Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University


In my final years at Norwich University, I took a course about the school’s history, one of the high-level seminars that you take in the field. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect (other than that it might be kind of boring), but I liked the instructor, and it turned out to be a really fascinating field of study. It also proved to be one of those courses that charts the direction of your interests and career. My final project was a study of the Norwich students who fought at Normandy during World War II, and it came with a neat opportunity: a trip to the battlefield along with some high-level alumni and donors. I was the youngest by decades, but got to talk extensively about the students whose footsteps we were literally following, both at school and on the battlefield.

Over the years since, I’ve done quite a bit of study in the topic: I researched Norwich students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and during World War I, as well as a smattering of articles. The latest is now available in a new book, Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich. The school is coming up on its bicentennial next year, and to commemorate it, the school commissioned bestselling author Alex Kershaw (you know, the guy who wrote The Bedford Boys, The Few, The Longest Winter, The Liberator, and others) to write it. He’s on the level of Stephen Ambrose when it comes to WWII histories.

The book is a narrative and independent overview of Norwich’s history, and to flesh it out in places, the school brought in some freelancers to contribute some pieces. I got to write about the 2nd Armored Division, which I’d covered in some of my work.

The book isn’t widely for sale just yet: if you’re in Vermont, you can stop by the school to pick up a copy (either a $1000 Commemorative Edition, or an $85 edition), but it’ll apparently hit their online store at some point in the near future, and they spoke a bit about plans for an eBook or paperback edition for students at some point in the future.

I haven’t read this yet — it’s a big book — but I’ve spoke with Alex about his work on it, and heard him speak about it: an epic story of a school that had a real footprint in the history of our nation, and even if you’re not an alum, it should make for a really interesting read. I’m happy to have a small part in it.

3 Norwich Stories from World War II

I have a feature up on Norwich University's Norwich Today! From Top Brass To Enlisted, Norwich Helped Build the U.S. Forces of WWII, which covers three soldiers I've come across: General Edward Brooks, when he and a small platoon held off a massive German attack, Captain George Lucey, when he was captured in Africa, and Corp. James Logan, and his efforts during the Battle of the Bulge.

On Sept. 2, 1944, he was in Marchiennes, France, accompanied by a small group of six enlisted men and four officers, when local residents notified them a German column was making its way into town. Marchiennes had recently been cleared by the 2nd Armored Division, but Brooks and his tiny force were virtually alone. Brooks took stock of what they had at their disposal: a single armored car with a machine gun, one quarter-ton truck with a light machine gun, one submachine gun and several carbines for the men.

Read it here.

Complicated History

A couple of months ago, I went to the Sullivan Museum and History Museum at Norwich University for a talk by one of the history professors, Dr. Steven Sodergren, as part of an exhibit series on the Civil War. His talk was about the specific motivations for individuals on each side of the Civil War, refuting the idea that there was a uniform block of support behind both the Union and Confederate governments. Some Southern states, when the decision came to vote on the decision to split from the United States, had a close majority: no more than 55-60% of the population supporting the idea, leaving a substantial chunk in opposition.

The idea behind the talk was a sound one, taking on the idea of the very nature of taught history: it's not as simple as it's made out to be. History is a difficult topic to convey to a large audience: big, complicated and multi-facetted, the very instruction of the field is just as enlightening as a separate topic. The Civil War was never quite as clear cut when it came to the motivations of the soldiers on the field: according to Sodergren, it was a deeply personal and difficult choice for everyone who took up arms. More recently, a talk on VPR with Vermont Historian Howard Coffin noted that looking at enlistment numbers is important: high initially, support dropped off following the first major battles when bodies began to return home.

I recently presented a paper at the New England Historical Association, where I talked about Norwich University's efforts during the Battle of the Bulge. My panel's commentator noted that between the papers, there's a high level view of history, with the strategy and big decisions, and the ground level, with the individual soldiers fighting: my paper bridged the gap, telling the story of the Bulge through the soldiers who fought there, but also how their actions played into a much larger story. Their own actions were far from singular: they spanned the entire command structure, from a Private First Class to a Major General. In our continued study of Norwich History, my wife and I have found soldiers who enlisted in foreign militaries prior to the United States' entry into the Second World War, while others were drafted.

A recent article by Slate Magazine caught my eye: How Space-Age Nostalgia Hobbles Our Future: Contrary to popular belief, public support for space exploration in the 1960s was far from universal. It's an interesting read, presenting a very contrary view to the supposed popularity of the Apollo program during the 1960s-1970s. Far from the major popular support that we perceive, the public approval rating for the program only hit a majority around the time that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and individual accounts from around the country shows that there was a wide range of opinions as to the value of the program. Support for the space programs also varied wildly depending on age group, and undoubtedly, on location as well.

Looking at political records from the time, there's also an important story when it comes to how Congress approved wartime funding: the public easily remembers President John F. Kennedy's speech at Rice University. The reality of actually funding the space program is far more complicated, with competing national priorities. Even Kennedy's speech, while influential, isn't so clear cut: it was designed in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, and was issued to help divert attention away from the administration's blunder.

A book that I particularly detest is Victor David Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, an enormously popular and reviled book on the nature of culture and war: he outlines that the very nature of democracy makes a standing military inherently stronger, because the individual soldiers have a stake in their government and by extension, their destiny. It's a very appealing, straight-cut assumption, and one that breaks down when one considers the enormous complexity inherent in a democratic nation: no sane person makes the decision to take up arms for their country lightly, and Hanson's text does a disservice to the historical community by overly simplifying a situation that shouldn't be simplified.

In a lot of ways, this falls under the same public mentality that spawned the Greatest Generation from the Second World War and the Lost Cause line of thinking from the Civil War. Looking even further back into our nation's history, the War for Independence was likewise far from universally supported! Another specific example from one of my instructor's talks was the Boston Tea Party: essentially a rebranded name in an age of nostalgia to smooth over the fact that the 'Destruction of the Tea' was committed by political radicals.

I often wonder as I hear political reminiscing about the space age or the greatest generation or of Lincoln's efforts, whether people throughout the ages understand that the rosy memories upon which we build the future on is really nothing more than a shared fabrication, and why we reject the complicated story for something that has been watered down to the point that it's contrary to the original message.

History is our most wonderful, complicated Mandelbrot set that continues to bring out new levels and stories. Dr. Sodergren's talk highlighted a key point in how we approach history: it becomes defined by its major outcomes, as opposed to the actions that lead up to them, and increasingly, it feels as though the lessons that we can learn are missed, overlooked or simply ignored.

Who knows, though? Maybe we need the simple stories.

Depictions of History

(Click for a larger version)

War has a universal impact on the world: travel to any town or city on the planet, and you'll likely find a stone engraved with various wars that the place has witnessed, and the citizens that they lost. We count our experiences by our losses, and I try to make it a point to look at one of the memorials if I happen to go near one. This past weekend, I came across one of the best ones that I've ever seen, located in Hardwick, Vermont.

Where most that I've seen around Vermont are simple affairs - a polished granite slab, etched with names - Hardwick's is a fascinating one to behold. The names are carved on the back of five blocks, each depicting five of the conflicts of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East (presumably, the current wars in Iraq / Afghanistan). Each panel holds with it a similar theme: a depiction of their surroundings, the tools with which they used, but most importantly, the profiles of the soldiers who served.

In and of itself, the memorial is an outstanding depiction of the evolution of war in the 20th century, without losing the key focus: those who served and died for their country. The tools of war have changed drastically: rifles were replaced with machine guns, while the aircraft overhead have grown ever more faster, flown higher and have served numerous purposes on the battlefield. The terrain has shifted from the ruins of Europe to those of Iraq, from the Pacific islands to Vietnam and Korea. The people, however, remain constant, faceless.

History begins at the personal level. For all of the major reasons for which a war is fought; Axis aggression in Europe, the spread of communism in Asia, or the threat of state-sponsored terrorism, there is the ground level view from the people who served. What I take out of this memorial is the focus not on the politics and reasons for the war, but for the simple reminder that the people who carried out the will of their country shouldered one hell of a burden. Beyond that simple message, it's elegantly executed, a visual story that sums up almost a hundred years of military history at a glance, a powerful image to take in.

