My Favorite Clausewitz Quote
Wednesday, April 27, 2005, 06:12 PM - Combat as Metaphor
In a previous post, I alluded to having a mood disorder called bipolar disorder, once known as manic-depression.

Note the formulation: "I have bipolar disorder," not "I am bipolar." Though I'll need to sketch some background first, the thrust of this post turns on that distinction, and on the utility of combat as metaphor in making the distinction helpful.

Bipolar disorder is, strictly speaking, a malfunction of one's biochemistry whereby the mind is tricked into varying degrees of euphoria or despair with scant regard to the actual circumstances of one's life. I have often been discouraged by health care professionals from regarding it as a true mental illness at all. I tend, however, to regard such admonitions as well-intentioned efforts to spare me from the shame of mental illness. But rather than duck it, I'd rather work to dispense with the shame itself. If a tenured professor cannot summon the modest courage required to do so, then I don't know who could reasonably be asked.

Most of the stigma derives from the "mind/body split," the view that the mind and body are two almost completely different things and that the one does not influence the other: thus you cannot meditate your way out of a physical malady, on the one hand, and a physical malady does not affect the operation of your mind, on the other. While most people nowadays would reject so extreme a formulation, within broad limits the idea remains influential because it reflects our common experience of everyday life.

And because the mind is where we primarily locate our identities, a physical illness or impairment does not so readily shake our sense of who we are. There are always exceptions. An athlete might find her or his sense of self profoundly changed by the loss of a limb, for example. But a mental illness offers a fundamental challenge because it hits us where we are most intimately ourselves. The diagnosis of mental illness therefore confronts the affected individual with a basic choice: Is the illness something external to self, or is it a part of self? Most people, if asked, would promptly reply that the former is the correct formulation, but I have seen many instances in which people with bipolar disorder choose implicitly and sometimes explicitly to imagine the illness as a part of them. And why not? The whole thrust of the "mind/body split" argues that it is.

I have therefore always worked very hard to locate bipolar disorder as something external to myself, notwithstanding the fact that the biochemical fluctuations influence my moods and therefore my subjective experience of life.

As it happens, I can think of at least one other area of human life in which moods are artificially, systematically, and powerfully modified: war.

Indeed, I have found that war offers a very rich metaphor for understanding the illness and mobilizing one's resources to manage it. I consider myself to be in a permanent state of war against an enemy that will never cease in its efforts to kill me, one way or another--which is about as strong an "othering" of the illness as I can imagine.

"In war," wrote the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, "the best strategy is always to be very strong, first in general and then at the decisive point." (On War, Book III, chapter 11) This point seems incredibly obvious, but like a lot of obvious points, it is easy to miss.

I have met my full share of people with mood disorders, for example, who were reluctant to take their prescribed medications because they thought they should be able to control the disorder by themselves. This sort of thinking is exactly like a general needlessly going into battle with only half his forces. Stupid, right?

Meet Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a Civil War general who famously did go into battle with half his forces--and got his clock cleaned as a result. Indeed, as Clausewitz observes, "It seems incredible, and yet it has happened a hundred times, that troops have been divided and separated merely through a mysterious feeling of conventional manner, without any clear perception of the reason."

No self-respecting military historian wants to emulate Joe Hooker in any area of his life. Consequently, when a person with bipolar disorder is offered such things as medications, therapy, self-help books, support groups and/or the support of friends and colleagues, the correct response is not which of these resources to select. The correct response is to take as many of them as possible and to be continually on the lookout for even more.
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James Knox Polk and the American Way of War - Pt 3
Tuesday, April 26, 2005, 07:00 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
Richard H. Kohn, a distinguished historian of the American military experience, has called it "the myth of the sleeping dinosaur": the idea that the United States has been slow to anger against the aggression of others but, once roused to action, has fought with fury and finality. This myth is the wellspring from which has flowed such notions as Douglas MacArthur's "There is no substitute for victory" or the commonplace that "The United States has never started a war."

