Best Defense

Why the fine ‘Journal of Military History’ is the opposite of ‘International Security’: The tons of interesting facts I learned

Remember how I got all cranky when the mailboat brought International Security to my dock and I was disappointed with how boring and irrelevant it was?


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on October 17, 2014.

Remember how I got all cranky when the mailboat brought International Security to my dock and I was disappointed with how boring and irrelevant it was?

I had the opposite reaction the other day when MV George C. Marshallsteamed into my harbor and a bandy-legged, dark-bearded deckhand tossed down to me the oil-stained canvas mailbag that, to my good fortune, contained the October edition of the Journal of Military History. As usual, I zipped back up the hill to my house and sat down with a pen to mark in the table of contents the articles and reviews I wanted to be sure to read. And I wound up checking all the articles and dozens of the reviews.

Over the last few days I carried the issue with me on a flight to Washington, D.C., and then as I moved about the nation’s capital on the D.C. metro. As I did, I learned tons of stuff. The lead article, a comparison of the risk-taking abilities of Civil War Admirals Farragut and Du Pont, is so good I am gonna deal with it separately. The other articles are about the class background of American officers in the Revolution, the politics of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1880s, the role Field Marshal Montgomery played in creating British doctrine in World War II, and the overvaluation by historians of the significance of Giap’s artillery at Dien Bien Phu.

Here are some of the things I learned from some of those articles, and from the reviews:

–Late in World War II, Field Marshal Montgomery issued papers to his subordinates “to inculcate an understanding not of how to fight but of how to think, so that they could decide how to fight.” 

–At Dien Bien Phu, “the single most important factor in the VPA’s victory was the effectiveness of its antiaircraft units, which came as an unpleasant surprise to French pilots.” 

–About 1,500 years ago, the Moche warriors of Peru “deployed their weapons to knock off an opponent’s elaborate headdress, leaving his hair exposed and therefore vulnerable.” 

–There’s an interesting review of a book about some German crusaders written by Dana Cushing, a medievalist who is a former female Marine intelligence specialist. The reviewer notes that her military background lends “an additional layer of tactical and operational credibility to the analysis as she reconstructs the journey with a military eye.” 

–A revolution, argues a German historian, is “a local event with a claim to universal validity.” 

–I once vowed to stop reading about the Civil War in order to study other conflicts, and I’ve done three staff rides of the Gettysburg battlefield (Army War College, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and Bob Killebrew’s) but was reminded that there is still plenty more to learn when I read that Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg took place on the land of Abraham and Elizabeth Brien, “likely self-emancipated former slaves.” Talk about American history coming together at one spot. 

–A few pages later, something else I didn’t know about the Civil War: Nearly 2,500 black Canadians served in Union ranks, including 12 black Canadian physicians. 

–After World War I, Native American and white survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn met to bury the hatchet. 

–A black unit, designated the 369th Infantry Regiment, fought in World War I for 191 days, “a longer period of combat than any other American unit during World War I.” It was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 

–Just a good line: “The vast scale, dramatic encirclements, and compelling personalities on both sides have drawn historians to BARBAROSSA like a flame draws moths.” 

–David Fuhrmann’s review of Japan’s strategic thinking about Asia in the 1930s and 1940s makes several interesting points, including that “long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s leaders had concluded that the Chinese Communist Party would likely win the Chinese civil war.” I also found this a fascinating sentence: “The author concludes by suggesting that until the Japanese come to terms with this history and their devastating wartime experience…they can never be a fully engaged Eurasian power or a serious trans-Pacific power.” 

–Some of the reviews are pretty tough. One, examining a book about the U.S. Army in Arizona and New Mexico, concludes that, “The University of Nebraska Press should close up shop before it produces another book like this.” 

My sole concern about the Journal of Military History is that it seems to be getting an awful lot of its reviews from the faculty of VMI. That is a hazard of being housed there, but I hope they tone it down a bit.

Conclusion: First, I stipulate that I am more interested in military history than in political science. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. There is something to me marvelous about learning new facts. They seem much more compelling and relevant to me than reading about new theories or methods.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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