Memorials are worth taking a look at, connecting to, because the stories of history are literally set in stone here: not the individual stories, but hard data, showing who really paid the ultimate price, and when.

Changing the Skies

So. A year of waiting, several weeks of research and writing, and it's finally here: the November 2011 issue of Armchair General. On page 36, and running for 8 pages (including some awesome pictures and captions), is my first print article titled Changing the Skies: Curtis LeMay and the Cold War Transition of U.S. Strategic Airpower from Planes to Missiles. It's a bit of a long-realized dream, and on Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, I opened the mail to find a thick package with several copies: my advance copies of the entire magazine, in glossy print, with my name right below the article title.

In March of 2010, Norwich University held the annual Colby Symposium, a two day event dedicated to military history and writing, typically on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least since I've been there. I've missed a single year since 2002, and ever year, I come away from the talks with a better understanding of how War works. Almost two years ago, while at the Meet the Authors Dinner, I met Col. (RET) Jerry Morelock, the editor in chief of Armchair General, which sponsors a student scholarship, and we began to talk. He gave me his card, and within a couple of days, I'd e-mailed him back with a couple of article ideas. The one that stuck was a transition from the Second World War to the Cold War, particularly when it came to how the United States transitioned from aircraft to missiles.

The article came out of a couple of projects that I'd been working on prior to that. In 2009, I'd finished my Master's in Military History through Norwich, and I'd presented at two conferences, one of which, I presented my capstone paper on Spaceflight and the Military influences, particularly the strategic arms race that raged between the US and USSR. After finishing that work, I came across some additional sources that shed more light on the broader subject, and I wanted to explore more about it.

After gaining approval for the article and signing the contracts, I began research, looking to tie together a better story than the scattered ideas that I had, eventually discovering that much of the history went through General Curtis LeMay, who had implimented many of the lessons that the US put to the skies post-WWII.

The article was turned in, then it came back for a couple of rounds of revisions, and by May, it was complete, a nice feeling. I moved on to a couple of other projects, and soon, the magazines appeared at home. (Another issue, July 2011's, also features a classmate, David Armstrong, with another piece that I've got on the to-read pile.) It's something to know that they'll be coming out, with all the work completed, but it's quite another to see the finished product, from the cutaways, the pictures (and the absolutely gorgeous front page spread), and my name under it all. The people at the magazine seemed to really like it, and the various family members and co-workers who've taken my advance copies have also been quite positive with their reactions, something I barely dared to hope for.

It's been a very, very cool opportunity, one that I'm following up with another project through Armchair General, this time on the late General Ernest Harmon, who commanded the 2nd Armored Division during the Second World War. The research is exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting this one written and turned in.

Changing the Skies appears in the November 2011 issue of the magazine, but subscribers should be receiving it now (I've gotten an additional copy through work in the mail). You can subscribe to the magazine here and get more information about the magazine at their website.

Captain America & World War II

The best part of the latest Marvel film, Captain America, is the end credits. Bold propaganda posters with bright, 1940s colors, jumping out of the screen in the best display of three dimensions in the entire film, the credits capture everything that’s to know about the entire film. Fun, splashy, with more than a little propaganda splashed in there somewhere, it’s everything that America remembers broadly about the Second World War: a classic fight against unmentionable evil, where the good guys win in the end.

Captain America as a superhero film felt like a mixed product for me. One part advance marketing for the 2012 Avengers film, helmed by Joss Whedon, another part superhero origin story and the last bit war film. On the whole, it’s a fun ride: Chris Evans is spectacular as the titular character in Red, White and Blue, with one of the better origin stories set to celluloid (or gigabyte as it were), up there with the original Spiderman and Iron Man films. Yet despite that, the film is torn between missions, and fell pretty far from my expectations, which surprised me, given the praise that the film has garnered from a lot of outlets that I generally trust.

One of the film’s strongest and weakest points was its setting of the Second World War. It’s a fantastic place to place a superhero origin, given the near supernatural nature of the war itself, not to mention accurate to the character’s origins. World War II has taken on a mythological status within the United States, as it’s arguably the one point where the country displayed its absolute best, and absolute worst (necessarily – I’m not being revisionist!).

The movie is good – great even – when we’re introduced to a scrawny Steve Rodgers getting booted from his physical, and given the opportunity to prove himself with some medical experimentation that turns him into the only super soldier that the United States is able to create. Johnson sets up a good arc for Rogers as he’s selected not for his physical strength, but for his purely American character of being a well rounded individual: good of heart, smart, resourceful, all traits that live up to a supposed ideal American that the modern right wing would point to. It’s an admirable goal, to be sure: Steve’s a nice guy, and he saves the entire Eastern seaboard, but it’s a simple vision for how the United States and her allies collided with the Axis powers in Europe. (Japan is barely referenced.) The film builds as Rogers is put onto promotional detail, and it’s not until he reaches the front that he realizes his full potential as a soldier. Once there, he gets one awesome costume / uniform that I love.

It’s the wartime action part of the film that drags the film down. Full of tired action scenes with the all-token American team, the film never really materializes as any type of war film: it’s a collection of sequences against a faceless (literally!) enemy who serves as a stand-in for the Nazi and German soldiers on the front lines of the war. Part of this is from the fact that this is a comic book film in a bizzaro Marvel universe, but I can’t think that the reasons for why we didn’t see Nazis in the films: The Hydra soldiers could have hardly beat out the SS troops as ridiculously cartoonish in and of themselves, and there’s an incredible opportunity missed here when looking to set up a story of American good vs. evil. The action scenes feel as if they’re there for their own sake, penciled in by the screenwriters because they couldn’t be bothered to pick up a Stephen Ambrose story, or any one of the other millions of tomes released in the last decade about the Second World War. As a whole? It’s also pretty boring: Cap hits people with his shield, bounces around Europe to take out the Hydra baddies, and jumps over things on his motorcycle.

In a way, this feels very much as how the United States sees and views the Second World War: we know the basics: the US was attacked, went overseas to far-off battlefields against an enemy who displayed a real disregard for any type of human dignity (not that there’s much in war to begin with, but there’s certainly a line drawn at human experimentation and outright murder), where we won by the strength of our soldiers with a moral imperative to win the war. Rogers / Captain America certainly fit this bill to a T.

My argument here is that it’s just too simple, much as Captain America is, and that the film is basically a reflection of our own understanding and our collective desire to understand the war. The United States faced an enemy that really outgunned and out trained our soldiers for years on the battlefield, bound by a strong nationalistic sense of duty that bordered on fanatical in some instances. The United States largely won the war by outsupplying their armies, slowly improving the training and equipment of our GIs and keeping to a strategy that outmaneuvered the Axis powers, rather than simply outfighting them at every turn by our own prowess, strength and will to fight. This in and of itself is a bit of a simplification, but the study of World War II is akin to a complicated onion, with layers upon layers: it was truly a global war, with innumerable facets.

The Superhero archetype that Captain America displays is something that we commonly believe as a country: it’s a nice narrative, and in a way, Captain America is us, or at least, the parts that we really want to see. The conflict set up between him and Red Skull is horribly underplayed: all things equal, the only differences between the two men are their inner natures: Captain America is good, Red Skull is evil, and it’s a fight that’s set up with some real promise, but ultimately never goes anywhere meaningful, beyond action sequences. Not that the film needed much more than that: it’s designed as a fun action film, so this works, but other Marvel films such as Iron Man really demonstrated that a strong character film is possible: Iron Man succeeded wildly as a story of a self-examination and role within the nation’s character. Captain America never quite does this, although it does a far better job at it than Superman, another type of national hero, does.

Finally, I’m personally tired of the Avengers crossover that seems to be bleeding into every film. Before, we just had to content with the trailers as the beginning of the film: now, they’re in the movies themselves, and while I’m just as excited to see everything next year, I hate the amount of pandering that Marvel is displaying for the film: there’s connections to Iron Man and Thor here in this film, and for someone who hasn’t seen every film, it doesn’t feel so much like connecting stories as trying to bleed the audience dry. The film also hints rather overtly that the next main storyline will be the Winter Soldier run, with the (spoiler!) off-stage death of Bucky.