In fact, however, the United States has sometimes fought for results short of victory--the War of 1812 is a case in point--and far more often than not has initiated conflicts that are subsequently repackaged as wars of self-defense. The War of 1812 was itself such a war of choice; so were the Spanish-American War, Philippine War, First World War (especially the U.S. decision to deploy a major expeditionary force to the European continent), Korean War, and Vietnam War. The point is not that these conflicts were morally questionable, though some of them were. The point is that the United States has used force for the same reasons of statecraft as other nation-states.

Still, a plausible claim of self-defense has always been important to the American public memory of its wars, which is why so many Americans persist in believing that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks or that U.S. forces did in fact uncover significant weapons of mass destruction after the Saddam Hussein regime was ousted. But regardless of their views on the Iraq War, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that, if George W. Bush were not president, the United States would neither have gone to war with Iraq in 2003 nor would it now be responsible for the fate of that Middle Eastern nation. Courageous visionary or stubborn fool, Bush is rightly considered the indispensable pivot upon which these momentous events have turned. Americans at the time and historians ever since have had the same belief concerning James K. Polk and the Mexican-American War.

The parallel is all the more striking because neither man attained the presidency on the wave of some irresistible tide of public sentiment. Both prevailed in very closely-contested elections. The shift of a few hundred votes in Florida--or a single vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, if one is disposed to think that way--would have given Vice President Al Gore the presidency in 2000. A not much larger shift of votes in New York would have given Senator Henry Clay the presidency in 1844. Historian Gary J. Kornblith recently reviewed the 1844 election as a critical variable in "Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise" Journal of American History 90, no. 1 (June 2003):76-105. (You'll need a subscription to History Cooperative to access the online version). He concluded that Clay's defeat in New York could not be explained by any mistake on Clay's part. Indeed, the presence of the antislavery Liberty Party on the New York ballot alone cost Clay the votes that would otherwise have assured him the presidency--in much the same way that the Green Party did in Gore.

Given Clay's known opposition to the annexation of Texas as well as his Whig Party's aversion to expansionist ventures that would have courted war with Mexico, Kornblith assumes that a Mexican-American War under President Henry Clay would have been most unlikely. (No Mexican-American War, he continues, then no fateful re-injection of slavery as an issue in national political life, no disruption of the Second Party System, no formation of a sectionally-based Third Party System, no election of a president from the sectionally-based Republican Party in 1860, no secession crisis, and therefore no civil war in 1861.)

What kind of North America would have emerged from a Clay presidency? Kornblith suggests that it might have looked very much like this notional map of a "lesser United States" in historical geographer D. W. Meinig's fascinating The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (4 vols. to date), vol. 2, p. 215:

But Polk, not Clay, became president in 1844 on a platform that explicitly endorsed the annexation of Texas. Once inaugurated, he resolutely pursued a course of territorial expansion that courted war with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory and did, of course, achieve war with Mexico over the coveted region of upper California.

What did such a war mean for the American future? If you believe Kornblith, it meant among others things a major civil war some fifteen years hence. If you examine the map above, you'll see that it meant an historical trajectory somewhat but not totally different from the one that in fact occurred. Meining did not postulate an alternate trajectory by which the Republic of Mexico retained the area that in fact became the United States. He assumed instead that it would continue to exert only a tenuous political grip on its northernmost lands. By that logic, the Anglo-American Republic of Texas would soon be joined in similar fashion by an Anglo-American Republic of California and present-day Utah would most likely have become the "de facto Commonwealth of Deseret"--Deseret being the name preferred by the Mormon community who would shortly settle that region.

That is not, however, what most Mexicans think of when they consider the impact of Polk's presidency. And the high likelihood of additional Anglo settler societies--which might, to be sure, eventually have joined the United States as Texas did in 1845--does nothing to change the fact that in 1846 the United States, under Polk's direction, fought a war of choice--not to say a war of aggression--which it could easily have avoided. Americans have managed to reconcile this inconvenient fact with Professor Kohn's "myth of the sleeping dinosaur" chiefly by forgetting that the war ever happened--and also by forgetting that Polk--whom a Federalist Society-Wall Street Journal Survey on Presidents ranks tenth among chief executives--"near great" status just behind Eisenhower and ahead of Wilson--ever existed at all. Polk too clearly exposes a less than savory aspect of the American way of war.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3
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War Games
Monday, April 25, 2005, 04:45 PM - Building the Field
In a comment on Tactics Too, Donald Fleming wondered if the title might be a reference to the granddaddy of all modern strategy board games, Avalon Hill's Tactics II:

Bingo! That's just what I was thinking.

