30 April 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 2

To understand Baker's own mentality in writing this book, one could do a lot worse than look at the interview he gave to the Barnes & Noble Review. It is long, and his interlocutor sympathetic - thus successfully teases out what was going on in Baker's head. (A shorter, but almost as effective alternative is here.)We find that, as I suggested yesterday, he does indeed attempt to present the story of the Second World War up to December 31, 1941, as one individual might have perceived it at the time. He even names the person - Christopher Isherwood, a peripatetic English man of letters who emigrated to the United States in January 1939.

However, the interview also makes clear his fundamental ignorance of the details of the Second World War before he began researching this book. He did not know that Britain began a strategic bombing campaign against Germany as early as 1939 which inevitably resulted in damage to civilian housing. He did not know about British preparations for chemical and biological warfare they thankfully never implemented. He doesn't even seem to be aware of the casual prejudices of pre-1939 European and American society which afflicted Jews, but in different ways many others (e.g., Catholics in the U.S. and Britain) as well.

Now, these are all things that someone who has read more deeply into the war than Baker had (before he started this book) would have known readily. But wipe that smirk off your face. Most people's knowledge of the war is pretty much just the way that Baker describes early in the interview:
I certainly felt I had an idea of World War II, and it's probably the idea that many people share: there was this insane aggressor, and there was really only one way to proceed in resisting him.

No mention there of the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the rape of Nanking in 1938, the French offensive into Germany in 1939, the Winter War of 1939-40, the Italian declaration of war in 1940, or the coup in Yugoslavia in 1941.

Nor is there any reason for ordinary people to take an interest in these arcane sectors of world history 1936-41. Unless, of course, one wants history to do something other than just be an account of events and experiences that occurred a long time ago. And here is where I think historians ought to be a little more understanding of Baker's personal experience.

One could argue that his book is a long indictment of the British political class. Their failure to back the enforcement of the Versailles treaty conditions during the 1930s, particularly in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 and the Rhineland crisis of 1936, were large steps on the road to war. However, as Baker's book indicates, it's always very difficult to step outside one's own world and decision-makers face the same problem. There were no British politicians like Herr Hitler (working-class, uneducated, ex-private-soldier-and-criminal), and if there had been he would have been very much under the thumb of his backroom sponsors. It would be very easy for someone to believe what they wanted - Hitler would be controlled by generals and industrialists if he went too far.

Baker is better suited to dealing with the climate of appeasement than some polemicist roused to fury at what the world could have been spared if only our leaders had backbone. Baker recognizes that doubt exists, that we always have alternatives to wrestle with. From his interviews, it is clear that Baker is trying to re-open an old debate in the United States, that he is in an American tradition that is not at all forgotten, but which is often disrespected and disregarded by the Atlanticist historiography triumphant in the British and American media. And this explains a lot of the fury that its representatives have directed toward Baker's book.

Without doubt, when history appears on the American stage, it is generally deployed for a didactic purpose. Hitler's role is to serve as a moral lesson, usually one of the importance of standing up to bullies before they get too powerful. The whole edifice of American historical culture, as experienced by the non-historian, resembles J H Plumb's concept of "the Past" - a combination of fact and myth used to justify actions in the present. For an intelligent reader like Baker, the discovery that certain facts have been occluded create the emotional conditions for an overreaction.

How much does Baker's Human Smoke represent a foolhardy pacifism, and how much a genuinely American response to a foreign crisis?

(to be continued)

29 April 2008

Prize winner

I've been meaning to mention that the J W Dafoe Foundation awarded its book prize to Tim Cook, a researcher at the Canadian War Museum, for his book At the Sharp End. It certainly seems a boom time in Canadian military history.