Captain America is a fun film, but it’s no Iron Man. Well acted (Chris Evans is a superb Captain America and Tommy Lee Jones has some fantastic comedic moments throughout, as well as some of the supporting cast) at points, but the film’s unable to really capitalize on the 2nd World War beyond turning it into one giant series of action sequences that does little to move the characters forward, or even make the audience care about them. The real shame is that I’ve seen people point to this as the ultimate sort of patriotic film, which annoys me because it’s not much more than a regular run of the mill summer blockbuster, just wrapped up in the flag.

Like the end credits, it's propaganda, a self-fulfilling mythos that we perpetuate ourselves to remind us of how great we are. That bothers me, a great deal. Still, it’s fun to see quasi-Nazis get hit in the face with a red, white and blue shield. That never gets old.

2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here's what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14) This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I'd come across while I was working on my project. I've revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 - The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28) This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 - The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8) During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It's a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 - We, John Dickinson (2-19) This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 - Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24) I watched the movie around the same time, and I've long like Gaiman's works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 - Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4) Scalzi's Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 - Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6) With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words - there's some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19) N.K. Jemisin's first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It's a very different blend of fantasy than I've ever read.

9 - Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29) Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year - it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful - a good fantasy debut, and I'm already eager for the sequel.

10 - The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21). Karin Lowachee's Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 - The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17) David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor - it's a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 - Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28) Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 - Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1) Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren't always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 - Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8) This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It's a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 - To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15) Steinbeck's book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It's an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 - American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25) This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 - The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25) The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 - How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30) This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I've read in a long time. It's brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It's an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 - River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2) I've long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn't picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can't wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 - Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3) This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 - Pattern Recognition (9-11) William Gibson's book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It's a fun read, and I've already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 - New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22) This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it's more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 - Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26) An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There's some real gems in there.

24 - Andvari's Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26) A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 - The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30) One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 - Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22) A paperback version of Bacigalupi's stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it's one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31) I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I'll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 - The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8) The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They're very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 - Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8) This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 - Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10) Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn't have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I'd wanted to see in Boneshaker. It's an interesting series, and I'll be interested to see what happens next.

31 - Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13) This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn't make it. It's a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 - The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14) While I thought this book wasn't worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 - Horns, Joe Hill (11-22) This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It's an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 - Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24) This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola's art = awesome.

35 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28) 36 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29) 37 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1) 38 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3) 39 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12) 40 - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15) 41 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18) I'm not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman's novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It's a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 - Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it's one of the best anthologies that I've ever read.

On to 2011!

Battle of the Bulge: Phase II

On December 17th 1944, from what I can tell so far, the 100th Infantry Division was ordered to the Bastogne, Noville, and Bras areas to stop the sudden attack by German forces. The 28th Infantry division found itself on its second day fighting for its survival as their entire divisional front was under attack, and member of the division, 1st Lt. Carl Hughes of the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron continued to make his way through enemy lines. The Battle of the Bulge was in full force in Germany and Belgium, and would continue to rage on for over a month.

The anniversary of the beginning of the battle saw the start of the second phase of my project documenting the Norwich University alumni who fought there. I had hoped to have finished the writing by this point, but that hasn't happened yet, but the research and collection of raw data has largely wound down for the project. From the data that I was able to collect, I've assembled a list of just under a hundred and fifty people from a variety of sources: publications, records, mentions, with thirty people confirmed with sources that they were present at some point, another 73 people who might have been there based on their unit, ten people who can be written off, with a further 30 people who may or may not have been there, but with very little to go on, other than a country reference.

This collection of raw data has some additional bits of information that goes along with each student: their rank, unit, whether they were wounded or killed, what medals they earned, and any other additional notes. As a whole, it's a wealth of information that only tells me a couple of certain points that help lead to the next stage.

Raw data by itself is somewhat useless. I can tell you ten things about Carl Hughes. He was a first lieutenant in the 28th Infantry division with the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron, that he graduated from Norwich in 1942, that he received the Bronze and Silver Stars in addition to a purple heart, and that he walked through enemy lines for three days following the attack when his unit was surrounded. The next step involves adding context to the situation.

Going unit by unit, this next step involves adding that context. With it, I've learned that the 28th Infantry Division had taken the first impact of the German advance on December 16th, along a 25 mile stretch that enveloped the division, and that from the 16th through the 22nd, the unit was involved in heavy fighting before pulling back on the 22nd to Neufchateau to reorganize. This additional layer helps to put the individual experiences of the soldiers into better context.

With rare exceptions, student information on their individual experiences during the battle are rare, and in those instances, I have a paragraph at the most, or a brief sentence at the least that indicates that an alum was present at any part of the battle. The additional information as to what the units as a whole were up to help to fill in the blanks and gives me a general idea of what any given student might have been doing at the time. Furthermore, the individual data points that make up Norwich Students on the timeline helps to etch out a clearer understanding of how the battle worked: it was complicated, with numerous fronts, battles and units involved. Approaching the battle from the people who studied at Norwich also helps to demonstrate the impact that Norwich itself played during the battle, much like I discovered with the Operation Overload paper that I wrote in 2007. There was a collective Norwich experience that was widespread throughout the conflict.

This next step is far from done - quick passes through the Army Historical blurbs allow me to pin point some key dates for units, and a second pass will help to put in more detail for some of the larger units, such as the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 17th Airborne Division, which seems to have a larger collection of Norwich men within it. With a codified timeline in place, the events of the battle can be put down into more detail, and a larger story of the Battle of the Bulge will appear, seen through the eyes of the school's alumni.

It's an exciting bit of work as I am able to gather more and more information on individual units and to see the battle emerge from the raw data points that I've collected. One thing is for sure so far: Norwich University was present on the front lines (and in one case, above them) and undoubtably, given some of the notations, medals and units that these men earned and occupied, it had some hand in the outcome of the battle, providing a basis for the actions of the men who fought in 1944 and 1945.

Hardwired Historian

As I've begun work on the Battle of the Bulge project, I've found that there have been some major changes in how I'm able to go about researching the event since the spring of 2007, when I did a similar research project on the Normandy Invasion. Since then, computers have become smaller, Norwich University has a campus-wide wireless network, and information on databases has grown.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been pouring over books and file folders, hunting for references to soldiers who were in a set number of units, dates, locations, specific references to the Battle of the Bulge itself. Four years ago, I brought along a notepad and a couple of pens (or pencils, when I was up in the University Archives), and wrote down every reference that I could find, even the tangential students who might have been in the right area at the right time.

Fast forward to 2010, and the options have changed. Rather than taking a notepad and pen with me, I've been carrying my iPad and iPhone, on which I've been jotting down information as I find it. Slowly, as the lists are growing, I’m planning on taking the information and placing it onto a spreadsheet. While I do this, I’ve tapped into the wireless network, and as I come across soldiers in various units, I’ve discovered that running a quick check against the unit’s history online can help me determine if the soldier is someone I’ve been able to use, as their unit was present at the battle, or if they were somewhere else at the time, either because they hadn’t arrived, or were in another theater of operations altogether.

The move to electronic recording likewise has the benefit of being able to copy and paste my results directly into a spreadsheet, rather than having the extra step of translating my handwritten notes (no small task!) into the spreadsheet. The transfer of data is transferred between two mediums rather than three. (original, handwritten and computer). It allows me to keep information that I transpose intact far more easily than before.

The next step is something I’m thinking of trying: integrating this with Google Docs, which would allow me to keep my data online, accessible from any number of locations. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very practical thing on an iPad (I can’t easily tab between apps, and I don’t have the internet at home), but for some of the research portions, it seems like it would be an excellent thing to use, especially if someone is working with others. In this case, my girlfriend is helping out with some things, and the ability to update the same piece of data, without redundancies, would be helpful when gathering data is put together.