I confess, however, that I never owned or played a Tactics II. I cut my teeth on Bismarck (first published in 1962), which was actually not a bad recreation of the Royal Navy's hunt for the German battleship in May 1941.

I must have been nine or ten when I played it. I don't think I read C. S. Forester's nonfiction novel Sink the Bismarck for another couple of years, nor did I finally watch the 1960 docudrama Sink the Bismarck! until quite recently--last evening, in fact. Yet it gave me a feel for both the history and dynamics of the operation that was as good as if not better than these more traditional media forms.

Any war game, whether board- or computer-, is only as good as its design, and the second Avalon Hill game I owned showed a lot of the genre's weaknesses. Good games more or less recreate and reward playing by the operational and tactical rules of the campaign or battle they recreate.

Gettysburg (1964) did not, and its "fight until one side is eliminated" victory conditions invariably had the winning side chasing the last cavalry unit owned by the losing side 'round and 'round the map board until it could, literally, be cornered and destroyed.

Perhaps one of the better ways to use the computer games ZU mentions would be to have students critique them in light of what they learn from other sources.

Note: Avalon Hill is now defunct but remains beloved by many wargamers. The Avalon Hill Collection, for example, pays homage to the company and has good thumbnail summaries of most of its strategy board games.
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The Staff Ride
Monday, April 25, 2005, 01:36 PM - Building the Field
A previous post, Tactics Too, has provoked some useful discussion of the extent to which tactics can and/or should be taught in military history courses and the means by which this could be done. Unmentioned so far is the staff ride, a focused battlefield tour that is used not only to discuss what happened historically but also to generate insights into some of the perennial issues of military leadership. The staff ride was pioneered by the German general staff in the late nineteenth century and adopted by other armed forces, including those of the United States. It was revived in the 1970s at the U.S. Army War College, chiefly by Prof. Jay Luvaas and Colonel Harold W. Nelson, and is now widely used; e.g., at West Point, where it is used to teach military history to cadets.

The photos above show COL Robert Doughty taking cadets on a tour of the region of Sedan, France, where in May 1940 German panzer divisions ruptured the French defensive lines. While I doubt that either my department's budget or that of my students would permit staff rides at so great a remove from Ohio, it does seem feasible to take students on staff rides of such places as Fort Meigs, a reconstructed War of 1812 fort near Toledo, Ohio; Perryville, a Civil War battlefield about five hours' drive from OSU in central Kentucky; or even Gettysburg, which is almost exactly seven hours' drive from OSU.

And that's just OSU. Other colleges and universities have their own opportunities. It might also be rewarding to pool our resources and offer staff rides to locations at which instructors and students from several colleges could rendezvous.

Resources for staff rides abound. See, for example:

USMA Department of History web page on the staff ride.

The Staff Ride, an official US Army publication by historian William Glenn Robertson (available in pdf format here).

The Cowpens Staff Ride and Battlefield Tour, an example of the genre.

Gettysburg: A Battlefield Guide, by Brooks D. Simpson and myself, which incorporates staff ride techniques into a guidebook for general readers.
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Tactics Too
Sunday, April 24, 2005, 02:31 PM - Building the Field
"Zu," an OSU undergraduate who maintains Zu's Musings, offers a modest plea for more attention to tactics in military history coursework:

"Whenever a serious talk about tactics comes up, I always feel like I am on the outside looking in. In all of my history classes, whenever we have enough time to talk about a specific battle, it's usually just glossed over. I think this is a disservice." He adds, "I think that they should have a class based purely on tactics."

This has got me reflecting on my own exposure to history at the operational and tactical level. With the exception of Wick Murray's courses in European history, I don't recall getting much battle history in my undergraduate or graduate studies. Personally I didn't need it anyway. By the time I was seventeen I was pretty well self-educated in this regard, and indeed, in that respect I did not strike myself as unusual. I guess I have always assumed that you need professors and coursework to supply aspects of your education that you can't do on your own, and given the wealth of attention to commanders and battles in popular books, magazines and the History Channel, this didn't seem an area in need of special attention.

