Category Archives: Historiography

Posts that deal with the doing and writing of history rather than about historical events themselves

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Book Review: Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is one of the flood of new works coming out about World War I this year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the world’s first truly mechanized war.  This book explores the ten month (or eleven, depending on how you count it) battle of Verdun between the Germans and French from February to November 1916.

It consists of eleven chapters arranged thematically that examine different aspects of the battle from the operational movements of the forces involved to the way the battle was described in the contemporary press to the role of the battle in modern memory.  There is an extensive appendix on sources, a 29 page list of endnotes and a 20 page bibliography.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is not a battle history in the traditional sense of the word.  here is no bow by blow account of the opening days of the battle and the fall of the french forts at Vaux and Duouamont and the subsequent French recapture of much of the contested ground over the course of the battle.  The book is both more and less than battle history at the same time.  it examines the battle and the role it played in the course of the war from many angles both military and civilian.

I found the chapters discussing the views of the battle by the French and German commands especially revealing.  The standard account is that the Germans intended all along for Verdun to be a battle of attrition and that the French chose to fight so hard there as a matter of honor.  That myth is exploded in these two chapters and the way in which the battle became a matter of prestige and developed a logic of it’s own is explored in detail.  Given the level of casualties on both sides that the battle evolved into one of prestige makes sense.

Even more revealing is the discussion of the various ways in which the battle was portrayed by the media.  A good picture of the way in which the media can sway public opinion and force policy decisions is described in the media portrayals of the Battle at Verdun.  The last part of the book that examines the way the memory of the battle has been shaped and its amazing transformation from a symbol of french determination to a landmark of multiculturalism  and a monument to the futility of war is revealing in the extreme.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is well-written and logically presented and while it is not traditional battle history it is rewarding to read nonetheless.  Verdun was one of the greatest blood-lettings of World War I, though not the greatest as it has been said, that was the opening months of the war.  It is time for an objective re-examination of this supposedly pivotal battle that in the end achieved nothing of strategic significance, unless you think killing off a large cohort of enemy troops is strategic results.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I and even more to people who want to understand how the perceptions of wars and battles are shaped more by those who were not there than than by those who were.

The Significance of The Northern Crusades in History

Modern historians tend to overlook economic factors when investigating historical motivations. The first Northern Crusade (The Wendish Crusade), as commonly narrated, was a branch of the Second Crusade, undertaken on behalf of St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s furious pulpit outreach to retake the holy land.

Ideological motivation is difficult to overlook when analyzing historical empires: the majority of empires and religions are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is true of Roman Catholicism no less than for the Vedic seers who wrote the Rig Veda, the Achaemenids who patronized Zoroastrianism, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl in Aztec Mexico. Early Islam and Maccabean Judaism are virtually irreconcilable from their irredentist histories.

Another useful hermeneutic in investigating empire expansion in history could be to see the entirety of Eurasia as a network of trading points from Greenland to China.

It is one thing to view state formation as a means of “farming the farmers” in the form of tribute and taxation, but it is another to understand that the control of choke points along trade routes was a potent method of accumulating wealth, gathering reconnaissance information and learning foreign technological innovation.

It is at this point that we interject ourselves into the 12th Century, circa 1140 Latin Europe. Right now magnificent castles are being erected, the Gothic style of architecture is gaining popularity and monastic brotherhoods are spreading throughout Christendom. The mechanization of labor is making production resemble that of the clock, the moldboard plow with three-field rotation is revolutionizing agriculture, and engineering projects are creating a Europe that finally resembled a place of almost universal order for the first time in over 600 years.

Would it come as a surprise then that the per capita wealth of Latin Christendom was relatively poor compared to towns within a place known as “Scythia,” a scarcely inhabited forest region engulfed between Latin and Greek Christendom?

Primary sources and archeology tell us of trading emporiums on the Baltic of extreme wealth, and contrasted this to the relative poverty of the pious peasant in the Holy Roman Empire. Wolin, was a perfect example of these trading hubs. Although little remains today of such sites, due to the fact that the constructions were wooden instead of stone, we know that these areas were constant sources of irritation for Christendom. Not only because of their flagrant disregard for the conducts of civilized Christian warfare, but for their flaunting of untold wealth that Western Christendom did not possess.

Let us briefly mention a few salient facts of life up until this point: the Baltic region is connected to the entirety of the world through its deep-flowing river systems. This is why Egyptologists have found Baltic amber in the tombs of the Pharaohs. This is why statues of the Buddha can be found in Scandinavian silver hoards (written in Arabic), and it is also the reason why a band of pagan pirates today known as the Vikings were able to terrorize Christendom for hundreds of years prior, brandishing a flexible blade of pure steel, that’s ingots had their origin in Persia, not in Europe.

