Broaching Military History to Wider Audiences: AHA Roundtable Session
by Randy Papadopoulos
Taking up Carol Reardon's challenge to address audiences beyond the community of military historians, the Society for Military History president and five other Society members spoke at this year's American Historical Association convention. For the Philadelphia meeting, they discussed "Military Historians in Time of War: Reflections on Current Roles, Responsibilities, and Experiences." To paraphrase Professor Reardon, the roundtable sought to demonstrate the breadth of military historians' encounters against the backdrop of two current wars. In return they spoke to an audience of 80, many familiar with the discipline's accomplishments, some less comfortable with our work. Together, presenters and the audience confronted the parallel courses and obstacles to understanding military history during armed conflicts.
Randy Papadopoulos opened the session, using his multi-service history of the 9/11 Pentagon attack as a lens to understanding current challenges, especially those of a researcher working for the Department of Defense. Positioning his "instant history," written under the auspices of the Historian, Office of the Secretary of Defense, at the intersection of official investigation, journalism, personal recollection (especially through oral history), and after-action reporting, Papadopoulos characterized the effort as successful, and a task accomplished without compromising scholarly integrity. The massive Defense Department effort, collecting over 1,100 oral history interviews within 12 months, revealed an improvised emergency response, with office workers, both uniformed and in civilians, rushing to help. More provocatively, their impulse to react in that manner created challenges familiar to military history students of command and control. For Papadopoulos the Pentagon project did not constitute a history written within political constraints, but rather a thesis-driven work of scholarship.
Dr. Conrad Crane, a retired army colonel, noted the difficulty of convincing the Army War College to hire a historian in the first place, in large measure due to a conviction such scholars could not manage the PowerPoint presentations of interest to serving officers. His employers quickly discovered the talents of doctorate-trained "analysts," putting him on a team in late 2002 to create a classified study preparing the US Army for the occupation of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Employing past American military occupations, an understanding of Iraqi history and culture, and considering the specific tasks needed for success, Dr. Crane's team contributed one of several plans for remedying Iraq's problems once Saddam Hussein's military formations had disbanded. Unfortunately many elements of the planning were not incorporated into the occupation, in large measure because no single individual or agency addressed the needs identified. More widely, as a result of his efforts Dr. Crane has fielded requests for information from Defense Department agencies as well as the media.
Perhaps most importantly, the prominence of Dr. Crane's work has given him another opportunity to excel, by revising the army's counterinsurgency field manual. While an ample recognition of the value historical context brings to confronting operational challenges, such an assignment reflects the need to make doctrine conform to the world as it is. In summing up, Dr. Crane paraphrased Winston Churchill by suggesting the US military may be the worst agency to "nation-build" in Iraq, save for all of the other organizations vying for the job.
Brian Linn took the attitude that in the post-9/11 world military history may prove to be a genuine growth industry among non-academic audiences. Drawn into the discussion for his award-winning expertise on the Philippine War in the early 20th century, and its similarities to current American commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Linn has played a much broader role. Whether journalists, veterans, active duty personnel in war zones, and a general public hungry for cable television programming, the audience for academic military historians is wide. Better yet, in the past three years Linn has had the chance to travel and speak with a larger community seeking to use military history. Conversely, he suggested academia still doesn't treat seriously the study of war and military institutions. Instead a longstanding distaste for things military, reinforced by polarization over the "War on Terrorism," make academia reluctant to acknowledge the military aspects of the human experience.
Military historians no longer work in an ivory tower-the military and journalists demand academic assistance on issues including expeditionary warfare, transformation and the Quadrennial Defense Review, although at a high price in the time needed to keep up with these current issues. Those same events offer civilian scholars a chance to rethink past writing in the context of current events, while conducting further original research. Linn did not, however, advocate shifting research priorities to cover these issues of the day. In the end the most valuable contribution, he argued, will be the scholarly piece defined by a creative researcher, written without knowing that 15 or 20 years down the road their work may have significance for a dramatically larger audience.
Professor Kohn defined history as the mediating of a dialogue between the past and the future. The public, "drowning" in information about the War on Terrorism, needs historians to contribute to their understanding. Busy military planners also need support pushed to them by official historians. The scholars' help will build relationships, sensitize staffs to think historically, and shape further requests for information. Within that context, Kohn argued service office efforts to focus on collecting documentation, while important, are not sufficient on their own; the question of what to collect is the most fruitful to ask.
More provocatively, speaking as someone outside government, Kohn sees military historians needing to keep up with operations as best they can, and offer students and the public the truth as they see it. Speaking such "truth to power" can counter government officials-of any stripe-who abuse history and good analysis, and is the teaching function at its best. To achieve these aims Professor Kohn highlighted the need to speak publicly and publish shorter pieces, as well as talking to the press to teach them history, even though it costs scholars the time needed for writing monographs. But if it's in our field, Kohn persuasively noted, then doing so is our payment of a debt owed the present, by keeping it in touch with the past. "If we don't do it, nobody else is going to, and if we don't do it, the kind of foolishness and false analogy and improper context is going to be promulgated . . . from advocates on all sides of an issue. I don't think we are necessarily the self-appointed truth squad, but if someone asks us we'd damned well better not hide in the library." With those words Professor Kohn established sensible marching orders for military historians.
Professor Mark Stoler cast himself as a diplomatic and military historian, seeing both the undergraduate and the serving officer as his public, and setting the goal of using history to illuminate the present. His courses consciously offer an understanding of wartime, with the need to shatter (one cannot suggest eliminate!) the mythologies of the World War II. He concomitantly warns his students there are no redemptive stories to be found in World War II history, including the Holocaust, suggesting that such deliverance may instead be found in theology departments. More brightly, his cases of undergraduate naiveté included the inadvertently hilarious conversion of Guadalcanal into the "oil route between the Middle East and Europe;" fortunately these errors are relatively easy to displace. More pressingly, however, Professor Stoler affirms to his students that every US President since 1945 has misused the 1930s as an analogy, an obvious abuse of historical example.
For Stoler, military audiences fall prey to confusing history with commemoration, doing so despite their greater knowledge and insight than undergraduates. His experiences at the US Army War College revealed officers willing to assimilate the more sobering evidence found in primary sources, but looking for hard-and-fast lessons. Instead, Professor Stoler suggested that reading history encourages military personnel to develop higher levels of comprehension. In particular, he noted the peacetime need to highlight and ponder the limits of military planning, and the matching of political ends and military means. More vitally, these correctives need application early in careers, for they are not suitable lessons to be learned by senior decision makers.
President Carol Reardon added her own insights, derived from staff rides conducted with service members. Walking through Fredericksburg she noted the impact of a Federal regiment's order to "take no prisoners" during the 1862 battle, having seen how the story encouraged present-day military personnel to think about warfare and its human consequences. The ambivalent responses of soldiers at the time made military history a method for addressing contemporary concerns. Such experiences offer poignant case studies, and can sensitize military personnel to operate more responsibly in a complex environment.
The question period elicited some emotional moments, opening with one individual framing the Iraq war as lost, and suggesting official historians cannot "speak truth to power" without fearing for their careers. While Dr. Crane disagreed with the Iraqi premise, and noted a degree of caution amongst the Defense Department's employees, uniformed and civilian, he also pointed out that some, Dr. Jeffrey Record most notably, publish disagreements with administration policies and remain employed. Professor Stoler suggested the disciplining of senior leaders who disagree with policy is nothing new, citing the early 1941 dismissal by President Franklin Roosevelt of Admiral James O. Richardson for criticizing the vulnerability of the Pearl Harbor base.
This discussion led to a more comprehensive point: the US military is not what it was 50 or 60 years ago, and is more disconnected from American society than during the Cold War. Professor Kohn instead expressed greater concern for military professionalism, saying he finds more troubling Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's creation of a climate that rewards careerism, rather than physical courage and honesty, without firing anyone for incompetence.
Broader cultural failures also arose. The reluctance of the New York Times to review Andrew Bacevich's work criticizing the "new American militarism" struck panelists as back scratching of a type that will only be recognized in future.
One questioner asked whether service historians can support military operations, especially planners' assumptions. In response Dr. Papadopoulos noted his support of staff analyses of past events, but suggested operational planning support is harder. Professor Kohn noted the need to help historically minded junior officers, to build relationships with them as future commanders, thereby opening the door for penetrating questions in the future. An audience member added his past experiences in Europe, where historians identified where the military were off track. Their analyses were, unfortunately, not retained.
Asked whether historians offer specific context and insight to senior leaders, panelists believed it's too late to offer historical advice to any president. On that note Professor Stoler quoted historian Walter LaFeber, recently of Cornell University, who once suggested presidents would appoint historians who will offer them the advice they want. The time to get a historical sensibility to political leaders is as elementary, high school and college students instead.
The session proved a stimulating one, and ran to the limit of its time. All told, the panelists ably fulfilled their mandate, and their work highlighted the difficulty of stereotyping military historians into any particular category. It would go too far to suggest "Military Historians in Time of War" broadened the perspectives of all who attended the American Historical Association meeting. The reception of the audience and the dynamic discussion the session provoked, however, showed the importance of scholarship in the field of military history, and the multifaceted value it holds as a discipline.
Panelists included: Prof. Carol Reardon (Pennsylvania State Univ.), Dr. Sarandis Papadopoulos (U.S. Naval Historical Center), Dr. Conrad Crane (U.S. Army Military History Institute), Prof. Brian Linn (Texas A. & M. Univ.), Prof. Dick Kohn (Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and Prof. Mark Stoler (Univ. of Vermont). All comments were the authors' own, and do not constitute the opinions of their employers or of the United States government.