Archive | August 2012

Bidding Farewell to the Happy Times

I loved thee well, dear Sabbatical. But it’s time to face the fact that the main reason the state of Connecticut pays me is to teach, so teach I shall. Hopefully my return to full-time teaching won’t significantly impact the blog. I will continue to post, although probably only once or twice per week, rather than whenever I feel like it. I still have plenty of material: about 30 drafts of posts in various stages and many more ideas. I still have to finish up a couple of posts on horse logistics, a final post on the history of early modern intelligence, plenty more on strategy, on battle, on books and publishing EMEH, on historiography, and on note-taking as well. And that’s just off the top of my head. Hopefully our discussions will sustain themselves as well, so keep an eye on the Recent Comments. After 9 months of blogging, more than 150 posts, and over 17,000 ‘views’, there’s plenty more to talk about. As an academic I always feel empowered to hold forth on any topic regardless of my knowledge of it.

Once the semester starts in a few days, I’ll have a better sense of what my schedule will be like, and I’ll try to get into a posting rhythm (e.g. a post every Monday and Thursday…). Of course if there are topical matters or new publications to complain about, those posts will appear when I finish them.

All this means that if you’ve been lurking and enjoying the fruits of others’ labor, it’s time for you to start commenting. If you feel like contributing a guest post, please do so – they can be very short, a question for the audience, a comment or suggestion… It’s just that easy. And of late there’s been some good discussion in several different posts, so keep an eye out on the Recent Comments.

For you academics out there: what are you teaching this semester? Anything military? For any students, what are you taking? Tell us in the comments.

For my part, I’m teaching two sections of Historical Research and Writing, and you’ll see a few of my hobby horses from the course appear on this blog, particularly regarding note-taking. This is about as broad a course as you can get (i.e. no period/place limits), but I do have one class meeting where I have the students analyze an English playing card highlighting Prince Eugene’s victory ending the Bourbon siege of Turin in 1706.

1707 Playing card celebrating victory at Turin in 1706

I’ll also be teaching a senior seminar on Late Stuart England, 1685-1714, where the students can pick whatever topic they would like. Hopefully one or two will choose something with a military bent.


For those unaware, it was a thing back in the 90s among conservative Christian circles to sport a fashionable WWJD? bracelet, which served as a reminder to always ask one’s self the timeless question: “What would Jesus do?” The past few days have prompted me to ask an even more important question: “What would Vauban do?” What would he do indeed, what wouldn’t he do, and why would he do or not do? That is the question. [No: the question is not “What would Voldemort do?” Nor is it “What would Voltron do?” Not even what Vader would do.]

Vauban, pointing out what is to be done

I’ve been asking myself that question more than usual over the past few days. Doing so has forced me to come to terms with questions that have dogged me throughout my career. And these questions should dog every historian. Let me explain.

My first sense of unease developed from a comment Erik made on a previous post, daring to impugn the reputation of one Monsieur Vauban. I took umbrage, as any one should when le Grand Vauban‘s reputation is at stake. He speculated that Vauban might have had ulterior motives when describing high engineering casualty figures. I was therefore forced to respond, objecting that of course he wouldn’t lie, he was a good guy, or something to that effect. But I did feel on solid ground, logically if not empirically. I hadn’t the evidence to show that Vauban’s engineering casualty figures were accurate, or that these casualties were suffered by full-time members of the military engineering corps. But I knew that other contemporaries, including some otherwise disrespectful of the engineers, agreed with Vauban’s claim. That’s the end of that, I thought. Vauban wouldn’t lie. He was truly one of the good guys of Louis XIV’s reign. I not only knew what Vauban would do, but I also knew what he wouldn’t. And he won’t do that, to quote Meatloaf.

