“You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe”: American Women in Combat

by Heather Marie Stur


U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class Alyssa Wells, Supervisor Guard, 186th Military Police Company, watches from the roof as women come out to the courtyard in the Rusafa Prison Complex, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced that the armed services would open all combat positions to women in anticipation of President Obama’s January 2016 deadline for doing so. What this means, Carter told reporters at a press conference, is that servicewomen will “be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”[i] Pentagon officials have stated that the armed forces will not modify their standards or set quotas for women. Those in favor of allowing women to officially serve in combat hail the decision as a crucial step toward the full integration of women into the military and the removal of a barrier to career advancement. Opponents cite studies indicating women’s physical limitations and argue that women in combat will weaken unit cohesion. Some feminists argue that integrating women into the military fails to challenge a war making system grounded in patriarchal ideas about power and domination. Buttressing the various opinions in the debate are cultural beliefs about gender, citizenship, and security.

The history of women in the U.S. military is one of gradual integration and fairly consistent cultural resistance. Women began serving officially in the armed forces when the Army and Navy established nurse corps in the early 1900s. Long considered “women’s work,” nursing was an acceptable field in which women could serve, but when American women joined civilian rifle clubs and civil defense groups during World War I, this subversion of traditional ideas about men as protectors and women in need of protection shocked the American public. The idea of armed women defending the nation ran counter to the prevailing gendered divisions between home front and battlefront.[ii] During World War II, manpower needs led the Army to establish the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which opened clerical, intelligence, communications, and other non-combat specialties to women. Critics decried this type of mobilization of women, arguing that women did not belong in harm’s way and that the WAC would be a haven for lesbians and “loose women.”[iii]

When the Defense Department abolished the draft at the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces launched recruitment campaigns targeting women in order to help fill the ranks of an all-volunteer force. The U.S. military academies began admitting women in 1976, and the Army dissolved the WAC in 1978 and integrated servicewomen into the regular army.[iv] At that time, Family: The Magazine of Army/Navy/Air Force Times published an article about the post-Vietnam expansion of women’s service opportunities titled “You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe,” a play on the old Virginia Slims slogan. It discussed the new military opportunities for women and the negative reactions to them by some citizens and servicemen. Expressing opposition in terms similar to those used by critics of the WAC in the 1940s, opponents viewed servicewomen as either “hopeless nymphomaniacs” or “a hopeless loser or lesbian.”[v] Despite the resistance, 62 women cadets graduated from West Point in 1980. In the early 1990s, more than 40,000 American women served in the Gulf War, and Congress authorized servicewomen to fly combat missions and serve on combat ships. About 300,000 American women have served in the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August, the first two women graduated from the Army’s elite Ranger School.[vi]

This history suggests that the opening of all combat specialties to women would be the next step in a century’s worth of progress toward gender equality in the U.S. military. But neither the Pentagon nor the president can force a change in Americans’ beliefs about who can and should fight. At the heart of some critics’ resistance to women in combat is conscription. Opponents worry that if the U.S. reinstates the draft, women would have to be subject to it because they can now serve in combat. The primary purpose of a draft is to fill infantry positions vacated by killed or wounded soldiers. Women, along with men, could be compelled to take up arms and fight. Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it this way: “If you’re going to have women in infantry units, if a draft ever occurred, America needs to realize that its daughters and sisters would be included. The reason you draft people is because you have infantrymen dying.”[vii] Daughters and sisters. More than questions about women’s ability to carry sixty-plus pounds while maneuvering a weapon and running, the notion that the federal government could order daughters and sisters to the front lines is, to some critics, the most troubling consequence of opening combat positions to women. This mindset is deeply rooted in the ideas that men are to protect women, especially younger women who are or could be mothers, and that the home front and the battlefront are gendered separate spheres to be controlled by women and men, respectively. If sons and brothers are drafted and subsequently killed in war, it is a tragic but necessary fulfillment of duty to the nation. If the same happens to daughters and sisters, it is a cause for outrage against the gender equality movement for upending the natural order of things.

War has proven that all of these divisions – protector versus protected, home front versus battlefront, motherhood versus military service as ultimate civic duties – are artificial. Resistance to women serving in infantry jobs remains even though servicewomen have already seen direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before those conflicts, in the Vietnam War, women military nurses worked in hospitals that were routinely attacked, and WACs found themselves diving into bunkers with their male comrades to ride out mortar attacks. There were no front lines in Vietnam, or in Iraq or Afghanistan. These dichotomies have been even more artificial for non-American women. My friend and Dale Center fellow, Allison Abra, explained to me that historians of Britain have argued that since the aerial bombings of World War I, opponents of women in combat could not focus as much on shielding women from the violence of war because not even civilian women were protected from harm when the home front was the battlefront. If the goal is the full integration of women into the U.S. military, the next and most difficult step is to let go of these imagined divisions and focus on measurable data when thinking about men’s and women’s appropriate roles in wartime. If a woman can graduate from Ranger School under the same standards that apply to men, why shouldn’t she serve in combat?

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). She is currently writing Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam (Cambridge, forthcoming).

[i] Matthew Rosenberg and Dave Phillips, “All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html?emc=edit_th_20151204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=64532283&_r=3&referer=

[ii] Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[iii] Leisa Meyer, Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[iv] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Beth Bailey, America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010).

[v] Stur, 226.

[vi] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “Women in combat? They’ve already been serving on the front lines, with heroism,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1204-lemmon-women-combat-20151204-story.html

[vii] Austin Wright, “Republicans raise alarm about women in combat. Their subtle warning: It could force all young women to register for the draft,” Politico, Dec. 3, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/pentagon-women-in-combat-republican-reaction-216412

Posted in women and war, women in combat | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dissertation Research in the Age of Social Media

by Robert Thompson, Guest Contributor

My dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the US Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” focuses on pacification in Phu Yen during the Vietnam War and argues  that pacification meant improving security and was ultimately betrayed by Vietnamization. Much of my research has been of the traditional archival sort and has taken me to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Hoover Institution, McCain Library and Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration II. From that research, I identified individuals who served in Phu Yen as members of Civil Operations and Rural Development’s (CORDS) Advisory Team 28. Thanks to social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as blogs, I have been able to actually get in contact with some of the veterans who served in Phu Yen so that I could conduct oral histories with them. This type of “nontraditional” research has provided crucial information about the pacification process and results that are not written into the documentary record. Social media has also helped me connect with other researchers working on the Vietnam War and pacification, and this community of scholars has provided me with leads, key documents, and moral support.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

The initial ideas for “More Sieve Than Shield” grew out of my reading of the various documents in the Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi’s McCain Library and Archives. From the very beginning of my dissertation research, I realized that to understand pacification in Phu Yen meant gaining the perspectives of the veterans who served in that province. By far the most reveling primary sources are the district reports and the monthly province progress reports. During the Vietnam War, the districts of Dong Xuan, Hieu Xieu, Song Cau, Son Hoa, Tuy An, and Tuy Hoa formed Phu Yen province. While reading the district reports, I uncovered a trove of brilliant descriptions of the poor security situation befalling Phu Yen. Between 1969 and 1970, rampant abductions of civilians by the Viet Cong made Phu Yen one of the least secure provinces in the Republic of Vietnam. The reports present pacification as a failure.

