehicle Launch Bridge] with a MICLIC [an M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge vehicle] attached, one ACE [an M9 Armored Combat Earthmover], and one FISTV [an M981 Fire Support Team-Vehicle]. Total head count that day was 146 men.

Major Cook: Thank you. Captain Torro, what were you doing on 23 February 1991?

Captain Torro: On the afternoon of the 23rd we had moved the company up towards the berm on Phase Line Vermont. We had two tanks and four Bradleys over watching; everyone else was in a hide position. I was on the right flank of the company nearest the cut in the berm where we would deploy in the morning. The instructions to the company were to maintain 50% security and to try to relax and rest before going across the berm. We rested and watched. That night it got very dark.

Major Cook: What was the weather like that night?

Captain Torro: It was overcast. The following morning it was still dark. Drizzle and rain most of the night.

Major Cook: Lieutenant Shinaman [2LT Richard A. Shinaman, Platoon Leader, 2nd Platoon, B/2-34, cross attached from Company A, 5th Battalion, 16h Infantry], what was your platoon doing during the same period?

Lieutenant Shinaman: Sir, my platoon was over with Alpha 5-16 and we were getting the tanks ready to roll across the berm, trying to get all the load secured in places where it belonged so it wasn’t on the blow-out panels. And getting my section ready, we had security on the berm that night. We had two tanks and two Bradleys up there at night and four Bradleys in the daytime. That night we didn't really see too much. The Iraqis weren't really throwing as many illumination rounds as they had in the past. We had several batteries of MLRS [Multiple Launch Rocket System] come up behind us and fire off and they were supposed to be followed by some 8-inch howitzers firing. I forgot about the howitzers and there was about a half an hour break and they just went off and I found myself trying to get underneath the sub-turret floor really quick inside the tanks because it scared the hell out of me!

Major Cook: Lieutenant Parker [1LT Charles Neal Parker, Jr. 3rd Platoon Leader, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor], what were you doing on the 23rd?

Lieutenant Parker: The night of the 23rd I was on the berm. My tank commanders and I talked about sixteen people going through the berm and sixteen people making it the whole way. Basically concerned ourselves about being a part of the team, as far as responsibilities of the platoon as well as the company. And in that mental preparation, the tank commanders got together on the ground because there is no one except the lieutenant and platoon sergeants to talk to about frustrations, what they feel before the unknowable.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Operation Desert Storm, 1991

On 21 February 1991 I was the Commander of the 326th Military History Detachment (USAR) attached to VII Corps and assigned for operational purposes to 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor configured for the operation as TASK FORCE 2-34.

The ground war would begin in three days.

My mission was to support the Department of Army’s combat oral history program (in accordance with AR 870-5; FM 101-10-2, Ch 15; DA PAM 870-5; and FONCON, 7 Dec 90, William Stacy, FORSCOM historian).

In other words I was to design and execute rigorous oral history collection projects, supplemented by photographs, documents and personal notes as possible, that would capture the individual recollections, and unit histories of supporting and engaged Army units.

Over the next several days I will share with you some of my personal and professional experiences as an Army field historian commanding a Military History Detachment during Operation DESERT STORM (ODS).

The work-a-day world of most practicing historians consists of finding and studying documents and various historical artifacts that others have collected and deposited in libraries, museums, or private collections.

Military History Detachment historians, however, collect documents, artifacts, and oral histories in real time that will be deposited in archives for others to study.

As a classically trained historian, whose graduate major was the European Middle Ages (the ninth century polyptyques to be precise), I asked myself how does one go out on the battlefield and collect “stuff”?

What historical methodology applies? What differentiates an historian collecting “stuff” on the battlefield from a journalist collecting “stuff” on the battlefield? What distinguishes things that should be saved from things that are just stories?