This incident, so innocent on its own, was quickly followed by a second, the combination of which turned me defensively pensive. Just a day later a colleague emailed me a straightforward question: ‘Some of Vauban’s contemporaries claimed that he made sieges more difficult than they should have, “so as to present his designs in a favourable light.” Would Vauban do this?’ A fair question, but now I was invested and surrounded on all sides – my boundaries of Vauban-knowledge clearly being tested, prodded for weaknesses. Now I was not only being asked to explain why Vauban did something, but whether he would have done something. Things were getting a bit hypothetical – the fog of war obscured my vision. It didn’t help that this friend was unsatisfied with my first, heavily-qualified answer that sought to provide a context for why such contemporary criticisms were made. Replying quickly to my refusal to submit to his terms, he cut to the chase: “As an expert, do you think Vauban would do that or not?” My WWVD? bracelet was mute, and even worse, the enemy had loosed the “e” word from his arsenal, automatically releasing the fear of being found out as a fraud, exposed as having only empty uniforms guarding the walls. Like a slave reminding the triumphant Roman general that “All glory is fleeting,” doubt mocked me: “Shouldn’t you know more about Vauban, Mr. Fancy-Pants Expert?” Errrr, well, it depends…. Then another, much older, fifth column, the ghost of uncomfortable-questions-past, chimed in: “Yeah. And how can you, someone in the 21st century, know anything about how someone would have acted 300 years ago, much less why they would have acted that way?” How indeed, I fretted. Sensing my wavering, doubt committed its reserves. A flood of memories stormed the walls: the numerous occasions from the past when I had heard people make bold statements about so-and-so being a great general, while in my mind, even if I knew the general and his oeuvre, I realized I had far less conviction that I knew the answer. And even less conviction that I could say why.

And then, suddenly, the siege was lifted, or at least its ultimate outcome no longer in doubt. I realized that with both questions I was in fact trying to answer WWVD? by coming up with a plausible explanation for why he might do such a thing as lie about casualties or make a siege harder than it should have been. I could imagine many implausible reasons: that Vauban lied about it for personal gain; that he drew out the length of a siege for personal aggrandizement; and so on. More plausible, however, were more laudable motives that I associate with Vauban: he might have done it to make a point about the need for better pay and training of his beloved engineer corps; or maybe he did it to illustrate the need to follow his rules closely. Those motives I could at least understand, because they fit my image of who Vauban was. Just as quickly, however, I realized that I had just fallen into one of the oldest traps the human mind has invented, confusing a plausible explanation for actual evidence. The two questions are distinct despite being constantly confused with each other: “How do we know that X is true?” (the claim and reasons together forming an argument), and “Why is X true?” (the answer being an explanation). As logicians and philosophers phrase it, an explanation is not a reason to believe a claim – I can give you multiple reasons why my 3rd grade teacher was an alien, but no matter how many explanations I give, none of them are evidence that she actually was. Yet, despite my repeated lecturing to students about this distinction, I had fallen back onto it – I had in fact been captured not by formal siege, but instead by a ruse. I didn’t know, empirically, if Vauban had ever intentionally attacked a fortress at its strongest point to make some larger point. Nor did I know whether he had lied about engineering casualty figures. But then, maybe if I could come up with reasons why he might do such a thing, I could decide whether or not those sounded like the Vauban I know. And only in doing that could I come to a satisfying answer: “I doubt Vauban would do that, but if he did, he would have only done it for some laudable purpose. And he certainly wouldn’t do it if it hurt other people.” And I was satisfied (as was my interlocutor) – not because I had found the answer, but because I had squared a seemingly-bad (hypothetical) act by Vauban with a (hypothetical) motive that was good.

My point? More like questions. What makes us think we can “understand” why someone did something, or, more to the point, whether someone might do something or not? Are people, are historical actors, that transparent? Are they that consistent in their behavior – and how much of their behavior do we really know on which to base our model of their behavior? Will men on the battlefield (or in the trenches) act consistent with their personality? And if we don’t have evidence, “proof”, that somebody did not do something, what basis do we have to say “I know him so well that I know he wouldn’t do that”? And let’s not even start thinking about how we come up with counterfactual evidence for why so-and-so wouldn’t do such-and-such because we just know he’s not that kind of guy. For someone who tends to think of human motivations in terms of situational ethics, I’m a little uncomfortable here.

Somebody talk me down.

