Wednesday, November 2, 2005, 10:53 AM - The Craft of History
Military historians have one privilege that many historians don't: a general readership eager to read about their subject. True, historians in other fields can and do occasionally reach a broad audience, but it is easier for us than for most. For that reason alone I think military historians ought to think seriously about how to write effectively for the non-specialist.
But there are other, better reasons, among them the fact that writing "popular history" is an excellent school for learning the techniques of good writing--techniques that readily transfer to the realm of academic prose. I don't think I've ever encountered a referee's report or book review that complained, "This work was too well written." On the contrary, lucid prose is something everyone appreciates. And aside from the purely aesthetic appeal, it nearly always leads to improved clarity of thought.
So my current graduate readings course doubles as a workshop on writing "popular history." We started out discussing the professional historian and popular history, especially the jaundiced view that some academic historians have toward the latter. Then my colleague Kevin Boyle came in and talked about his own happy experience with Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. It was a charming informal presentation that really captured the enthusiasm of my students, and it underscored the fact that this jaundiced view is by no means universal--that many in our professional actively value writing that engages the general reader.
Since then we've moved on to the specifics of cracking the market--how to write an effective query letter, for instance, which is a skill that readily transfers to writing an effective introduction to a grant proposal. In both cases you're trying to capture the imagination of an editor or committee--to make the see the merit and appropriateness of your article idea or grant proposal--and at the same time to convince them that you're the right person to execute the article or project.
Today's workshop deals with effective article introductions. I asked my students to locate a non-academic history article that they particularly liked and to bring it in ahead of time so we could photocopy and distribute it to the class. Today we'll go through some of those articles, focusing on the way in which the author used the first few paragraphs to "hook" the reader.
Over the years I've acquired a substantial library of books on writing, and for insight into how to write a good introduction I like The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman, a literary agent based in New York. It has a chapter devoted to hooks, and among many good observation is this one:
Most writers think hooks need to be intense, eye catching. This is a common misconception and often what results is overcompensation. On the contrary, the job of the hook is to set the tone for the book [or article]; if your opening line is intense, you set yourself up for a hard act to follow. What's impressive to the professional reader is not initial intensity but maintained intensity, which indicates endurance and patience. It shows a manuscript that is well thought out, instead of unfolding off the top of the writer's head. Ironically, I often find that manuscripts with more subdued openings end up being the best; the opening line may be less shocking, but I am also not set up then disappointed by what follows. These writers don't write an opening for the sake of an opening, but for the sake of the story that follows. There is a world of difference between the two.I had this problem in some of my own early published articles--though I honestly think some of them had introductions that were among the best I have ever produced--and I see it frequently in graduate student writing. A number of papers have intros that are overwrought relative to what follows. A few have great intros to a different paper: a compelling anecdote but not the right one to set up the argument they are trying to make. Still, it shows they're trying. The most depressing thing to read is a paper that is lifeless from one end to the other.
But with a little sustained attention to the issue, most graduate students are capable of writing an introduction that makes the reader want to read more. That's an essential skill in writing popular history. And it's a valuable skill in writing academic history as well.
War and Sid Meier's Civilization
Monday, October 31, 2005, 10:16 AM - History of War in Global Perspective
"I'm doomed," laments Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted. "Civilization IV is out."
He means, of course, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, the latest edition of one of the most successful computer games in history. (Tim calls it "pure silicon crack.") The Ivan Tribbles who nowadays cluck that I "waste time" blogging would have had a cow if they knew how much time I once spent playing Civilization III. But their concerns would have been equally misplaced. For one thing, you can play a computer game and actually think about your work--something the Civilization series makes all but inevitable for a military historian.
For another, you can use it in class.
The first time I taught the History of War course, I used Civilization III to illustrate the relation of war to society, especially the feedback loop between war and societal change. True, the game (at least earlier versions of it) is "essentialist" in the sense that it assumes that civilizations have certain characteristics--Rome is militaristic, India is religious, England commercial, etc.--in ways that never change. It also has embedded within it a rather old-fashioned view of modernization theory whereby all civilizations must pass the same milestones in development. But from a pedagogical standpoint these are teaching opportunities, not impediments.
Here's an excerpt from my notes for the lecture. Aficiendos will understand clearly what I was doing. Everyone else, I think, will be able to gain an impression:
Load Ancient Babylon 1790 BC Scenario.
Open Science Advisor.
