Category Archives: Scholarship

Veteran’s History Project by the Library of Congress

If you are a history geek like me, and I assume you are because you are reading the blog, then here is a project that should be interesting.  In the late 90’s and early 00’s there was a much bandied statistic floating around that 1,000 World War II vets died every day.  If that number were true then it is probably not true anymore because there probably are not enough World War II vets left to keep dying in those numbers for very long.

One thing that modern technology allows is to capture the memories of individual and put them into a form accessible to both the public and historians.  One project like that is the Veteran’s History Project by the Library of Congress.  What this project does is it “collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”  The project makes all of this material available through its own website and includes not just narratives but also pictures and videos made by the veterans.

What is neat about this project is that it depends on non-historians to collect the material for it.  The veterans themselves can submit their own stories or people who just want to preserve history can go out and interview vets for inclusion in the database.  They have a VHP Field Kit that people can download to help guide them in their interviews of vets.  I plan on filling one of the kits out with my own experiences and also interviewing my brother and father who are also both vets.  My dad was in Vietnam and my brother was in Operation Desert Fox in 1990 while I was in both Bosnia in 1995 and Iraq 2004-2005.

This is a great project for history teachers to get involved in.  Not only does it make the kids aware of the men and women who walk among them every day who put their lives on the line in service to the country, it also preserves the memories of the men and women for future generations.  I can imagine finding and interviewing a vet being a pretty enlightening project for high school sophomores or juniors.

Book Review: Dresden: A Survivor’s Story by Victor Gregg

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

Victor Gregg’s Dresden: A Survivor’s Story is a short work describing the author’s experience as  POW who got caught in Dresden in February, 1945 when the Allies bombed the city in what would become known as the Firebombing of Dresden.  The attack essentially destroyed the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 German’s.  Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the attacks that also discusses the controversy surrounding them that has grown up since the war.  To sum up the controversy, general anti-war people claim they were a crime and so do Neo-Nazi’s.  Both claim that Dresden was not a legitimate military target or that if it was the bombing did not hit them.

Back to the book.  Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, is the story of what one man saw and did just before, during, and just after the bombing.  Printed the book would only amount to roughly 40 pages.  It is an engaging tale and the author writes with a witty sarcasm that keeps the narrative flowing.  The events he relates surrounding the Dresden bombing seem fantastical but are probably accurate representations of what actually happened.  There is no doubt that the bombing of Dresden and it’s aftereffect were horrific.  Mr. Gregg’s narrative reflects this.  The only part of the book I take exception to is the afterword which I felt was a poorly written attempted rationale for why the Firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime.  I leave it to the individual reader to research it on their own and make the decision of whether a war-crime (A term I object to) occurred or not.

Editorializing: Personally, I find the whole talk of war crimes to be farcical.  It would be comical if so many people did not take the notion so seriously.  The term and the associated crimes against humanity, genocide, etc. Have been so misused that they no longer have meaning.  The traditional Laws of War stood the Western World in good stead for centuries and nothing that was done in WWII seems to me to have mitigated against their use.  What has happened in the last hundred years is a Quixotic attempt to civilize war, an activity that is inherently uncivilized.  The right of the victors would have sufficed perfectly to put the perpetrators of the holocaust against a wall but for some reason, the West felt the need for legalized vengeance.  Their invention of these crimes has subsequently turned around and bit them ever since.  There was no need to justify the destruction of Dresden, it was an enemy city and thus subject to attack.  The severity of said attack was and is irrelevant.  There is no such concept of proportionality in warfare, nor should their be.  Warfare is doing what you think you need to do to compel your enemy to submit; no more and no less.

Overall this is a well written work of personal reflection.  I recommend it for people that would like a description of what it was like to be in Dresden during and immediately after the bombing.  There is no great amount of detail here but it gives a good general description of what living through such an event was like.

How to Build and Fire a Medieval Trebuchet

Who would not want to build their own Trebuchet and rain down destruction on various targets in their backyard? I know I did. Luckily, I got a Trebuchet kit from my wife for Christmas. The below video is the result of that and one I put together for a class I am currently taking on Desktop Video Production. The assignment was to make a five minute video on a topic of our choice. It had to have x-number of transitions, background music, narration and video effects. That is why there are so many crazy transitions in the video.
Believe me, shooting it is way more fun that watching me shoot it. That doesn’t bother me because I am having the fun. However, you too can have as much fun as me. The Trebuchet I have is a kit available from Oakland Ballistics on Amazon.

The background music is from an awesome Celtic band I found a while back called The Gothard SIsters.  They have several albums out already and a new one is due out this coming summer.

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!

Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 24 Jun 2014

Updated 24 June 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 Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 24 Jun 2014