Beware Conventional Wisdom

Reading through Gavin’s interesting post on cavalry lancers, I’m struck yet again by how easy it is for us in the present to commit the common historical fallacy of assuming that in any given period contemporaries operated within a broad consensus. (that’s probably one of Hackett Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies.) That there was a widely-accepted view on any given topic; that authorities dictated beliefs and practices. Undoubtedly this has to do with just how ignorant we really are of how people thought back then; the further back we go, the murkier it becomes. Of course, if we give it much thought, we realize that just about everything today is up for debate, and there’s little reason to believe the case would have been that different three hundred years earlier. But then the traditional historiography of the whole pre-modern period seems to just beg us to assume such unanimity: it was, after all, the Age of Absolute Monarchs and (for a while at least) the all-powerful Catholic Church, and there certainly wasn’t any agency below the rank of noble. But then everybody got science and enlightenment in the 18C, only to reject it all and turn Romantic and stuff. Or maybe that’s just how historians have simplified it for too long…

This expectation of consensus is certainly true in the case of early modern warfare. And yet it’s also absurd on so many levels, once we consider the relative impotency of most early modern rulers, the vast number of different conflicts raging across Europe, the variety of combatants engaged, as well as the stakes involved. Not only could such topics be a matter of life and death, which would invariably generate heated debate in councils of war and cabinets, but there was also status to be earned (and denied to your competitors) by winning, not to mention money to be made; even artisans could make a buck by selling their new-fangled idea to the military (ask Galileo or Da Vinci), which required pointing out how useless every other invention was.

Several specific military examples of the contested reality of early modern warfare come to mind. In addition to Gavin’s detailing of the 16C debate over projectile (reiter) vs. shock (lancer), we could mention J.R. Hale’s discussion of the 16C debate between Machiavelli and his fellow humanists regarding whether one should fight in the open field or instead rely on fortifications (see his “To Fortify or Not To Fortify”). Similarly, my Vauban under Siege book explored yet another military debate over differing interpretations of what a “good” siege was – was it a short one, or one that minimized both casualties and time, sacrificing whatever time was needed to spare unnecessary bloodshed? In all three of these cases, we can point to all sorts of historical literature that has blithely assured us that the 16C was the age of THIS, the 18C the age of THAT. In short, zeitgeist substituting for analysis, historians doing what they do best – overgeneralizing. As a result, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see some contemporaries admit that there was in fact no consensus on a particular issue, whether it be the merits of the longbow vs. the arquebus, or whether one should defend or abandon the covered way.

Beware the Whiggish Interpretation of Tactics – one that assumes a linear progress from worse to better. And be particularly leery if important tactical advances are attributed to a Great Captain.

Most Awesomest Idea Ever?

Perhaps you’re like me. You tend to think about things visually and perhaps after a cartography course and a Tufte book or two you appreciate that visualizations can be far more data dense than an equivalent area of prose. Preferring to think visually is indeed great, except when, like me, you have practically no artistic skills. So you don’t really use it very much because you can’t draw a smiley face, much less a semi-respectable outline of Europe.

An actual drawing of Europe by me. Autographed copies available.

Read More…

Did Early Modern Armies Get Better or Worse During Wartime?

A comment to a previous post made by Gavin (Aug. 4) prompted me to make a flippant response, when really I should have been paying attention to his serious point. It deals with how we think about the ability of early modern armies to become more effective over time, i.e. learning curves during wartime. He suggested that armies sometimes (often?) learn over the course of a war and get better, and then are apt to forget those lessons during peacetime.

I think it’s difficult to know if there is a general tendency one way or the other in many/most wars – measuring it strikes me as quite challenging given all the counterfactual argumentation required. I would, however, argue that in the early modern period, most wars (perhaps even the British Civil Wars if one looks at them over their entire length?) were long and bloody, and since professionalism spread slowly in the period, attrition likely took away a lot of the (good) veterans, whether soldiers, officers or technicians. Perhaps those that survived late into a decade-long war were better, but I can imagine there being an inflection point after which competency declines rather than continues to increase. As a concrete example, I talk about the effects of engineering attrition in Vauban under Siege, chapter 5: Vauban claimed that there were so few good engineers because so few survived long enough to learn the lessons, and I show the Allied engineering corps suffered the same fate in the Spanish Succession.

