Monday, December 07, 2009

Ten Best Books I Read This Year

December is the month in which popular journals publish their “Ten Best Books of 2009”, as the New York Times did last week. I too use December to consolidate my reading for the year (which is usually between seventy to eighty books, some that are new and some that I am re-reading), collect my notes, and update my bibliographic and research software (I use Citation – but there are several good programs available).

Never wanting to be upstaged by the New York Times, here is my list of the “Ten Best Books I Read This Year”.

Appleman, Roy E. East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950. (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press), 1987.

Baggini, Julian. What’s It All About?: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life. (New York: Oxford University Press), 2004.

Bak, Per. How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. (New York: Oxford University Press), 1997.

Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution is True. (New York: Viking), 2009.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 2008.

Hämäläinen, Pekka. Comanche Empire. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2008.

Hamburger, Kenneth E. Leadership in the Crucible: The Korean War Battles of Twin Tunnels & Chipyong-ni. (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press), 2003.

Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. (New York: Oxford University Press), 2001.

Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War. (New York: Barnes & Noble Books), 2005. First published 1884.

Stendhal. The Charter House of Parma. (New York: The Modern Library), 1999. First published 1839.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Scholarly Apparatus in a Popular History Book

In a recent post I called attention to three history books that were based on primary sources and, through the scholarly apparatus, let the reader check the interpretation against the sources. Moreover, all three books contributed a new and deeper understanding of their subjects and a provided fresh interpretations. The direct relationship between the usefulness of the interpretation and the reliance on primary sources is unavoidable.

Let us consider a recent history book that was well reviewed and successful in the market place that did not contribute a new and deeper understanding or suggested a fresh interpretation: David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion), 2007. Halberstam was a long-time, successful journalist, a capable narrative writer, and winner of many awards. He was intelligent, a good interviewer, and an above average writer.

The book is based mostly on secondary sources with a few author interviews. Halberstam’s book has 200 entries in the bibliography and 849 endnotes. Reviewing the endnotes, twenty-one percent reference the author’s personal interviews; five percent reference oral history interviews; two percent reference primary documents; and seventy-one percent reference secondary sources.

The five percent that reference oral history interviews are from tapes or transcripts in presidential libraries or the United States Army Institute for Military History. The two percent that reference primary documents are limited to personal letters, personal journals/diaries, popular magazine articles, and newspaper stories.

The author’s own scholarly apparatus shows that he based his knowledge and conclusions mostly on other authors, only a few of his own interviews, and even fewer primary sources. Even though the Korean War is a topic rich in primary sources, many of which have yet to be fully used, with the exception of an occasional personal letter, Halberstam makes no reference to them at all. Further, all the references he cites are in English even though the Korean War is an international event. In other words, Halberstam takes no personal responsibility for his knowledge; he lets others do the actual research and assumed they all knew what they were doing.

Meanwhile, Halberstam’s portrayal and interpretation of the Korean War is, in its essential characteristics, the same interpretation he has used in all of his books and articles: History is caused by elites. The elites, driven by hubris, and make decisions that inevitably victimize the non-elites. The non-elites, in this case American soldiers and Korean civilians, nobly sacrifice themselves in the service of this arrogant, imperial power.

Those who write history but avoid primary sources risk missing the chance to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of history. “Good history”, that is, articles and books that add to our knowledge or understanding, are more likely to come from those who read the primary sources in whatever language is required, and draw their own conclusions rather than re-cycling the research of other authors. Halberstam missed the opportunity to write a good history book.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Should I Read Next?

Educated readers and students often ask, “How do I select a good history book?”

Michèle Lamont, in her new book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2009, explores how various disciplines evaluate scholarship within their fields. Drawing upon her research on grant proposals, she suggests that within the “humanities”, historians as a professional group are more likely to agree on the quality of a particular research proposal or its product, a book, than are other fields. That is to say, historians know a good history book when they read it. Understanding how historians agree on what are good books helps the non-historian in selecting books.

Why do historians have a wider agreement on superior scholarship than do scholars in political science, sociology, or literature? Dr. Lamont’s answer is no surprise to historians: history is evidence based where other fields are theory based. For the historian, evidence is always the starting point for any line inquiry. While explanations or interpretations may be subject to discussion, the discussion always returns to the evidence.