What I’m hoping is that the move to computers, rather than using handwritten notes, will allow me to be more efficient, and thus quicker, with the research that I’m working on. The amount of information that I need to go though: there’s something like five thousand additional files to go through when it comes to deceased students, not to mention the information on the units and after action reports that exist.

This also covers the first large phase of the research: gathering all of the raw data that I’ll need to form the basis of the project. The next step, actually distilling and then writing the report, is already digital: I can’t actually think of a time when I haven’t used a computer to type up a project. Those advantages are well known, and something that I know to work.

The Battle of the Bulge

In 2007, I went overseas to France, shortly after I finished college, to help provide the Norwich University side of things for the battlefield staff ride that we took. The D-Day study (which is partially documented here in the archives) was the final paper that I had written for my undergraduate coursework. Back in May of 2007, I had realized that this was something that I found interesting, and noted that I could easily expand this sort of research to encompass other elements of the European Theater of Operations.

I've largely kept things under my hat lately, but now that I've started, it's something that I can talk more freely about. While I'm not expanding my D-Day paper, I've been asked by Norwich to write another one, and to consult on an upcoming Staff Ride. This time around, I'll be focusing on the Norwich University Students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944.

The battle, largely regarded as the last credible push on the part of the Germans during the Allied advance towards Germany, was a massive coordinated pushback that trapped U.S. forces behind enemy lines, and slowed Allied efforts in their push towards ending the war. Like in Normandy, Norwich students fought and died there, and occupied a number of positions within the U.S military.

This is a project that I'm very eager to return to, and the research phase has me very excited. This project will be coming in a couple of phases. The first, which I've started, is the research element, and I'm going to be specifically targeting several achieves and sources here at Norwich, starting with the yearbooks (a memorial edition from 1947 was what I tackled today, with very good results), and the Norwich University Record, the alumni paper, two sources that provided an incredible amount of information, along with two archives up on campus, which should provide some additional detailed information and allow me to draw up a roster of possible participants in the battle. From there, cross-checking each soldier's unit based on the historical record and actions of said unit will help to weed out the people who wouldn't have possibly been there. Student X was in Unit Y, but Unit Y didn't arrive into the area until day Z, which was after the battle, for example.

Running parallel to this will be research into the battle itself, looking for specific dates, people, unit actions and the story to which Norwich personnel will be placed. Here, the people I am looking at will be a small and unique look into how the battle went.

Once the research phase is over, the writing will begin, which I'm planning on starting around November, and finishing up by December. January through March/April is a little more fluid, but I'm guessing that I will be editing, fine-tuning and researching small details for the paper, while preparing presentations for the actual staff ride, which will take place in May of next year. Needless to say, I'm flattered and excited for this entire project.

This style of research makes a lot of sense to me, because I can work to connect the actions of the soldiers in the field to an institution that is steeped in history, and link said actions to the overall mission of the school, and provide a historical context and concrete examples of where graduates have changed the world through their actions. (And, some of these soldiers have accomplished incredible things, helping to see through the successes of various operations and actions throughout Norwich’s history.)

Conventional Counterinsurgency

It is interesting at how much an education can change your viewpoints on something. When I was in late high school, I picked up a book called Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden, which recounted the Battle of Mogadishu, waged by U.S. Special Forces and local militia forces as the U.S. military attempted to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. In the seventeen years since that initial battle, the firefight that occurred during that day which essentially provides a preview of what is to come.

Interestingly, the film adaptation of the book (and real life events) was released in December of 2001, just a couple of months after the attacks on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Shortly after said attacks, U.S. Special Forces entered Afghanistan, and began was has been known as the Global War on Terror. Hindsight is a dangerous thing to use, especially when connecting major events, but looking back to the 1993 firefight in Somalia, it's clear that the U.S. simply wasn't geared towards fighting the type of warfare that presented itself in the Middle East and nearby hotspots. Throughout much of the recent history, the military had been positioned towards combating a major enemy, the Soviet Union, and subsequent international actions, such as the Gulf War of 1991, just a couple of years prior to the Somalia fight, seemed to affirm that warfare would remain as a style of centralized, organized warfare, against a static enemy who followed all of the rules. Somalia, a small action, seemed to be an abnormality, something that would be unlikely to happen again.

In his book, The Sling and the Stone, retired Colonel Thomas Hammes, of the United States Marine Corps, notes that this change in warfare was nothing new. The conventional nature of what is generally termed 3rd Generation Warfare, is a style of fighting that the United States had worked and became very good at, but historical evidence points to the emergence of a 4th Generation of warfare, which Hammes describes as a style of warfare that "uses all available networks - political, economic, social, and military- to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit." (Hammes, The Sling and the Stone. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006, 2). While he goes on to note that this style of warfare is an evolved method of insurgency, I believe that it is in fact the other way around - insurgency is a natural progression of warfare in this instance, and in a large way, 4th Generation warfare falls well within the general constraints of warfare as described by Carl Von Clausewitz in his book, On War:  "War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale....War is therefore an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." (Clausewitz, On War, New York: Penguin Putnam, 1968, 101). Insurgencies, in this instance, seem to be made up of a new understanding of networks, combined with technology in unexpected methods to achieve a formidable resistance to an organized force.

The events that occurred in Black Hawk Down prove to be a good example of this style of warfare in action, but also the root causes that provide a valuable context for the conflicts that are ongoing. In the film adaptation of the book, a boy is seen to have alerted militia forces by holding up a cellular telephone to the sky as the Task Force Ranger helicopters flew overhead. Whether this happened or not, I'm not sure (paging through the book, I wasn't able to find mention of it), but the scene made me recall the November 2008 coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India, when several teams of insurgents, armed with guns and explosives, used mobile phones to help kill 173 and wound 308. The use of technology has become integrated with insurgency warfare, allowing for a low-key method for coordinating attacks and personnel without having the benefit of a major organized military. The fighting against Islamic fundamentalist forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan are generally not at the hands of an organized military force acting on the behalf of a recognized government, but are representative of smaller political factions and warlords within established boundaries.

Despite this early evidence that there were changes in the ways that wars had been fought (Hammes cites Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia as examples of where this style of warfare had been seen), this ran counter to the then-nature of how the military conducted itself. "The essence of the American army, in the eyes of its career officers, is ground combat by organized, regular divisional nuts. Although the American army tolerates the existence of subcultures that do not directly contribute to the essence of the organization, these peripheral organizations do not receive the support accorder to the army core constituencies of armor, infantry, and artillery." (Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 6) The current War on Terror and ongoing conflicts is a demonstration of this, as the U.S. entered into major hostilities with Iraq and Afghanistan with one style and mindset of conducting the war, and discovering that entirely new methods were necessary when it came to countering insurgency forces.

Looking over the events of Black Hawk Down, there are elements of current counter-insurgency doctrine, or at least several best practices that highlight the differences between counterinsurgency warfare and organized maneuver warfare. Hammes notes that prior to the United Nations taking over the peacekeeping operations, U.S. Marines aggressively patrolled the streets of Mogadishu, talking with the local inhabitants, and recognizing when someone from outside that neighborhood entered. As the war in Iraq and Afghanistan have progressed, this has become a focus of the new Counterinsurgency doctrine, with soldiers encouraged to work closely with local inhabitants of neighborhoods and streets in an effort to remove insurgency forces from the local population, depriving them of population support. While watching and reading Black Hawk Down, I see a battle that was the result of a failure in vision and peacekeeping leadership. As Hammes notes, the decision to draw back into major bases, while leaving the population in the hands of militia forces was a drastic one that spelled out dire consequences for U.S. forces. At the same time, the leaders tasked with peacekeeping were unable to prevent insurgent and militia forces from operating and controlling the areas that they needed to protect. Similar actions would later occur in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the United States pulled out of the cities of Iraq in favor of major bases, only to find that violence levels dropped with the implementation of smaller bases amongst the populations. The so-called surge in Iraq was not simply more soldiers deployed to the country, but it was the change in tactics, with the manpower to carry out these changes.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, "The New Rules of War" March/April 2010), John Arquilla notes that the differences between conventional and unconventional warfare require entirely new methods of approaching warfare. Insurgency warfare (commonly referred to as 4G), allows for a far more decentralized style of fighting: Where prior approaches to countering insurgent forces had been to apply more force, "Nothing could be further from the truth, as the results in Iraq and Afghanistan so painfully demonstrate...the evidence of the last 10 years shows clearly that massive application of force have done little more than kill the innocent and enrage their survivors. Networked organizations like al Qaeda have proven how easy it is to dodge such heavy punches and persist to land sharp counterblows." (Arquilla, "The New Rules of War", Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2010)