Nicholson Baker's World Wars

Nicholson Baker, a novelist, has written a book about the Second World War, Human Smoke. A significant clue as to the book's faults is found in this interview. Baker has produced a book largely based on his reading of newspapers. Not researching newspapers in a library, but actual copies of the papers themselves, which he acquired. Baker is also a novelist. The implications of these two facts, I think, have not been entirely grasped by the reviewers I have read so far. Such as this one and that one.

The Chicago Tribune reviewer cites a quotation where a woman screams in response to a draft lottery draw. Only at the very end of the paragraph does he suggest that he perceives the novelist's art may be at work. The woman, of course, did not necessarily have to be in the room to make the artistic point. We don't even know if it is a scream of anguish, or relief. (More hilariously, the reviewer writes - "he has written a work about the past with no narrative". Welcome to modern fashions in historical writing, pal.)

David Cesarani, writing in the second review, more successfully grapples with the fact that Baker is a novelist. "it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history." However, he does not succeed so well in understanding the role of Baker's sources. "Churchill is portrayed as a Hun-bashing...drink-sodden imperialist spoiling for a fight with Germany....Roosevelt...as cynical, anti-Semitic and interested mainly in promoting wars that will supply markets for arms manufacturers." Oh yes, and if I read the papers I'll find all sorts of comments suggesting George Bush is Dick Cheney's puppet or that Hilary Clinton is sexy.

Not having read the book, nor discussed the matter with Baker himself, I can only understand it by suggesting that Baker's wider argument is more subtle than the reviewer-historians have grasped. We experience an event, such as the ongoing War in Iraq, in a piecemeal form, filtered by two editors - one is located at our source of information, whether radio or newspaper in 1939, and the other is our own selection of what to pay close attention to. Baker's book shows us how one reader might have perceived the oncoming war and decided that the cost of fighting it might not have been worth it.

I'll end this part by supporting my interpretation of Baker's motives with a quotation of his own words from the article in The Times linked in my first paragraph.
There’s no doubt Churchill was a titanic figure, a brilliant man, a great writer, a genius. But it’s a mistake to let this lead us into an acceptance of things we should feel unhappy about.

(to be continued)

EDIT: I made an error in the above post. Baker did indeed use microfilmed newspapers, as well as many personal accounts of the war, although the original impetus came from actual paper newspapers, and not microfilmed ones.

28 April 2008

War in Iraq = Syria in the Lebanon

I've been working my way through the twelve points in this article about the War in Iraq.

The last three points aren't really amenable to the kind of historical approach I've limited myself to. However, when one looks at Iraq, the parallels with the 1970s conflict in the Lebanon are striking. A regime dominated by a minority has collapsed into civil war (Saddam + Sunnis = Lebanon's Christians; Shias = Lebanon's Moslems). The divisions are mainly confessional, but complicated by the presence of non-national force (the Kurds = PLO). Two external powers have strategic interests in the area (the United States + Iran = Syria + Israel). A foreign country has military forces occupying parts of the country, sponsoring a near-puppet government that perceives the occupier's interests as best-suited to preserving national integrity (the United States = Syria). Another foreign country intervenes in the conflict, directly supporting a confessional group (Iran = Israel).

There are also strong differences, most important being that Syrians regarded the partition of the Lebanon and Syria as an artificial one. There is no doubt that the United States does not regard Iraq as part of its national territory.

I have not quite taken a position in all this. Put simply, I thought the invasion of Iraq was a major blunder, said so at the time to anyone who would listen, and I haven't changed my opinion. However, now that the United States has so badly disrupted the lives of ordinary Iraqis, I hold it has a responsibility to bring a peaceful settlement to Iraq. Whether the Bush Administration is pursuing the best strategy to do so is debatable. But I'm not clear that a practical alternative has been proposed by anyone, which means I do not think an outright withdrawal is a practical alternative.


24 April 2008

War in Iraq - Dolchstoss

I'm working my way through the twelve points in this article, applying an historical perspective to the assertions made. (Click on the War in Iraq label to see the other blog entries in this series.)

