Monthly Archives: August 2013

On War

Michael Howard, Clausewitz, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (first published as OU paperback press, 1983).

Sir Michael Howard, who co-edited a translation of Clausewitz’s On War in the 1970s, has been a professor of war studies and a military historian in England and the United States. His short introduction is a slightly altered version off a piece he published thirty years ago. Howard offers a brief biography on Karl von Clausewitz as well as extended commentary on the military man’s legacy. Ultimately what makes this slim volume appealing is that Howard successfully combines discussion of Clausewitz’s career as a professional soldier with explanations about his ideas in the context of other intellectual ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As Howard points out clearly, one cannot put together an argument or historiography about military theory without including Clausewitz. His one major work, On War, has done more than merely not been forgotten as Clausewitz hoped. The book helped not only his Prussian comrades in dealing with their traditional enemy the French, but also served as a fine example as one expert professional writing for others.

Born just prior to the French Revolution, Karl von Clausewitz began his military career at age 12, eventually attending a war college in Berlin under the direction of Gerd von Scharnhorst. Always an eager student, Clausewitz proved himself to be both an intellectual and a field officer. He was fiercely loyal to Prussia and its people, even protesting his king’s decision to ally the nation with France by resigning his commission and joining Czar Alexander I’s Russian army.

Howard clearly and concisely explains Clausewitz’s intellectual journey, the background of European military organizations in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and the politics of the period. Additionally, Howard spends time discussing the difficulties Clausewitz has in completing On War. A seeming perfectionist, Clausewitz drafted and re-drafted editions of the book centering on his idea that war was a trinity of the way in which government directed policies, the professional qualities of the army, and, not to be ignored, the attitude of the nation’s population.

Howard provides the uninitiated with an excellent and readable overview of war’s practice, the means and ends of war, and the difference between limited and absolute warfare. For someone like myself, who knows Clausewitz by reputation, but has never studied the man’s work, this book is a great place to begin. If there remained any doubt about the strategist’s legacy, Howard identifies the ways in which Clausewitz influenced future generations in the final chapter. The book would serve as a great text for an undergraduate course on military history.

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Basics on a faith…

Gerald O’Collins, Catholicism, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

O’Collins is an English Jesuit priest employed at St. Mary’s University College in London. His contribution to the very short introduction series is intended for a wide readership who want to learn more about the Catholic Church. O’Collins asks questions about the origins of the church, how it has changed over the 2000 years or so of its existence, and what pressing challenges face the church in the current century.

There is a lot to like in this text, especially in terms of the fast pace and the intent of the book, though I tended to enjoy chapters three and on more completely. The first two chapters, in which O’Collins traces the history of Catholicism from about the year 30 through 2008, can be problematic. While much is revealed, there is a tendency towards “lists” as the author identifies quite a few personalities and trends of reform. To be fair, we are discussing 2000 years of development in under 150 pages, so there are going to be a few weak style moments here and there. This was more of an issue in the third chapter, as the worldwide expansion of the church was described wit new monastic orders, a variety of important popes, and the Reformation period and all it entailed.

Extremely useful as a shorthand reference guide to the actions of the Church, the various councils (particularly Trent and Vatican I and II), the book also gives readers a quick overview of the sacraments, appropriate for affiliates and non-affiliates alike. The fifth chapter gives readers a nice sense of moral teaching as it relates to Catholicism, including a second reference (after being brought up in an earlier chapter), to Rerum Novarum, the vitally important encyclical of Leo XIII, released in 1891. This particular encyclical has been cited time and time again as an important document for emphasizing social justice and redeeming humans from oppressive situations.

In his final chapter O’Collins asks some vital questions about the future of Catholicism as a faith and a church. Along with these questions, he has some critical remarks – it is probably his willingness to do so that endears me to him. Full disclosure however, O’Collins is a Jesuit and I am a graduate of a Jesuit college, so I have an affection for their logic and willingness to ask tough questions. I am interested to find out what O’Collins thinks of the new pope, particularly in light of some of the issues raised throughout this very short introduction. Whether you are a Church member or an individual seeking knowledge about Catholicism in general, the book should prove useful.


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Some of the things I think James Loewen gets wrong…

James W. Loewen, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History.
New York: Teacher’s College Press, 2010.

