The Best Defense

Civil War historians riot in St. Louis over the question of the centrality of military history to understanding the Civil War

I hear through the history grapevine that the Society of Civil War Historians got more than it bargained for in a Nov. 1 discussion in St. Louis on the topic of "Should Military History Be Central to the Study of the Civil War?" Lots of hooting and hollering and some shouts from the normally quite civil (if you will) members of the society.

My instant response to the question is that military history is necessary but not sufficient, and essential but not central. That is, yes, it is important to understand the war, but it is more important to understand its context -- why it happened, what its consequences were, and ultimately, how it shaped the nation.

Also, I'd say, the problem may simply be too narrow a definition of "military history," as if it were just about tactical questions. On this I would fault some non-academics, who in delving into brass buttons trivia sometimes lose sight of the larger issues. Real military history, I think, should endeavor to combine the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. That's one reason in my most recent book, The Generals, I covered the Korean War's Chosin campaign in such details. Not only did it give me a laboratory comparison of the Marine commanders on the west side of the reservoir with the Army commanders on the east, it also enabled me in a book that was mainly about the operational and strategic levels if war to dive down in one section to issues of battalion and company level command.

But I wasn't there to see for myself, that fateful day in the defeated city of St. Louis. Some eyewitnesses, and even some who weren't, reported that it was one of the liveliest academic hoedowns in recent years.

The funny thing is that part of the emotion supposedly comes from fears of academic Civil War historians that they are being "marginalized." Yet the Civil War, along with World War II, actually dominates the military history book market. (You wanna get rich? Write a book titled What Lee Learned, What Patton Knew. You'll do better than I ****ed a Bear for the FBI or its British equivalent, Golfing for Cats.) So that marginalization may actually exist only in the isolated confines of the academic world, rather like when self-satisfied 19th century Englishmen would report that the European continent was "isolated" by fog.


The Best Defense

Why I don't care about Iraq anymore (II): Was that war just a drunken hook-up?

If you didn't read the entire discussion the other day about why Jim Gourley no longer cares about what happens in Iraq, despite having given a big part of his life there, do yourself a favor. Find a quiet place, sit down, and read all the comments. I think this is one of the best discussions I've ever seen on the blog. I learned. I appreciate people taking the time to write.

Here are some of the observations that struck me:

"CompanyGrade": "I would go back.  Not to revisit any achievement but for my wife.  Maybe it would explain to her all the things I've never been able to talk about."

"Mitch281": "'The reason my unit was so successful...'  I feel like every Joe says this about his battalion/brigade/regiment/division.  Few soldiers are going to publicly admit that their units spent 12 months not making much of a difference.  Even if it is true."

"AbrahamRash": "Like that drunken hook-up that you secretly know deep down inside is a bad idea even at the time you're chasing after it, the morning after, you don't even leave a note. You just walk. Just like Americans did with Iraq."

From our favorite Akademie: "I truly believe that our force protection policies have this (perhaps unintended) consequence of keeping us apart...... I am not arguing with Jim's feelings, they are genuine and widely shared. I just don't believe it had to turn out this way."

And always dependable Gourley also scored again with his slapshot response: "Iraq has already given and taken from me everything it's going to."