As of 1790 BC, "Babylon" civilization has Bronzeworking, Alphabet, Pottery, The Wheel, Warrior Code, and Ceremonial Burial.
Key concept in the game is the linkages between these technologies and future technologies. For instance, the Alphabet opens the door to Writing, which in turn is an element in Philosophy, Code of Laws, Literature, Map Making, and ultimately the creation of the government form called the Republic.
Three of these developments have direct military implications.
Bronze Working allows for the Spearman (and is a necessary precursor to Iron Working, which creates the Swordsman.)
The Wheel allows for the War Chariot (assuming availability of horses).
The Warrior Code, in game terms, allows for the creation of the Archer and (in the case of Babylon) a superior archer called the Bowman.
At this period, the game Babylon is still working toward Masonry, which allows for the creation of strong city walls. (The real Babylon already possessed this technology in 1790 BC.) Masonry also leads to Mathematics, which in turn allows for the Catapult.
One development has an important future military implication. Pottery allows for long-term storage of grain and other food items—vital for the functioning of the first war vessel, the Galley(created by the Map Making technology).
Over the next ten weeks, we will follow the interplay between war and society, exemplified by the full sweep of the Civilization III technological linkages.
Ancient (to 500 AD)
Medieval (which actually includes the Early Modern period: 500-1800) – point out Feudalism; Chivalry (the Knight); Gunpowder (the Musketman)
Industrial Ages (1800-1950) – point out Steam Power (the Ironclad); Flight (the Bomber)
Modern Times (1950-2050) – point out Fission (the Nuclear Submarine and The Manhattan Project—interestingly, the civilization that completes the Manhattan Project Great Wonder gives all other civilizations the ability to build nuclear weapons: pointed comment on nuclear proliferation); Stealth (Stealth Fighter and Stealth Bomber)
One can quibble about Sid Meier’s choice of these linkages, of course, and obviously he made some compromises in the interest of a playable game (And it is incredibly addictive. So much that people have designed their own Civilization III scenarios. Left to itself, the game generates a randomly-configured world. This scenario, however, uses a lovingly detailed map of the actual world.)
What intrigues me is that Civilization III implicitly but graphically offers a theory and a model of war and society. For instance, it is possible to win the game by military conquest—the grand strategy of Imperial Rome or Nazi Germany.
But it is also possible to win by having among other things, the most influential culture or the greatest diplomatic skill. One could, for example, create a modest military, concentrate on generating wealth, trade, and culture, and let other civilizations smash each other up while you prosper—arguably the grand strategy of present-day Japan.
Obviously, this is Sid Meier’s interpretation of war and society as reflected to him by the secondary works he used to design the game. A Jeremy Black, a John Keegan or a Victor Davis Hanson would design a somewhat different game. By the end of the quarter, you should be on your way to having the knowledge and insight with which to create your own model of the interplay of war and human society.
The Cliopatria Awards
Monday, October 31, 2005, 06:31 AM - The Craft of History
The Cliopatria Award competition is underway. It will be a juried competition with readers invited to make nominations in any of six categories: Best Group Blog, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Post, Best Series of Posts, and Best Writing. Winners get to put this stylish logo on their blog. Complete details are over at Cliopatria.
War in Slow Motion
Sunday, October 30, 2005, 08:45 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?In 1858 the abolitionist John Brown was an extended guest at Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, New York. Already well embarked on his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown's imagination extended to the creation of an independent, interracial state in the American southeast. The idea gripped him so tightly that he spent three weeks writing a provisional constitution for the government of such a state. Its preamble begins:
Whereas, Slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is nothing other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion . . .I ran across this quote a few weeks ago when the students in my graduate readings course read a recent biography of Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton. (Like Douglass, Tubman was acquainted with Brown and his plans for the Harpers Ferry raid. Brown, in turn, referred to her, in complete seriousness, as "General Tubman.")
No one happened to remark upon the quote during our discussion, which was understandable given that our focus was on Tubman. Still, I was struck by Brown's equation of slavery with war. Most of us are conditioned to regard that as rhetoric, but Brown meant it quite literally. Gandhi made a similar point when he insisted, "Poverty is the worst form of violence."
Indeed, slavery, colonization/neocolonization, apartheid, and so on, can all be seen as examples of war in slow motion. This premise is, indeed, a basic concept underlying the planned War for the American South conference.
