Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 21 - Yesterday the History of War readings group recommenced.  The article under discussion was "No Peace Without Victory, 1861-1865," James M. McPherson's presidential address at the American Historical Association.  It was published in the February issue of American Historical Review.  We met in the cafe of the Wexner Center for the Arts, and it was a nice discussion considering that the only participants were Norma Kriger, myself, and a single military history grad student.  He was somewhat sheepish at first--he had not had time to read the article and expected just to sit in on the conversation and listen.  But he was a quick study and in response to some exchanges between Norma and myself, asked a couple of interesting questions.  Before Norma and I left the cafe we had begun hatching plans to create an informal colloquium around the issues that McPherson raises, often only tacitly, in his address, particularly those having to do with negotiation during wartime and conflict resolution theory.

The readings group, I learned today, is being in effect boycotted by most of the other grad students.  The ostensible reasons, I've heard for weeks, are time pressures and schedule conflicts, but that's the sort of thing you tell the professor.  What you tell each other is that whatever I may think I'm up to, it isn't military history.

I don't mind that. It's a defensible position, albeit one with which I obviously disagree.  You could have a real dialogue about it--if someone would bother to make the case.

I also heard it said that I've been trying to defend military history to non-military historians.  Wrong.  I'm intent on explaining military history--not just to our colleagues in other fields but to ourselves.

Interestingly enough, this afternoon I attended a fascinating talk by Azar Gat at the Mershon Center.  Prof. Gat has been an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Germany (Freiburg), a Fulbright Fellow in the USA (Yale), a British Council Scholar in Britain (Oxford), and a Visiting Fellow at the Mershon Center. He has been Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University since 1999. He is a reservist major in the Israeli Defence Forces.  

Prof. Gat studies the development and technologies of war, and is the author of numerous books, including The Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz , The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Fascist and Liberal Visions of War: Fuller, Liddell Hart, Douhet, Other Modernists, and British Armour Theory and Rise of the Panzer Arm: Revising the Revisionists. He is currently working on a wide-ranging interdisciplinary book, provisionally entitled War in Human Civilization.

Sure sounds like mainstream military history to me.  I surveyed the room for our grad students.  There were four,  three of them active duty officers.  With the exception of a part-time grad student, none of our "civilian" grad students was present.

Plainly not even the "squishiness" of my explorations of the boundaries of the field ultimately explains the absence of so many students.  The problem is the perception that outside talks, discussion groups, etc., are of marginal consequence, and what matters is coursework.  In fact it was suggested today that if I wanted to keep up this sort of experimentalism, the thing to do was conduct a regular course so the students and I could get administrative credit.  Give me a break.

No, the way you fight a squishy readings group is by generating an alternative, non-squishy readings group unabashedly dedicated to traditional military history but blessed with a coherent rationale for that dedication.  The incarnation of such a readings group hit town today in the form of Williamson Murray, professor emeritus in my department and senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses.  This evening  he appeared at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore to support his new book, The Iraq War: A Military History, co-written with Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr.

Tomorrow he gives a presentation at the Mershon Center, and, at my request, will talk informally with our graduate students.

Assuming any of them show up.

This is kind of a big deal within the Mershon community because Wick (that’s his nickname) was a longtime associate of the Mershon Center. It’s a big deal to me because Wick quite literally changed my life.

In the spring of 1978 I was a freshman at Ohio State. One of my courses that quarter was History 625.02. Here is an excerpt from my journal entry for the first day of class:

Wednesday, 29 March - . . . Since 8th grade I’ve noticed that the guys who are not readily accepted by their peers—because they are fat, odd-looking, or jerks—make up most of the war fanatics. They’re the ones who read popular war histories insatiably, memorize aircraft types, build model tanks, and spout blitzkrieg doctrine continuously. (Usually their notions on strategy are primitive and dogmatic. They fancy themselves knowledgeable of war but have no appreciation either for its command/control or inhumane elements.) At any rate, I used to wonder what became of such types. I found out when I walked into History 625.02. Every goddam one of them was in attendance, it seemed like. Even the professor fitted the image. Fortunately he appears to understand his subject well. It’s Modern Warfare: 1870-1945.

I almost never read my old journals. The above entry goes a long way toward explaining why. It’s no fun to look back and rediscover—with far greater clarity than memory alone could bestow—how immature, obnoxious, and/or arrogant one used to be. (Mercifully, the journals start to become endurable about the time I hit twenty-one or twenty-two.) It certainly says more about me than anyone who might have been in the classroom that day. Judging by my subsequent contact with students who take military history courses, the mix would have included, at the very least, some athletes and ROTC cadets. Wick himself had been an Air Force officer during the Vietnam War before pursuing graduate work at Yale. The only sure misfit in the room, I can see in retrospect, was me.

On the day I first laid eyes upon him, Wick was a first- or second-year assistant professor, having been hired to teach European diplomatic history. His dissertation, "The Path to Ruin: The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939"—published by Princeton in 1984 with the order of title and subtitle switched—was a head-on challenge to the 60s revisionism which argued that the Anglo-French policy of appeasement in the 1930s had in fact been rather astute. MacGregor Knox, a good friend of Wick’s at Yale, would review the eventual book for The Journal of Modern History. He offers a good, brief explanation of the dissertation/book’s thesis and orientation:

What [Murray] has done is to apply a reality test to the policies of the great powers in the late 1930s. The test rests on a simple assumption, as irrefutable as it is commonly ignored: military power is the cold, hard cash of international life. Murray’s test is equally simple: what was the consequence of British, French, and German policies for the balance of power? Judged by this standard, Hitler, as Murray puts it, "more often than not made correct strategic decisions." Chamberlain and associates "made the wrong choice on almost every strategic and diplomatic question they faced." Catastrophe in 1940 was the result. The question Murray poses is "how and why were the Germans allowed to husband their strength for [that] great throw of the dice?"