I’d bet attrition-induced mediocrity (if I can coin a phrase) is a broader phenomenon. I believe this was also associated with Frederick the Great’s late campaigns as well – certainly historians have framed the Old Regime’s avoidance of field battle in terms of fearing the loss of trained veterans that battle casualties would incur (even though I’ve often wondered about that logic on many levels). Some historians have also argued this happened with Napoleon’s late campaigns; his quote about only being good for another ten? years comes to mind.

Such trends might also be influenced by specific policy decisions, e.g. Wick Murray arguing that in WW2 the US army air corps intentionally held back some of its best pilots to train new ones, whereas the Japanese ended up getting all their aces killed in combat. Perhaps whether officers were expected to lead from the front or direct from the back makes a difference here: a look at casualty rates among early modern officer corps might be informative in this regard. I think a few scholars have presented data that would be useful here, i.e. the seniority and service experience of officers. (Erik? Corvisier? Rowlands? Drévillon?)

Some historiography has undoubtedly addressed the issue: a few of the contributions to the Military Revolution debate certainly must have some insight (but I can’t think of who off hand); J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts on Greek and Roman warfare emphasizes the importance of antiquarianism among the Ancients; and just about any work on military culture likely addresses the issue, since one of their major themes is how culture encourages military men to make decisions that seem to go against ‘rational’ choice (as defined by modern Western professional standards).
Do you think early modern armies got better or worse as their wars went on? Specific examples, conceptual categories and general hunches appreciated.

An odd new publication

Just got an email alert that the first volume of Brill’s 2012 edition of the International Bibliography of Military History has been released. I’m familiar with the publication sponsored by the International Commission of Military History, which consisted, as the title suggests, of an annual bibliography of recently-published works, organized within by period and/or place. Brill took over publication within the past year or so, and apparently some changes have been made.

What changes? First off, Brill has abandoned the annual publication schedule, turning it into a journal; you can purchase each article for $30, of $145 per year. Second, the strict annotated bibliography format has been abandoned as well – now “occasional” historiographical articles will be published too.
PS: they should probably tweak the journal title to include historiography if they want people to know it’s more than a bibliography.

What does this new volume include? Hard to say. If you go to the link, you’ll find a volume of approximately 162 pages, 75 of which are bibliography. There are also several historiographical essays. But beyond that, it’s hard to figure out.
If you are interested, here are two titles that may or may not be of interest to you. For myself, I really can’t gauge my interest level, because as of 20 August the website provides abstracts, but doesn’t bother to tell us who the author of the historiographical articles are. A bit of an oversight if you ask me. First up:

“Denial of Change: The Military Revolution as Seen by Contemporaries,” International Bibliography of Military History 32 (2012): 3-27.


The introduction and spread in Europe of gunpowder came in the context of a wave of technological innovations, which – especially initially – masked the potential of and changes that eventually resulted specifically from gunpowder. Since Michael Roberts identified the latter as “Military Revolution”, historians have debated its dating, and whether it was an evolution and a revolution. But was gunpowder the cause of these changes, or itself one of a complex of interacting changes reflecting a change in mentality which embraced innovations and explored their potential? Significantly, this article shows that many contemporaries did not perceive gunpowder as the crucial or even the only cause of change. Many even denied that there was any progress at all, in keeping with an earlier and enduring mentality in which classical Antiquity was seen as an age superior to the present. Only gradually, symbolised by the “Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns”, did a new consensus emerge, acknowledging that the world had changed fundamentally since Antiquity, and that the changed instruments of war, as well as the state structures underpinning warfare, had become much mightier. Even then, technology was seen – and probably rightly so – as only one cause, not the only one.

