Category: soldiers and civilians

    War, Gender, and Nation in 19th-Century Europe: A Preliminary Sketch

    Detail from “Combat at the military station: Of Chateau d’ Eau, 24th February 1848 / combat au poste: Du Château d’ Eau, 24 Févr. 1848

    I wrote this preliminary introduction for a thematic handbook article that was not to be (see “Historiographical Impasse”). Looking back at this 2015 draft, I think it contains enough ideas to make it worth sharing.

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    Atrocities in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71

    Three civilian French men in a village. They are holding rifles pointed at a group of soldiers on foot in the background. A woman with them is loading or reloading a muzzleloader.

    Illustration of peasants in the Vosges shooting at German soldiers, titled “Paysans des Vosges faisant le coup de feu.” Source: L’Illustration Européenne 1870, p. xvii, via Wikimedia Commons.


    An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.

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    The Most Famous Closed Trial with Secret Evidence

    Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

    "We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion."

    The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus' guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote "J'accuse." The point wasn't about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus' innocence reminded observers why.

    Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair's legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

    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?

    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.”

    Paradoxes

    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?

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