Veterans, military history, civvies and women

Discussion in 'Historiography' started by Heimbrent, Dec 6, 2010.

  1. Heimbrent

    Heimbrent Well-Known Member

    I've been thinking about this for quite some time now and finally decided to see what you guys/gals on the forum think of it:

    Do you - especially the veterans and historians among you - think that whoever is into military history should also have a military background?
    I realize that nobody can actually know what war is really like unless you've experienced it yourself, but does that also apply to researching war? Sloppily formulated: Do you think that someone who hasn't even been to the army, civilian, woman cannot/should not be a (good) military historian?

    Please note that this is a question, not a suggestion, complaint or judgement.

    *edit* Is there any way to turn this into a poll?
     
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  2. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    One of the best historians I know has no military background, he does however know how to use libraries and archives really well. Often people discover military facts when they start digging into family history and end up as experts on a particular topic.
     
  3. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    One of the best historians I know has no military background, he does however know how to use libraries and archives really well. Often people discover military facts when they start digging into family history and end up as experts on a particular topic.


    Kate,

    I have to agree with Steven's comments.

    I, personally, do not believe that you have to have a Military background to be a good Historian, but it would most certainly be advantageous.

    Certainly a good question and I look forward to reading the replies.

    Regards
    Tom
     
  4. Paul Reed

    Paul Reed Ubique

    No, I don't believe it is necessary at all. In some cases I've found those with a modern military background tend to judge everything with their own modern yardstick, which for serious historical study is a mistake.

    A knowledge of the military and how it works is essential, but you don't need to have been in the midst of that to understand it.
     
  5. Alan Allport

    Alan Allport Senior Member

    No, I don't believe it is necessary at all. In some cases I've found those with a modern military background tend to judge everything with their own modern yardstick, which for serious historical study is a mistake.

    This is a very important point. There's a risk when one is personally close to a subject of essentializing it - in other words, of assuming that one's own experiences must represent the experiences of everyone else throughout time and space. That's a dangerous assumption to make when dealing with history (John Lynn's book Battle does a good job of gently demolishing the idea of a 'universal soldier.')

    There is something to be said for having a measure of critical distance between the subject you study and yourself. You have more to learn - but you also don't take so much for granted. And you may ask interesting questions that wouldn't occur to someone with a biographical identification with the topic.

    As a practical matter, excellent military history has been written by men (and women) who have seen much of war personally; who have seen a little of it; and who have seen nothing of it at all.

    Best, Alan
     
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  6. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Heimbrent -
    While I would agree that one does not have to be a military man to write good history - it does help if the authors would at least study the elementary points of the military -

    I am presently reading a tome by a Pulizer prize winner of some six hundred pages and while he can give chapter and verse on what - the Goths and Visi Goths did in a similar situation as well as the Caesers and even Napoleon quoting Virgil and Socrates - he fails to understand the difference between a Divison and a Brigade- now to me - that should be elementary.....and can lead to the present generation being truly ignorant !
    Cheers
     
  7. WhiskeyGolf

    WhiskeyGolf Senior Member

    In short - No. If the researcher/historian has an interest in a particular area, it doesn't matter what their background is.
     
  8. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    No not at all. What is important is the ability to write well, be objective and realise that no source is unimpeachable.

    Excellent thread.

    Jonathan.
     
  9. canuck

    canuck Token Colonial Patron

    There is something to be said for having a measure of critical distance between the subject you study and yourself. You have more to learn - but you also don't take so much for granted. And you may ask interesting questions that wouldn't occur to someone with a biographical identification with the topic

    Well said Allan. I would agree that not having been immersed in a military lifestyle would yield benefits in terms of objectivity. As you point out, it is those questions which would never even get asked by someone too familiar with the subject.

    In fact, during World War 1, many of the technological advances which broke the trench warfare stalemate, came not from the established military hierarchy but from volunteer civilians with new skills. Andrew McNaughton, for example, used his engineering background and scientific approach to artillery to advance the effectiveness of flash spotting, sound location and counter battery work. So, even within the military, a fresh perspective can be a good thing.
     
  10. Heimbrent

    Heimbrent Well-Known Member

    Thank you all for your answers so far - great points and interesting statements!

    I do agree with what some of you say about knowledge on the subject (I generally agree with what's been said above): It is easier to understand military organisation when you've been part of one yourself - and it is very necessary to understand it in order to write about it. So, like Tom says, an author that doesn't get the basest facts right might not be taken very serious no matter how great his other statements are.

    Organisation and battles are one thing - what about the very essence of war then, the actual fighting and the individual soldier on the battlefield? Do you think (or agree, I admit it) that a historian has a chance to get a grasp of that smallest element of war (i.e. the individual in battle) and get from there to valid general statements even when he/she has never been to war?

    In fact I sometimes think that this alone should make a historian wish he'd experienced battle - only the risk that you come home as a mental wreck is frighteningly high.

    (I hope that post makes sense, it's somewhat tricky to express myself correctly.)
     
  11. canuck

    canuck Token Colonial Patron

    I think I understand your point. Researching and writing of historical fact is one thing, explaining what it is really like to endure an artillery barrage would be quite another. Perhaps someone who spoke extensively with vets and who was highly articulate might capture that part of warfare but my gut tells me that only the veterans who lived through it can do justice that part. In fact, I'm not even qualified to make that assertion as I've never been intentionally shot at.

    I'd like to hear from Tom, Ron and Brian on this one.......
     
  12. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    Perhaps someone who spoke extensively with vets and who was highly articulate might capture that part of warfare

    The Imperial War Museum did and still does. Its the Forgotten Voices series of books.
     
  13. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    ....and I forgot to add Peter Hart with his fantastic books on the Somme and 1918. I'm not totally certain but I don't think he served in the military.
     
