I was looking through Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a play I have used a few times in a survey course on modern Europe. In the back of the English translation by James Kirkup are “21 Points to The Physicists,” one of which reads, “The more human beings proceed by plan the more effectively they may be hit by accident.” This quote sums up my recently completed dissertation on three levels that I would like to consider: the content of my research from the point of view of its historical subjects, the path my research takes from my point of view, and the shape of the narrative that eventually emerges. I plan to look at these paradoxes in future posts at irregular intervals. For now I will mention a different one that is not as difficult to resolve.
I spent four years in the U.S. Army during peacetime, and I disliked being a soldier. I also rarely found military history interesting. Nonetheless, my research has focused on war. My M.A. thesis is about Bavarian soldiers and French civilians in the Franco-Prussian War, and my Ph.D. thesis is about the Imperial German officer corps and war planning. How did a former soldier who hated his experience in the military come to enjoy studying military history?
At least part of the answer lies in my military experience. A kid from the woods of New Hampshire had a lot of learning to do in a unit in which most everyone else came from the inner city or rural south. Add class, race, and educational levels to this mix, and I got a first-rate education. You see, I was not just in the army, but combat arms, specifically, the field artillery. When I enlisted I made the naive assumption that the army was the army no matter what one did, and it was offering a substantial bonus for four years in the artillery. So why not? Without going into a longer story, let me say that I left the army in 1987 with an insight of which at the time I was unaware: studying the army can teach a person a lot about that army’s country.
Not until I was doing my M.A. in Augsburg, Germany did I realize that I knew this. I think it was late 1992 or early 1993 when I met Professor Stig Förster, who had just returned to Europe from a stint at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Stig was editing On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, and I, as an American there, was recruited as one of his student helpers. I found the topics interesting, because in a seminar I had recently taken with another historian, we had learned about the lead-up to the war and the postwar settlement, but the war just kind of happened. I remarked on this circumstance to Stig. One thing led to another and he suggested I could explore the Bavarians’ treatment of civilians in 1870–71 for my master’s thesis. The topic sounded interesting, but also vaguely pornographic. Was it even decent to probe into such suffering? At the same time, scenes from Bosnia on TV suggested to me that such topics mattered. Before making up my mind, I asked if there was an historical treatment of these kinds of issues that might show me the historical value of examining atrocities. That led to Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict In Missouri During The American Civil War, as well as James M. McPherson, Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Of course, I also dug into Michael Howard’s perennial The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71. These books showed me that the study of war was integral to mainstream history and vice versa. With war being fought once again on European soil (the Balkans), I not only was hooked, but I thought such studies were a moral imperative.
Having completed a PhD program and many years of teaching, I no longer see my research in such grandiose terms. Still, I try to integrate at least one lecture on broad trends in war and society into each survey course I teach. I think students need to know that human behavior in war is historically contingent. They need to know, for instance, that humanity and atrocities in warfare have a history. The list is much longer, of course, but I can revisit the topic another time.