If I may provide some editorial comment: Unfortunately, I have no idea what exactly this article is about. There is no author indicated, which might help narrow things down. In the end I may check it out at some point, if only because the abstract raises more questions than answers. I can think of multiple examples off the top of my head that contradict the claim that early moderns didn’t see gunpowder as a critical watershed – does the author compare gunpowder-change proponents against their opponents? Discuss how we reconcile these schools? If the article does, I’d want the author’s take in the abstract. I’m not clear about the chronology either. Which contemporaries are being addressed: 15C? 16C? 17C? 18C? The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns would seem to suggest late 17C-early 18C, but it’s not at all clear. Perhaps the mention of openness to innovation suggests that it will focus on the later 18C? Or maybe its a generic overview of the entire early modern period – the keywords include both Late Middle Ages and Early Modern. That would be a lot of territory to cover in 25 pages. Does the article devote five pages per century? five pages on the 15C-17C and the rest on the 18C? twenty pages on the late 17C-early 18C and five pages on the rest…? Regardless of the page distribution, what does the author do with post-Querelle writers like Folard, Santa Cruz de Marcenado, and Puységur? They clearly liked their Ancients. Geographical questions abound as well: what country(ies) are discussed? Without knowing the author, you might as well throw a dart – although I’d guess England and/or France are probably the biggest slices on the dartboard. If more than one country is discussed, does the author see national distinctions, e.g. given the slightly different timing of the Quarrel in France and England? Did every country even have a Quarrel? Did countries without a formal Quarrel come to the same conclusions? All of these basic questions should be alluded to, if not answered or mooted outright, in the abstract. That’s why we talk about specific countries, specific decades/centuries, etc.

Finally, I’m not clear how this is a “historiographical” essay – this seems to be focusing on early modern contemporaries and not early modern historians. That’s all fine and good, but that certainly seems to be stretching the definition of historiography pretty thin, and it’s not doing the author any favors by putting it in a journal with Bibliography in the title, with a side note that it covers Historiography. I wouldn’t think to look for an article like that in a journal with that name.

But all these questions might be answered and reconciled in the article – it may be an awesome essay – I just don’t know. I do know that I get concerned when expensive, short articles seem to claim analysis of broad swathes of time and space. We all know the oldest trick in the book is to craft a sweeping title while focusing on a much much smaller evidential base (e.g. “early modern Europe” really means 1700s-1720s England). And the second-oldest trick is to craft a sweeping title and actually cover each period (say early modern Europe from c. 1500-c.1780s) in pathetically shallow detail. I’ve been burned too many times before.

The second article of possible interest is “The Tendencies of French Military Historiography from 2005 to 2010.” For this article, the website doesn’t even include an abstract, nor an author. Is it surveying French military historiography from the Ancient world to the present? Pre-modern? Early modern? Modern modern? Any particular area of military history? As Dr. Evil would say: “Throwing me a frickin’ bone here!” (only Austin Powers reference I’ll ever make, I promise).

A plea to publishers: help your potential customers by giving us information we can use, especially when the intended audience is other academic military historians, who know the questions to ask. Especially if you want us to pay a lot of money for it.

Organizing maps and diagrams

Discussion continues on the state of EMEMH publishing – the good, the bad and the ugly. But until we get some more input from others, I’ll shift gears just a little. But please do continue the conversation.

A long time ago, probably when I first starting teaching my own courses back in grad school, I became frustrated with how few EMEMH images I had access to (I should probably start numbering these frustrations for reference, and for therapeutic purposes). This was back in the mid-to-late 1990s, when computer graphics had only just gone mainstream and the Internet was just taking off. It was a heady time, with enthusiastic grad students and military history enthusiasts scanning crappy black-and-white versions of diagrams and maps onto the computer to insert into a syllabus, to use in this new thing called PowerPoint, or to post up on the World Wide Web. A ground-breaking example from one of my most imaginative professor’s courses:

This was in the GIF age, when Compuserve’s image format ruled the world. Much like the dinosaurs, most of these scanned pictures would be consigned to the scrapheap of history within a few years, worthless either because of their poor quality or perhaps because they were saved in a proprietary format that was no longer easily accessible. But that’s beside the point – early adopters always reinvent the wheel from scratch and more often than not proceed to scratch it altogether.