After reading the files in Frobenius’s collection, I noted the names of his superiors and sought to gain their view of events, turning to social media to track down some of the District Senior Advisors (DSA) and Province Senior Advisors (PSA). I began my search by writing a blog post on my website, ThompsonWerk.com, asking for leads. The first person to respond was Charles Varnum, who served as a DSA in 1971. From him I got enough information to track down his superior in Phu Yen, PSA Russell Meerdink, and I searched online for DSAs Robert Barron, Eugene Fluke, and Ellis Wisner, all of whom served in Tuy Hoa District. With little difficulty, I contacted Barron and Wisner. Wisner even invited me to his home, where we drank coffee and discussed the Tuy Hoa District he remembered.

Tuy Hoa district report, Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Image courtesy of the author.

Tuy Hoa district report, U.S. National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Image courtesy of the author.

Finding Fluke proved a bit more challenging. Fluke’s district reports provide a wealth of information, and I was eager to speak with him. Fluke had uncovered the GVN’s hiding of Viet Cong abductions from Advisory Team 28, the CORDS team in Phu Yen, exposing what became known as “the Advisory Crisis.” This crisis involved the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Phu Yen provincial affairs, resulting in the removal the province chief and the redeployment American troops to re-train local defense forces. So helpful were his observations—“More Sieve Than Shield” is a quote from one of Fluke’s district reports—I searched for him on social media. After combing the internet for what felt like forever, I recently found his profile on LinkedIn and gave him a call. From our conversation, I learned that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon completely supported him, and his career was untarnished by the Advisory Crisis. Indeed, Ambassador William Colby thanked Fluke during a private meeting over a bottle of Johnny Walker, a gift Colby told him he thoroughly deserved.

In addition to the Frobenius papers, the website MACVteams.org has helped me connect with veterans of Advisory Team 28. It was here that I found Ronald Thayer, a veteran who did three tours in Phu Yen and witnessed the war from start to finish. As a DSA for Son Hoa District, he participated in the little known, yet illuminating, Battle of Cung Son on June 18, 1971, the largest battle in the province after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Cung Son entailed a combined PAVN and VC force converging on the GVN district compound and Regional Force (RF ) base with the objective of ejecting the GVN out of the district. RF and U.S. helicopters eventually won the battle, demonstrating that the RF could fight so long as it could rely on U.S. airpower. The battle also indicated that the enemy still maintained a noteworthy presence in Phu Yen well into the Vietnamization period.

Social media has also allowed me to connect with others who are studying pacification. On Twitter, I have exchanged ideas over what pacification means with other doctoral students, and exchanging tweets with them has led me to reorganize my dissertation chapters and locate invaluable documents at the U.S. National Archives. Critics of province studies argue that a single province cannot explain larger trends in the Republic of Vietnam, but thanks to a contact I made on Twitter, I was able to get U.S. Embassy documents on Phu Yen indicating the importance of the province to the larger war effort. On the Facebook group, Vietnam War History Organization, established by Vietnam War scholar Erik Villard, academics and veterans share information about war, and from this group, I have obtained research leads, after action reports, and maps. In sharing my own research with the group, I have found encouragement and motivation to carry on and keep writing. From practical tools to moral support, the internet and social media offer useful tools for dissertation research and camaraderie in what is often solitary work.

Robert Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is working on his dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” under the supervision of Dale Center Founding Director Dr. Andrew Wiest. Thompson is the recipient of the U.S. Army Center of Military History Dissertation Fellowship and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives Silar Palmer Research Fellowship. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and two sons.

Posted in dissertation, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And the Winner is …

by Andrew Wiest

Dr. Andrew Wiest at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dr. Andrew Wiest at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony in New York City, Sept. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of the author.

I knew from the moment that I met John Young that I needed to write a book about him – a book that sought to redefine the historical vision of the Vietnam combat experience. While immersed in the writing of the book, as the story of Charlie Company emerged in text on my computer screen, I couldn’t help thinking, “Boy, this would make a good movie!” I am sure that thoughts like that have occurred to many a historian, and the thoughts soon passed – subsumed by reality. But then Lou Reda Productions and the National Geographic Channel also fell in love with the story of Charlie Company, and the result was the 2014 release of the documentary Brothers in War. Working as the historical advisor to a documentary based on my book was a very interesting experience. The most difficult part of the process was boiling down 400 pages of text into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. The most enjoyable part of the process was being able to utilize the new tools of film (including home movies shot by the members of Charlie Company) and sound to help tell the intimate story of an infantry company at war. The most surreal part of the process was hearing Charlie Sheen narrate the words that I had written.

Dr. Andrew Wiest and the staff of Lou Reda Productions on the red carpet at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dr. Andrew Wiest and the staff of Lou Reda Productions on the red carpet at the 36th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of the author.

After well over a year of rather frenetic work (film folks work at a very different pace than that to which most historians are accustomed) Brothers in War was launched at a reunion of Charlie Company at National Geographic Channel Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was a very emotional evening. The veterans were so excited to see one another again, but it was quite hard on them to witness scenes filmed so long ago – scenes in which their best friends were lost in battle. It was their best of days and worst of days come back to life. As the film drew to a close and the lights came up, tears were shed, backs were patted, and congratulations were offered. After Brothers in War aired on television, good news on ratings came in, as did glowing reviews. At that point I was pretty certain that my unexpected foray into the film world had come to an end.

In March 2015, though, some very unexpected news came in: National Geographic was nominating Brothers in War for four Emmy awards – in writing, research, editing, and for Outstanding Historical Programming (the big one). Having National Geographic Channel pick out Brothers in War as its most Emmy worthy documentary of the year was quite an honor in and of itself. Liz Reph, Scott Reda (the director and producer respectively of Brothers in War), and I got together to assemble a submission in all four categories for the folks at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. With that bit of extra work done, I once again assumed that the story was over. I knew that Brothers in War was good, but the competition was so fierce that I just figured that our journey had run its course. But on July 22, more news came in. Brothers in War was an official Emmy nominee for Outstanding Historical Programming.

The rest of the story is something of a blur. We received out tickets to the Emmy awards in New York, we made travel plans, I bought a new tie and a shirt that fit, and we were off. Two of the veterans of Charlie Company, Bill Reynolds and Steve Hopper, were able to join Liz Reph, Scott Reda, Steve Heavner (the sound engineer for the project), Madeline Carter (Executive Producer from the National Geographic Channel), and myself at the ceremony. Festivities began at 5:30 at Lincoln Center in New York. First there was a walk down the red carpet and then drinks and dinner surrounded by hundreds of people I either knew from television or should have known. Next came the ceremony itself. The Brothers in War team was seated together midway through the crowd as Emmy after Emmy flew off of the shelf. Our turn came after Larry King presented Ted Turner with the lifetime achievement award. The lights dimmed as the film began, “And the nominees for Outstanding Historical Programming—Long Form are. . .” Next followed a five second clip of Brothers in War and similar clips from the other four nominees. I am a cell phone Luddite, but my iPhone was on and recording away. The Emmy made its way out to the stage. The envelope was ripped open. “And the Emmy goes to Independent Lens for The Trials of Muhammad Ali.”

