Category: 2007s

    Germany and the United States on the Eve of the Cold War

    Almost anyone who has lived in Germany over the past sixty years will find the following video very strange indeed. It appeared in the early days of the occupation, when the Cold War was still only on the horizon and a strict anti-fraternization policy made sense to the U.S. military leadership.

    By the way, if you’re a Dr. Suess fan, listen to the language. I’ve read many of his stories to my son, and I can hear the hand he had in this film.

    Dr. Suess also addressed the question of war and peace in a famous children’s book from the Cold War, The Butter Battle Book. In it, one side ate its bread butter side up, and the other butter side down, leading to mistrust, the erection of a wall, and an arms race.

    Source: U.S. Army, 1945, hosted by the Internet Archive

    Military Studies in Liberal Arts Education

    Samuel R. Williamson Jr and Russel Van Wyk make an interesting point on the last page of an undergraduate documentary history of the Great War's causes.

    At the start of the new millennium, and after September 11, 2001, there is an urgent need for civilian understanding and control of the military forces of the state. Yet paradoxically, this need comes at a time when very few civilians in western society have had any direct experience in the military, either as members of the uniformed services or as students of strategic issues. Conversely, recent studies also show that many in the military have little appreciation of the American traditions of civil-military relations and even of the assumed tenets of civilian control.

    I am unable to comment on their final assertion, but the rest of their comments speaks to a problem that has long bothered me. Why do we not teach more military history in our liberal arts programs? How can we expect our civilian leadership and the electorate more generally to make informed decisions about war and peace if we do not teach these questions in our institutions of higher learning?

    Fluency and Accuracy

    I wrote the following piece for my ESOL students, initially publishing it on Language for You (now closed) on this date.

    Students who have spent many years learning English with vocabulary and grammar exercises in their home countries sometimes have a hard time speaking when they arrive in the United States. This is especially the case if the major focus of their studies has been accuracy. They hesitate to say anything for fear of it getting it wrong. Such students need training in fluency. They need to practice talking and writing without stopping to correct themselves all the time. Yes, accuracy matters, but not at the cost of not being able to speak in the first place.

    Students who have spent many years in the United States without formal training in English frequently experience the opposite problem. They can speak fluently, that is, they can say whatever is on their minds. But often they make mistakes. These mistakes probably did not matter at first, but the student finds that now they do, especially in a professional context. Such students need to study grammar and practice speaking and writing accurately.

    Balancing fluency and accuracy is a tricky business though. Students emphasizing fluency still need to keep grammar in mind, and students improving their accuracy dare not become so concerned about accuracy that they can no longer speak easily. The trick is to find a healthy balance, and that balance will be different for each student.


    'For Better or Worse' cartoon. The child can't finish what he's saying because his mother corrects him at each turn.

    This related cartoon comes from from the classic For Better or for Worse strip, May 8, 1981 (ID 4002). I added it to this post on June 26, 2018.

    Donald Duck Goes to War

    Here’s an interesting piece of American propaganda from the Second World War. The working man pays “taxes to sink the Axis.”

    Update: I've removed my YouTube embeds because I don't want to set up consent notices for their trackers

    . Clicking the above screenshot will take you to the video on their site. Unfortunately, it's resolution is very low by today's standards. (June 2, 2024)

    Outsourcing Revisited: Doonesbury at War

    Checking out his email in the kitchen and talking to Reverend Sloan, B.D. says:

    Man, does Ray seem down lately. He keeps asking if people at home still support the troops—as if most Americans actually had a personal stake. Emotionally, we outsourced this war—to a professional class that mainstream America has almost no contact with. Most people are completely baffled why anyone would serve. Ray has no idea how isolated he really is.

    Zonker sits down and says, “Boy B.D., when you’re right, you’re right.” Boopsie, B.D.’s wife, agrees and asks, “Should we send Ray something to show we’re thinking of him. Zonker suggests a box of medals. “Don’t soldiers like medals?” Enthusiastic, Boopsie replies, “I know B.D. does. Good thought!”

    Meanwhile, B.D. is covering his face with his left hand and looking down in disbelief, disgust, or despair, while the reverend tells him, “You can rest your case.”

    Historians and Politics

    Yesterday I wrote about the present in this blog about my work with the past. What possible justification could I have for doing that? (I mean besides the obvious point that this is my blog.)

    I wrote about outsourcing military functions in Iraq not because I possess special knowledge of the subject, but because my expertise in history makes me frame the issue in ways that are different from what I find in the media. I do not possess any special insight into what we should do about the Iraq War now, but I know that there are some issues from past wars that I am not seeing raised today. Historians are on solid epistemological ground when they raise such issues.

    On the other hand, I find the American Historical Association's official condemnation of the war last year problematic. An organization of historians has no business claiming expertise in making war and peace. Instead I wish it would devote more attention to the study of war and society in the past. Then its individual members could participate in the framing of debates about war and peace in our own times, if they so desire.

