Interrogating the Project of Military History

January 23,  2004 - Before History 768 commenced on Wednesday I said archly that someone had once told me that too much Clausewitz caused intellectual constipation.  "Who said that?" Allan asked.  "Wick?"

"You did," I replied.  (It was part of his advice to me when I was in the early stages of my dissertation, and all the more appropriate because at the time we happened to be seated in adjacent stalls of the history department second-floor men's room.)

Allan grinned.  "Professor Grimsley and I go a long ways back," he explained to the table of (mostly) new grad students.  "How old were you when we first met?"

"Nineteen," I said.  Which means I've known him more than half my life.  Jeez, I really am middle-aged.

I'll get to  Clausewitz and the Women's War another time.  For now I'll just say that the "Clausewitz and intellectual constipation" remark was but one of numerous bits of counsel from Allan that stayed with me through the years.  Among the others:  "Always do your own thinking."  "Divorce is like death."  "When you prepare for generals [i.e., the general exam for PhD candidacy, often called "prelims" elsewhere], bear in mind that you're creating intellectual capital you'll be drawing upon for years to come."  And--this one he bestowed on Wednesday's class--"At my age, I find that when you say something crotchety, you can blame it on your medications."  (I myself am only forty-four and I've already figured out that one.  That Allan is only now catching on testifies to the impressive level of physical health he has always worked to maintain.)

The single most influential thing I ever heard him say was something else I heard as a grad student, and very early on.  "Some of the best parts of your graduate education," he once told a group of us, "you get from other grad students."  He went on to emphasize the value of discussions over a few beers, informal reading groups, and so on.  My cohort took this sort of thing seriously, and not just the beer part, either.  We circulated articles and met regularly to discuss them.  On one occasion, feeling that we wanted more exposure to the Franco-Prussian War, we organized our own seminar and invited faculty to give guest lectures on various aspects of it.  We even asked Sir Michael Howard, then at Yale University, to address the seminar--and he agreed!  (One of his first books had been on the Franco-Prussian War and he was in a mood to revisit it.)

So it's amazing how much grad students can do to enhance their own educations--and therefore disheartening to see how often they forego these opportunities,  in the mistaken belief that coursework and papers constitute the really important stuff.  Sure, coursework matters, but the most appropriate grad student attitude is to be impatient with coursework, to want to break out of the "student" mode, to function as an independent scholar.  It's a bad sign when students don't have their own reading groups, when they take a pass on visiting lecturers, job candidate talks, and the like.

Fortunately I don't see many bad signs these days.  Recently I launched a readings group in the history of war, and last week we had our first meeting.  The article for the week was Lilian Friedberg, "Dare to Compare:  Americanizing the Holocaust" [American Indian Quarterly  24:3 (Summer 2000), 353-380].  And yes, it was every bit as provocative as the title suggests.  In fact it provoked a very good discussion, in which no fewer than sixteen people participated--at least six of them from other fields.  I look forward to covering the discussion in a future entry.  For today, as usual, I'm out of time.

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