To illustrate, I have selected three recent history books: Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf: New York), 2008; Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press: New Haven), 2008; and Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston), 2006.

Those books share several characteristics. They are written by distinguished historians; they received favorable reviews in scholarly journals; and they all won the prestigious Bancroft Award. By themselves, those characteristics do not make them “good books”. Rather, it is something the books did that caught the attention of historians.

While those books are on different topics, they share important characteristics. All have extensive footnotes, bibliographies, and notes on sources; the authors explain their methodology; and all three ground their narrative and interpretations on the evidence, not on theory.

The heart of a good book is found in the footnotes, bibliographies, and notes on sources (also called the “scholarly apparatus”). The scholarly apparatus itemizes the evidence that Dr. Lamont recognized was fundamental to historical analysis. Moreover, the scholarly apparatus is the road map that takes the reader through the author’s research journey, showing what the author found and where the reader can find it.

Now that the reader knows where to find the evidence, let’s examine how the author uses the evidence. Historical research begins with a question. How well, if at all, the question can be answered depends, for historians, on the evidence. The evidence is specific to the question (time, place, subject) and can be extremely varied (ranging from private correspondence, to works of art, to artifacts, to government documents, and so on). Different types of evidence require different methods with which to understand the evidence. In the preface, the introduction, and often throughout the work, the author will explain how he or she used (method) the evidence.

In William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism Richardson lists the published and unpublished sources he used. A cross check of his chapter notes shows that every source is noted, frequently more than once, and often cross referenced to other notes. A second cross check of his sources and notes shows that while Richardson used both primary and secondary (documents and scholarship not written by William James) most of his notes refer to the primary (William James) sources.

Why do Richardson’s notes suggest a preference for the writings of William James rather than what others have written about William James? Richardson answers that question in the preface in which he explains that his book is an “intellectual biography” that “seeks to understand his [James’] life through his work, not the other way around”.

Without yet reading the 520 pages of narrative we have learned much. The author has asked a specific question about an important historical figure. He has given us the evidence he used and explained how he used it. By laying the evidence out on the table, Richardson invites us to join him in the inquiry.

Let us look at This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. Like Richardson her notes itemize in detail the primary and secondary sources used. Her Preface explicates her methodology, that is, how she used her primary sources and evaluated her secondary sources. Before the reader gets to her narrative, there is no doubt about either method or sources.

The reader should now know what is found in our third work, The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen: primary and secondary sources are itemized in detail, the preface and introduction explains the methodology. Hämäläinen’s draws on a wide range of types of evidence, ranging from diplomatic records to ethnographic sources. In each case Hämäläinen presents his evidence, discusses how it has been used by other authors, and discusses how he uses and understands the evidence. Like Richardson and Faust, Hämäläinen does not discuss theories, he discusses evidence.

History books worth reading follow a standard pattern. They site their sources and explain their methodology. “Good” history books give the reader everything needed to evaluate the work. A “good” history book is not necessarily one the reader might like or even agree. Rather, it is a work that provides the reader with all the sources and methods with which to come to his or her own conclusion.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day 2009

A good friend with whom I served in Southeast Asia (SEA) in 1968 and 1969, made, during a recent email conversation, an observation about many in the draftee Army of that era.

He wrote that many of the men with whom we served were draftees (as he was; I was RA and we were both enlisted) were upset about being drafted, being in the Army, and being in SEA. They resented that their lives and careers had not only been interrupted, but put on hold; that they had been placed in conditions that were at worst very dangerous and at best very miserable. Many, such as my friend, were college graduates who wanted to get on with the careers. Many had some college or technical school and wanted to complete their degree. Many were married or engaged and wanted to move on with their personal lives. They all had lives that markedly differed from the Army’s agenda.

However, my friend went on to write that the vast majority of those with whom he served no matter how much they hated the Army, hated being in it, hated being wherever they were, did a good job. The majority carried out their duties: applied the knowledge and training they received in AIT and combined that with their civilian education; followed orders; and performed their unit missions and MOS skills up to and frequently exceeding expectations. They did not like it, but they did their job.