Now that the digital age has truly arrived, we should be able to do better. As I sit here scanning in various battle maps from umpteen different books, I wonder how I will keep track of such things. My normal work flow is relatively set by this stage in my career. For serious textual research, I created a customized MS Access database for primary source note-taking and über-precise keywording, and a related bibliographic database for published (i.e. largely secondary) sources. Thousands of PDF documents are stored in several different folders on my hard drive (some already hyper-linked within the Access database), including hundreds of journal articles and book chapters that have OCR behind the PDF, and are thus searchable using Acrobat’s global search. But my Access database, as powerful as it is, has always been a bit clunky and limited to the desktop. So ever since I acquired an iPad I’ve been using Evernote as an idea diary and multipurpose notebook (automatically syncs between desktop, laptop, iPad…). I’ve even started typing in small quotes and drafts into it, as a temporary holding spot before they get copied over to the formal MS Word document (and possibly back into my Access database). Evernote continues a long history or ‘tablets’ and commonplace books used for hundreds of years: one 17C historian compared this kind of notebook to a fortress, which stored a garrison full of ideas and evidence, any of which could be mustered into the field at a moment’s notice. Evernote admittedly overlaps a bit with my Access db, but it is much more portable across platforms, so it makes it easier when I’m away from the desktop. I’ve also got a thousand books and dozens of volumes of archival photocopies sprawled everywhere, but at least almost all the book chapters/journal articles are now PDF. I’m slowly trying to get as many of these scanned (and searchable) as possible. Google Books is also useful here.

But thus far I’ve treated images like my other teaching resources, with a much more haphazard workflow. I usually end up reading books and articles, and then scanning the occasional graphic and putting it into a folder organized by topics and wars that reflect my course structure. I then use the free graphic management program Picasa (Google’s baby) to keep track of where all the images are, and do a few basic searches in Picasa when putting together my PowerPoint presentations for class/presentations. But now that I’m starting to use some of these images for my research, I feel like I need to be a little bit more organized with my images. So I’ve made a few recent changes. I’ve started tagging the images in Picasa as well, since my file name may say “Landen 1693”, but I won’t always remember to also search under Neerwinden to find all the images related to this Battle-With-Two-Names, nor am I consistent whether I put Landen’s battle plan in the Battle folder or in the 9YW folder – I could make separate file copies for each folder, but I’m quickly running out of space on my hard drive, and any modifications (crop, change contrast…) would have to be done to each image separately. Things are getting even more confused with my recent foray hunting down battle plans from the 9YW & WSS. In order to tell them apart in a file list, I have started naming image files after the exact title of the image, yet this means irregular spelling of names (e.g. Neer-Winde) and sometimes no mention of the keyword at all. It doesn’t help that I’m really lazy when it comes to recording the exact source of the various images I’ve gleaned, esp. online. Fair-use discourages strict citation practices.

So, how do I easily keep track of all these?

At this stage Picasa is the default, but it lacks the various metadata features available in other programs, particularly my Access database. Another solution would be to integrate it into my Access database, essentially treating each image like a book chapter or webpage. Perhaps another route might be to use Zotero, since many of the images (or their bibliographic records) are already online. Or possibly paste copies of the graphics into Evernote.

In theory, there might even be some way to quickly identify the location of all sorts of illustrations, using the Google Books API to extract the items in the various List of Illustrations, Maps, Figures in published works. But the technical skills inherent in that previous sentence have already put me in over my head, so I’m not the man for the job. Not to mention, I don’t really want to add yet another application into my workflow: Access, Evernote, Adobe Acrobat, Word, Picasa, Zotero…

Given time constraints, most likely what this means is that I will continue to use multiple programs for their niche features. Ideally there’d be an all-in-one program that is customizable (i.e. can create your own queries and see the backend data), easily handles text and image, scalable (we’re talking gigs of data), exportable to other programs, and is available and syncable across multiple platforms. Talk about your non-existent digital chimera.

Recommendations for combining textual and graphical items into an integrated workflow?