    Outsourcing Military Tasks

    There has been much scrutiny in the press recently about the U.S. outsourcing military missions to private companies like Blackwater. P. W. Singer pointed out many problems with this trend in yesterday's Washington Post. The most important from my point of view is the weak link between the American people and warmaking:

    Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has sought to ensure that there's a link between the public and the costs of war, so that good decisions will be made and an ethos of responsibility fostered. With about half our operation in Iraq in private hands, that link has been jeopardized.

    Perhaps we live in a new world that I do not understand, but it seems to me that the past several hundred years of Western history have shown that a people at war can create a far more powerful political and military force than anything a cabinet can muster on its own. If the war in Iraq is so important, this country's citizens should be more directly involved, for they are the real basis of American power. But they are also a brake on the reckless use of military force. They will only mobilize for compelling reasons. One of President Bush's mistakes was to go to war with only enough public support to begin it. There is no such thing as war on the cheap. Private contractors are expensive in mere dollars, but they have helped the administration to avoid seeking a more solid domestic political foundation for the war—or accepting the consequences if it is unable to do so.

    Framing his piece as an open memorandum to the secretaries of defense and state, Singer devotes most of his attention to how counterproductive private military forces are on the ground. This line of thought is more likely to gain an audience than the more immediate focus in the media on the accountability of men working for outfits like Blackwater. Yes, Congress needs to implement a legal framework for these men who stand outside both Iraqi law and the United States' own Uniform Code of Military Justice, but a strong concern for the rule of law and human rights has not been this administrations' strong suit.

    We also need to hear more about the organizational culture of Blackwater. Since it hires men with prior military experience, this requirement includes learning more about the military cultures whence they came, especially since Blackwater hires people of diverse national backgrounds, including people with experience in outfits with less than stellar human rights records. The question of military culture brings me back to the initial point about the weak link between the American people and the violence being done in its name in Iraq. The U.S. Army and Marines have their own organizational cultures, but these include a strong link to values in American civilian society. Can we say the same thing about our hired guns?

    Of course, the abuses at Abu Ghraib show that our own military culture has some problems, though I suspect that the atrocities committed there had much to do with the inexperience of National Guard troops, a different culture in the CIA, the use of civilian defense contractors, and some troubling signals being sent from the highest levels of our civilian government, not to mention unclear lines of command and accountability.

    Six Years Ago

    Georgetown University in Washington, DC, did not cancel classes on September 12th, so I went into a class packed with mainly freshman at 9:15 a.m. By that point teaching early modern European history was out of the question, so we talked. After I got home, I sent the following message to everyone.

    Continue reading →

    Stumbling onto a Dissertation Topic

    Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as "Your Excellency." I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff's experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems?

    Continue reading →

    The Cold War Museum

    The Cold War Museum does not yet have a permanent home, but you can visit it on the web. While I welcome this resource, I am disappointed that it focuses almost exclusively on the military side of this conflict. What about the Cold War's broader impact on culture, politics, and the economy?

    I suppose the museum's current focus cannot be helped, given its close relationship with the Cold War Veterans Association, with which it issues a quarterly electronic newsletter. This association seeks recognition for the service of Cold War veterans and promotes the memory of what was in no small part their achievement. Still, veterans would do well to remember the strong connections between military and civilian life. U.S. armed forces did not simply protect the homeland. The Cold War was fought on the homefront too. And what about the relationship between the American homefront and U.S. military forces deployed around the world?

    I hope the museum also finds more room for critical analysis than the website currently evinces. While I understand the need for celebration, the Cold War Museum and the Cold War Veterans Association need to ask tougher questions, especially with regard to the Cold War's impact on the current state of our military and its relationship with civilian society. This is more than simply an academic question. Do not the men and women that our country places in harm's way deserve honest scholarship that can help the military to become an even more effective instrument of war and peace?

    Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939)

    Meet Wilhelm Groener, an unassuming Swabian of modest social provenance who rose to the number two position in the Imperial German army by the end of the First World War. Here he is in about 1920, soon after his retirement from the army in the young Weimar Republic.

    Groener, the subject of my dissertation, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 that the army would not follow him back to Prussia to fight a civil war to quash the revolution. Confronted with this reality, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.

    By rights Groener’s boss, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, should have delivered the bad news, but he was a Prussian officer and nobleman, imbued in the traditions of military service to his supreme war lord, the Prussian king and German emperor. Hindenburg did not have the nerve.

    Groener was present at the death of another German regime too. He served as minister of defense from 1928 to 1932. Near the end of this tenure he was also acting minister of the interior in the Brüning cabinet. In this capacity he pushed to outlaw Hitler’s brown-shirts, the S.A., which gave right-wing extremists in the army a chance to withdraw their support of the defense minister and prevail upon President Hindenburg to withdraw his confidence from Groener, who then resigned. Soon the rest of the cabinet did too, and Hitler came to power less than a year later.

    Groener witnessed and participated in some of modern Germany’s key political events, but that is not what I wrote about in my dissertation. Instead, I focussed on the relationship between his social background and military career, which was interesting precisely because he rose to such prominence in an organization alleged to have been the exclusive playground of the Prussian nobility.

    At least that is how my research started.

    Good Old Stalin

    History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?

    The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.

    Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .

    Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.

    It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?

    Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.

    Yes, history textbooks matter.

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