Let me add a few comments to my friend's excellent observations; but, first two assumptions. First we are considering anecdotes of remembrance rather than a rigorous and broad scholarly study and thus conclusions must be tentative. Second, his observations accurately reflect my own recollections.

The characteristic of the American draftee who is upset that he was drafted and yet, once in the Army, performs well, often exceptionally well, and often returns home still feeling upset about being drafted in the first place and regretting what to him was a loss of two years of his life, has been long noted in studies of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Most draftees did the job they were called to do. Many draftees later in life joined various veteran’s organizations (American Legion, VFW, and so on), and while still upset that they were drafted, still keep their family and friends laughing with all the stories of the “Mickey Mouse” of the Army and the bumbling incompetence of the “lifers”. Nevertheless, later in life, they stand tall on Veteran’s Day. When, for example, we buried Sergeant Titus Reynolds here last month, those were the men who turned out by the thousands to honor him, made up the honor guard that carried the National Colors, held small American flags along the two mile drive to the cemetery, rode their motor bikes in the procession, or saluted the hearse as it passed.

Generalizations must be made with care. Not all draftees during the Vietnam Era performed as those mentioned in the anecdote above. Not all Regular Army (RA) men and women were self-sacrificing. Just because a person technically qualifies as a “veteran” does not mean he or she is an exemplar of soldiery attributes. At the same time, one can neither ignore or forget the men and women who from Concord and Lexington to Kabul who have turned out, grumbling or not, and did what was expected of them.

Veteran’s Day is an international day of remembering in which we recall specific events,such as 11 November 1918, as well as all who served in our armed forces since then. It is the day, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, that old men roll up their sleeves and show their scars.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 11 September 2001

Americans remember 11 September 2001 in many different ways. One, but by no means the only way, is to ask, “Where were you on….?”

That question appeared on my Facebook account this morning and I intended to make a “comment”. However, Facebook, like similar social networking platforms , is not able to handle too many words and thus not too many thoughts. So, below is what I would have posted had the technology been able to support it:

One wonders how many times in one’s life is it necessary to recall where they were on a given date? To be sure, on 7 and 8 December 1941, staff members of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., conducted a series of oral history interviews with people randomly selected as they walked up or down The Mall. The interviews were recorded on “wire” recorders and remain a fascinating source of popular history for the period. For the second half of the twentieth century, those interviews reinforced the habit of asking, “Where were you when. . . .?” The presumption is “where we were” somehow signifies or legitimizes the event itself. That is preposterous, of course; but knowing “where we were when” is a significant psychological touchstone with which to construct or recall what it is we perceive as (or was) real. I think we all do it. That is to say, I know I do it too. For the Civil Rights March, 28 August 1963, I was actually there. Three months later, however, when President Kennedy was assassinated I was taking an afternoon nap in my dorm room in New York. For the moon landing 16 July 1969, I was in SEA and did not see the actual video until a remote signal site I was near picked up on a delayed re-transmission. It goes without saying that for similar chronological reasons I not only missed Woodstock (also 1969), it was some time later until I had any idea that it might (or might not) be important. For 11 September 2001 I was at work but was, later in the morning, able to view the events on a TV. Ginny, my wife, was also at work and also had access to a TV. Bridget, our second daughter. was also at working at Cross Country Inn in Reynoldsburg and her husband-to-be, Justin, was asleep (as I was in 1963). All four of us were in Columbus, Ohio. Our oldest daughter, Susan, however, was enroute to a meeting at the Pentagon but heard about the attack in time to abort her schedule for that day. Her husband, Jason, was in class at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD. All of that may be of personal interest, but it can by no means compare to, let alone substitute, for those who were, on 11 September 2001, in the World Trade Center buildings, in the Pentagon, or on Flight 93; the first responders in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, D. C.; the pilots who scrambled to fly CAP over DC; or the staff and children at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, Sarasota, Florida, where President Bush was reading to them that morning. They, not us, are the ones with real stories to tell and for us to listen.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, 2009

The annual meeting for the Society for Military History at Middle Tennessee State University this past weekend was enjoyable and successful. My paper, “The National Guard as Community, 1903-2008”, was well received.

