Last week My Own True Love and I attended On War: Exploring 20th Century Conflict, a military history seminar at Chicago’s Pritzker Military Library. I promised to report back.
The short version? Wow! Four wars, four sessions. (1) I came away with pages of notes and two major takeaways:
• I know nothing about the Korean War except what I learned watching M*A*S*H reruns.
• If I ever plan an all day seminar, I’m serving coffee at the mid-afternoon break instead of waiting until the 5:00 break. We descended on those urns like vultures.
But I suspect you were looking for something more substantive than that. Here goes:
World War I
Sir Max Hastings, spoke about his latest book, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. (2) He took the old -fashioned position that Germany was to blame for the war and that England had to fight to protect Europe from the horrors of domination by the Kaiserreich. He took a swipe at the French for employing colonial troops in Europe. (3) He was snotty about the role of women in the war. He dismissed the modern commonplace that the war was “a mistake made worse by the incompetence of British commanders,” calling it the “poet’s view” of the war. He expressed sympathy for officers who ordered the execution of soldiers who ran from battle as an example to their fellows. He argued that the Versailles Treaty was reasonable. I had a lovely time disagreeing with him in the margins of my notebook. (4)
World War II
The session on World War II was billed as Big Men of World War II. Gerhard Weinberg, author of A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II, gave lively and opinionated analyses of the character and accomplishments of leaders from both sides of the war. Here are a few of the comments that caught my attention:
• We forget how close the memory of World War I was at the time.
• We tend to forget how long the distances were in the Pacific Theater. The distance between islands in New Guinea was as long as the Eastern Front. (5)
• What do you think would have happened to David if he missed Goliath with the first sling shot?
I’m afraid I can’t do justice to Allan Millet, whose three volume The War For Korea is the definitive work on the Korean War from the American perspective. I am simply too ignorant. What caught my attention most clearly was the challenge to historians with which he opens his first volume:
The besetting sins of Korean War history are the inability of academic historians to deal with military matters, the inability of official historians to deal with political and institutional failures, the inability of secular humanists to deal with the power of faith systems and the inability of military historians to deal with anything but the combat performance of their favorite armed forces.
From my perspective, these are the besetting sins not simply of Korean War historians, but of historians in general. Recognizing, and attempting to transcend, our biases should be part of every historian’s work even though we will necessarily fail.
Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, and Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, in conversation about Vietnam, writing, and writing about Vietnam–does it get any better than that? I took as many notes from this session as I did from the other three sessions put together. Here are a few snippets:
• O’Brien: “My war wasn’t with the North Vietnamese. We fought the 48th Viet Cong Battalion. They were great soldiers…The word “insurgent” is demeaning. It suggests they weren’t professional soldiers. If they weren’t professional soldiers I don’t want to meet professional soldiers.”
• O’Brien: “Even if you support a war, you don’t like being shot at. You don’t like watching people die.”
• Marlantes: “When you’re on the edge of the DMZ, you’re scared. Once you’re in it, you’re too busy to be scared.”
• O’Brien: “I start all my writing with a scrap of language.”
• O’Brien: “A great deal of my war was daily brutality. Like being dipped in crankcase oil–evil on a daily basis.
• Marlantes: “The military is run by ordinary human beings, Put that power in the hands of ordinary people and it will get abused.”
• O’Brien: “Vietnam is a real place and not just a war.”
(1) At least two of the sessions will appear on Chicago’s WTTW at some point in the future. Keep your eye on the Pritzker website for details.
(2) The hundred year anniversary of WWI is coming soon. Brace yourself for a flood of Big Fat History Books attempting to say something new about the war. Some of them will be brilliant. Others will be doorstops. One is already sitting in my to-be-read pile waiting for review.
(3) Conveniently not mentioning the Gurkha and Sikh regiments who fought for Britain.
(4) I’m a big fan of summary paper, which is divided into two columns of un-equal width. The narrower column is a great place to record questions, reference notes, disagreements with the text and doodled marginalia. If anyone comes up with database software for a Mac that reproduces it I’ll be first in line to buy it.
(5) What can I say? Some of my favorite historical stuff begins with what we usually forget.