First, I want to point out that I like a lot of the work that James Loewen has done to get teachers of American history thinking about new ways to go about their craft. Both in his books like Lies My Teacher Taught Me or Sundown Towns, Loewen has exposed people to new ways of examining history and American communities. He has asked questions that are difficult to answer about why we teach the way in which we do and why certain textbooks explore history as a cheering mission rather than a discipline to elicit more questions. And, in my opinion, he has, at times, become fixated on problems that have become less damaging than they were roughly twenty years ago.

In Teaching, Loewen intends to explore how history is often taught in a manner that hinders understanding and, in many cases, insures boredom and hagiography. He explores a number of important weaknesses or holes in teaching history in general and American history specifically. He believes wholeheartedly, and I don’t disagree, that American history teachers can do better. Loewen does acknowledge that there are history teachers who already have moved beyond their, as he defines them, limiting textbooks, but to read this particular work, you might believe that these types of teachers are few and far between.

I enjoy his writing style – Loewen certainly pulls readers in with his chapter titles (History as a Weapon), anecdotes, and occasional statistics. He is, consistently, enthusiastic, a trait he encourages all teachers to possess. He offers some very clear and concise rationales on why history should be seen as important both to the student and larger society. And, occasionally, I argue he missteps.

In his introduction, Loewen makes an important point about teachers of American history needing to take an unflinching look at themselves in order to better serve society. It does, Loewen contends, no good to present the history of the United States as solely exceptional, and as a story with no faults. Lynching is used as a clear example of a topic long overlooked in history classrooms and textbooks, though Loewen suggests that the lack of this horrific event occurring has made it easier for Americans to face this aspect of their past. Loewen asserts that “Americans don’t do that anymore” (16).

Now, to be fair, he explains in a footnote his line of thinking on this topic, suggesting that because the perpetrators were punished, the horrific events in places like Jasper or Paris, TX or Laramie, WY were not lynchings. But what about the violence inherent in these attacks? To be a lynching must the event result only in no punishment for the guilty parties? Do we have the number of lynchings we had between say 1890 and 1926? No. But to suggest that we don’t practice this reprehensible behavior anymore is at best naive.

As an aside, I have taught about lynchings in my US history courses at least since 1994 when I first began in the profession but my two most effective experiences were in using borrowed historical society images from the 1919 attacks in Omaha, NE and in accessing Without Sanctuary, a site I used with high school students from Los Angeles.

Loewen has some great ideas to help out new (and experienced teachers) especially about how to choose whether to include a topic in the class or not. But he also makes some statements that make it appear as though he is a bit out of touch with what it is that teachers are doing. For example, he uses data from 1991 to point out that many high school history teachers did not study history at the collegiate level (10). While this fact is disturbing it is also over twenty years old – in the footnote, Loewen states he is unaware of any newer study revealing a change in this trend. I can’t speak to the nation, but the programs in Massachusetts require those seeing secondary education licenses to select an academic major that is related to the content that will be taught. Should there be a new study by now? Probably. I wonder why Loewen himself has not begun this process? Such studies are not always accurate of course, but to draw conclusions on something like how licenses for teaching are distributed based in such old data is problematic.

In a way, there is an equally problematic point about the advanced placement US history exams as Loewen points out another “tyranny of coverage” issue with the document based questions (DBQs). Loewen is concerned about breadth of coverage and points to the idea that instructors “will want to include the era that ETS’s test will cover in its DBQ” (20). ETS has not revealed the era of the DBQ for a number of years.

Perhaps I am nitpicking, but these issues don’t sit well with me as we think about the teaching of history and what we are doing right and wrong in the profession. Of most use to me in future classes will be sections of Loewen’s work, particularly his explanations of ten things he believes history education should accomplish (28), four reasons textbook dependency creates bad history classes (30,31) and the case studies he provides from chapter five onward. In a way, Loewen’s work affirms some of what have done in my classrooms at the high school and collegiate level. His discussion of the $24 myth (chapter 7) is a prominent example of what I try to do in terms of myth busting, including visual culture interpretation (142-144) and the teaching of the first Thanksgiving (149, 150).

Is there useful material in Teaching? Yes, absolutely. Is there material or a conclusion or two to be taken with a grain of salt? Yes. Like any text I use with students, I am inclined to try it out but with writing assignments resulting in critiques wherever possible.