The end result is that fighting a war the wrong way causes more problems, and ultimately fulfills the mantra of decentralized, networked insurgency groups: cause an invading power more problems than is worth it in order to convince their parent governments, and by extension, the population that supports it, that the efforts overseas are simply not worth it. The U.S. experience in Vietnam demonstrated that a massive conventional force had a lot of trouble fighting in ways that it was not prepared for. As a result, the U.S. military eliminated counterinsurgency planning and training in the aftermath, vowing to never again fight in a style of war that it was not prepared to fight. While a noble goal, it seems to have been a short sighted decision, even in light of continued successes of conventional military victories since then, such as with the British military against the Argentineans in the 1980s, and with United States forces against Iraqi forces in 1991's Gulf War. However, militaries do not get to pick how their opponents fight, and must be aware to all types of influences on warfare in areas that they are fighting: the methods of terrorist and militia style forces had existed for years, and examples such as Somalia demonstrated that these styles of fighting existed, and that adequate planning for such fighting had not been implemented. The result in Somalia was the death of 18 soldiers.

The results coming from Iraq and Afghanistan are much more dire, and I can't help but wonder what changes might have been made had the full context and lessons from Somalia had truly been learned by policy-makers and military thinkers at the time. As hindsight is much cleared now, it's easy to make such declarations, and even at this point, the future of warfare is still something that is very unclear. As such, the real lesson that the United States should learn is from the aftermath of Vietnam with the destruction of the planning and training for counterinsurgency fighting: planning and realization of conflicts is a key element in the military, as well as the ability to adapt far more quickly to actions and differences in fighting styles based on the long history that the United States has had with combat.

The Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the detonation of 'Little Boy', the first nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal to be used as an act of war, and changing the world upon its use. The bomb, which was followed by 'Fat Man' on August 9th, caused casualties in the hundreds of thousands, with its effects lasting far into the present day. The United States marked a change in policy earlier today when Ambassador John Roos attended the reemergence ceremony earlier today. The onset of nuclear warfare marked a massive change in the structure and hierarchy of the world.

The culmination of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent implementation of nuclear arms into the U.S. arsenal was the result of years of work and research on the part of the United States, and one that remains fiercely debated to this day. The first, and only use of the weapons over Japan sparked much attention, but in and of itself was a single element in a larger strategy that was used to extend U.S. military power abroad. Earlier bombing runs, notably with the switch from conventional explosives to incendiary explosives on the part of the Army Air Force over Japan yielded similar results to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings: a high number of civilian casualties and military targets were directly attacked, killing hundreds of thousands. The nuclear warheads are in and of themselves notable because of the sheer destructive force, and the ease to which an opposing force can destroy a comparable target when examined alongside prior methods. Previously, it required a large bombing force over enemy territory, where planes were susceptible to anti-air craft fire and mechanical breakdown. With a single air craft, the ability to do the same appeared.

It would seem that with the smaller force, and ease of destruction, that nuclear warfare would be an inevitable end to civilization as we know it. Large military forces require far more expenditure, logistics and manpower to accomplish their goals, with steep casualty costs, as seen in the casualty rates of the airmen who ventured over Axis-occupied territory during the Second World War. This misses the point, I believe, of the ease of destruction often predicted by science fiction authors. The scary thing itself isn't the bomb itself, but the system in which deploys it. The Second World War industrialized warfare to an incredible degree due to military necessity, and as a single nation almost untouched by war on its own borders, the United States found itself with the manpower, equipment and weapons in which to enforce its will across the world. When the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club, it acted as a balance of power, but one that tread upon very uneasy ground, as the potential for nuclear warfare grew immensely, and teetered on the edge at such moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fortunately, the fears of apocalypse never came to pass: cooler heads prevailed, and the implimentation of strategy that was designed to deter, rather than to destroy outright came to pass, but the introduction of nuclear weapons demonstrated that the balance of power had changed in a profound way: nations could enforce their will through the threat of force, and advances in science and technology allowed for a continued strategy on the part of the countries that were involved in the Cold War. In a real sense, with such advances, the world became a truly global, interconnected place, and affairs that had once been inconsequential now became important to the world as a whole.

The Nuclear age arguably never began with the Japan bombings, but earlier, as military strategy attempted to find ways in which to end the threat to U.S. interests. In doing so, unprecedented measures were undertaken: cities were destroyed, in what can be looked at as the closest thing to apocalypse and speculative fiction one has ever seen, and examining the aftermath provides for some almost surreal accounts: it is no wonder that people believed that the world would end with a flash of light, and it is uncomforting to realize that this sort of threat is one that is ongoing: the Cold War has since ended, but the threat of nuclear power is still one that will exist while such weapons exist, and will undoubtedly continue to influence those who look towards the future. What needs to be determined from policy makers and strategists as to the true risk, and to determine if the stakes are high enough.

Rick Atkinson & History


This summer’s entry in the Todd Lecture series at Norwich University was Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson, former reporter for the Washington Post and author of several of books, most notably, An Army at Dawn, about the Invasion of Africa (which won him the Pulitzer in history), and more recently, The Day of Battle, about the invasion of Italy, both part of his epic trilogy on the events of the Invasion of Europe. In an already cluttered field of works on the Second World War in Europe, Atkinson’s books stand out immensely as some of the best books about the conflict, and the third book, of which he’s completed the research for, and is now outlining and writing, will be out in a couple of years, and will undoubtedly be a gripping read.

Atkinson spoke about an important and relevant topic to the history graduates before him: the value of narrative history, and more specifically, the need for a writer to recognize the value of a story within the heady analysis and synthesis of an argument. Personally, I find the division and outright snobbery of most academic circles to be frustrating, especially when it comes to popular and commercial non-history. Within history is a plethora of stories, values, themes and lessons to be breathed, learned and valued, and an essential part of education is bringing across the message to the reader or general audience in a way that they can comprehend and relate to the contents of any historical text.

Commercial nonfiction has its good and bad elements to it. Bringing anything to a general audience can water down an argument, and the balance between good stories and good history is one that has to be balanced finely. Some authors do this well, and from what I’ve read of Atkinson’s books, he has done just that.

Mainstream history is important. It is what helps to bring the lessons and analysis of the past to the people, and a population that reads and learns from their historians is a population that can intelligently call upon the past to make decisions for the future by comparing their current surroundings to similar happenings in the past. More than ever, this is important, and Atkinson’s talk and follow-up questions help to drive this point home.

Atkinson’s books are in the unique category of bridging the divide between academic and popular reading, and he noted that the failed to believe that history needed to be dry, uninteresting and irrelevant. History does not need to be relegated to only the academic circles, but it should be something that is in the foremost thoughts of the American population.

History is important, not just because of the lessons that are learned from it, but because of the mindset that is required to comprehend it. History is not a record of events gone past, but of the interpretation and story that those events tell. What is required from those who examine the field is an understanding of how a large number of events, political and societal movements and individuals all come together in a sort of perfect storm to create the past. Much of this is cause and effect, and contrary to popular belief, the past holds no answers for the future: it is the understanding of how said events occur, within their individual contexts that allow for the proper mindset to understand how similar happenings might happen in the future and how to prepare for what is to come.

Atkinson’s talk was a good one for students to hear, and different approaches to history are simply the nature of the field. The Military History students who graduated last week were ones that have a large number of options open to them, and Atkinson’s talk (and his own stature as a historian) demonstrated that a doctorate isn’t the only way to make a living at this.

You can watch Mr. Atkinson's talk here.

The To Read List

My reading list has been build up again with stuff, some of it fun, some for review and some for research and general interest. I just wish that there were more hours in the day.