The other two presenters on the panel, Shawn Fisher (University of Memphis) and Eric Jarvis (King’s University College) were extremely interesting and it was an honor to be on a panel with two such excellent scholars.

I was especially impressed by the panel chairperson, Professor Jeff Roberts (Tennessee Technology University) whose comments were insightful and helpful. Thank you, Jeff!

The conference was also a splendid opportunity to meet old friends (Peter Kindsvatter, Allen Millett, Steve Bourque, and especially Jim Williams) as well as to make new contacts.

I especially enjoyed visiting the Indiana University Press (IUP) booth and Bob Sloan, the Press’s Editorial Director. I have many fond memories from when I was an Acquisitions Editor at IUP. It was a delight to see their military history list remains strong and that several of the books I brought to the Press are still in print. The continuing tradition of successful scholarly publishing is a product of my friend , former colleague, and now director, Janet Rabinowitch’s leadership.

The Society for Military History Program Committee and the many volunteers from the Society and Middle Tennessee State University deserve a well-earned round of applause for their tireless efforts to make this conference a success.

While presenting a paper as I did is an enjoyable opportunity to share my research, more importantly it was a chance to “test” the direction of my research and its tentative conclusions amongst other scholars. I thank all who made excellent comments and observations about my paper and research and appreciate their encouragement.

Now to press on with the book!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Second Moroccan Crisis, 1911

For the past several days there has been an interesting discussion on the LSTSRV H-WAR concerning the importance of the Agadir Affair, also called the Second Moroccan Crisis, in terms of the causes of World War I.

In the decade and a half prior to World War I there were a series of international disputes that involved or affected the major European powers that in 1914 went to war as members of either the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Great Britain).

An important question concerning World War I has been to gauge the relative importance of these various diplomatic crisis’s and evaluate them in terms of the so-called Alliance System that developed as each participant attempted to guarantee its own security and protect its own national and dynastic interests.

The Second Moroccan Crisis and Agadir Affair are interesting because they led to results that the Germans, French, and British had not intended or anticipated. Below is a slightly edited version of my post on H-WAR on 24 March that discusses two of these unintended consequences.

H-WAR, 24 March 2009

There is a certain seduction about World War I theories of causation. The various pre-war diplomatic crises can be arranged and re-arranged to appear to march in step from one to another until shots are fired in August 1914. Such an approach not only obscures the fundamental causes of World War I, it also ignores the contingent nature of history.

So, before I too am seduced by the Second Moroccan Crisis, let us remember that the demographic revolution that began in the 18th century, the economic and technological expansion of Europe and world markets at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and the powerful attraction of aggressive nationalisms are as and possibly more important in understanding the conditions that resulted in World War I rather than a diplomatic dispute over colonial interests in North Africa. The Second Moroccan Crisis, moreover, is arguably of greater importance to Moroccan history than European because it demonstrated again that European interests were of greater importance than Moroccan interests.

None the less, the Second Moroccan Crisis or the Agadir Affair, in my opinion, is important because its unintended consequences are, in retrospect, more significant than the German protest over the French occupation of Fez in 1911 that ostensibly triggered the crisis.

The first unintended consequence was Lloyd George’s Mansion House speech delivered three weeks after the Panther sailed into Agadir. The second unintended consequence is the Italian opportunism of using the Second Moroccan Crisis as a pretext for the Tripolitan War, which led to the Second (and final) Balkan War.

The significance of Lloyd George’s speech was that it marked a significant shift in British foreign policy in which it would no longer tolerate Germany’s colonial interference; that when such interference threatened British interests Britain may consider them to be points of “national honor” (escalatory vocabulary); and it signaled an increasing alignment of British and French interests that led to further military cooperation between their navies as well as discussions, “informal” to be sure, about further military cooperation on the Continent.

The Tripolitan War exposed Turkish weakness and Germany’s inability to aid directly her Turkish friend. Equally important, Turkish defeat led Bulgaria and Serbia to find further opportunities to expand their own national interests at the expense of both Austria-Hungary and Turkey, which resulted in the Second Balkan War, 1913, which in turn was ended on August 10, 1913, with the Treaty of Bucharest. However, the Treaty of Bucharest, the terms of which had been agreed on by the major powers in an earlier London conference, pleased few and aggravated many.