Since our category was near the end, the ceremony quickly wrapped up, and a disappointed Brothers in War crew headed outside. The veterans who had joined us for the ceremony were upset that a documentary about Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector who refused to fight in Vietnam, had won the Emmy. But once the disappointment had time to clear, amid a series of farewell hugs, we all came to the realization that it had been such an honor to be there in New York for the Emmys. It was such an honor to be selected as one of the five best documentaries on television for the year. There we were, amid the famous and near famous – a bunch of folks who had tried their best to tell the story of a unique group of veterans. There are so many stories about so many veterans that never get told. Our story did get told. It did get noticed, and we were standing on the red carpet to prove it. We were the lucky ones.

Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines (Osprey, 2013) and The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 2012).

Posted in documentaries, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From Small Things: How a Staff Ride Became Two Articles and a Book Project

by Ricardo A. Herrera, Guest Contributor

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Campaign Operations, August- December 1777. Image courtesy of the author.

While a historian on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, US Army Combined Arms Center, I spent much of the summer of 2008 researching and building a staff ride on the 1777 British campaign to capture Philadelphia, home of the Continental Congress. The research took me to Philadelphia and the immediate environs through which British and Continental forces had maneuvered, fought, foraged, and wintered.[1] My journey led me to Head of Elk (south of Elkton, Maryland), where the British Army landed in August 1777, to the sites of the first skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge in Delaware, to Kennett Square, the battlefields of Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown, Mud Island, and Whitemarsh in Pennsylvania, and the encampment site at Valley Forge. Venturing across the Delaware River, I walked the ground at Fort Mercer (Red Bank), Billingsport, Salem, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, and Cooper’s Ferry and Cooper’s Creek (Camden), New Jersey.

For a student of military history, there’s nothing quite like walking the ground over which armies marched, fought, or bivouacked. Indeed, to write with any degree of fidelity about a war, a campaign, or a battle, I believe it’s important to walk the ground, if possible, and interrogate it as you might interrogate written evidence, artwork, or material artifacts from the event or period. Battlefields and areas of operations are, therefore, historical documents and classrooms.[2]

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Philadelphia Area of Operation. Image courtesy of the author.

Some have suggested that staff rides are old-fashioned, “drum and trumpet” military history because they focus on the tactical realm. But it’s wise not to throw out the baby with the bathwater in our rush to embrace the newest evolutions in military history or in war and society studies. Tactical, and at a higher level, operational, movements are key to understanding the art and science of war and warfare. The topics—terrain, weather, the natural and manmade environments, army organization, tactical practices, weaponry, commanders’ knowledge at the time of the actions, their decisions, troop movements, the outcomes of battle, etc.—of a staff ride offer valuable insights into the nature of battle and the quotidian experiences of participants. Activity, not static positioning, is at the heart of the endeavor; thus the challenge of examining Valley Forge, an encampment.[3]

Seat of War Map

Seat of War Map, Philadelphia. Image courtesy of the author.

To ignore Valley Forge, however, is to ignore an iconic place and event in American history, and, drawing back from abstraction to look closely at details, a significant stage in the Philadelphia Campaign. It was the winter and spring home of the Continental Army under George Washington. Yet, Valley Forge is static and therefore problematic for a staff ride. Washington’s Continentals marched into winter quarters in December 1777 and emerged in June 1778, but no battle took place at Valley Forge. General Sir William Howe, commander-in chief of the British Army, declined assaulting it. What to do? Where to find movement? How best to maintain the staff ride’s tempo?

A discussion of “Feeding Valley Forge” was my answer. “How did the army sustain itself?,” I wondered, “What about security?” Drawing upon Wayne Bodle’s Valley Forge Winter, Frank H. Stewart’s, Foraging for Valley Forge, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and modern military parlance, I cast Valley Forge as an eighteenth-century anticipation of a Forward Operating Base (FOB), a fixed, albeit temporary, post that supports military operations. From “FOB” Valley Forge, the Continental Army maintained a security line to the east and south and sent patrols into the countryside to contest the space between the encampment and British-occupied Philadelphia. Soldiers from “FOB” Valley Forge marched out to forage in search of food and supplies for the army. All this was much more than passively and miserably sitting in freezing huts and starving. Here was action, here was the movement to sustain something of the staff ride’s conceptual momentum.[4]

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grand Forage, February-March 1778. Image courtesy of the author.

In small things, larger goodness often inheres. In February 2009, after arriving on the cusp of a blizzard that closed Valley Forge for a day or two (a much-appreciated irony), I led the staff ride. This and the research behind the staff ride, however, had led me to believe that there was a scholarly article in all of this, one that would examine the events at Valley Forge in the context of operational and tactical-level military history rather than old tropes of valiant and starving Continentals. I decided to focus on the Continental Army’s efforts to sustain itself by focusing on the largest operation it undertook while encamped at Valley Forge, something I termed the Grand Forage of 1778.[5]

The research on the grand forage revealed much about the Continental Army as an active field army, its maturation, and its ability to plan centrally and execute autonomously. The article, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” appeared in 2011. The research behind it led to a second article in 2015, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre.” The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve discovered, the more questions and suppositions I’ve generated, and the more I need to research, think, and write about the grand forage. From small things came larger questions and answers, and more questions. Back to foraging I must go.[6]

Ricardo A. Herrera is Associate Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861 (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[1] My staff-ride teammates, Curt King and Chuck Collins, accompanied me on the reconnaissance and initial executions of the ride and were instrumental in its development. Thanks to Kevin Kennedy, my one-time team chief, for his support. Many thanks to John Grenier for reading and commenting on the draft of this short essay.

[2] I am guilty of not having followed (or having been able to follow) my own injunction regarding walking the battlefield in “Brave Rifles at Tall ‘Afar, September 2005.” In Contact!: Case Studies from the Long War, vol. 1, ed. William Glenn Robertson (Ft. Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006): 125-152.

[3] From 2006-2012, I was a historian on the Staff Ride Team, serving as acting team chief in my last months before joining the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), US Army Command and General Staff College. For more on the history and conduct of staff rides, see William G. Robertson, The Staff Ride (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1987).

[4] Wayne Bodle, Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Frank H. Stewart, Foraging for Valley Forge by General Anthony Wayne in Salem and Gloucester Counties, New Jersey, with Associated Happenings and Foraging in Salem County for the British Army in Philadelphia by Colonel Mawhood and Major Simcoe, 1778 (Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1929).

