On War, the Symposium– Year 2

Last week My Own True Love and I attended the Pritzker Military Library’s second annual On War Military History Symposium.  Last year’s symposium blew me away.   Perhaps I’m a little jaded since I’ve spent a lot of the last year reading, writing, and thinking about World Wars I and II, but this year wasn’t quite as extraordinary.   Don’t get me wrong, it was a worthwhile afternoon. I still think Tim O’Brien is the berries.  I took lots of notes.  I came away inspired to write–more, longer, harder, faster, better.

Here’s the short version:

  • I’ll go hear Tim O’Brien speak anytime I get the chance.  The man is brilliant.
  • Biographer Carlo D’Este gave me hope that I still have time to write a substantial body of work.  He wrote six major books after a 20-year  career in the military.   His piece of advice for writing successful historical non-fiction:   four little words, “Tell me a story.”   So important to remember.  So easy to forget.
  • I’m still arguing in my head* with historian Antony Beevor, winner of this year’s Pritzker award for lifetime achievement in military writing.  Beevor stated that he worries about “outsiders”** writing military history because they don’t “understand what armies are about.”  [Insert sputtering here]  Really, Mr. Beevor? Obviously my annoyance with this position is personal as well as theoretical. But leaving aside the question of whether an outside perspective can be valuable,*** it seems to me that “what armies are about” changes from century to century if not decade to decade.  Anyone want to weigh in here?
  • The symposium is organized around the Pritzker’s lifetime achievement winners, which means that the speakers tend to be of a certain age.  More specifically, the history of the history business being what it is, the speakers tend to be men of a certain age.  Without any disrespect for the panelists, all of whom are accomplished by any standard, by the end of the afternoon I was ready to see some different faces (and perspectives) on the podium:  younger, browner, not male.  Surely it’s possible to cast the net a little wider for interviewers.

Grumbling aside, my big takeaway from the conference was the resonance between statements made by Tim O’Brien and Carlo D’Este in two different panels.

  • According to O’Brien, “History deals with abstractions.  Literature is the reverse of history.  It focuses on the individual.  History can’t report to us LBJ’s dreams.  His private conversations.  It can’t report what it does not know.  Literature reports what we do not know and cannot know.”
  • According to D’Este, “When you write about war, what you’re really writing about is people.  What men and women endure.”

Thinking about the relationships and disjunctions between those two statements will keep me amused for months.  What do you think?

*And occasionally out loud.  My Own True Love is very patient.

** i.e. people who never served in the military.

***Yes.  The answer is yes.

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