The might of Charlemagne’s Latin kingdoms were easily able to be bypassed. No empire in history has ever been established to ignore revenues, and the larger an empire gets, the more intricate and sophisticated its road system grows, largely as a means of imperial revenue collection. Persia had the first postal system, Rome the greatest road and aqueduct system, and the Vikings (and later Wends) had their boats and rivers. What did France and Germany have?

Fast forward from the Vikings (who are all now repentant and Christened) we move eastward to an area of men who still live in a similar fashion where plunder is praised, reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus (the sacker of cities). In this world, rapine and commerce are two sides of the same coin and the ideas and customs of mercy and charity from the West are in all essence, untranslatable.

These people were called by the Germans, Wends. They were Slavic tribes of the Western Lechitic branch, similar to today’s Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. They also happened to hold the title as the most feared pirates in the North.

In border societies, despoliation is a more rational means of social mobility than agriculture and thrift. This is true of the historical Scotch-Irish no-man’s land as it was of the Limes Saxoniae: there is no purpose in tilling the field year round just to watch it be put to torch during a surprise raid by a neighboring tribe come harvest time.

Border societies tend to value bravado, skill in weaponry and an acceptance of death as an everyday fact of life. This was a time when the November frost would still cull the infirm and ill-prepared, just like during the days of Hesiod, and charitable cloisters for the unfortunate were yet to grow out of the pagan soil. It was, with all the horror that the word was imbued with, a heathen world of dark forests and evil spirits.

The Wends raided Christendom with as much fury as the Vikings. And for a longer period of time. They were less accepting of the Latin Rite then their counterparts in the North. They belonged to a competing ethnolinguistic group. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine them not being a target of the Crusader’s craft during such a time of mass hysteria as when the Second Crusade was being launched in the Holy Land and off the coasts of Portugal. For several hundred years the Wends had dipped their helmets in the Alster, as Hamburg’s denizens cowered behind stone walls, watching their meager winter supplements devoured by the voracious children of the devil.

The Crusader Creed brought together the promise of riches on earth as in heaven, and certainly the former tended to acquiesce more with certain elements of the strongmen of the West. Primary sources such as Helmold of Basau, tend to bemoan this tendency amongst his Saxon brethren, that the zeal for lucre tended to outweigh the zeal for souls.

After the Germanic Military Orders conquered the north, a three hundred year reign of Teutonic trading supremacy would begin in the Baltic in the name of the Hanseatic League. Monopoly markets were established in the commodities of amber, resins, cod, and timber. Lübeck, once a tiny Wendish outpost became the political epicenter of the league, and the pagan emporia of olden year became a thing of legend until the arrival of modern archeology.

 

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What is Military History?

The title of this piece is a very good question in my opinion. The question really came home to me recently when I was reading the Calls for Papers in the bi-annual newsletter of the Society of Military History of which I am a member.

It strikes me more and more often that Military History, like other branches of history is increasingly splintered and Balkanized. Much as traditional history is now more concerned with what the average person did than with the trajectory of nations or kingdoms, modern military history seems to focus more and more on the experience of the average soldier instead of how and why wars were fought and won. Many conservatives like to complain of the left’s takeover of academia and I have generally dismissed the idea that it could happen to military history. I am starting to think that I am wrong and the left is usurping the traditional role of military historians to suit some strange social engineering agenda that they unconsciously share among themselves.  Perhaps this trend is happening because fewer military historias have actual experience of war than was previously the case.

When I think of military history I think of the tales of wars, campaigns, and battles. How they were fought and why one side was victorious over the other. Let’s face it, war is about battle and battle or combat is the currency of war. Whichever side builds up the better balance sheet in combat wins. The question to me then becomes, as the title of this post states; What is military history? The Germans break military history down into two different schools what they call Kriegsgeschichte and Militärgeschichte.

1. Kriegsgeschichte is traditional military history having to do with battles and how and why they were won. It was pioneered by the old Prussian General Staff in the time of reform after the Prussian defeat in 1806 and refined to precision by Moltke the Elder in the 1860’s-1880’s. If you want to know what it is like just pick up a copy of the Prussian Official History of the Austro-Prussian or Franco-Prussian Wars to see the epitome of Kriegsgeschichte.

2. Militärgeschichte is a new, post-World War II development in German historiography that has slowly gained ground among the rest of the Western world. It focuses on the individual and their experience, or on the social dynamics of military organizations and not so much on battle itself. One of the things I dislike the most about it is the almost constant moralizing in this type of history. Not all histories of this type are moralizing, but enough are that when I find one that is not it stands out even more. I call it the effeminate military history as it seeks to understand the soldiers motivation to kill or tries to describe the ways in which armies get men to act against their own instincts. Some examples of this type of history are Keegan’s Face of Battle and Mask of Command or Doughty’s American Military History and the Evolution of Western Warfare.

