These stereoptic cards offer a tale of war reduced to two basic elements: soldiers on parade at home followed by the unburied corpses of soldiers on the battlefield. How should we read this story? At first glance, it seems to be about the gap between dreams and reality in war: the transformation of men from objects of admiration in society to a meal for rats, bugs, worms, and microbes in a foreign wasteland. In other words, the pictures seem to tell a story about the utter senselessness of the First World War. But does that interpretation do justice to the lives of these men? Does it tell us why they wore the uniform and sacrificed their lives? Does it tell us about their experience of war? And what about the politicians and generals who sent millions to their deaths? Can we write them off as insane or incompetent fools? Or should we take them seriously and try to fathom their mental universe? Finally, what lasting effects did this violence and loss have on the societies that fought this war? These are some of the questions that inform my interest in military history.
When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”
For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.
Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.
What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.
This post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.
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.
This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.
Do partisan politics have a place in the classroom? No. On the other hand, in a history class it is hard, even impossible to discuss many subjects without politics forming a subtext of the conversation. This difficulty is especially inherent in modern history. How, for example, can we talk about state-building, gender roles, participatory politics, and political ideologies without entering terrain in which we have a personal stake? And once we do that, how do we keep out partisan politics?
The trick is to make that difficult mental leap into the past and try to understand it from the point of view of people who lived in that time. We do not need to take sides with our ideological forefathers, and we do not need to attack their opponents. Nor do we need to respond to problems in the past with solutions from the present. Instead we need to try to think historically. We need to try to understand people in the past in their historical contexts. Making that leap is difficult, but possible.
Ironically, good civic practices are one potential side-effect of cultivating such historical sensibilities. If we can learn to imagine how people thought in the past, maybe we can imagine how our political opponents think in the present. Once we reach that point, a genuine dialog might be possible. The problems might be just as inextricable, but we might learn how to talk with each other instead of at each other. In other words, when we study history, it is possible to acquire the communicative habits necessary for a healthy civic culture. partisan politics do not belong in the classroom, but the classroom might have some lessons for partisan politics.
This piece first appeared on my former teaching blog, History Survey, on this date, then moved to Clio and Me, before landing here.
Writing is hard work for almost everyone, no matter how talented or inspired. Writing is thinking. Good writers do not usually have finished ideas that they then type out. The process of writing and revision is an act of thinking and discovery. That is why writing papers can be so frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Want to improve your prose? Keep a journal, in which you produce a page of text per day. The text can be about anything, but use standard prose, not the kind of abbreviations and lack of capitalization that you might use in informal emails or IMs with friends. The text should also be honest. This exercise is akin to doing regular physical exercise, practicing music, or learning a foreign language. The more you do it, the better you get. The less you do it, the worse you get.
I wrote the above piece for my students and posted it on a course blog called History Survey. It then migrated to Language for You, before settling here.