[5] Grand forage denoted any large-scale foraging party, typically a brigade or larger.

[6] Ricardo A. Herrera, “Foraging and Combat Operations at Valley Forge, February-March 1778,” Army History 79 (Spring 2011): 6-29; Herrera, “‘[T]he zealous activity of Capt. Lee’: Light-Horse Harry Lee and Petite Guerre,” The Journal of Military History 79, no. 1 (January 2015): 9-36. Thanks to Col. Hank Arnold, Scott Gorman, and Rich Dixon, and to SAMS for their support of my ongoing research.

Posted in battlefields, Military history, operational histories, research, staff rides | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where has the Seventeenth Century Gone? The National Park Service, Battlefield Preservation, and America’s Colonial Military Past

by Kyle F. Zelner

Every year, millions of people visit U. S. National Parks that commemorate, interpret, and memorialize wars, battles, and military sites where Americans served, were wounded, or died. The National Park Service (NPS) administers a total of 408 units—both parks that showcase America’s natural beauty as well as a large number that protect and interpret our history (a sizeable number of these highlight America’s military past). Tourists can visit sites connected to almost all of America’s major conflicts, from Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields to old western forts to World War II home-front locales to sites that honor the late twentieth century’s Global War on Terror. However, the country’s military history is anything but evenly covered. Out of the 81 “military parks,” be they National Historic Sites, National Historic Parks, National Battlefield Parks, National Military Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Monuments, or National Memorials, only five parks—or 6% of the total—commemorate, memorialize, or interpret sites primarily associated with America’s colonial military past.[1] This in spite of the fact that the English colonial period (conservatively 1607-1775) makes up 41% of the 408-year history of America (1607-2015). As a historian of colonial America, I’m used to “my period” getting short-shrift in the nation’s story, but this situation requires change.

The conflict most represented in the National Park system is unsurprisingly the Civil War, with 28 units or 35% of all of the “military parks.” Parks such as the National Military Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the Antietam National Battlefield are what most people think of when they consider historic military parks. Next in number are the parks associated with the War for Independence, with 13 units or 16% of the total, including Minute Man National Historic Park which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord or the Yorktown Battlefield part of Colonial National Historic Park in Virginia.[2] There are 12 units (15%) that interpret nineteenth-century conflicts between Native Americans and the U. S. Army, often at forts like Fort Laramie National Historic Site or combat zones like Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial. World War II has recently, with an influx of new parks, taken over the fourth spot with 10 units (12%) such as Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama or the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Site in California. Only then comes the five (5) colonial military parks, despite the fact that 41% of America’s timeline (169 years of 408) falls on the colonial side of the scale. If that isn’t bad enough, the number of colonial parks are in a tie with the five parks commemorating the two-year long War of 1812 (including the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Michigan and the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Harbor).

The author in St. Augustine,  Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The author in St. Augustine, Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

While this situation should be addressed (more on that later), the colonial military units of the National Park Service are wonderful locations that deserve widespread visitation.[3] Interestingly, the majority of the “colonial military parks” memorialize and illuminate not the Anglo-American military past that most people think of when examining the period, but instead other colonial powers’ military pasts. Two of the parks honor the early Spanish military presence in the Southeast, while one memorializes the short-live French fortification of Florida in the 1560s. The most visited of the colonial military parks is also the most impressive—Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest masonry fortress in the continental United States.[4] While the Spanish founded the town of St. Augustine in 1565, the current stone fort wasn’t begun until 1672, after several early wooden forts were destroyed by fire, weather, or privateers. The stone fortress withstood two sieges by English forces, once in 1702 during Queen Anne’s War and the other in 1740 as a part of the War of Jenkins Ear. The fort never fell, but it later changed hands several times in the late-colonial and Revolutionary periods, until the new United States took over the post in 1821. The fortress was an active military post until 1900; it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. Today, Castillo de San Marcos remains a marvelous example of seventeenth-century Spanish military architecture, with an impressive collection of early artillery pieces from the fort’s long history.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The next NPS unit from the colonial period is closely associated with the first. Fort Matanzas National Monument is located several miles to the south of the Castillo de San Marcos. The small artillery fort was built by the Spanish in 1742 to guard the southern approaches to St. Augustine after the English besiegers of 1740, led by Governor General James Oglethorpe, attacked the city from the narrow inlets to the south. The fort was named for the Matanzas inlet it sits adjacent to; the name of the inlet translates from Spanish as “slaughters,” which alludes to a much earlier military attack in 1565, when the Spanish massacred a surrendered force of French colonists from northern Florida. The small fort (built by convicts, slaves, and soldiers) held five cannon that were designed to stop another sea-borne invasion. That is exactly what the garrison did in 1742 when General Oglethorpe tried to raid the area again— this time Oglethorpe’s forces were driven off by the garrison at Fort Matanzas before the British got to St. Augustine. The Spanish let Fort Matanzas fall into disrepair in the later colonial period and by the time the United States took control of Florida in 1821, the fort was uninhabitable. The NPS took over the site and started restoring it in 1933. Today the site hosts over a half a million visitors a year.

The third colonial military park is also located in Florida and is closely connected to the Spanish forts around St. Augustine. Fort Caroline National Memorial commemorates the first French colony in what would become the United States, established in 1564. Located today in the city of Jacksonville, the exact original site of the fort is unknown. In 1953 the NPS established the National Memorial and built a reconstruction of the original fort’s palisade in the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. The original fort was built to protect the French settlers, mostly Huguenots under the leadership of René Goulaine de Laudonnière. When the Spanish established St. Augustine the next year, the two rival colonial powers soon came to blows. In 1565, Spanish forces sacked Fort Caroline, slaughtered most of the inhabitants (at the Matanzas Inlet—see above) and occupied the fort until 1569. While it was short lived, Fort Caroline demonstrates the bitter rivalry over American land between colonizing powers—over two hundred years before the American Revolution.

The forth colonial military park in the NPS system is also in the southeastern United States. Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the archaeological remains of a fort and town built in the new English colony of Georgia in 1736 by Governor James Oglethorpe. The fort and town were laid out according to the Oglethorpe Plan based on Enlightenment principles. Located on St. Simons Island in Georgia, around 630 troops garrisoned the fort from 1736 to 1748. English troops from the fortress beat back two attacks by Spanish forces in 1742 at the Battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek during the War of Jenkins Ear. With the end of King George’s War in 1748, the fort was abandoned as a military post. The associated town soon fell into economic decline and was mostly deserted by 1755. Archaeology sponsored by the NPS and the Fort Frederica Association began in 1947. Visitors today can see a large collection of artifacts uncovered by archaeologists, as well as the foundational ruins of some of the fort’s buildings.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The last NPS unit that memorializes the military history of the colonial period is Fort Necessity National Battlefield. The only battlefield in the NPS system from the 169-year colonial period commemorates the battle in the wilderness of Pennsylvania that included the initial blows of what became the French and Indian War.[5] The battlefield, in an area known as Great Meadows, has as its center a reconstruction of the small, temporary fortification (Fort Necessity) that a young George Washington had built to shelter his soldiers and supplies from the attacking French and Indians in July of 1754. After a sharp battle where he was surrounded by numerically-superior forces (and with no hope for reinforcements), Washington surrendered to the French, in the process signing a document (written in French—which Washington could not read) that included a “confession” by the young colonel that he and his men had murdered the French commander’s brother earlier that summer at Jumonville Glen. This incident and the battle at Fort Necessity sparked the French and Indian War, which was eventually fought around the globe. The park, originally a National Battlefield site under the care of the War Department, was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