Wick applied the same approach in class. It was not a course in war and society nor really a course on the experience of war, though readings on the latter subject peppered the syllabus. The heart and soul of the course was strategic decision-making: How and why astute decisions were made and, mostly, how and why abysmally incompetent decisions were made. Wick could be, by turns, hilariously funny, angrily indignant, and sincerely admiring about the key decision-makers he discussed, and since it was his settled opinion that incompetence was the rule rather than the exception in human affairs, funny and indignant tended to predominate. "Sincerely admiring" generally got reserved for Winston Churchill, about whom Wick had a large fund of engaging anecdotes and quotations.

I enjoyed Wick’s class. He was a born lecturer, perhaps the best I have ever seen, chiefly because he gave students the gift of being himself. He was always Wick Murray, he never for a minute tried to fit somebody’s idea of how a professor should talk and behave. I don’t think he tried consciously to entertain. With him it was never an act. He was passionate, and the passion he had for his subject was contagious.

Not contagious enough to compel me to regular class attendance, however. My life back then was pretty messy, as I can see from the entries that characterize this period (and as I readily recall). I missed class at least a third of the time. I was so distracted by other matters that it impresses me, even now, to see how my first encounters with Wick pierced even all that undergraduate angst:

5 May - . . . Today I did get to classes. In History I asked Professor Murray for my mid-term back. He replied it was in his office, but that I'd gotten an 'A.' He also said he would like to speak to me sometime after class. Was I a freshman? Remarkable. Excellent job on the midterm.

I could not resist such praise, and arranged to see him in his office after class. We talked about half an hour. He was immensely impressed with my depth of knowledge and ability to grasp the key elements of an event. He especially liked my essay, saying a grad student could not have done better & that he had considered reading it to the class. He campaigned vigorously to get me to major in History instead of Political Science, leveling some persuasive arguments in favor of the move. Everything about me, he said, suggested a historian’s approach to events. My questions, comments, attitudes, everything. Political science, he said, tended to underscore the mechanisms of decision-making and underplay the human element. It also tended to be too academic, too willing to group events, processes, and personalities together and label them. Apparently it was clear to him I did not think this way. I thought like a historian, although he did not go into much detail about how a historian views matters. Certainly there are historians who also classify and theorize and historians who see history as the impact on humanity of one Big Man after another. At any rate, he said, I could take a double major in both fields. If I did that, and did well with it, any law school in the country would accept me.

Upon that conversation my whole life turned. I thereafter became Wick’s disciple, taking every class with him I could and haunting his office hours. Soon he began inviting me to the frequent receptions for students and visiting speakers he and his wife held in their homes, and the next thing I knew I was a family friend as well as a student. One day I accidentally called him by the nickname I used with the manager of a restaurant in which I worked: "Boss." He liked it, and that's what I called him for years thereafter.

He was really more like a motivational coach than a boss. Wick kept after me to apply myself and get a Rhodes scholarship. In 1980 he arranged to have me attend the annual national security seminar at the U.S. Army War College. I was the youngest person there. At every turn, he encouraged me to capitalize on the ability he saw in me.

Meanwhile, I kept living in a world that, by and large, told me I was fated for nothing but a nine-to-five job and insisted that the sooner I accepted the fact, the better off I would be.

It was like being caught between two worlds, clamped in the grip of one of them, longing for the other but not sure if it really existed for me.

At some point along the line, I suspect Wick’s early confidence in me began to dissipate. I don't see how it could have done otherwise: my grade point average hovered between 3.3 and 3.2 for most of my college career and I eventually graduated with a 3.16. (As a faculty member, I have to turn away each year the applications of at least a dozen applicants whose quantitative measures handily outstrip what I was able to muster.) Even so, Wick knew my GPA did not reflect my ability. He remained supportive and encouraged me to enroll in the War Studies program at Kings College London. I was accepted; he said he was confident I would come back with a "First," which is to say with high honors.

I did not. Undeterred, Wick wrote me an ebullient note counseling that I was meant for an academic post. He and Allan Millett then conspired to get me admitted into the graduate program here at Ohio State. The first year I was not a graduate teaching associate. Instead I paid my way with the pittance I received from a job Wick conjured up for me at the Mershon Center. Then, finally, my academic career got some traction, and the department voted to make me a teaching associate, ten years to the day after I had my first encounter with Wick in his office.

Although I took fewer courses with Wick as a grad student (I'd already taken most of what he taught as an undergrad), I worked for him several times and he remained my mentor. At the same time, however, I began to realize how much divergence existed between Wick and myself in terms of world view. Wick--my beloved Boss--was not the same man as Williamson Murray.  Indeed, if this blog opened with the character of "Marco"--Michael Hames-Garcia--then in Wick Murray Marco's nemesis has appeared.

The problem with Wick, if I may be so brazen about a man to whom I literally owe most of the professional satisfaction I have in this life, is that I believe military history does best if centered in a creative tension between "war and society" and "sharp end" approaches, while that creative tension holds no interest for him whatsoever.  But the presence of a Wick--willing to stake a position and able to defend it intelligently--is of fundamental importance to the future of the field as I see it.  You need a Wick to sustain one end of that tension.  What I'd love to see among our grad students, what badly needs to emerge, is a Wick, Jr.

There's only one piece of bad news for the traditionalists among the grad students.  The guy who--together with Allan Millett--taught me that the most important part of graduate school occurs outside regular coursework?  Wick Murray.

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