Currently reading: American Gods, Neil Gaiman - This is a book that I read a number of years ago, and while I enjoyed it, read it over a couple of months/years, and probably didn't get as much out of it as I am now. Selected as the first 1 Book, 1 Twitter crowdsourcing movement, the book is being read piecemeal over a couple of weeks, and I'm sticking with a couple of chapters a week to stick to the schedule. Thus far though, I'm really enjoying it, and it's bringing back memories from when I first read the book.

The Burning Skies, David J. Williams - The follow up to the first book in the Autumn Rain series, The Mirrored Heavens, that I just reviewed, The Burning Skies continues the trilogy. I've only made it about a chapter or so of the way in, but I'm hoping to finish it up a bit faster than the last one.

Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu - This book is one that I'm burning through, and is a collection of short stories by acclaimed author Charles Yu. He's about to release his first novel later this year, (which I'll get to in a moment), but I wanted to read up on him, given the praise that's been heaped on his short fiction already. So far, Third Class Superhero is a surreal, interesting and highly entertaining collection of stories.

Next to Read: Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife, John Nagl - This book is a work on how militaries learn from their prior battles. A particular interest of mine at the moment is this very thing, especially as a historian - how do militaries learn from their past mistakes, and how to they use those lessons to prepare for the upcoming challenges? This book is quite highly acclaimed, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Ambassadors from Earth, Jay Gallentine - One of the latest books in the Outward Odyssey series, this book focuses on unmanned space systems. Given the quality of the research and stories that this series is telling, I have high hopes for this one.

The Machinery of Light, David J. Williams - The third and final book in David J. William's Autumn Rain trilogy, coming out tomorrow, and this book looks to finish up the series. Unfortunately, this one is somewhat contingent on me finishing Burning Skies. I am looking forward to finishing up the series.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu - This book is one that I've been really looking for. Yu, as noted before, has previously released Third Class Superhero, which I'm still working through. This book, which deals with time travel and parallel universes, looks to be like it'll be quite a bit of fun, and hopefully, a little surreal like his first collection of stories. It's his first novel, and already, it's getting some good reviews from people, when the book isn't out until September.

Yuri Gagarin and the Space Race

"Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me."

Forty Nine years ago today, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin lifted off as part of the Vostok 1 mission onboard the Ласточка (Lastochka - Swallow), becoming the first human being to leave the Earth, completing a single, 108 minute orbit before successfully touching down in the Soviet Union. As the U.S.S.R. had done with Sputnik-1 two years earlier, Gagarin ensured that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in the forming space race, with the United States just behind.

In the early days of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to clash in highly public displays of technology, with roots going back to the beginnings of the Cold War. At the end of the Second World War, the two countries were on a collision course with opposing ideologies. As Germany collapsed, Nazi scientists were grabbed by both sides to determine how to best gain a new weapons technology that the German military had begun to work on and implement: missiles. For the Soviet Union, this was an essential development. The country was ravaged by war, with millions dead, and a massive conventional military to clothe, feed and train, while the United States, untouched, possessed the technology to directly strike targets within Russian borders. Missile technology would further the Soviet's reach and allow them to threaten US allies at first, then the mainland.

As the weapons race continued with both the United States and Soviet Union creating and testing Nuclear warheads, a smaller race began between the nations to build bigger rockets, which could in turn bring around a better and faster missile that could strike anywhere on the planet. As part of this race, the Soviet Union successfully launched its first satellite, Sputnik-1, throwing the United States into a panic, perceiving the instrument as a direct threat to the country's security, despite gestures from President Eisenhower, that satellite technology was not the key indicator of a country's technical superiority. Despite his attempts, it would be months before the United States could successfully follow the Russians into orbit.

The key to the Soviet's success was simple: they had started earlier, but because they had trouble miniaturizing parts for their own nuclear bombs, larger and more powerful rockets had to be built to carry their payload into orbit and back. Thus, the addition of a human passenger by 1961 was a technical possibility. Gagarin's flight occurred just days before US Astronaut, Alan Shepherd Jr. took off on board Freedom 7 on May 5th. The successes with the Vostok mission signaled an escalation of the space race between the two countries: over the next decade, their respective space agencies would work tirelessly to outdo the other, with spacewalks, number of orbits, people in space and eventually, the first to the moon. While the United States eventually won the space race by reaching the moon in 1969, the early Soviet victories underscored the differences in attitudes towards defensive doctrines in both countries. The United States was reluctant to shift its air force to a deterrent based system, while the Soviet Union essentially had no choice. As a result, they were able to gain a short lead in the race to orbit, as both countries experienced a space industry that was pushed along by military and political developments.

Gagarin never flew in space again. He was grounded by Soviet leadership, who used him as a public relations tool to bolster moral in the country. In 1968, he died in a plane crash while on a routine training mission. His legacy, however, is one of great importance: the first human to leave the planet, something equal, if not greater in importance to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

The Pacific

Last Sunday, HBO began their World War II miniseries on the Pacific Theater of Operations, simply titled The Pacific, as their long awaited follow-up to Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers was one of my earlier influences in the history field, and ever since high school, seven years ago, I've been awaiting for such a follow-up, which has been worked on in the ensuing years. The series already has paid off in the long wait between 2002 and now. In the past couple of years, I've graduated with two degrees in history (one was specifically in Military History), and as such, my views on commercial history have changed a lot since I first saw it.

The Pacific follows three soldiers, Robert Leckie, John Basilone and Eugene Sledge, and where Band of Brothers is based off of the book by the same title, this series is following the memoirs of Leckie and Sledge (Helmet for my Pillow and With the Old Breed, respectively), while Basilone is a well known figure in the Pacific War history. As such, the series has a somewhat different feel, apart from the differences in location and military units. Instead, the series has started off with much more of a personal story, rather than the story of an entire unit.

The Band of Brothers comparisons is something that the Pacific will be unable to really escape from, and that carries with it a need for some changes in how the stories will be told, as well as certain expectations with its appearance and what sort of story that it will be telling. To be bluntly honest, this isn't a historical story in the slightest - it features real stories and actions, but care should be taken to remember that primarily, this is a dramatic war movie, stretched out over ten nights. It'll be highly accurate, with a lot of care in that department, but history it is not.

What I really appreciate about this sort of series is the ability to get younger students (upper high school and the like) interested in World War II history, which in turn can act as a sort of gateway to other conflicts. In my own studies, I was highly interested in the Second World War, for all of its complexities and differences, and things to study. It's something that continues to fascinate me to the present day, and I'm sure that I'll be fascinated for a long time down the road. Band of Brothers, when it was released, most certainly hooked a number of people, getting them interested in the character stories, and going from that point onwards to other happenings.

This miniseries focuses extensively on the Pacific theater, with the Marines who fought in the island hopping campaigns that dug into Japanese territory. While the European theater has been extensively covered with movies, the Pacific has had a lesser degree of interest, for whatever reason, and I'll be interested to see how well this comes off in the series. From the first episode, it's clear that there's quite a lot of attention being paid to the characters and their own stories. This first episode is centered around Robert Leckie and the 1st Marine Regiment as they land on the first engagement at Guadalcanal as part of the Battle of the Tenaru, the opening actions for the Guadalcanal campaign. The U.S. Marines landed and secured the islands, but were surprised when the Japanese defeated their supporting ships off shore. The Marines secured the airstrip on the island, and engaged Japanese soldiers on August 21st, in the middle of the night, when the Japanese came across their lines. The first assault was turned back, and the second attack was once again turned back by mortars and heavy machine gun fire. In the morning, the U.S. Forces counter attacked, and over the course of the 21st, the US killed most of the Japanese forces, with just a handful withdrawing.

This first episode shares a pretty limited view of this battle, with Robert Leckie taking part in the first assault over the night and through to the next day. Leckie was part of this battle in real life, as a machine gunner, and the episode captures, fairly effectively, the horrors of that first engagement, from both the determination of the Japanese soldiers in the 17th Army (attacking or committing suicide after they were injured, taking American soldiers with them) and the measures that the U.S. forces took in retaliation.

