'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Thursday, September 9, 2010

World and National Histories

In my opinion, world and national histories serve two basic purposes:  to provide an overarching narrative of history and to aid the people of a nation in better understanding their heritage.  These purposes present a significant challenge to the historian, but if these histories are done well, they also provide an opportunity to “make sense” of the sweep of history and provide a greater context for the many discrete people and events that make history.

    World and national history are the two most challenging types of history to research and write.  Because of the vast swaths of time covered, a historian must be selective about which people and events to include, or more significantly, not include in their narrative.  This need to cull through material often brings out the intended or unintended biases of the author, which can also be manifested in how the history is constructed and presented.  National histories are particularly susceptible to this issue, as they necessarily present history from the perspective of a particular group. 

World histories also offer great opportunities for comparative history to show how different civilizations or cultures developed in similar (or perhaps dissimilar) circumstances.  This presents a challenge for the author to write objectively, but it is a useful challenge, particularly for authors coming from a Euro-centric or decidedly Western point of view:  “Historians confronted the very problem of accounting for the West’s position among other cultures when they wished to explain the centuries of Western dominance and expansion.”[1]

My particular interest in comparative world history would be an examination of Chinese versus Greek and Roman military thought and development.  From an earlier reading, Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China by Siep Stuurman, we know that the ancient Greeks and Chinese had many similarities and it was interesting to discover in another class that the Chinese were writing military treatises hundreds of years before Thucydides and Clausewitz.  Moreover, Sun Tzu, the best known of these authors, was just one of many great thinkers whose work is in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, by Ralph D. Sawyer.  Clearly the Greeks and Romans were not the only innovative thinkers and a good comparative military history might give us a better perspective into Asian thought and cultural norms about warfare:  “However, as interesting as they and a few books from the martial arts have proven to be, the vast Chinese military corpus-despite its historical importance and contemporary significance-remains unknown in the West.” [2] 

Western bias, indeed.

[1] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 411.

[2] Ralph D. Sawyer, trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993), xi.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Annales School of History

The development of French historiography, particularly the Annales school of historical thought, continues to affect history in the trans-Atlantic community.  The Annales movement-“the attempt by French scholars to adapt economic, linguistic, sociological, geographical, anthropological, psychological, and natural science notions to the study of history to infuse a historical orientation in the social and human sciences” has arguably been the most significant development in historiography in this century.  Although often misunderstood and steeped in controversy, the Annales methodology has been criticized for going beyond traditional documentary history, but in fact it does not replace traditional methods but rather, “The point lay not in deriding documentary scholarship but in transcending it by extending the subject’s comparative and disciplinary base.”

In addition to the floodgates of “multi-disciplinary” history the Annales school opened, the other significant post-war development has been the migration of historical talent from Germany and Italy, first to England and then to the United States.  Besides bringing their own historical talents to the U.S., these historians, many of them Jewish refugees, helped inculcate Annales thinking within American historical teaching.

The Annales methodology continues to influence American history today.  All of the trendy “new” subfields of ethnic, gender and cultural history clearly show their lineage back to France.  Overall, this new integration of geography, anthropology, economics, archeology, and other fields has been a positive influence on historical thought and writing.  This can particularly be seen in ancient history, where documentary evidence may be lacking or suspect.  However, like all trends in historiography, this effort at “multi-disciplinary” studies can be carried to extremes, as Keith Windschuttle described in The Killing of History.
On a personal note, I found it fascinating that integrating history and geography was controversial.  Trying to read history, particularly my field of interest in military history, without understanding geography seems almost absurd.  The fields of history and geography, either natural or man-made, seem inexorably linked, as it seems history and archeology should be.
The Annales school, in the proper context, really seems to make history more multi-dimensional rather than strictly multi-disciplinary and offers additional perspectives to better understand historical events.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thucydides-The First Great Military Historian

The ancient historian I would like to meet and discuss history with is Thucydides.  I believe he could be considered the Western world’s first true military historian and strategic thinker.  Thucydides expanded some of the techniques of Herodotus to write the first real narrative of war not as the act of gods, but the messy and chaotic result of men and politics.  His notion that cities/countries go to war over “fear, honor and interest” has certainly stood the test of time.
I find his History of the Peloponnesian Wars to be a timeless work on the interaction of politics and war, sort of the ancient world’s On War and I find it remarkable that a book written over 2500 years ago is still studied by the U.S. military today.
A couple of questions I would ask him are:
* Why did the book stop before the war was over?  Did you see the handwriting on the wall and not want to chronicle the fall of your native Athens?
* Die you think Athens might have prevailed if Pericles had not died so early in the war?
*  How did you decide that wars are primarily fought for “fear, honor, and interest”?
I would tell him that history is still trying to teach the same lessons he was-warfare is the chief experience of the state, never to be undertaken lightly.  I would also tell him that military historiography owes a great deal to his work and even though warfare has changed remarkably from his time, the nature of war in really no different for a Marine in Afghanistan than it was for a hoplite from Sparta.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Professionalization of History

So, I am about to embark on a great adventure...tutoring our best friends' son in Roman History.  Now I am no Plutarch or Livy, but it should be fun...after all it is Sophmore level stuff.

So I was thinking about history, the historical process and historians...