That said, there's no particular reason to assume that undergraduates will have made military history their hobby since the time they learned to read, which is basically how I acquired my fund of knowledge on operations and tactics. Nor are there guarantees that this auto-didactic approach will result in an accurate grasp of military tactics. Anyway, Zu has some interesting suggestions about how a course emphasizing tactics might be devised.
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Sunday, April 24, 2005, 09:18 AM - The World After September 11
The Army has cleared four of the five top officers who had authority over the Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the abuse scandal. Guess which one got nailed.

Bitch PhD, one of the best of the legions of anonymous academic bloggers, says that the outcome is not really surprising, but should be.

The Combined Arms Research Library at the Command & General Staff College has a useful Select Bibliography on the Warrior Ethos.

A US Army web site commemorates Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, who won the Medal of Honor--posthumously--in the course of organizing and conducting the defense of a position against over one hundred Iraqi combatants near the Baghdad airport on April 3, 2003. The site includes a Flash presentation that explains in detail the military action for which SFC Smith won the medal as well as a number of video segments, including an interview with SFC Smith's widow.

MAJ Robert L. Bateman continues to write a series of Letters from Baghdad at the rate of about one per week. The Gunners of Gun-Trucks #1 and #3 got by me when it first appeared, but ought to be required reading for those who don't know what time it is in the debate on women in the military.

Friday the 22nd was the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. Believe it or not, the U.S. Army celebrates Earth Day too, and--depleted uranium rounds aside--with more seriousness than one might initially be inclined to believe:

"JAKARTA, Indonesia Apr 23, 2005 Chinese President Hu Jintao urged Japan on Saturday to reflect on its World War II aggression and back up its recent apologies with action, pressing Beijing's relentless campaign for redress from Tokyo for its handling of wartime atrocities." Full Story
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The Canon of Military History - Pt 3
Saturday, April 23, 2005, 01:59 PM - Building the Field
On H-War the number of responses re "the canon of military history" is up to fifteen, and tends now to divide between objections to and defenses of the concept of a canon in this or any academic field. The responses are very thoughtful and worth reading. You can find them easily by linking to the H-War Discussion List for April 2005/sorted by subject and then reading the messages under "REPLY: The Canon of Military History?"

My inspiration for using the term "canon" goes back to a discussion in my department some years ago concerning a prospective hire in a certain field. The field was one of the oldest in academic history but in recent years had undergone revolutionary expansion and reorientation, to the point where its original intellectual boundaries and orientation were considered almost pass.

The question arose whether a particular candidate, whose work was at the "cutting edge" of the field, yet retained the ability to train graduate students in the older tradition, or "canon." I will omit the department's verdict on this point as irrelevant for present purposes. Besides, it's a question that military historians ought to address as a field. Granted that we wish the field to grow and expand intellectually and to open itself to new voices and approaches, is it nonetheless advisable--even indispensable--for historians to share a basic common understanding of the field and its intellectual landmarks?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 (link not yet active)

James Knox Polk and the American Way of War - Pt 2
Saturday, April 23, 2005, 12:36 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
Like George W. Bush, Polk was an officer in the National Guard, or rather the Guard's progenitor, the state militia. Click the image for details.

Other useful sites concerning Polk:

James Knox Polk - White House site on U.S. presidents.

James K. Polk Home - Web site for Polk's only surviving private residence.

James Knox Polk - Part of The Hall of Forgotten Presidents

James Knox Polk's Inaugural Address - Polk's wish list. Memo to the rest of humanity: "Our Union is a confederation of independent States, whose policy is peace with each other and all the world. To enlarge its limits is to extend the dominions of peace over additional territories and increasing millions. The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government."

The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848 - How Polk achieved a good chunk of his wish list. Guess Mexico didn't get the memo.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Weapons of the Weak - Pt 10
Friday, April 22, 2005, 01:15 PM - Building the Field
Once military historians accept their relative position within the academy instead of railing impotently against it, it becomes possible to think realistically and strategically about how to build the field. Sure, the situation is tough--but things are tough all over. Ask any Asian historian. In most U.S. departments you'll find approximately one of then, straining under the burden of teaching everything there is to teach about the world's largest, most populated continent, to say nothing of the one with its oldest civilizations--and almost certainly assigned to teach the world history survey as well.