Points (7) and (8) are, if the Vietnam War is any guideline, related. If the U.S. intends to replace its troops on the ground with Iraqi troops, the American military has a tradition of using air power to support its clients in combat. Using the same reference point, the 1972 offensive, we can regard problems with the Iraqi Army and police during the fighting in Basra as significant, or we can explain them away as problems of an army which has been thrown together from assorted militias (registration required) and put into combat for the first time.

The American army has never institutionally embraced a "stab-in-the-back" myth about the Vietnam War, although there are probably both officers and Republicans who think it should do so. However, with my self-confessed cynicism about power brokers and journalists, the fact that the American political leadership found itself deeply divided over the Vietnam War makes me suspect coverage that highlighted the failures of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, while ignoring its successes. I'm fairly confident in saying that the American Army thinks it won the war in Viet Nam during 1968-70, and that if the country had sustained its support for the south during 1973-5, the north would have been defeated just as it was in 1972.

Thus, the American military quite probably thinks it can win in Iraq with the same strategy of leaving ground combat to the Iraqis, who will get better as they practice their craft more, but supporting them with air power. And I'm not so sure America's political leadership is as divided over Iraq as it was over Viet Nam. So those arguing against the war had better seize on incidents like desertion in Basra now, before these problems are ironed out and the Iraqi army puts in a better show.

A Professional Military Historian Speaks

Rob Citino, who has featured in this blog not so long ago, has had an address he gave to a meeting of the Society for Military History published on Mark Grimsley's blog. (It includes a link to an article he wrote about the current state of literature in military history.)

Both the blog entry and the article are of interest, in part because they tell us about Citino's world view. In the article, he trots out the traditional Aristotelian three-fold distribution of his subject (Aristotle - the first Western academic). The eternal problem with the Aristotelian three-fold distribution, especially in anglosphere thinking, is that it invariably is used to hide the actual condition of a Hegelian dialectical battle between two schools that is creating a new synthesis - as, indeed, it does in this case. Citino descries a "war and society" faction, an "operational history" faction and a "cultural" faction. I'm not clear how there is a division between the War-and-Societicians and the Culturalists. One seems to lead neatly on from the other.

The article itself drives neatly from one school to the next, almost seamlessly, as it ends its discussions of War-and-Societicians with a summary of the literature revolving around the Military Revolution of the Early Modern era, where technology, as opposed to race or institutionalized atrocity, takes centre stage. Yet I find it hard to distinguish between the way Citino describes the works of Operational Historian Dennis Showalter, and how one might expect a War-and-Societician to tackle the same material. Either Citino is emphasizing the new military history virtues of Showalter's work in order to sell it to sceptical colleagues or else there isn't the kind of difference between them that Citino proposes.

Citino's trip around his third school leaves me wondering why he felt it necessary to develop a taxonomy in the first place. He ends this section discussing a book about the Imperial German Army by Isabel Hull, which relates its experience of fighting in South West Africa with its invasion of France in 1914. We then wind up with an appeal for some military (and non-military) historians to recognize the works of others that may cross the traditional boundaries between say, the history of war and the history of law. Combining these two suggests that far from there being distinctive schools, we face a situation where works of military history have become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole, even into a discipline called "military history". Or, alternatively, that the same problem of the Academy embracing thematic history, while the public supposedly wants narrative history, affected military history as profoundly as national history.

Had I been a reader for the American Historical Review, I might have suggested that Citino abandon his Aristotelian trinity, and instead embrace the notion that the texture of literature in his field now reflects the same globalization as one sees in the media and the economy. Scholars tackle the history of countries different from their homes, and even cross significant cultural boundaries, such as that between "the West" and "the Orient". And that the victory of the new military history is both complete and has advanced our understanding of how wars are fought. And isn't that advance of understanding the job of academic history?

23 April 2008

MacArthur McClellan

It seems historians can influence our decision-makers. It seems both President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur had the Civil War on their minds when they had their confrontation over whether to expand the Korean War.