On the surface it appeared that the outcome of the Second Moroccan Crisis had given Germany the colonial concessions she sought; but Germany’s victory was Pyrrhic. Germany was now more isolated, Britain and France were growing closer, the Turks were defeated, and the Balkans remained unsettled.

However, even if we accept the importance of these unintended consequences, we ought not be seduced in thinking that they led inevitably to war in August 1914. After the Second Moroccan Crisis, Britain attempted to engage Germany in discussions that Britain hoped would lead to an agreement on future ship building. Although the Haldane mission was unsuccessful in obtaining such an agreement, it served to restore confidence between the two governments, a confidence that bore some fruit when Britain and Germany cooperated to limit the Balkan War in 1912 and 1913.

While the British and the French held important discussions after the Second Moroccan Crisis, they declined to commit the discussions to formal agreement. As long as that was the case, Germany had the potential to wean the British back from the French and to become in spirit if not in fact the “natural” ally Germany thought Britain should be. Germany, for example, took that opportunity by negotiating and signing an agreement with England in the Spring of 1914 that settled their long dispute over Portuguese colonies. By the fall of 1913, however, it was becoming clear that even though the major powers could agree to treaties, those treaties were unable either to ameliorate the inflamed passions of the south Slavs or to harness their own competing interests in the Balkans.

Whether or not British and French relations would have grown closer or whether or not Italy would have invaded Tripoli are topics that would form the counterfactual question, “What if the Germans had not reacted to, even ignored, the French occupation of Fez in 1913? Would Europe still have gone to war in 1914?”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Soldier's Pay

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ constant dollar calculator, twenty-five cents in 1913 has the same buying power of $5.36 in 2008.

In 1913 an enlisted member of the Ohio National Guard received twenty-five cents in pay for attendance at each scheduled drill. According to Article XV, Section 5272, of Regulations for the Ohio National Guard, 1912, members of the Guard were required to meet for the purpose of “drill and instruction” at least once a week but not to exceed 48 days per year.

Article XVII, Section 5288 of the same regulation stipulates that enlisted members will receive twenty-five cents for each drill day, paid quarterly. In addition to weekly drills, Ohio Guardsman also attended the annual “encampment”, which would last from eight to fourteen days.

According to Paul H. Douglas, Real Wages in the United States, 1890-1926 (Houghton Mifflin: Boston), 1930, p. 108, real wages in all manufacturing in the United States in 1913 averaged $2.09 per day.

Some skilled workers, however, made considerably more. An article entitled “Wages Higher in 1913: Sixty Industries Paid More Last May Than in 1912” that appeared in the May 10, 1913, edition of The New York Times, called attention to the “high” wages of some skilled trades in certain cities. According to the Bureau of Labor, the article reported, bricklayers in Dallas made eight-eight cents an hour; carpenters in Chicago sixty-five cents an hour; and plumbers and gasfitters in Seattle made eighty-one cents an hour.

Whether we compare the Ohio Guardsman’s drill pay to contemporary buying power or to his contemporary’s wages, some who worked for firms such as National Cash Register which was headquartered in Dayton, he did not do it for the money.

If it wasn’t to get rich, why did these citizens give up 56 to 62 days out of the year to be a soldier?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Tennessee in April

Today the Society for Military History published the program for their annual conference, 2 – 5 April 2009, at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN. My paper, “The National Guard as Community, 1903 – 2008”, will be presented in the panel “Changing Role of the Militia and National Guard”, Session 7-6, 3:30 PM 4 April.

There are two other papers in this panel: “Helmets in the Halls: The Arkansas National Guard at Little Rock Central High” by Shawn Fisher (University of Memphis), and “In Defense of Our City and Our Nation: Military Preparations by the Citizens of Philadelphia following the Burning of Washington, 1814 – 1815” by Eric Jarvis (King’s University College). Both are highly respected scholars and I look forward to hearing their papers.

The Chair and Commentator is Jeffrey J.Roberts, chairman of the Department of History at Tennessee Technology University. Dr. Roberts did his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, long known for producing excellent historians.

I am very pleased to be included in such a strong panel.