  14. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Heimbrent
    I would agree that NO author can reproduce the gut wrenching fear that grips the stomach while waiting for the signal to advance - unless he had undergone that fear - then the relief when the signal is sounded - and one becomes too busy to worry about anything except the task at hand - then the settling of the adrenaline when the task is over - THAT is the crucial part of the whole - and you start to count the friends lost- it is at that point that the madness can set in...or the self mutilisation to avoid anymore of it....
    Cheers
     
  15. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Heimbrent said:

    I've been thinking about this for quite some time now and finally decided to see what you guys/gals on the forum think of it:
    Do you - especially the veterans and historians among you - think that whoever is into military history should also have a military background?
    I realize that nobody can actually know what war is really like unless you've experienced it yourself, but does that also apply to researching war? Sloppily formulated: Do you think that someone who hasn't even been to the army, civilian, woman cannot/should not be a (good) military historian?

    Please note that this is a question, not a suggestion, complaint or judgement.


    Whenever a question like this pops up I say to myself "We've been this way before" and, lazy bugger that I am, I try to find what I had to say on the subject last time round.

    No joy this time, however, so I'll treat the subject as if I had never heard it before.

    In my own case, and I stress that here I speak entirely for myself, I acknowledge that I have learnt more about WW2 since I left the forces than I ever knew whilst I was so engaged.

    I understand completely that my rank at the time was so lowly that no one considered I had a right to think about a grand scale of things and that it was more important that when someone told me to jump my only possible answer would be to say "how high sergeant ?"

    I am also well aware that Gerry Chester's unit made certain, right down to tank commander level, that everyone knew what the particular battle they were in was trying to achieve but ,for the life of me, I cannot remember ever being told anything other than to keep my head down :(

    We are not talking here about writing about the minutia of what it was like to be cold or scared or hungry, we are not talking of what it was like to be so tired that one literally fell asleep while driving, we are not talking about seriosly wondering whether or not one would survive.

    We are talking about stategy and decision making at high level and cause and effect.

    I have no doubts whatsoever that it must help immensely if a historian had a military background if only so that he could understand what it was like to make decisions that would effect the lives of others. Churchill, despite the fact that he was vain and self-seeking was a brilliant historian and largely, I believe, because of his military background.

    Apologies for the ramble on, it is is late and bedtime is overdue.

    I will probably have different views in the morning and reserve the right to come back here and add further or even alternative thoughts on the subject.

    Good night !

    Ron

    ps
    It is now 06:55 am on Tuesday morning and I have returned to my comments.
    One of my most esteemed historians is Martin Gilbert and I thought for a moment, well, he was never in the Forces............. wrong assumption........ I see that he did some time in the intelligence section:
    Martin Gilbert - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
     
  16. Jon Jordan

    Jon Jordan Junior Member

    As someone who has never been in uniform, I've borne in mind a couple of things when writing history:

    1. For World War I or earlier, there is no one around with any practical knowledge (virtually - I know there are still some Great War vets out there, but very few). We're all pretty much in the same boat, though some of us were fortunate enough to hear stories as children by our elders about what they did in the war. This adds life to some details.

    For anything earlier, there's little that being in a modern army adds that research won't give you -- Patrick O'Brian, for instance, never spent any time in the Royal Navy, yet his Jack Aubrey series is one of the most brilliant works of military fiction ever written. I doubt serving in a modern recon squad can do much to help one picture the daily life of a primus pilus in Caesar's day.

    2. For World War II, as has been said, most veterans probably have a far better conception of that war, and a soldier's experience, than the rest of us.

    Some are good at communicating it, some aren't, and I suspect some things just can't effectively be communicated. (It's like one Confederate veteran said at the turn of last century to an audience: "You cannot recreate the Rebel Yell when you are well fed, sitting in a warm room, without fear, cold or the sound of gunfire." (I'm paraphrasing)). Several of the best history (and military fiction) authors of the last century were veterans - Ian Fleming, Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, and the list goes on.

    3. For wars later than World War II, having a military background gives one an eye for detail that brings the picture to life, whether it's the sound of a mortar popping off, or the smell of a sawed-off 55 gallon drum burning excrement outside the firebase perimeter. Moreover, when writing about modern wars, there are good contemporaneous sources that can often best be unlocked by a fellow in uniform. Also, you may know what questions to ask and not get tripped up on the "brigade versus division" type questions.

    In the end, a good researcher or storyteller with a military background will outdo one who has the same talent but lacks that background, though the effect is more pronounced the closer one gets to the present day and less important the closer one gets to Darius and Themistocles.
     
  17. Cobber

    Cobber Senior Member

    It really makes no serious difference, the Vet historian will have some insights into the day to day experience of soldiering, however with out research and interviews he/she is in the same position as a civvie historian.
    (unless they are writing about their own personal war experiences)

    Basically in my opinion historians are possibly better off having some military experience as it can give them a insight that civvies don't really have no matter how informed they are about the military.
    Remember in the majority of cases the historian who soldiered etc during any war will only know (during the war it's self) what was happening in their immediate area, and usually were not informed about the tactical reasons. Many but most definitely not all the troops only knew that they had to go to point 'A' or 'B' and under go either offensive or defensive operations.

    Any person can become a top of the range historian with out any military service. The knowledge of the historian whether a ex military person or a life time civvie, comes from research and interviews and from my experiences it does not matter whether you are a ex military or a civvie historian the research and information from the interviews is just as intense and powerful, yet it again comes down to how the author uses and presents the information from their research and interviews.

    So yes a military service can give insights to the historian yet a dedicated civvie historian can be just as good or better.
    I again reckon it depends on the person and what they are like as authors and how they use research, interviews and so on.
     

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