While these five sites are all poignant, historically significant, and highlight important fragments and periods of America’s military past, there is an entire century and a half—the seventeenth and early eighteenth—left out of the historical coverage these NPS units offer.[6] The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed some of the most momentous military engagements and conflicts in the history of America. In New England, the Pequot War (1634-1638) and King Philip’s War (1675-1678), to name just a few, raged from the coast to the frontier. The Anglo-Powhatan Wars (on and off from 1610-1646) were fought in the Virginia colony, while the Tuscarora War and the Yamasee War were instrumental to the early history of the Carolinas. And of course, there were momentous imperial conflicts in the seventeenth century that were fought both in Europe and in colonial America, including the Anglo-Dutch Wars (17th and 18th Centuries), King William’s War (1688–1697), and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). In order to best understand, interpret, and protect our entire military past, seventeenth-century war sites should be identified, acquired, and brought into the National Park Service system.[7]

I realize this is a tall order in today’s economic climate. However, there is some hope for the future. In 1991, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the National Park Service to establish the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP). The ABPP’s main goal is to promote “the preservation of significant historic battlefields associated with wars on American soil. The goals of the program are 1) to protect battlefields and sites associated with armed conflicts that influenced the course of our history, 2) to encourage and assist all Americans in planning for the preservation, management, and interpretation of these sites, and 3) to raise awareness of the importance of preserving battlefields and related sites for future generations.”[8] To that end, the ABPP has given grants to state and local governments, tribal organization, universities and colleges, and private organizations to help study, identify, and protect over 100 battlefields in 42 states and territories—over 429 projects have been started. While the vast majority of the grants have gone to protect battlefields from the Revolutionary War period forward, there have been several grants made to help protect colonial battlefields.

Since they were first awarded, planning grants have been given to study and protect battle sites from the Yamasee War in South Carolina, an early Indian raid on Dutch settlements in Delaware in 1631, King Philip’s War in central Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Indian attacks on French troops in 1730s Mississippi, the French and Indian War in upstate New York, and the Battle of Bushy Run during Pontiac’s War in Pennsylvania. The most grants for a colonial conflict have gone to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center for their research into the battlefields of the Pequot War. The museum and its dedicated staff of archaeologists, historians, and museum professionals have, with the assistance of the ABPP and the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Nation, identified several key combat zones, including sites associated with the English and Allied Indian attack on Mystic Fort in May 1637 and several battles in the vicinity of Fort Saybrook. The museum has set up two essential websites (one on the Pequot War and a new one on King Philip’s War) to disseminate their reports and keep the public informed on their various projects. The work of the “Pequot War team” at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center—identifying, studying, and interpreting the battlefields of that critical conflict—could possibly lead to a new National Park someday, dedicated to some of colonial America’s earliest warriors and their legacy.[9] I certainly hope so.

Kyle F. Zelner, PhD, is a Co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Miss, as well as the Chair of the History Department. His book, A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War (New York University Press, 2009) was a social history of the men who fought in that seventeenth-century conflict and the town-based militia system that impressed them.

[1] For a listing of all the sites the NPS administers, see: http://www.nps.gov/. The listing on Wikipedia can also be useful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_United_States_National_Park_System_official_units.

[2] Colonial National Historic Park contains parks at Jamestown (commemorating the first permanent English settlement in the area that became the United States) as well as the Yorktown Battlefield of the American Revolutionary War, connected by the Colonial Parkway.

[3] The latest statistics for NPS visitation is from 2014 and are available here: https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/National%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Ranking%20Report%20%281979%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year%29. Interestingly, it is not Civil War sites that garner the most “military park” visitation. The ten most visited military parks are, in order, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (DC), the World War II Memorial (DC), the Korean War Veterans Memorial (DC), Colonial National Park (VA), Boston National Park-which includes Bunker Hill (MA), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (GA), Valley Forge National Historic Park (PA), World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (HI, AK, CA), Minute Man National Historic Park (MA), and Gettysburg National Military Park (PA).

[4] Of the five colonial-era military parks, Castillo de San Marcos National Memorial (FL) was the most visited in 2014 with 760,708 visitors. Next, in order of number of visitors: Fort Matanzas National Monument (FL) with 568,529; Fort Frederica National Monument (GA) with 228,103; Fort Necessity National Battlefield (PA) with 219,546; and Fort Caroline National Memorial (FL) with 187,843.

[5] The other NPS colonial military sites have battlefields associated with them, but the battlefields are not the main attraction of the site.

[6] There are a few—very few—historic sites, owned and operated by the states or private organizations that interpret seventeenth century battles. That, however, is will be the subject of another (future) blog post.

[7] This is not to say that private organizations and state park systems have not done a wonderful job preserving some of the country’s most important historic sites. However, I believe that at least a few battle sites from the seventeenth century should be highlighted and preserved at the national level.

[8] The American Battlefield Protection Project, National Park Service, “Mission Statement” http://www.nps.gov/abpp/index.htm

[9] It should be noted that creating a National Park at the site of the Mystic Fort Fight is in no way the stated objective of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center’s Pequot War project. It is simply a suggestion, based on the fanciful hope of the author.

Posted in battlefield preservation, battlefields, Colonial American history, Colonial American military history, Historic preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Using Jesuit Archives for Chinese Military History

by Ken Swope

Dr. Ken Swope next to a replica of a Ming-era orrery that was built by the Jesuits for the Ming court.  The original is at the observatory in Beijing.

Dr. Ken Swope next to a replica of a Ming-era orrery that was built by the Jesuits for the Ming court. The original is at the observatory in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

One of the great joys of any historian is finding new or under-utilized sources. And it’s even better when the sources are discovered in surprising places. For example most people would not consider Jesuit archives a prime place for locating primary source material on Chinese military affairs but a deeper understanding of the historical circumstances surrounding the early Jesuit missions to China reveals why this might be the case. Founded as part of the Counter Reformation, the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) order was designed to be the “front line” in Catholic conversion efforts, winning souls over for their side throughout the non-European world in the hopes of rolling back the surging Protestant tide in the early sixteenth century. To this end, the Jesuits were often highly trained in languages and the sciences and were expected to use their technical knowledge, especially in the realm of astronomy, to win over rulers and elites around the world and convince them, by extension, of the superiority of the Catholic message. Because of its massive population and ancient and sophisticated culture, China was viewed as a prime location for spreading the gospel. But because China already had a number of ancient religions and was polytheistic to boot, the Christian message wasn’t always the easiest to sell. However, just at the time the Jesuit efforts were expanding their effort, the Ming (1368-1644) empire was experiencing a series of military and political crises. While still preaching the word of God, the Jesuits found that their extensive scientific knowledge, in particular their knowledge of cannon casting, was of great interest to the Ming court and some of its high officials. Several found favor at the Ming court and a few high Chinese official even converted to Catholicism.