Of course, the idea that they are conducting a slow motion war is alien to those in positions of dominance, because they have a vested interest in considering the existing order of things to be normal and in convincing others of that idea, most especially the groups they oppress. But for those alive to the fact of oppression the notion that a war is underway has greater resonance.
Consider, for example, this excerpt from an essay published in 2004 by the black scholar and activist Manning Marable:
The political economy of the "New Racial Domain" . . . is driven and largely determined by the forces of transnational capitalism, and the public policies of state neoliberalism. From the vantagepoint of the most oppressed U.S. populations, the New Racial Domain rests on an unholy trinity, or deadly triad, of structural barriers to a decent life. These oppressive structures are mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disfranchisement. Each factor directly feeds and accelerates the others, creating an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty, and civil death, touching the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.Though Marable never uses the term outright, his portrayal of developments abroad and at home is redolent of the idea of an ongoing war in slow motion.
For the full text of the essay, see Globalization and Racialization: Building New Sites of Resistance to the New Racial Domain.
The Medieval Blog
Saturday, October 29, 2005, 05:05 AM - Building the Field
De Re Militari, the web site of the Society for Medieval Military History, has launched its own blog. Its "beat" is more extensive than purely military history--the inaugural post, published on October 8, promises "news and information dealing with the Middle Ages. This will include newspaper articles and press releases that discuss some aspect of the medieval period, for example on archaeological discovery. We will also keep track of what new articles have come out from important history journals and any upcoming plans from publishers or scholars." Contributions to the blog are welcomed.
The War for the American South, 1865-1965
Friday, October 28, 2005, 06:51 AM - A Postcolonial Military History?
From Deacons for Defense, a 2003 film about a black paramilitary group--the Deacons for Defense and Justice--organized in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1965, to combat Ku Klux Klan violence. Much of its membership was composed of Korean War and World War II veterans.
My colleague Hasan Jeffries and I are considering a conference focusing on "The War for the American South, 1865-1965." It's a second cut at the History of War in Global Perspective theme but from a different tack.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Hasan is a student of the modern civil rights movement; I do military history. But in conversation we've been struck by the artificiality of the divide--that simply because one side largely eschewed violence in trying to overthrow the status quo and that the other side used paramilitary as well as formal instruments of coercion does not make the conflict any less relevant to military history.
We would like, therefore, to look at the civil rights struggle from 1865-1965 through the lens of an extended war of decolonization or, if you like, insurgency/counterinsurgency.
Back in January I submitted a grant proposal to the Mershon Center. At the time I was interested in building it around a discussion of Tom Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map. But over time I became less interested in Barnett's ideas. Besides, I came to realize more clearly that I've got to make all my scholarly undertakings more or less congruent, so that I don't go down a variety of paths--if I do that there's no telling when I'll complete my "promotion book" and move into the exalted realm of the full professor.
I didn't feel too concerned about the shift in focus. The Mershon Center funded my conference proposal less from an interest in Barnett than because of the proposal's emphasis on globalization. Colonization and decolonization are major aspects of globalization and nearly always occur through violence; hence the shift. I also know that Mershon is trying to find ways to collaborate with Ohio State's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and this seemed a good topic from that standpoint, especially as Hasan has a half-time appointment at the Kirwan Institute.
The real challenge is finding the right mix of participants. There is no dearth of civil rights historians. Hasan's task is to find a cohort willing and able to explore the dynamics from this angle. Similarly, my task is to find military historians willing and able to do the same, particularly among twentieth-century specialists. It may be that historians who have dealt with Vietnam and similar conflicts could adapt their insights to consider the civil rights movement; my main concern is to find military historians willing to make the imaginative leap. I have a few ideas and have been making inquiries among a number of senior historians to get their suggestions. Stay tuned.
Eric Wittenberg on University Presses
Thursday, October 27, 2005, 07:16 AM - The Craft of HistoryGiven my own disappointment with the way University of Nebraska Press handled my last book, And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (2002), I read with great sympathy Eric Wittenberg's telling critique of university presses. As a self-described amateur historian, Eric's sense of frustration is probably even more acute than that of an academic historian like myself. For someone in my position, even a book that sells poorly still gets me a (usually decent) merit raise in salary. In fact, from a purely financial standpoint that's the main reason for a professor to write books in the first place. The only time a professor is likely to make more money from royalties than raises is when she hits the jackpot on a major college textbook.