Hat-tip to Dmitri at Civil War Bookshelf.

War in Iraq - the Guano Dimension

I expect this to be a busy posting day, as there's loads of stuff that has caught my eye.

Yesterday, I started looking at the list of reasons in this article for withdrawing from Iraq. I'm more interested in providing an historical perspective on its statements than in engaging with its polemical points. I got up to point (2) before I decided the entry was long enough for a blog.

Point (3) raises the spectre of the Coalition Provisional Authority's Order 17, which grants extraterritorial rights of freedom from Iraqi jurisdiction to the U.S. military and associated enterprises. Of course, this is a truly colonial arrangement. However, it hasn't just been little non-white countries which have been subject to American attempts to assert extraterritorial rights. I can't see how, in the context of the Iraqi security situation, any military force could operate without some insulation from due legal processes. Furthermore, it gives Iraqi legislators some leverage over the situation. They could try to rescind the order, and if they succeeded it would certainly present both the United States and the U.N. with a knotty problem.

Point (4) brings up the "War for Oil" meme. Yes, that was an element of U.S. policy concerns. Why shouldn't it be?

Point (5) is utterly meaningless.

Point (6) is possibly the best case against a continued American presence, or any presence in the first place. Without doubt, Iraq is an artificial state, like others in the world. However, having opened a Pandora's Box, it is America's responsibility to resolve the problem. One way is to try to win the current war. There are others.

I offer my Roman solution tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn't invalidate my main point. Whatever is to be done to solve the Iraq problem, the lead must be given by the United States, which started this war. American voters cannot, in all responsibility, simply vote to leave and wash their hands of it all. If you didn't want to clean up the mess, you shouldn't have made it in the first place.

(to be continued)

22 April 2008

The War in Iraq - Permanent Bases or Enduring Camps?

The United States show little sign of being a country at war. (Not so Britain, which has turned into a national version of The Village in the cult TV show The Prisoner.) Security arrangements at the airports are by now familiarly strict, but travel on the bus or subway seems relaxed. (New York City bus drivers are extremely helpful, I should say. Bus is an altogether more comfortable experience than the notorious subway.) A drive upstate revealed a flag at half-mast (which may have had nothing to do with the war) and several cars displaying anti-war bumper stickers. And that's about it.

The war, however, does feature prominently on news programming, as my Internet listening often reveals. Without doubt, the American voter is going to face a clear-cut choice between a candidate who will set a timetable for withdrawal and one who will continue the war until some future point.

The country has been at war in Iraq for five years (longer than either World War or the Korean War), and in Afghanistan for six and a half. There is no sign, either, that the conflict is nearing some kind of resolution. Since the war is news, not history, I don't care to write about it. However, we can look back five years and draw some notes of historical interest.

I was stimulated to write about the war by an article from an anti-war perspective, that attempted to list twelve reasons for getting out of Iraq. Rather than focus on the rhetoric, I'd prefer to look at the assertions the articles make, in particular those that relate to strategic decisions taken five years ago that have implications for the present.

Point number (1) reminds us that the Coalition commanders were concerned about the potential for Baghdad to become "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia". The author further claims that this is what has happened, in slow motion, as Iraqi government forces struggle with militia for control of neighbourhoods. I think, though, that from a strategic point of view the Occupation authorities have got to believe that they are now dealing with "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia" with more advantages than they envisioned in early 2003. They control the government which gives them well-armed supporters and solid control of key sectors of the city. If this option had been offered in 2003, I feel fairly confident in asserting that U.S. commanders would have faced the task with more equanimity.

Point (2) is more interesting and telling. Did the U.S. ever have an "exit strategy"? The article claims that the Pentagon already had plans for constructing large bases, to support a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, even before the invasion began. It certainly is the case that the supplemental funding request issued on March 25, 2003, five days after the war began, featured $200 million for construction projects, including $85 million for Air Force base construction, as well as the authority for the Secretary of Defense to transfer any of $60 billion allocated to fight the war to construction projects. (A pdf of the request is available from here.)

