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?

This post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Stumbling Upon 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?


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939)

Wilhelm Groener, via Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

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, imbibed 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.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Stereoptic Views of the Great War

WWICuirassierBerlin

WorldWarIGermanDead

(click images to enlarge)

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.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.


Source of Images: Wikimedia Commons. World War I: Cuirassiers in Berlin (top) and World War I: German Dead.

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. Continue reading