Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 22  - You'll have to pardon me if the next series of entries has little directly to do with postcolonialism.  I don't lead two lives, and right now my professional life is pulling me down the path of fairly traditional military history, so if I write about anything it will have to be about that.  Nevertheless, since all experiences illuminate one another, I suspect that even a discussion of traditional military history will ultimately shed light on  the question of whether and in what way the field of military history might expand to incorporate the issues I've begun to sketch.

Since my last entry I've worked some more on the new book for Oxford University Press for its Pivotal Moments in American History series (see Entry 2).  I drove to Richmond, Virginia, to revisit the subject of my first book, The Hard Hand of War, in an invited  presentation sponsored by the Museum of the Confederacy.  While en route I listened to a couple of audio books that dealt with the war on terrorism and in Iraq:  Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty:  George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill; and Bob Woodward's Bush at War:  Inside the Bush White House.  And when I got back I bought a copy of the latest volume in the Pivotal Moments series:  Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.

All four books deal in some way  with one of the most traditional themes in military history:  the choices made by key decision-makers concerning military strategy.

That theme is directly in front of me these days because North and South magazine has asked me to assess Robert E. Lee's generalship during his first campaign against Ulysses S. Grant the spring of 1864.  I got asked to do it because I've written a book on the campaign:  And Keep Moving On:  The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864.

This isn't exactly a challenging assignment, yet I have found it difficult to write.  I keep wondering what purpose it serves.  Very often these assessments amount to little more than second-guessing, which seems not only intellectually sterile but also disagreeable.  Some years ago, reviewing a campaign study that caustically criticized any number of officers, I wrote:  "The exact criteria by which [the author] assesses these officers and the purpose such fault-finding serves nearly one hundred thirty years after the fact are two questions [he] evidently feels no need to ask himself.  [He] might have framed his implicit agenda differently.  Rather than apply the standards of some unstated twentieth-century model of military professionalism to his subjects, he could have attempted to discern their own standards of conduct.  What did they regard as their function?  When they made what [the author] perceives as a blunder, why did they do so?  All too often, [the author] fails to recognize the implications of two obvious facts:  first, the Civil War occurred prior to the rise of a true military professionalism in the United States, so that his withering criticisms are essentially ahistorical; and second, many of the officers who fought in the Civil War were drawn directly from civilian life, so that again his judgmentalism seems inappropriate.  [He] might also have given greater thought to what the fury of battle--which he so ably describes--actually does to the decision-making power of men."

I had that review very much in mind when I attempted my own campaign study.  In the preface, I explained that "I have tried to evaluate the principal leaders of this campaign as sympathetically as possible, always bearing in mind that they were intelligent men who operated under conditions and pressures I have not had to meet myself. True, to write is to judge, and ultimately I have made judgments that are sometimes harsh, but I have encountered few historical actors . . . for whom I could not muster at least some respect."  Indeed, in an early draft I avoided altogether a post-mortem on the performance of Grant, Lee, and key subordinates.  But one referee for the press scored me pretty heavily for leaving out the distribution of praise and blame. On balance, I decided he was correct.  Assessments of generalship are so much part of the campaign narrative tradition that readers expect it.  So I rewrote the conclusion.  It wasn't hard and, as far as it goes, reviewers seem to appreciate that part of the book.

Still, I was never entirely comfortable with it, partly because I'm still not clear about what purpose it serves to critique generals who have lain in their graves a century or more.  Actually, that's not quite true.  Always implicitly and often explicitly, the purpose of such appraisals is to explain why things turned out one way and not the other.  In short, they're a form of "what-if" history. Or, to use a slightly more dignified term, "counterfactual" history.

As Prof. Ned Lebow of Dartmouth College points out, "for most historians counterfactual arguments have no scholarly standing.  They are flights of fancy, fun for a beer or two in the faculty club, but not the stuff of serious research."  As a social scientist, however, he knows that in other fields-physics, biology, economics and political science--counterfactual arguments have a good deal of validity.  The real problem is that historians don't do it very well because they haven't thought seriously about the rules of the exercise.  If you want to read Prof. Lebow's entire essay--and I think you should--it's available at the following link:

 Counterfactual Thought Experiments:  A Necessary Research Tool

If not, then watch for coming entries, because I'm going to summarize his essay, apply the nine criteria he prescribes for a good counterfactual argument to Lee's generalship in the Overland campaign, and then see what if anything this has to tell us about the project of military history.

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