The situation of military history is tough, but surely no tougher than that, and certainly should not be analogous to the pre-political situation of the average Malaysian peasant (who form the subject of Scott's Weapons of the Weak).

What "weapons" do we military historians have available to us?

First, we can create strategic partnerships with faculty in other fields. I have mentioned Asian history but there are plenty of others, most particularly women's history, for reasons I'll deal with another time. Indeed, about the only fields that have no need to partner with us are the "golden children" of most history departments: United States history and European history, which at least within the American academic community are considered essential to gaining a high place in the rankings. And yet US and European history are at present the traditional, almost the only, areas of strength for academic military history.

Second, we can reach out to every working historian we can find whose work intersects with military history. Some will be glad of our attention and support. Some will disdain it. No matter: As Gandhi argued, the hand of cooperation is initially rejected because it is mistrusted. Keep extending it--keep choosing to cooperate, over and over again--and sooner or later we will begin to win over the skeptics.

Third, we can take appropriate advantage that the benefactors to colleges and universities in the United States (and probably elsewhere) are chiefly people who made their fortunes by inheriting it or, more usually, by building it themselves--and that either way their political values are conservative. It's unlikely that a college/university development office would encourage them to give money to support a military history program or endow a faculty chair in military history. Such offices basically pursue the agenda they are given by their institution's deans and department heads. But there is no reason at all why, say, the Society for Military History could not partner with such benefactors, build endowments, and create strategic partnerships with history departments willing to hire in military history. Sure, some departments might be resistant to such partnerships based on misconceptions about the field or political antipathy to it--but attention to Weapons 1 and 2 lays the groundwork for Weapon 3.

Fourth, we can make use, selectively and carefully, of the generally conservative mood of the United States in political terms to ensure that college and university officials who oppose military history on narrowly political grounds are reminded that they serve a larger society and that the larger society can and just might oblige them to pay a price for that kind of politically-motivated intransigence. Use of Weapon 4 will never work if done as a cudgel. The field of academic military history will first have to do the serious work of getting its own house in order and of removing the legitimate intellectual objections to our enterprise. That, I feel confident, will get us much further on our path than many of us think it will. Until that work is well advanced, those who oppose the field on political grounds can find intellectual cover to hide their opposition. But once the intellectual cover is removed, conservative political power can be used as leverage--just as historians of women, race, and ethnicity employed it during the 1960s.

Indeed, I think that from an objective point of view, the prospects of academic military history are good. Certainly that was the assessment of John Lynn, Jeffrey Grey and myself in our discussions at the Charleston SMH. And in any event, what are the reasons not to build the field? What are the reasons not to take constructive action? What are the reasons not to emulate the bold Great Captains whom so many of us secretly and not so secretly admire?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

Can the Father of His Country Make a Mistake?
Friday, April 22, 2005, 12:34 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
A perennial question among linguists is, "Can a native speaker of a language make a mistake?" (For example, were I to say, "There ain't no way I make mistakes when I talk English," on what grounds could my speech be impeached since English is my first language?)

Perhaps some similar rule exists concerning the most pre-eminent of the Founders of the United States, since nowhere at Fort Necessity National Battlefield did I ever see a breath of criticism concerning 22-year old Colonel George Washington's choice of position or conduct of the engagement there in July 1754. An American platoon leader in Iraq would be relieved--and some have been--for being in charge during incidents in which their unit was ambushed and suffered several casualties. About half the soldiers who fought under Washington became casualties in this campaign, all of them had to surrender, and oh by the way Colonel Washington's conduct triggered a major war--but Washington himself escaped official censure then and, so to speak, now. Neither the park brochure, introductory film, signage, or web site has anything critical to say of him. The facts are laid out, yes, but the inference that Washington made any serious error is never drawn. Nor are visitors encouraged to draw it for themselves.

A question for military historians: Do we care? Should we?
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