At the same time the few Jesuits in China became swept up in the events of their time. Thus it was that a pair of priests, the Portuguese Gabriel de Magalhaes and the Italian Ludovico Buglio, found themselves in Sichuan province in the early 1640s. At the time the province was racked by peasant rebellion and when the Ming capital of Beijing fell to the peasant rebel Li Zicheng in the spring of 1644, Sichuan fell under the control of Li’s longtime rival and sometime ally, Zhang Xianzhong, better known by his sobriquet, the Yellow Tiger. Zhang declared himself ruler of the Great Western Kingdom based in the provincial capital of Chengdu. Buglio and de Magalhaes were eventually brought before the king and impressed him with their scientific knowledge. Zhang made them favored advisers and even promised to build them a great church once he conquered all of China. In exchange they built him globes of Earth and the solar system and advised him on calendrical and astronomical matters. But over the next couple years Zhang’s enemies multiplied and he became increasingly paranoid, massacring tens of thousands of real or perceived enemies. Some outrageous accounts (dis)credit Zhang with exterminating up to 90 percent of the population of Sichuan province in just three years.

The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Ken Swope.

Traditional Chinese sources tended to vilify Zhang as a madman with an unquenchable bloodlust. They contain lurid accounts of his delight in flaying victims alive and talk of the entire province reverting to a state of total chaos with tigers running rampant and humans turning to cannibalism to survive. Modern Chinese accounts from the communist perspective, on the other hand, tend to praise Zhang as a hero of the people who fought evil landlords to help the peasant class only to meet his end at the hands of the Manchu invaders. Fortunately for historians, de Magalhaes and Buglio chronicled their time at Zhang’s court and left a narrative of their experiences. This document was hidden away in Jesuit archives in Rome for centuries and was only rediscovered by scholars in the 20th century. The original is in Portuguese and a rough translation into English was made by a Jesuit priest in the 1960s. A copy was later sent to the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco. Named for the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, the institute was founded in 1984 as a non-profit interdisciplinary research center. Dedicated to studying the history of religious, philosophical, scientific, educational, and cultural exchange between China and the West with emphasis on the Jesuit missions to the Ming and Qing courts, the Ricci Institute supports visiting scholars, publishes books and articles, and sponsors symposia and seminars.

I had known about the Ricci Institute as a result of my general research interests in the history of the Ming dynasty and when I began working on my current book project, On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger: War, Trauma, and Social Dislocation in Southwest China During the Ming-Qing Transition, I decided to check out their holdings online and got in touch with Mark Mir, their outreach coordinator. I was thrilled to learn of the existence of the de Magalhaes narrative and the fact that the Ricci Institute had the only translated copy in existence. I also discovered that they have numerous rare Chinese primary and secondary sources pertaining to the late Ming more generally in addition to the Jesuit materials. Therefore I arranged a research trip to their beautiful campus in late June of 2015. While there I was able to examine this document as well as a number of obscure Chinese language materials. The information found in the diary is invaluable in providing a fairly unbiased assessment of Zhang Xianzhong’s strengths and weaknesses as a ruler, while also confirming some of the stories about his notorious excesses. I am excited about being among the first Western scholars to bring this document to light in my forthcoming research. And it goes to show that one can find incredibly valuable sources in the unlikeliest of places.

Ken Swope, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society and the General Buford Blount Professor of Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. His most recent book is The Military Collapse of China’s Ming Dynasty: 1618-44 (Routledge, 2013).

Posted in Chinese military history, research | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Short and Long-Term Impacts of World War II on the Lives of Black GIs

by Douglas Bristol

Alexandria, Louisiana: Lee Street in 2014

Alexandria, Louisiana: Lee Street in 2014. Photo courtesy of Douglas Bristol.

When I was conducting research at LSU-Alexandria last summer, I had the good fortune to interview Dr. Haywood Joiner, Jr., Chair of the Department of Allied Health Programs, about his father’s military service during World War II. The stories that he told me illustrated what a significant impact the war had on black GIs. Since Joiner had very negative experiences during the war, it appears at first that the overall impact of his military service was very negative. However, in the long-term, the impact was very positive.

For Haywood Joiner, Sr., the impact of World War II was often visceral. He saw combat, feared for his life, and fell in love. Like all black soldiers during World War II, Joiner was assigned to a segregated unit. He served at the heart of the war in the Pacific—at Guadalcanal. Even before shipping overseas, Joiner knew what it was like to fear for his life because he survived the Lee Street Riot in Alexandria, Louisiana. Alexandria was surrounded by three large military bases, which brought as many as 30,000 black and white soldiers downtown to mingle with the local residents on Saturday nights. On January 10, 1942, a black soldier said to a white woman driver honking at him while he crossed Lee Street: “Would you hit a veteran?” The woman called over a city policeman, who arrested the soldier. Then a group of black soldiers crowded around the white policeman. In very short order, white M.P.s, state troopers, and National Guardsmen from nearby Camp Beauregard reinforced the Alexandria police and began firing into black-owned businesses on Lee Street. Joiner told his son that his life flashed before his eyes because he thought he was going to die. He also said the Army sealed off the neighborhood, set up a temporary morgue, and buried the victims of the riot near the site. According to Dr. Joiner, his father had nightmares about the incident for the rest of his life. Yet Joiner also had good memories about Alexandria because, on a different Saturday night on Lee Street, he met his future wife.

Aside from the nightmares, the war’s long-term impact on Joiner was positive. He joined the huge wave of black migration in the 1940s. His marriage convinced him to come back to Rapides Parish after the war and live in Boyce, Louisiana. Joiner had grown up in Water Valley, Mississippi, and despite the Lee Street Riot, he thought Louisiana had a better race relations. Dr. Joiner said when visiting family in Water Valley as a child, he had to get off of the sidewalk when a white person approached, which he did not have to do in Boyce. His father was part of a vast migration of young black men set in motion by the war. Between 1940 and 1950, Alabama and Georgia lost nearly one-third of their black population aged 14-34, and Mississippi lost nearly half.

Military service in particular had long-term benefits for Joiner and his family. He used his GI benefits to go to trade school and build a house. Afterwards, he opened his own upholstery shop. His son said he had fond memories of his military service, which induced his sons to follow his example. Dr. Joiner served in the Air Force, and his brother served in the Navy. His father’s experience in the military also gave him the confidence to be a leader of black community. Like so many other black veterans, Joiner participated in the Civil Rights Movement, helping to register black voters. He later became the first black member of the Boyce City Council. So, while the short-term impact of the war on Joiner was discriminatory and harrowing, the long-term impact was very beneficial.