The Pacific is very different from Band of Brothers, as the Pacific Campaign was vastly different than the European one. There were numerous lessons to be learned in these differences, and I'm eager to see how the remaining aspects of the campaign play out for this series.

Historiography and Popular Culture

On Sunday, HBO debuted their follow-up miniseries to the critically acclaimed series Band of Brothers, The Pacific. Unlike Band of Brothers, the Pacific is based off of two books, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, although a companion book, The Pacific, written by Hugh Ambrose, the son of Stephen Ambrose, author of numerous World War II narratives, including Band of Brothers. I have my reservations about Ambrose and his style of history. When I was working on my final paper for my undergraduate work, I attempted to work in several of the books that included Operation Overlord, to no avail, which proved to be an interesting lesson in the role of historiography in the public's eye, and huge differences between academic history and popular history.

The Pacific falls well within the popular history realm, which has its own set of limitations and expectations. When Band of Brothers was released, it saw with it a huge explosion of follow-up memoirs, stories and histories that capitalized in the major anniversary of the war, along with the ever growing numbers of World War II veterans who were dying at the time. Suffice to say, there has been an incredible push to hear their stories of the last 'great war'. Walking into a bookstore over the weekend, I saw that the books about the Pacific Theater of Operations have been given a prominent location, and I have little doubt that there will be a resurgence of interest in the Pacific aspect of the Second World War.

The Pacific theater was the area of World War II where I first became interested in history: first with the Pearl Harbor attack, and soon with a book called Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, about the survivors of the Bataan Death March, as well as a couple of other books, before I moved over to read extensively about the European Theater of Operations. While a number of the books that I read were interesting insights into the Second World War, I've found them very difficult to get back into, with a couple of exceptions.

The main issue with a lot of these books is that they are some form of biography or profile of a small number of people and their direct experiences with warfare. While this accomplishes the point of the book, i.e. illustrating a singular experience with the subject's experiences, it's not necessarily about warfare itself, it's about how people react under incredible pressures. This, I think, is the source of the fascination with the Second World War, a conflict so broad that it covers numerous experiences that soldiers were tested in a number of different ways and different situations. However, the most important lessons from the Second World War aren't necessarily the experiences of individuals: it is the actions and long-term events that led to the conflict that require the most study, elements of warfare that do not reach the public consumption level with big miniseries events and films such as The Pacific and Band of Brothers.

The historiographical level of history is a much broader look into the roots of warfare itself, examining the intersections between technology, leadership and social elements under fire. Soldier stories fill only a singular element in a much larger picture, and productions such as Band of Brothers and the Pacific. One of the dominant problems is that these books are generally taken at more than face value - Band of Brothers, despite its popularity, accounts for just one unit among many in the entire picture of the American and British operations, and largely doesn't look at much of the bigger picture involved with military operations. A similar book, The First Men In, by Ed Ruggero, is a similar story, about the 82nd Airborne division and their actions during Operation Overlord, and proves to be an exceptional book on airborne operations on a larger scale, while still keeping a number of the personal aspects of the soldiers intact.

What it comes down to, in a lot of ways, is how popularity affects a book or historical study. Certainly, World War II has remained an extremely popular war to study and to read about, given the scale of the conflict, while other conflicts, because of their outcomes and perceptions, are largely unknown to the public eye, such as Korea, Vietnam and numerous smaller conflicts that serve an extremely important role in American foreign policy and history. Much as only reading a bestseller World War II book will not give you a good idea of the larger picture of said conflict, only focusing on the extremely popular elements, people, conflicts and battles will likewise provide a limited view of the bigger picture.

Counter Insurgency and the Iraq War

Two presentations on the last day of the Colby Military Writers Symposium at Norwich University examined the ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Dr. Conrad Crane, of the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA, and Col. (Retired) Peter Mansoor of Ohio State University, and former Executive Officer to General David Petraeus, leading the presentations. Dr. Crane largely looked at the history of counterinsurgency warfare, and what lessons were learned with the introduction of the COIN Doctrine and manual on the part of the U.S. Military, while Col. Mansoor largely looked at the issues with the Iraq War, and the lessons that were learned during the fighting.

The United States has a long history with counterinsurgency operations. The War for Independence, the Civil War, and some of the surrounding conflicts, the Indian Wars, the Philippines, the Second World War, and Vietnam all had elements of asymmetrical warfare, but after the Vietnam War, records and documents about how to fight a counterinsurgency force were destroyed, because it was determined at the time that the United States wouldn't fight a war like that again. At the time of the Iraq War, the only counterinsurgency manual was one from Guadalcanal, for a small 50 man force that had been deployed there as advisors. From the 1980s onwards, a rise on counterinsurgency-based conflicts arose. As the United States entered Iraq, it found that the approaches to how the war would be fought would have to be rethought-out, and as a result, theorists with the Army and Marines began to work on a new Counter Insurgency manual, known as COIN.

According to Peter Mansoor, a number of assumptions were made on the part of the United States as to how the war would be fought, with certain reactions to the U.S. forces. Counterinsurgency was not planned for by U.S. planners, and as a result, the invading force was not prepared for that style of warfare. Furthermore, he charged, once U.S. forces had entered the country, and begun reconstruction work, the political groundwork for an insurgency campaign against U.S. forces was aided by the mistakes that were made from U.S. administrators, particularly Paul Bremer.

Amongst some of the elements that helped was the debathification of the country that occurred, removing the dominant party under Saddam Hussein from power. While this was an essential task, the removal of numerous civil servants extended too far, removing people who had only joined the party to advance, but also hampered recovery plans that were contingent upon people remaining at their posts after the U.S. entered the country. To keep the government functioning, roles were filled with people who were not qualified, and corrupt, which allowed for widespread disillusionment with the recovery efforts and left thousands out of work. They turned their frustrations into violence, turning the war in a different direction. Additional issues cropped up, as the changes in the war did not meet with the Bush Administration's plans, and as a result, this led to a lack of critical thinking and planning on the part of war planners. Rising levels of violence between 2004 and 2006 indicated that there was a need for a new approach to the war. At the height of the violence, President Bush allowed for a change in the war with the lauded troop surge.

The surge was not just an increase in the number of soldiers sent to Iraq; it coincided with the introduction of the new Counterinsurgency Manual that had been put together. The manual, authored by General Petraeus and a number of military and historical experts. The surge itself did not improve security: it worked as a catalyst to allow for improvements. The manual focused on a set number of objectives that redefined the war: It was population oriented, noted that a specific force was needed, rather than overwhelming force, military forces were not the only elements of the battlefield, required that the host nation would need to step up its own efforts to regulate its internal security, utilized new methods and sources of intelligence. Furthermore, the doctrine saw the need to change how the military perceived problems prior to engaging in combat, separate out insurgents from the rest of the population, manage information on the battlefield and utilizing perceptions, and utilized a clear/hold/rebuild approach to the battlefield.

Crane noted that there are a number of discrete styles of insurgency: conspiratorial, military, urban, popular, identity and subversive, and that these motivations for violence had both different background and contributing factors, but that these factors were not static: they could manifest at the same time, or the styles could change. In general, each style also requires a different response. The result is that counterinsurgency forces must be prepared and ready to meet a number of different threats at any given time, but also must anticipate and if possible, try to head off problems before they happen. One example cited was the efforts of a unit in a community that worked to pick up trash along the streets. In addition to denying a ready hiding place for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), it demonstrated to the community that there was an effort on the part of the Unit to help improve the community, and won over support of local leaders.

The COIN doctrine was started in Iraq, but was created with the intent that it would be continued to use in the future, for potential conflicts after the U.S. leaves Iraq and Afghanistan. The thinking behind the doctrine and manual is to emphasize good leadership from the top, while also preserving the message and intent of the orders with the greater picture down to the front lines. Modern, flexible leaders will be required along with better schooling and training of soldiers, as well as learning from the lessons of the current wars, with better preparation and implementation of the new doctrine where needed.

