Alright folks, grab a seat, get warm. Let’s chat.
We’re now looking at the tenth month of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. As with any new project, no plan quite survives contact with the enemy. As I write this, we’ve just crossed 500,000 page views, which is approximately 499,500 or so more than I thought I’d ever reach, much less in the first year. At the same time, as those of you who have been hanging around since the beginning may have noticed, my posts have been trending longer as time has gone on. The average lengths of the Fremen Mirage series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, Interlude, IV) week-for-week is nearly double that of the first series (Siege of Gondor, I, II, III, IV, V, VI). And in a way, that’s good! Y’all seem to be liking the longer formats. But, in a way, that’s bad! I have a day job and it is hard to keep up with writing a 7,500-10,000 word essay every week. I’ve tried to keep that under control by breaking up longer posts – thus the awkward four-and-three-quarters-part Fremen Mirage series structure – but I think those breaks are largely artificial and not a positive change.
So I’ve decided to switch up the format a little, as I hinted at a few weeks back. Here is my new plan: there will still be a post every Friday, but many of those posts will be like this one: fairly short off-the-cuff posts, which I’m going to call Fireside Fridays. In these short posts, I’ll link to some interesting history (ancient, military, economic, whatever) things I’ve read or listened to and update you all on what I’m working on for the blog. I may also muse on what I’ve been teaching, writing or researching on for that week, if I think I have anything interesting and brief to say (but I still intend to avoid anything ‘topical’ – this isn’t a politics blog and I don’t want to let it become one). I think I’ll plan to close every Fireside post out with a book recommendation (always something I have read myself; I’ll try to limit it mostly to the sort of books mortals without a university library can actually get a copy of). These posts will be short and something I can put together in a reasonable amount of time, even in weeks where my research and teaching schedule is heavy. Also, each fireside post will come with a picture of me, next to my fireplace, looking rather silly, ideally in some new and unique way.
Meanwhile, I can be working on the next big post (either a series or a single stand-alone); those will still be labeled Collections so you can pick them out easily. When one of those is done, it’ll replace the Fireside post for that week (or multiple running weeks, if it is a series). That will also give me the advantage of being able to write each series completely before starting the rollout, which should improve my workflow. Each Fireside week, I’ll give an update on what the essays in progress are and how they are proceeding.
Finally, if you don’t want to be always checking in and only want to know when something new is up, remember that you can sign up for email updates by clicking the button:
This week’s musings are two-fold and related. First, I’ve begun working on both a single stand-alone post and charting out the next longer series, but neither is far enough along for my to tip my hand on them. But second, one thing I have been looking for an opportunity to discuss in more depth is the concept of doctrine, which is one of the few really big military history concepts that doesn’t appear somewhere in the Siege of Gondor series. Parshal and Tully give a good definition of doctrine in Shattered Sword, that it is the “body of formal knowledge that tells a fighting force how it is expected to fight” (83). And I want to be clear: that is way more important than it sounds at first – armies are complicated things and you simply cannot try to ‘make it up as you go along.’ For pre-modern forces, that effect is often carried by discourse and cultural expectations around war as much as by official field manuals (which most pre-modern armies largely did not have), but I think we ought to think of all of it – the formal and informal elements – under the heading of doctrine (which is, to be fair, a dramatic widening of the concept in its normal usage).
I find that doctrine is a concept that a lot of folks neglect in their thinking, but it has a tremendous impact on how military forces behave, so I’ve been looking for an opportunity to cover it. The problem is that it’s hard to observe doctrine in something like film or video-games because the error is that it is simply absent. There’s nothing to talk about because it’s simply not there. Commanders make plans without any reference to a standard operating procedure or shared assumptions. Much like Sauron’s orc army (in the films) appears to function without NCOs, it also functions without doctrine (when, to be clear, without a coherent assault doctrine, an army that large should pretty much fall apart). But at the same time, the absence often isn’t conspicuous, because everything just goes to plan as if it was in accordance with doctrine and everyone was on the same page of the field manual, even though there appears to be no field manual or meaningful coordination. It makes it difficult to find a good way to discuss the concept, since in the fiction, everything seems to just work fine without it.
And then I had a vision: I beheld a pale horse, and on that horse was Tom Hanks, and he was giving me a gift (seriously though, I am hyped for this movie). For a film about convoy escort, convoy raiding and anti-submarine operations, doctrine should be everywhere and obvious. Communications, signalling, navigation, formations, attack patterns, command organization, targeting, target tracking, air-cover, how technology is used, wolf-pack tactics, all of it is in doctrine. Sailors on those ships – the convoy and the escorts – are either going to react with respect to doctrine (if the film is good – and it’s based on a C.S. Forester novel, so it should be) or with complete disregard to it, and either way that’s going to show up in the film. While doctrine is very important in all types of modern warfare, naval warfare often brings that importance out far more clearly, in my experience. So if I can’t find a good example between us and June, then we’re going to talk about doctrine in June.
So, onward to the recommendations, since it would be uncharitable of me to leave you all with nothing to munch on!
First off, here’s an excellent podcast by friend and colleague Mary Elizabeth Walters (Assistant Professor of History at Kansas State University), talking about humanitarian operations in conflict zones. This sort of thing is often overlooked in military history, but it is a kind of mission that often matters a great deal to actually achieve policy aims or secure gains. The podcast is fairly short (about a half an hour) but covers a wide range of the sort of complications created for these kinds of operations in active conflict zones. It’s a great primer for a sort of mission that armies have been engaged in for a long time – in many cases, an army or a navy is simply the only organization with the logistics and scope needed to carry out such jobs (though these days, NGOs play a role too) – but is rarely discussed. Check it out!
Next up, an excellent blog post at Thinking Historically on why the film 1917 could have used more context. I saw this post generate some controversy on Mil-Hist Twitter between those who agreed with it and those who felt the movie stood well on its own. For my part, I think films like this could do to offer some broader context, even if that means a boring text-crawl for the credits. Also, the recommendation for They Shall Not Grow Old is fully shared by me. It’s on streaming services now, so there’s no excuse not to experience it.
Finally, I think I’ll make a habit of trying to end up with a book recommendation (aiming for things which are affordable for mortals like us). This time, I’m going to go with Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017). Schadlow’s focus here is in consolidating gains: the messy, often political work of turning a battlefield victory into completed strategic aims, which might mean consolidating territorial control, or turning the territory over to a new government. Consolidating gains is often under-discussed (and as Schadlow gets into, often neglected in doctrine), but it is a crucial part of war winning rather than simply war fighting. And that matters a lot – Roman success, for instance, was as much in their ability to effectively consolidate gains (compare Alexander’s empire, which turned out to be far more ephemeral). The book looks at the US Army’s efforts in this regard from the Mexican-American war to the present, in a wide range of situations and conditions – learning and then relearning the lessons of these processes and navigating the sticky situations where generals have no choice but to administer local politics. My impression is that this book has become something of a instant classic in military history, and its well worth a read.