*Click here to see World War II-era photographs of Camp Livingston and Alexandria.*

Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is a specialist in African American history. He is the author of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Dr. Bristol is currently working on a book about African Americans and the U.S. military during World War II.

Posted in African American soldiers, Black veterans, Civil Rights Movement, U.S. military and civil rights, World War II | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Selling a Daughter to Pay for a Leg

by Heather Marie Stur

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004. during Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A couple of articles I read recently got me thinking about the long reach of war and how we define casualties. The first is a New York Times article about disabled Afghan veterans struggling against corruption and red tape to get pensions and other government assistance. Some of the men featured in the article needed prosthetic limbs and costly physical therapy that they could not afford without disability payments. One such veteran was Saheb, who lost his left leg to a Taliban land mine and could not pay for a prosthesis on his own. Desperate after learning he did not qualify for a pension because he had served in the Afghan Local Police rather than the national police or army, Saheb sold his 11-year-old daughter, Noor Bibi, into a marriage for the $3,000 he needed to pay for a leg.[1]

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. July 16, 2002. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. July 16, 2002. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The second piece, a commentary on Vox.com, addresses the debate over whether the world has become more peaceful since the end of World War II. The dispute dates back to the 2011, when psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was published. Pinker argues that the period since 1945 has been the most peaceful era in human history, and he focuses on statistics indicating that the number of deaths from war has reach a record low. Pinker’s critics have countered that looking solely at recorded casualty numbers is misleading. There are consequences of war that we cannot measure with “big-picture numbers,” as Zack Beauchamp, the author of the Vox piece, notes.[2]

Big-picture statistics don’t count victims like child bride Noor Bibi, a casualty of a long-running civil war in a country where the sale of a prepubescent girl into marriage is an option for a wounded veteran who needs money to pay for a prosthesis because his government won’t help him. Her father, Saheb, might be counted in a casualty list that includes the dead and the wounded, but such statistics fail to recognize the other ways in which war wounds people by transforming life options and paths and forcing families to make decisions that could inflict emotional or physical harm on some members. We don’t hear Noor Bibi’s voice in the New York Times article, but Saheb said she didn’t want to be sold into marriage. She had no choice, Saheb explained, because “in Pashtun society, when the father wants something, the daughter has to give it, even if she is not happy.”[3] The story of Noor Bibi reflects the long reach of war – how it upended the life of an 11-year-old girl who was neither a soldier nor a civilian casualty in the usual sense of the word. Body counts don’t reveal all the indirect casualties of war.

Such casualties take many forms. Last month, I ended my “World Civilizations Since 1500” course with a slide juxtaposing a photograph of ISIS militants with an image of Syrian refugee children. I asked my students to ponder whether the children, hamming it up for the photographer who took their picture, would end up being the next generation of angry, disillusioned, impoverished recruits for ISIS or a similar group. Like Noor Bibi, refugees are casualties of war, and neglected refugee crises can feed back into a conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fighting. Envisioning a world where parts of it are continually at war, where war’s long reach keeps producing casualties of all sorts, makes it difficult to buy Pinker’s argument that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace.

[1] Rod Nordland, “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected,” New York Times, May 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/world/middleeast/maimed-defending-afghanistan-then-neglected.html?_r=1

[2] Zack Beauchamp, “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace,” Vox.com, May 21, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/5/21/8635369/pinker-taleb

[3] “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected.”

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

Posted in Afghanistan, veterans, war and peace, war and society, women and war, wounded veterans | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Musings on the End of a Term

by Gregory J. W. Urwin: President, Society for Military History*

*The Dale Center for the Study of War & Society is honored to feature a guest blog post by Dr. Urwin, who will complete his two-year term as SMH President this month.

Dr. Gregory J. W. Urwin delivers the Harmon Memorial Lecture in Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy, November 2014.

Dr. Gregory J. W. Urwin delivers the Harmon Memorial Lecture in Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy, November 2014.

Throughout my career, I have usually resented academic service as an unwelcome intrusion on my research time. While I enjoy teaching, I loathe the interminable wrangling that characterizes committee meetings or attending faculty senate sessions to witness the antics of dissembling university administrators. Nevertheless, I believe that senior tenured professors are duty bound to endure such trials – if only to preserve some semblance of faculty governance in our institutions of higher learning and to run the learned societies that are so essential to the health of academic professionalism.

That sense of duty compelled me in 2011 to accept a two-year term as vice president of the Society for Military History, along with two more years as president. To be sure, I felt honored to be chosen by my peers for these positions of trust. At the same time, however, I knew that I had obligated myself to place the SMH’s interests above my own – which meant reducing the hours I set aside for research whenever the organization’s needs dictated. I could not shake the feeling that I had signed up for four years on the cross.

If I felt that way, one may well ask, why did I accept such a commitment? The answer is simple – love. For more than thirty years, the Society for Military History has been my intellectual home – the place where I can mingle with scholars who share my interests and possess the knowledge to help me polish my work with doses of constructive criticism. I also cherish the warm camaraderie that characterizes the SMH, and I want to see all the good it does perpetuated and shared with others.

For many years, I viewed the SMH as a refuge from an academic establishment that undervalued military history and those who practice it. By the time I became president, however, I noticed that my discipline was shedding its pariah status. Military history has undergone a remarkable maturation during the past four decades, winning increased respect from scholars who had once hardly given it a passing thought. The anti-militaristic passions churned up by the Vietnam War are losing their grip on America’s intelligentsia. The fact that the Cold War’s end did not usher in a Pax Americana has also underscored the need for this country’s future leaders to be educated in the uses and abuses of military force. I decided that the SMH could capitalize on these shifting attitudes by assuming a more assertive role in the American educational establishment.

The SMH’s induction into the American Council of Learned Societies signified a major step in military history’s return to the mainstream. With the humanities under assault from various quarters, our colleagues realize that they can no longer afford to shun a sub-field that commands so much popular interest. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) confirmed this changing attitude when it approached me last year to establish a closer relationship with the military history community. When the NEH announced its new initiative, “Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War” on April 2, 2014, it marked a felicitous turning point in American intellectual history.

Even before the NEH knocked on my door, I had decided that the SMH should issue a manifesto on the utility of military history – one that took a positive approach rather than the bitter rants published by conservative organs in recent years. That first SMH White Paper, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy by Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino, presents much more than a defense of our sub-field.  The authors ably argue that the inclusion of military history can add depth and insight to college curricula.  Citizens of the world’s mightiest military power need to better understand the nature of war – its uses, its costs, and its long-lasting consequences. In addition, the popularity of military history offers a solution to college history departments seeking to raise class enrollment and the number of their majors and minors.

I hope that the Society for Military History will sustain the momentum it has gained these past two years, which will bolster its stature within American higher education and improve employment prospects for its younger members.