Needless to say, I am generally a Kriegsgeschichte type of historian. I think the purpose of military history should be instructive. It should try to find the lessons of successful armies and make them comprehensible so they can be passed on to succeeding generations. I guess you could say I am Clausewitzean in my outlook although I don’t buy his premises completely nor do I think there is or can be an overarching theory of war. War Theory is properly the subject of a whole series of other posts and I will not go into it here. In short, I believe that good military history examines and analyzes battles and campaigns to determine both what the victor did right and what the loser did wrong. It describes the battles themselves and also the tactics, doctrine, and strategy employed by both combatants in an effort to determine the relative effectiveness of the methods employed. I am talking here of discussing the use open vs. closed order battle formations, differing levels of technology, battlefield and strategic maneuver, surprise, and the motivation and morale of the opposing armies just as a start. There is a place for Militärgeschichte type history in military history but focusing on the individual private soldier detracts from explaining the cause of victory. As cold as it sounds, the individual is but a cog in the machine in military engagements, especially battles involving thousands of soldiers. The only individuals who can make a decisive difference in those kinds of battles are the colonels and generals who make decisions upon which the fate of all the others rests. Individually the soldiers of an army can be the best in the world but if they are used fecklessly or unwisely their competence will not make a difference in winning the battle, only in determining the length of the casualty lists.

Military history is not about right or wrong, good versus bad, or the defeat of evil. It is about what one side did better that made his army more effective and thus let him defeat his enemy. In those factors lie the lessons to be learned from studying the wars of the past. At least, that is my view. I would love to hear from anyone that disagrees or even agrees with me.
COMMENTS ARE OPEN!

"The Terror of War" Pulitzer Prize winner 1973 - Spot News Photography

Truth in Education and the Vietnam War

This post is a direct result of my frustration with the garbage spouted by history teachers in the modern education system.  The subject is a photo taken during the Vietnam War and the lies that have grown up around the events leading to the picture. The Photo is named “The Terror of War” and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 in the Spot News Photography category.

"The Terror of War" Pulitzer Prize winner 1973 - Spot News Photography

“The Terror of War” Pulitzer Prize winner 1973 – Spot News Photography

Along with the 1968 photo “Saigon Execution” (another post their as well), this is one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War.  What started this is when my son came home from school and asked me about the photo.  He was told by his history teacher that the Americans bombed the village and that the girl in the photo subsequently died.  Naturally, I lost it.  First, I was floored that such garbage was being taught, especially since the facts surrounding the picture are so well known.  I told him his teacher was wrong and told him the facts.  He then asked his teacher about it after class one day whereupon she told him that I was lying and she had seen an interview with the American pilot who dropped the bombs.  She is no doubt referring to John Plummer, who asserted in a 1996 Canadian documentary that he ordered the bombing, a story later proved to be false.


Video of the airstrike on Trang Bang taken in 1972, the aircraft are clearly identifiable as Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, and aircraft only flown by the RVNAF in 1972.

The short version of the picture is this. The photo was taken on June 8, 1973 by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut an Associated Press photographer after the village of Trang Bang was accidentally napalmed by A-1 Skyraiders from the 518th Fighter Squadron of the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF). The girl in the picture is named Phan Thi Kim Phuc an she was nine years old in the photo. The two boys on the left in the picture are her brothers and the children on the right are her cousins.

The airstrike was ordered by the commander of the 25th Division from the ARVN and carried out by aircraft of the RVNAF 518th Fighter Squadron. At no point in the loop between requesting, authorizing, or executing the airstrikes were any Americans involved. It was a completely Vietnamese show. Even more back story is that the village of Trang Bang was under attack by North Vietnamese forces and that is why the 25th division was there in the first place. The airstrike hit the wrong target which resulted in injuries and death to civilians. Not to be flip, but these kinds of things happen in war. War is only clean in video games.

Kim Phuc survived the war and defected to Canada in 1992 where she currently lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with her husband and two sons.  She also established the Kim Foundation, a charity dedicate to helping the child victims of war.  Ironically enough, the website for her charity repeats the lie that an American adviser was responsible for calling in the airstrike.

References:

Horst Faas and Marianne Fulton The Survivor, http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0008/ng1.htm. accessed 8 Feb 2013
List of Pulitzer Prize winning Photos in the Spot News Category, http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Spot-News-Photography. accessed 8 Feb 2013
Timberlake, Ronald N. The Fraud Behind The Girl In The Photo: Hijacking the history of the Vietnam veteran 1999. http://www.ndqsa.com/myth.html  accessed 8 Feb 2013
Zhang, Michael. www.petapixel.com Interview with Nick Ut. 19 Sep. 2012 http://www.petapixel.com/2012/09/19/interview-with-nick-ut-the-photojournalist-who-shot-the-iconic-photo-napalm-girl/ accessed 8 Feb 2013

Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 16 Jan 14

Updated 30 January 2014 – Below the fold is a list of historical sources on the internet, this includes both primary and secondary source collections.   I am constantly updating this list when I run across useful sites.   Please point me at sites I miss in the comments section. Continue reading