You might think that with many university presses using the high price points Eric laments, we'd opt instead for commercial presses. Sometimes you can do that--Knopf and Norton, for instance, have a certain amount of academic cachet. But for academics the university press is usually de rigueur because they are refereed, which is to say a manuscript must get the approval of two or more recognized experts in the field before the press will agree to publish it. Why a non-academic would opt for a university press, however, is just plain beyond me.
My History of War Textbooks
Wednesday, October 26, 2005, 10:02 PM - History of War in Global PerspectiveHere at Ohio State we're only midway through Autumn Quarter, but it's already time to order the textbooks for Winter courses. For me that means History 380: The History of War. This will make my third time teaching the course; each time I've chosen a different main textbook. In Winter 2003 it was John Keegan's History of Warfare; in Autumn 2004, Christon Archer et al., World History of Warfare. Neither proved wholly satisfactory, though both of them--especially the latter--were very useful in helping me prepare my lectures.
This time I'm going to try out Geoffrey Parker (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare. I like the book myself and have heard good reports from others who have used it. My one qualm is that by design its real focus is western--i.e., European and North American--warfare, and I would prefer something with a global focus. (See my comments from Interrogating the Project of Military History, a predecessor to this blog.)
But I hope to compensate for that in my lectures and by requiring two other books:
Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power;
and its antidote, so to speak:
John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture.
For more on these two titles, see The Dialogues of War.
And what the hell; I'll make this blog required reading too.
Position at Norwich University
Wednesday, October 26, 2005, 12:25 AM - Building the FieldNorwich has reopened the search to find a permanent director for its online Master of Arts in Military History program. Please distribute this as widely as possible.
Northfield, VT 05663
From the main web site, select About Norwich, then Employment Opportunities (on the left), click on Faculty, then click on MMH Program Director.
Norwich University seeks an outstanding scholar/administrator to serve as Director of its new online Master of Arts in Military History program. (Please see this link for program information.) We are seeking a director at the Associate or Full Professor level who is a recognized scholar in military history. The MMH is a broad-ranging program covering a variety of fields in military history and outstanding candidates will be able to show familiarity with the academic discipline of military history and with the latest developments in the field. The directorship is a non-tenure track administrative position with limited graduate and undergraduate teaching responsibilities in the Department of History and Political Science. The initial term of appointment is for two years and may be renewed. The search committee will begin reviewing applications immediately for a July 1, 2006 start date. The search will remain open until the position is filled.
Qualifications: PhD in History from an accredited institution and solid understanding of graduate education in history. Commitment to the field of military history demonstrated in scholarly publication, teaching, research, and conference participation. Proven effective leadership/management experience. Evidence of success in teaching and advising students. Collegial on-line writing style. Experience in administration and in on-line education is a plus, but Norwich University has a strong support structure and will train the right person. We seek someone who is a scholar, but willing and able to learn the other essential duties of this position. Candidates must be a U.S. citizen or have permanent resident status when applying. Review of applications will begin October 15, 2005 and remain open until the position is filled.
Administrative responsibilities: Maintain and revise curriculum. Recruit, hire, orient, train, and manage qualified instructors. Organize academic events for the annual residency conference. Work congenially with staff, students, and colleagues. After curriculum and instructor management, the Director's most important role is as a communicator with a constant presence among online students and faculty. Be a leader; creatively manage staff, students, and instructors.
See http://www3.norwich.edu/grad/ for general information about online graduate programs at Norwich University.
Please send a letter of application referring specifically to this search, a curriculum vitae, one sample of published scholarship, and the names and addresses of three to five references who may be contacted by the search committee. Additional application materials may be requested at a later date. Application materials should be sent to: Military History Program Director Search, Human Resources, Norwich University, 158 Harmon Drive, Northfield, Vermont 05663, or submit on line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norwich is an Equal Opportunity Employer offering a comprehensive benefit package that includes medical and dental coverage, group life and long term disability insurance, flexible-spending accounts for health and dependent care, a retirement annuity program and tuition scholarships for eligible employees and their family members.
Employment Opportunities Home
Copyright 2000 by the President and Trustees of Norwich University.
First World War Literature Blog
Friday, October 14, 2005, 09:00 AM - Memory, Myth, and ImaginationDr. Stephen Ogden has created a blog (now well underway) for use in his English literature class at Simon Fraser University. The title:
First World War Literature: Rats, Gas and Shell-Shock
(Hat tip to Esther MacCallum-Stewart at Break of Day in the Trenches)