The Professionalization of History:  Is it a good thing?
    A profession is defined as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” This was certainly true of the historical profession during the late 1800 and early 1900s as the university system began to spread and history acquired its own methodology and set of standards.  Instruction in historical research and writing became more academically rigorous, causing not only the decline of amateur writers but affecting how history was written, especially in the United States.  As academic history became more widespread, it assumed the basic form that continues today, particularly the emphasis on scholarly research, critical analysis of primary sources, and most importantly, the use of the thesis as a stepping-stone and “rite of passage” to becoming a full-fledged university professor.

However, this trend did not tamp down the continuing controversies within historiography, as different historical models vied to offer a coherent picture of the rapid changes taking place in Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly industrialization and urbanization.  The debate between scientific and positivist historians raged throughout this time as historians argued about causality in history and how to handle the continuity of history while looking at the context of specific events.

American historians remained fairly aloof from this debate as American history began to be shaped by our unique experiences of democracy, the Civil War, and the settlement (or conquering) of the North American continent.  In addition, American Progressive historians attempted to use history to bring about social and economic change in early 20th century America, building upon the work of economic history began in Europe in the late 19th century.

The continuing disputes about historical objectivity seem a little baffling to me—the whole point of history should be to strive for the truth as best the sources can tell you.  When new sources are discovered, then the historical truth should change without invalidating the overall calling of the historian to seek objectivity. 

World War II history is a good example of this issue.  Almost all military history written about the European Theater had to be rewritten after the disclosure of the Ultra code-breaking program in the 1970s.  However, that didn’t necessarily mean that history written before knowledge of Ultra was useless or false, it merely didn’t tell the whole story.  The debate about professional versus amateur historians also continues to this day.  While amateurs are no doubt looked down upon by some academic historians, the fact is that within their particular topic of interest, many amateurs, particularly correspondents, have written outstanding works, including Rick Atkinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in History for An Army at Dawn in 2003.  The skills of research, collation of sources, critical thinking, and incisive writing take time and practice but are not confined to the historical profession.  The primary difference between amateurs and professionals is the intended audience.  Although I have read outstanding works by history professors, I have also read just as many sharp works by enthusiastic amateurs, particularly in the fields of military and political history.  In my opinion, academics often write truly scholarly, but dreadfully dry and boring articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals.  Amateurs want to sell books, so they write for a more general audience and try, sometimes with mixed results, to write outstanding narrative history that gets the “facts” right, but tells a story that Romantic historians would no doubt approve.  Although they were not PhDs, I would postulate that few American history professors could write history like Shelby Foote or David McCullough.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Trying to Catch Up

Okay, I know it's not Wednesday, but I am so far behind.  My final class for my Masters in Military Studies starts on Monday and I will be taking a young padwan through Roman History this year as his Jedi Master.  Fun, Fun, Fun.

In Federalist Paper #7, Alexander Hamilton continues his discussion about the need for a strong Union to avoid potential territorial and/or commercial disputes between the states as they had experienced under the Articles of Confederation.  In fact, the Commerce Clause, before it was abused by liberals and progressives to pass all manners of mischief up to and including ObamaCare, was probably one of the singular achievements of the Constitution by unifying commercial activity and preventing potential dangerous interstate tariffs and trade wars.  However, another interesting sentence comes to mind:
“The public debt of the Union would be a further cause of collision between the separate States or confederacies. The apportionment, in the first instance, and the progressive extinguishment afterward, would be alike productive of ill-humor and animosity. How would it be possible to agree upon a rule of apportionment satisfactory to all? There is scarcely any that can be proposed which is entirely free from real objections. These, as usual, would be exaggerated by the adverse interest of the parties……. Delinquencies, from whatever causes, would be productive of complaints, recriminations, and quarrels. There is, perhaps, nothing more likely to disturb the tranquility of nations than their being bound to mutual contributions for any common object that does not yield an equal and coincident benefit. For it is an observation, as true as it is trite, that there is nothing men differ so readily about as the payment of money.”
WOW, does that sorta ring true today, or what?  Why should the rest of the taxpayers bail out California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey or any of those other states that have made poor decisions and lived on the supposed never ending gravy train?  But, here it comes, expect more bailouts from Obama and Nancy before the election to try and keep public employees and BLUE states afloat….

Interestingly, Anti-Federalist #7 also address the issue of public debt and taxation, although it approaches the problem from a different point of view, arguing for the distribution of taxes between the states and Federal government and the use of an import tax as the primary means of Federal government funding…hmmm, if only that were true now:
The result of our reasoning in the two preceding numbers is this, that in a confederated government, where the powers are divided between the general and the state government, it is essential to its existence, that the revenues of the country, without which no government can exist, should be divided between them, and so apportioned to each, as to answer their respective exigencies, as far as human wisdom can effect such a division and apportionment….There is one source of revenue, which it is agreed, the general government ought to have the sole control of. This is an impost upon all goods imported from foreign countries. This would, of itself, be very productive, and would be collected with ease and certainty. — It will be a fund too, constantly increasing — for our commerce will grow, with the productions of the country; and these, together with our consumption of foreign goods, will increase with our population.”
Although issues of taxation are certainly dry and seemingly boring, they are, nonetheless, crucial to the economic health of the country, as we certainly know today…if only our current government carefully considered the implications of their tax (and spend) policies on the country….