The U.S. had problems with Iraq because a number of the lessons that were learned from Vietnam were not remembered. War planners tried to fight a war that the country was very good at, and had experience with: a high tech, conventional war. In the end, the conflict in Iraq turned out to be a very different sort of war, one where technology and sensors were not strategy. The successes of Gulf Storm certainly led to misconceptions about how this war would be fought. Counterinsurgency warfare represents a very large departure from conventional thinking and combat: it is fluid, requires very different roles for the soldiers on the ground and a different attitude in leadership from all levels.

Changes in Tactics

Tom Clancy has an interesting quote: "Why do people have a fixation with the German Military when they haven't won a war since 1871?". The question is a valid one, when one looks at just how the US military has studied and implemented a number of tactics and doctrine that the Germans used in the Second World War. Two articles that were published recently look at this very issue, essentially summing up to one question: why hasn't the US military shifted its focus and strategy out of World War Two? This is an especially interesting issue when one takes into consideration the troubles that US forces have in the Middle East conflict, as enemy soldiers have changed how they meet the enemy, while the United States has not reacted to change in the same way.

Currently, US forces are working their way into Marja, with a new push to rid the region of insurgents, but also to demonstrate to local Afghans that the US can be effective in their nation's security by training their own soldiers. In the past eight years that we have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rules of warfare have drastically changed from what war planners anticipated, and from most wars of the past. In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, John Arquilla has an interesting observation: "Flanking also formed a basis for the march up Mesopotamia by U.S. Forces in 2003. But something odd happened this time. In the words of military historian John Keegan, the large Iraqi army of more than 400,000 troops just 'melted away'. There were no great battles of encirclement and only a handful of firefights along the way to Baghdad. Instead, Iraqis largely waited until their country was overrun and then mounted an insurgency based on tip-and-run attacks and bombings." (John Arquilla, The New Rules of War, Foreign Policy, March/April, 7) The lead up to the first Gulf War in 1991 followed a number of similar principles, with a massive military force, ready to move with an incredible amount of speed, utilized technology and new unit tactics borne out of changes in the military in the fallout from Vietnam. The Iraqi military was destroyed, but with little follow up, the country and its organization remained.

What the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have demonstrated is that there is an increasing use, and success against U.S. forces, in irregular or asymmetric warfare that runs counter to the current thinking and training within the U.S. Army and within military study. As the playing field has begun to change, the thinking behind how the military conducts its operations must to change to effectively meet enemy forces on the battlefield. Already, there have been incredible successes in how changes in tactics have been implemented in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with the troop surge in 2008-2009. The surge wasn't just more soldiers committed to the battlefield, it represented an entirely new method in which soldiers were organized against an enemy force. In this instance, a large force broken up in to just a couple larger units just didn't work. Breaking the forces into smaller units, and reexamining the mission and objectives, US forces were able to undertake missions with a higher success rate.

However, this line of thinking needs to continue, suggests Arquilla, in the form of better understanding how not only enemy forces are arrayed, but how the U.S. utilizes its military. In a large way, the military needs to be far more flexible with how it goes up against enemy combatants, in in that change, the overall objective for the purpose of the military needs to be sought out. In the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower was elected in part due to his commitment to bring U.S troops out of Korea. In doing so, he redefined how the military operated, as part of how he viewed the role of the Federal Government: smaller and less intrusive. In this, the United States military shifted from a large scale conventional military to one who's force largely rested on the threat of force: a deterrent based military, one which did not rely on the need for the United States to send soldiers overseas for numerous engagements. Now, sixty years in the future, the same thing needs to occur: the military (and the political system that organizes and oversees it) needs to determine exactly what the purpose of the armed forces will be, and what their mandate is. Then, the military can begin to utilize its forces to the best of its abilities, working to merge technology and tactics into something that will help to protect the country in the future.

God Speed, John Glenn

On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn Jr., atop an Atlas rocket, became the third American to leave the Earth’s surface, on his way to fulfill the core objective of the Mercury Project: orbit the Earth and return safely. His flight was met with joy from the people United States, who idolized the seven Mercury astronauts, as this mission would allow the United States to finally catch up to the Soviet Union, who had not only beaten America to space with Sputnik, but they also put the first man into orbit just a month before the American's first astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr.

The first two Mercury missions were undertaken by American astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, demonstrating that the United States could not only send men into space successfully, but that they could repeat the experiment. However, where the United States had been overtaken by Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was orbital flight, something that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hoped to catch up with during the Friendship 7 Mission.

The mission came at a crossroads with the development of the space race, and at particularly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of NASA’s pitch to Congress depended upon a Soviet lead in the race to orbit, something that the US would meet up with when it came to the Friendship 7 mission, and diplomacy at the time was intertwined with international arms agreements and cooperation with US allies. (Walter McDougall, And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 365.) At this point in time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the early stages of the Space Race, where both countries had strategic interests in space, namely with the use of spy satellites. As the race progressed, objections to most arguments were dropped. (McDougall, 348). Within this context, it’s hardly a surprise at the reaction to the success of Friendship 7, but also the drive that the Mercury Seven astronauts displayed during their training. There was an acute awareness that the space program was an element of the nation’s security, something that acted as a more visible deterrent for both countries, as an indicator of technological sophistication. (Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, 138).

The Friendship 7 mission itself was delayed from its original December 20th, 1961 date, due to technical and weather related issues. There were numerous launch attempts, all resulting in a count-down halt, until February 20th, where there were only minor technical delays and a break in the weather, allowing for a launch. (French, 140). At 9:47 in the morning, the rocket roared to life, and Glenn was on his way to orbit.

This marked the first time that an Atlas Rocket was used to launch a human in the space program. The two prior Mercury flights were powered by Von Braun’s Redstone Rocket (William Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 326), which allowed Shepherd and Grissom into space, but only on ballistic trajectories. The Atlas Rocket, which was also used to launch nuclear missiles, was powerful enough to bring Glenn to an orbital altitude. The Atlas, first proposed in 1946, was now the survivor of an intense inter-rivalry fight between the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. (Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, 222-223)

Glenn’s flight started off better than expected, with a perfect launch, but once the spacecraft reached orbit, a warning light indicated that the heat shield had come loose on Friendship 7, which could mean that the spacecraft and astronaut would burn up in orbit upon re-entry. Mission control ordered Glenn to conduct several tests designed to confirm the nature of the problem, but at that time, he wasn’t told of the issue, but knew that at that point, something was wrong. Glenn was able to conduct three orbits of the Earth, and as the spacecraft reached the point of reentry, Mission Control instructed the astronaut to leave the retropack in place, to keep the heat shield in place should it be loose. After a hair raising trip back to Earth, Friendship 7 landed near the USS Noa. Technical follow-ups with the spacecraft revealed later on that the heat shield had in fact remained in place, and was never loose in the first place: a faulty microchip had malfunctioned, giving off a signal that the spacecraft was in trouble. (French, 146)

The success of the mission helped to fulfill a couple of functions with the US’s image in space. The first aspect was concerned with catching up with the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. With the flight of Friendship 7, the United States had caught up with the Soviet Union in terms of space technology, matching Yuri Gagarin’s flight just 10 months earlier. But the successful flight helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the Atlas rocket once again. While the rocket had been used in a fairly public demonstration with an orbit of the Earth in 1958, Glenn’s use of the rocket to reach orbit was something that was looked upon by millions from around the world. After the mission, Glenn and Friendship 7 went around the world in what was called the 4th orbit, no doubt as a calculated public relations tour that helped to underscore the technological abilities of the United States. (Burrows, 342)

Glenn’s flight was a success for the space program, achieving the goals of the Mercury program: send a human to space and orbit the Earth. The mission demonstrated that the United States could replicate their earlier successes on preexisting hardware, and also demonstrate that the Soviet Union did not necessarily have the final say on spaceflight. But, it also showed that there were issues in command between the crew of the spacecraft and Mission control, issues that would occur later: who would be in charge of the spacecraft in the event of an emergency? In this instance, Mission Control was able to work out possible solutions to the perceived issue on Glenn’s flight, but future missions would strain the ties. Despite that, the Friendship 7 mission was widely celebrated for its contributions to the advances in American spaceflight, allowing the United States to catch up to the Russians and eventually, overtake them in the race to the Moon.