Gregory J. W. Urwin, Ph.D., is president of the Society for Military History and professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of nine books, including, most recently, Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945 (Naval Institute Press, 2010), Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), and Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), which won the General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., Award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Dr. Urwin is currently researching his tenth book, a social history of Cornwallis’ 1781 Virginia Campaign, for which he has received research fellowships from the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, the Society of the Cincinnati, and the Virginia Historical Society.

Posted in Military history, state of the field, war and society | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Women of the SOE in History and Culture

by Allison Abra

Monument to the Special Operations Executive, across the Thames River from the British Parliament building in London. Courtesy of Allison Abra.

Monument to the Special Operations Executive, across the Thames River from the British Parliament building in London. Courtesy of Allison Abra.

On the south bank of the river Thames, just across the water from the British Parliament building, there is a small monument to the Special Operations Executive. During the Second World War, the SOE was a branch of British intelligence composed of agents of many nationalities who ventured into territories occupied by Axis forces in order to conduct sabotage and subversive warfare. Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, their mission was to “set Europe ablaze.” [1] Unveiled in 2009, the monument to the SOE commemorates all of the organization’s operatives, as well as the local resistance groups with whom they worked, on several bronze plaques. But at the top of the plinth resides a sculpture bust of only one agent: a woman named Violette Szabo.

Born in Paris to a French mother and English father, Violette Szabo joined SOE after her husband, Etienne, was killed at the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Leaving a young daughter behind in Britain, Szabo conducted two missions to France, but was captured by the Germans on the second one. Following months of brutal interrogation and hard labor, she was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in February 1945 at the age of twenty-three.

Violette Szabo

Violette Szabo

Szabo was one of fifty-five women who served as agents for the SOE, while thousands more worked as support staff for the organization back in Britain. Generally commissioned in the First Aid Nurses Yeomanry (FANY) or Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the women agents trained alongside their male counterparts at secluded country estates scattered throughout the British Isles. They learned spycraft, and received weapons, unarmed combat, and parachute training. While SOE staged operations across Europe and Asia, the women agents worked almost exclusively in France. They generally acted as couriers and wireless operators, though some rose through the ranks to lead regional networks. It was very dangerous work: several women were captured and tortured by the Germans, and, in addition to Szabo, twelve of them were executed or died of illness in concentration camps.

Another of those women agents who did not survive the war was Noor Inayat Khan. The daughter of an Indian prince, born in St. Petersburg and raised in Paris, Inayat Khan was the only one to evade capture when the Germans rounded up her entire circuit of British agents within weeks of her arrival in France. Refusing an offer to return home, she spent months on the run, moving daily as she transmitted messages back to London – the only wireless operator still active in Paris – before her own arrest and execution. Another agent, Odette Sansom, was a successful courier in southern France before she was captured and sentenced to death by the Germans in 1943. She endured torture and solitary confinement, but was able to avoid execution because her cover in France had been as the wife of her fellow SOE agent, Peter Churchill. Neither was an actual relation of the British Prime Minister, but believing they might be, the Germans kept them alive as potential bargaining tools; the commandant of Ravensbrück even brought Odette with him when he surrendered to American forces in 1945, hoping to receive consideration from the Allies. Other remarkable stories of women agents include that of Polish-born Christine Granville, who managed to free several other SOE agents from Gestapo custody, or of Pearl Witherington, who took her circuit leader’s place after he was captured, coordinating thousands of resistance fighters in advance of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

In recent months, renewed attention has been paid to the women agents of the SOE, as a surviving member of their ranks received an important honor. In November 2014, Phyllis Latour Doyle, who worked for SOE as a wireless operator in the months leading up to D-Day, was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government. This event led to a flurry of news reports and posts on social media about Doyle and her fellow women agents, but significantly, they have never been far from public view.

Movie poster for Carve Her Name with Pride, 1958

Movie poster for Carve Her Name with Pride, 1958

Despite the intense secrecy that surrounded their work during the war, the history of the women agents of the SOE became known relatively quickly. Biographies and films about their experiences began to appear as early as the 1950s, with perhaps the most famous being Carve Her Name With Pride, the name given to both a book and movie about Violette Szabo. These early accounts were often replete with historical inaccuracies, but they represented the first of what would eventually become a voluminous collection of books, films, television shows, and other media about real or imagined women agents. To name only a few examples, the 1970s mini-series A Man Called Intrepid featured a character named Madelaine who was a composite of several women agents, including Noor Inayat Khan. In the 1980s, the ITV television show Wish Me Luck provided a fictionalized account of the activities of the SOE in France, but did so through a specific focus on women agents. It has also been suggested that Christine Granville was an inspiration for the character of Vesper Lynd in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and women agents subsequently appeared in Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray (which was also made into a 2001 film starring Cate Blanchett). A 2009 video game entitled Velvet Assassin is purportedly based on Violette Szabo’s story. Finally, the decision to make Szabo the representative of hundreds of agents, both male and female, on the public monument to the SOE was another important marker of the women agents’ impact.

Arguably, the pervasive presence of the women agents in the histories and cultural memory of wartime espionage has been disproportionate to their actual numbers. But as we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is worth reflecting on the multiple ways that women like Szabo, Inayat Khan, Sansom, Granville, Witherington, and Doyle altered the course of history during and after the war. British women in wartime took on a range of roles and responsibilities – in the factories, in the fields, and in the military – that contemporary society deemed to be masculine, and which produced significant social anxieties about a permanent alteration to the conventional gender order. The work undertaken by women SOE agents tested British gender boundaries to the most extreme degree, but convention was seemingly overlooked because these women had the requisite language skills and knowledge of France; historians have also shown that in general women had advantages over men in clandestine operations during the war.[2]

Social concerns about the activities of women SOE agents in wartime were of course also mitigated because their service was conducted in secret. But as the immense cultural output of stories about the women agents attests, that secret was not kept for long. In fact, historian Wendy Webster has noted that even as most British films of the 1950s sought to downplay women’s wartime service and reassert traditional domestic roles, the films about women agents constituted an exception to the rule.[3] From that point on, as new generations of women have come of age, and as campaigns for women’s rights have achieved successes and suffered setbacks, the women agents of the SOE have been there: in books of fiction and non-fiction, on movie and television screens, in video games, or gazing down on us from a monument on a riverbank in central London. Their legacy is therefore one that has transcended their important wartime service to provide a broader symbol of women’s capabilities and historical influence.

Allison Abra, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and a specialist in the study of war’s impact on British and European society and culture in the early 20th century. Her current book manuscript, English Style: National Identity, Americanization, and Popular Dance in Interwar and Wartime Britain, traces the development and expansion of commercial dancing in early twentieth century Britain within the context of contemporary gender anxieties, shifting class relations, and growing global networks of popular cultural exchange.

[1] E.H. Cookridge, Inside SOE, (London: Arthur Barker Ltd., 1966), p.3.

[2] See, for example, Margaret Collins Weitz, Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France, 1940-1945, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995).

[3] Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire: 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 88.

Posted in British history, intelligence, women and war, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment