The Official Blog of the Society for Military History
Cross Posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, is a publication of the Ohio State University Department of History. Here’s the intro to the most recent piece, with a link to the complete article:
6/6/2014: Top Ten Origins: D-Day 70 Years Ago
By Greg Hope. Greg is a U.S. Army captain who is doing his graduate work in preparation for his next assignment, as a military history instructor at West Point.
The Normandy Invasion (June 6, 1944) was the supreme joint effort of the Western Allies in Europe in World War II and remains today one of the best known campaigns of the war.
Code named Operation Overlord, it was a battle marked by its courage, meticulous planning and logistics, and audacious amphibious approach. It was also in many ways inevitable. Following Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 and declaration of war on the United States in 1941, a confrontation somewhere on the shores of Northern Europe became a waiting game, with only the date and location left to be answered.
On D-Day, over 125,000 British, American, and Canadian soldiers supported by more than five thousand ships and thirteen thousand aircraft landed in Normandy on five separate beaches in order to carve out a sixty-mile wide bridgehead. This foothold would be the launching point from which the liberation of France and Western Europe would proceed. Opposed by German units in strong defensive positions, the Allies suffered more than twelve thousand casualties on the first day of the invasion.
This year we mark the 70th Anniversary of Overlord. To commemorate the battle, Origins offers ten of the most important things to know about the invasion.
Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
This article originally appeared in World War II magazine, vol. 29, no. 1 (May/June 2014):75-76. Reprinted with permission.
The first time I saw Casablanca I was twenty years old, with a date on my arm and hope in my heart. Unsurprisingly, I watched it through the lens of romance. So too, for at least the first five viewings, should anyone watch this most beloved of American films. The journey of its central character, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), from a deep bitterness about love at the beginning of Casablanca to a noble sacrifice of love at its end, is one of the most compelling plots in the history of cinema. But after that, it is permissible to reflect on Casablanca’s political content, just as film critics have been doing for over seventy years.
If you have never seen Casablanca, then stop reading this column, get hold of the DVD, and return after you’ve watched it. The rest of us may reflect on the film as it would have appeared to movie goers who saw it during its initial run. Casablanca debuted at New York’s Hollywood Theater on Thanksgiving Day 1942, not quite a year after the United States entered World War II. By February 1943 it was playing in over 200 theaters across the country.
At one level, of course, Casablanca is indeed an extraordinary romance. It centers on Rick’s Café Americaine, whose clientele comes to drink, gamble, and attempt to buy and sell escape from Casablanca, in French Morocco, to Lisbon in neutral Portugal and departure to freedom in the New World. (French Morocco was then under the control of Vichy France, the authoritarian, pro-German rump state established after France signed a humiliating armistice with Germany.) Rick himself is hardened and bitter. It transpires that Rick has come from Paris, where he loved and lost the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Then Ilsa suddenly appears in the company of her seeming new lover, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” Rick later glooms in a fog of liquor, “she walks into mine.”
Laszlo is among those trying to escape to Lisbon, closely pursued by the menacing Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). In Casablanca Laszlo enjoys a fragile safety, because it is under the jurisdiction of Vichy France. But Vichy is after all virtually a German satellite, and sooner or later Strasser will find a way to seize him. Laszlo is saved only because Rick ultimately decides to discard his cynicism and, in an intricately planned gambit, ensure Laszlo’s escape.
Few could miss Casablanca’s references to pre-war American foreign policy. Early in the film, Rick rebuffs an overture by the black marketeer Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) to go into business together. “My dear Rick,” Ferrari chides, “when will you realize that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” Warned by the Vichy police prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) not to intervene on behalf of the weasel-like Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who is correctly suspected of murdering two German couriers carrying letters of transit—priceless to anyone seeking to flee Casablanca—Rick responds, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Renault observes, “A wise foreign policy.”
By Heather Marie Stur
John Allan de Cerna was 41 years old in 1964, and he wanted to help the Republic of Vietnam fight the communists. So he wrote a letter to General Nguyen Khanh, head of state and prime minister of the RVN, a.k.a. “South Vietnam,” offering his services. De Cerna was an experienced pilot, having flown missions in Europe during World War II, which landed him in a German POW camp for a year and a half. After the war, he worked for “U.S.A. security services” throughout Asia, including stints in Korea and Laos, he wrote. When his Laos assignment ended, de Cerna joined a private business in West Germany, but he wanted to get back into the fight against communism, he explained in his letter. He asked to come to Saigon, at his own expense and without rank or pay, to join South Vietnam’s armed forces as a soldier or a pilot. “Herewith I would like to offer my service, my knowledge, and if necessary my life to your government in your fight against the communist forces which are trying to destroy the liberty and democracy of your beloved land Vietnam,” de Cerna wrote in his impassioned letter to Khanh.
I discovered de Cerna’s letter, along with similar ones from two other American men, while doing research at Vietnam’s National Archives II (Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia II) here in Ho Chi Minh City. James E. Brittain, a 21-year-old Chicago native, wrote to Khanh in 1964 asking for admission to flight school so that he could eventually be commissioned into the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). According to his letter, Brittain had served two years in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1961. Also in 1964, Patrick Lee Miller wrote a brief letter asking to “enlist in your National Armed Forces” because he was “very interested in helping your country combat the communists.” Miller stated in his letter that he had been “rejected by the United States Army for certain health reasons.” I did not find any letters or other documentation indicating a response from the RVN government or military, so what happened to these three men remains a mystery to me.
Their letters got me thinking about mercenaries, adventurers, ideological passions, and the thrill of the exotic that could lure a man (or a woman) to a faraway land to fight for a nation that is not theirs. Not necessarily mercenaries—de Cerna stated in his letter that he would serve without pay—the men reminded me of those who have joined the French Foreign Legion or those who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Alan Seeger, an American poet and uncle of Pete Seeger, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 so he could fight for the Allied cause in World War I. In 1936, George Orwell went to Spain to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. About 2,800 Americans served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain’s civil war, in support of the republicans. Patrick Miller, in his letter to the RVN, asked if there was a “United States Volunteer Organization” going to Vietnam. Perhaps he was thinking of the Flying Tigers, the 1st American Volunteer Group that joined the Chinese Air Force against Japan during World War II. Ideology, adventure, and escape have motivated those who joined these groups. Orwell was quoted as having announced, “I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism,” when he arrived in Barcelona; Neil Tweedie, writer for The Telegraph of London, described legionnaires as men trying to escape failed marriages and unemployment.1
Although we can only know so much about de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, through their letters to Khanh, placing the letters in the context of the early 1960s can provide some guidance about what might have motived these men. They all sought to join RVN armed forces in early 1964, an important year in the history of the Vietnam War. The year began with Khanh leading a coup which deposed General Duong Van Minh, who had headed the coup that took down Ngo Dinh Diem the previous November. The U.S. had not yet begun sending combat troops to Vietnam, but American military personnel were advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as it battled the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF or VC). In the U.S., Americans were still grappling with the assassination of President Kennedy, and we can speculate that de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller might have been inspired by Kennedy’s call to Americans to serve their country. At 21 years old, Brittain, especially, was part of the generation that Kennedy’s idealism motivated. It was also the year in which Barry Goldwater, a staunch anticommunist, announced his candidacy for the presidency, and both de Cerna and Miller wrote that they wanted to help the RVN fight communism.
American culture may have motivated de Cerna, Brittain, and Miller, too. Pop culture aimed at men and boys in the early 1960s emphasized adventure and frontier fantasies, from westerns to pulp magazines such as True, For Men Only, and Man’s Life. GI Joe action figures made their debut in 1964.2 It seems quite possible that both politics and culture influenced the men’s desire to go to Vietnam. Based on their letters, we cannot know for sure, but if we analyze them in their historical context, what we can conclude is that in the early 1960s, the longing for an adventure in faraway Vietnam, as well as a sense of duty to battle communism, likely inhabited the dreams of numerous American men.
Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011) and is currently working on a book about Saigon intellectuals in the Republic of Vietnam. Stur is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City.
1 For Orwell’s quote, see George Orwell, Orwell in Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001) 7. Regarding the French Foreign Legion, see Neil Tweedie, “The French Foreign Legion – the last option for those desperate to escape the UK,” The Telegraph, Dec. 3, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/3546207/The-French-Foreign-Legion-the-last-option-for-those-desperate-to-escape-the-UK.html
2 Tom Engelhardt and Richard Slotkin have written notable books about violence and war in American Cold War culture. See Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune‘s daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:
The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.
Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1
Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good — at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate’s anonymous astrologer.
War is often perceived as completely unethical, yet the people who engage in warfare always have ethical systems and cultural frameworks that shape their military practices and individual behaviors.
Classic texts on warfare from Thucydides to Clausewitz grapple with ethical issues, and many modern historians of war, culture, and society raise ethical questions in their work.
The New York Times has published an article showcasing Professor Robert H. Latiff’s Philosophy course on the “The Ethics of Emerging Weapons Technologies,” at the University of Notre Dame. Latiff was a major general in the United States Air Force who retired in 2006. The Notre Dame website indicates that Latiff earned a Ph.D. in Material Science at the University of Notre Dame and is currently teaching there as an Adjunct Professor at the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.
According to the New York Times, “Dr. Latiff has written forcefully of his concerns about ‘emerging robotic armies’ with ‘no more than a veneer of human control.’ He has served on a committee that is producing a report on ethics and new weaponry for the National Research Council. It will be the subject of a conference at Notre Dame in April.”
It is refreshing to see a major news organization report on the teaching of ethics in warfare. Historians and philosophers have been actively researching and teaching ethical considerations of war since the 1960s, integrating ethical issues into military history, peace studies, political philosophy, and related disciplines.
The New York Times reports on the ethics of war.
Reposted from the Center for the Study of Religious Violence, led by Professors Brian Sandberg and Sean Farrell at Northern Illinois University.
I originally posted this on October 6, 2004. Still trying to figure out the degree to which it’s still applicable to the present state of our field. My sense is that we’ve come a pretty good ways toward conceptualizing military history in a global rather than western context. But I’m not sure we’ve yet discovered a world military history “master narrative” that’s as coherent as the familiar “Plato to NATO” master narrative.
Two weeks ago I promised to report on the first meeting of History 873 [a graduate research seminar] in “tomorrow’s entry.” I should have known better. In the great scheme of life, a good many things take precedence over this blog–sleep not least among them.
The seminar has now met three times. The first was, indeed, just a get-acquainted session. I have ten students: two early Americanists, two “civilian” military historians, and six active-duty officers (three West Point Army officers, one Navy ensign, an Air Force major, and a Republic of Korea army captain). Initially I had some worries that some of the students wouldn’t twig to the seminar’s organizing concept–race and racism in the American experience. But as nearly as I can judge my fears were quite definitely misplaced. Thus far people are engaging with the material as well as I could wish.
[By the way, I turned out to be dramatically wrong about this. Within a few weeks I faced a full-scale revolt. But then it was a graduate cohort unusually zealous in its preference for "traditional" military history. The subsequent cohort dubbed their immediate predecessors, with some bemusement, "the Old Guard."]
I’m also about five lectures into the [intermediate undergraduate] History of War course. The first meeting was an extended, ninety-minute lecture-discussion on “The Nature of War.” I showed the roughly 140 undergraduates in the class four film clips: a Luftwaffe air raid over 1940 London (from The Battle of Britain), the 1943 liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by SS troops (from Schindler’s List), the planting of time bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1957 (from The Battle of Algiers), and the march of Gandhi’s followers on the Dharasana salt works in May 1930 (from Gandhi). Afterward I asked the students to tell me what the film clips had in common. A number recognized that in each, one of the contending groups was armed, the other wasn’t. I then asked them to tell which clips were depictions of war. Everyone considered the air raid an act of war, albeit perhaps regrettable or immoral. Opinion was more divided concerning the scene from Schindler’s List, with a number of students wanting to call it an act of atrocity, genocide, or ethnic cleansing in contradistinction to war. They seemed implicitly to reserve the term war to describe something that was, if not noble, then at least morally defensible. The same division occurred, to a lesser extent, with regard to the time bombs, while the scene from Gandhi struck most as an act of civil disobedience, not war. There wasn’t any correct answer, of course. The point I wanted to make was that “war,” and many terms associated with it, are inherently politicized and that it’s important to think in terms of who is making the claim that a particular act is or isn’t war; also to think about what any definition encompasses or excludes.
I wonder if the term “war” is not also racialized. At first blush this will seem a reach, but I think I can make the case in two easy stages. The first stage is simply to note that people of European heritage tend to think of war in a particular way, really a Clausewitzian way: the continuation of a political struggle–usually an interstate political struggle–by violent means, and also involving the employment of violence by both sides. The second stage is equally straightforward: to note that people of European heritage are white.
[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn’t happen more than those that didn’t. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There’s much more in here, reflecting Sabin’s years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it’s an essential book if you’re interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).
So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?
I am a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. The main thrust of my dissertation is the history of technology, but the particular technology I am studying is military. Specifically, I am looking at how the U.S. military services adopted (and adapted) the airplane, and comparing that development across Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from 1908-1925. (I keep saying this, but I hope to be done soon!)
In April of 2008, I started the archival research for my dissertation by visiting the Air Force Academy library’s special collections. As this was my first intensive research visit, I had not yet developed any clear ideas as to what, exactly, I was looking for, so I was looking at a bit of everything. I knew, however, that I needed to see the papers of General George Owen Squier, an important officer in the development of aviation in the U.S. Army. This collection is what brought me to the Academy.
Though he never underwent flight training himself, Squier remained an aviation promoter and enthusiast once he had been exposed to flight. I had not yet read deeply in secondary sources, but I knew that Squier had been Chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, for the last year or so before Army aviation separated from the Signal Corps in 1918. I also knew that, from that position, he had supported the development of Army aviation.
But in reading his papers, I discovered that Squier was much more involved with (and important to) Army aviation than I knew. One interesting thing I discovered concerned Squier’s time in London as military attaché in 1914. In a presentation in 1930, Squier’s sister, Mary Squier Parker (the two were close – she survived him and was the one to donate his papers; the collection includes many of her papers as well), told members of a local Michigan club that her brother had been allowed to visit the British sector of the front in 1914 – this at a time when the U.S. was still strongly neutral, and when representatives of Britain’s declared allies (Russia and Japan) were reportedly denied similar access. Since she was relating the story in an informal setting (academically speaking) many years after the fact, I mentally discounted the tale. I figured that that this was just a sister’s pride in her brother’s achievements, combined with the inaccuracy of memory inflating his importance over time. However, I soon found some other documents to corroborate the date and nature of George’s visit, and moved on with my research.
Toward the end of my scheduled time in Colorado Springs, I had been through everything I knew I wanted to see, and was at the point of just looking at other things on speculation. The finding aid identified a collection of “News Clippings, 1899-1958” in “Package 7,” and I figured I would see what kind of stories were in these clippings. But there was a problem: “Package 7” could not be found. In fact, as I recall, none of the “packages” could be located. They were not on the shelf with the document boxes. After a good bit of searching, the archivists found the “packages” back in the oversized documents storage.
The packages were little more than oversized envelopes, apparently untouched since their accessioning, as the envelopes were glued shut. The reason the archivists had had a hard time locating Package 7 is that several of the packages had been placed together in a large Hollinger box and stored with the oversized documents. As I opened the envelope that was Package 7, I could see that the contents were all loose clippings and odd-sized papers. Since the archivists had no idea what was in the envelope, I promised to try to sort through the papers and report on their contents. It quickly became clear that this envelope probably contained the contents of a desk drawer: there were multiple copies of articles from the local paper mentioning George, including perhaps two dozen copies of his obituary, along with other odds and ends.
But while sorting through these clippings, I found an odd-sized piece of very heavy paper. The paper bore a letterhead consisting of a seal and the address, “War Office, Whitehall,” embossed on the paper, with nothing else to highlight them. The document was a short letter, typed, with a firm, clear, handwritten signature. Dated “14th November 1914” and addressed to “My dear French,” the letter introduced Squier, mentioned that he would be traveling to France, that he would “doubtless want to see something of our troops,” and encouraged French to “give him facilities for doing so as far as is practicable.” It was signed simply, “Kitchener.” This was Squier’s free pass to visit the British lines in France and see practically anything he wanted. (The vague wording was diplomatically necessary to avoid putting in writing exactly what Squier would be doing in France.) The archivists were just as excited as I was to discover that this document survived, unknown, in their collection. They immediately gave it its own acid-free folder in the last document box, removing it from the rest of the contents of Package 7.
The letter itself makes no new revelations. It was not needed to confirm Squier’s visit to the front; other evidence (beyond Mary Squier Parker’s memories) exists to prove the visit occurred, though the letter does wrap it up and put a bow on the story. Instead, the interest is in the provenance: written (or at least signed) by Lord Kitchener (at that time, Britain’s Secretary of State for War) and delivered to General Sir John French (commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France) just a few months into the war. Such a document might have been thrown away after its purpose had been served, or even deliberately destroyed to prevent any diplomatic problems should it come to light. But Squier kept the letter, only to have it become just another anonymous piece of paper in his collection until I rediscovered it.
**This is, hopefully, the first in a series of guest posts–I’d love to hear about your best, favorite, surprising, provocative and inspiring archive finds. Please email me (email@example.com) if you’d like to share!
In 2008, I received my Masters degree in History from George Washington University (after thirty years working on and around Capitol Hill). Since then, I’ve been working on a manuscript about how the wives of four of Lincoln’s generals influenced their husbands’ Civil War careers. One of them is Ellen Ewing Sherman, and I have spent many hours exploring the William T. Sherman Family Papers Collection in the University of Notre Dame Archives. (http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/xml/shr.xml).
I had an interesting question from a student in my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course today. He said he’d heard that wars were named according to a formula of sorts: the second of the two countries mentioned was the victor. In other words, the Austro-Prussian war was won by the Prussians, the Franco-Prussian war by the Prussians, the Sino-Japanese war by Japan, the Russo-Japanese war by Japan, and so on.
I admit I was taken aback. I’ve never come across such an idea before, although I have pondered when various wars gain a formal name, shifting from “the present war” to the “Great War” to “World War I”.
Or the recent preference for naming (small) wars after the military operational nomenclature (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom…), or the historical amnesia that leads people today to refer to the second U.S. war against Saddam Hussein as simply the “Iraq War” (“Gulf War II”?).
So I replied to the student with some skepticism:
- “What about all those wars that don’t explicitly mention the belligerents at all? If the rule does exist, does it only apply to wars between two, and only two, countries?”
- “What about wars whose names change over time, e.g. the War of the League of Augsburg becoming the War of the Grand Alliance becoming the “Nine Years War?”
- “What about the wars that are called different names, depending on the country?”
- “Besides, who exactly would be in charge of ‘officially’ naming a war? Was there some naming committee that met and named the wars? Kinda like medieval heralds who met after a battle to agree on what to call it?”
Looking back, I think I usually thought about war names in terms of convenience rather than signaling real historical meaning: which country names had a good ‘combining form’? China (Sino-) or Japan (Japo-??). But that clearly is inadequate, since the Franco-Prussian war could just as easily be the Prusso-French war. So now I’m not so sure.
Needless to say, I am willing to chalk it up to somebody leading my student astray with a shaky generalization from a few cases, but perhaps someone here can enlighten me. Have you heard of this idea? Has anyone written a detailed study of the naming of wars? Is it possible this is, or was, a real convention? Is it possible that all these war names were chosen (in English obviously) at around the same time, and that there was a convention used, at least at that time? Or maybe the first war named with this formula was copied for later wars? I don’t know if this Google Ngram Viewer chart helps or not:
Any illumination would be appreciated.