Subsequently, in September, the White House's funding for the next financial year offered a more opaque appeal for construction. There's nearly $120 million for the army, at least $18 million for the air force, and up to $500 million from a contingency account. The funding for the specified projects was to be available until the end of Fiscal Year 2008 (i.e., next September). (A pdf of this request is available from here.)

Finally, just over five years ago to the day, the New York Times published an article (registration required) forecasting maintaining four bases for U.S. forces in Iraq for an unspecified period. The article is cautious, and states that "These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, [sources] say." However, it's difficult to see how, in the context of the financing requested a month earlier, one could not cynically take the view that by announcing both a rapid withdrawal and an enduring presence, the Bush Administration could serve its goals whatever it chose to do later in 2003.

Thus, I think point (2) is essentially true. Bush and his associates had no "exit strategy" because they did not plan on an exit. Like any good leader, they kept their options open. However, it is clear that the American people were given the information about a long-standing commitment in Iraq. If you supported the war in 2003, you had to embrace the administration's willingness to stay there for decades. There was no middle position available.

(To be continued.)

21 April 2008

Bomber Boys

I'm back from 10 days in the United States, plus a few more days of school holidays that made working from home rather difficult. Reading the Guardian newspaper's book review section over the weekend, I noted that Patrick Bishop's book was riding high in the paperback non-fiction best sellers. I've not read the book, so I can't comment directly.

Britain's bombing of Germany during the Second World War remains a controversial topic, yet one that has had enduring interest to British book buyers in particular. I have strong views about it, which I should put on the Web at some point. I have a sample chapter I wrote for a book I wanted someone to publish about Britain's solitary defence of civilization during 1940-1. The subject I opted for was the Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany, as it was a self-contained topic unlike say, the Western Desert campaign. (From which I would have had to draw in the Mediterranean naval war and the invasions of Syria and Iraq.) It would be an easy matter to post that for everyone to read. However, it's fair to say that my outlook has changed somewhat since 1987, when I was researching the material in the Public Records Office at Kew.

However, I'm not sure that what I wrote twenty-one years ago would suit the mood of military history readers in 2008. Today people want to read highly personal accounts of what it was like to experience war, and not managerial issues of how to deploy resources in order both to ensure national survival and to establish effective platforms for a counterattack.

Bishop, I suspect, has established himself as the kind of franchise author I have previously characterized as the sort who finds his way on to British bestseller lists. He's a journalist by trade, just like Max Hastings, another franchise author.

05 April 2008

Military History Worries (Again)

U.S News & World Report, the American newsweekly, has an article about whether military history is in decline on American campuses. Ostensibly, the statistics show that this is indeed the case. However, life is always more complicated than bare statistics, and the article acknowledges this, so it's worth reading.

I was touched by the quote at the end of the article, from Robert Citino, professor at Eastern Michigan University:
Someone's going to be writing books about war—there's a huge demand for it. I personally would rather it be written by a scholar, instead of a re-enactor or your friendly neighborhood war buff.

Since when did they become mutually exclusive?

04 April 2008

Time for America to Intervene in Britain

Somewhere, in one of the boxes containing my books packed away for the impending move, I have a reprinted U.S. Army manual that describes 1960s thinking about psychological warfare. The army has now issued a document about its strategy in the Internet age, which you can get on pdf from a link published here. (This is really old news. I have questions about why the site publishing this article has only just got round to telling us about it.)

There's nothing new in this. My old manual implies adopting the same sort of strategy in the pre-Internet age. Two guys (at least) got paid to produce this report. Hey, Pentagon, I could write you some good stuff about the significance of drinking water for crews of ships involved in littoral warfare. Or you could subsidize me to write about your enemies in British publishing. Get in touch.