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Habits and comparative mysteries…

Åsa Larsson, The Blood Spilt. 2004, English translation 2007. (originally Det Blod Som Spillts).

Robert B. Parker, Sixkill. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011.

Habits can be bad, they can be good, they can be made, and of course they can be broken. Beginning this writing project, I developed good habits – disciplined reading and writing on a daily basis – BUT, as has been obvious for some weeks, I abandoned these habits as quickly. No excuses – I simply got out of the habit. I have still been reading – different types of books off the shelf – but the writing became non-existent.

Today I completed Robert Parker’s last Spenser novel (Parker died in 2010), and I am a bit in mourning all over again for a character and the author. As it happens, there have been two books published that also include Spenser, Wonderland and Lullaby, but I am uncertain as to whether I can read them.
The other day I finished Larsson’s The Blood Spilt and I am uncertain as to whether I would read other books by her, so it seemed like a good bet to combine these texts in a review.

People either love or hate the imagined Boston tough guy detective with a penchant for literature and a long-standing love affair with psychologist Susan Silverman. I am firmly settled in the former camp and have been since my dad pressed a copy of Early Autumn into my hands some 28 or 29 years ago. My dad had been an admirer of Raymond Chandler and some other detective fiction writers, but Parker was something else. Like my father, Parker and Spenser shared an interest in the Braves, being smart, and Boston in general.

When the book series was made into a television show for ABC, my dad and I were anxious but excited. The heavy use of Boston locations was one part of the show that made it enjoyable – the casting of Avery Brooks as Spenser’s sometime comrade Hawk made it intriguing. My friend Stu and I ran into Avery Brooks at Quincy Market in December 1986 (twice) – he was in character the first time and himself the second, but in both instances somewhat intimidating and full of flash if you will. We watched carefully for the episode that featured Quincy Market – it was all of a minute, but still…

Sixkill does not feature Hawk at all, other than to mention his existence and indicate that he is in Central Asia. Hawk’s lack of appearance in the book makes Susan nervous. I was sad to not see him as he is one of my favorite characters, but Parker could not have known he would die before writing another novel. What is interesting about Sixkill is that Parker appears to be setting up a new character, Zebulon Sixkill, to add another dimension to the stable of assistants and friends of Spenser. I have enjoyed Bobby Horse, Chollo, and others – Z would have been an interesting addition to see grow and connect with Hawk and the rest of the Spenser universe.

All these observations aside, this is not the best Parker novel by any means. It is, however, enjoyable enough, even if some of the storyline, dialogue, etc is a bit predictable. Parker has created a thoroughly unlikable creature in Jumbo Nelson – is he the guilty murderer or a victim or something in between? We are less than clear for much of the novel – we are clear that Nelson is reprehensible and that Spenser is doing what Spenser does. The detective works a case he has been asked to quit, rehabilitates Sixkill, and, as always, impresses with a mix of smarts, physical prowess, and loving affection for Susan.

Are Parker novels formulaic? Sure. In comparison to Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Parker’s Sixkill is a mapped out story that you can figure out elements and conclusions for a long while in advance. Larsson has created an incredibly bleak world for her protagonist Rebecka Martinssson and yet I hear from my wife and other readers that this story is not as dark and despairing as other crime novels from Scandinavia. Yikes.

The Blood Spilt won an award for the best crime writing in Sweden when originally published – the book I “read” (in this case, listened to which is unusual for me) was translated into English in 2007. As a side note, the translation must have been done with British English in mind, (perhaps Larsson had British English training?), because the text is filled with phrases like “bloody well” and “she looked smart.” At any rate, I will give Larsson a lot of credit for creating some very complex characters and a true mystery in a setting she knows well (the author lives in the region portrayed).

What I struggled with the most is Larsson’s narrative style which jumps all over the place. Characters narrate their own points of view and at times they are in the present, the past, and in solely their own minds – sometimes all at once! Dead characters haunt the living, the landscape is of vital importance, you probably need to know something about small town Swedish life and Lutheranism to understand every twist, and once in awhile a female wolf interjects herself into the story. Perhaps Larsson enjoyed The Seventh Seal enough to make her story equally enigmatic? Regardless, it is vivid and good writing and characterizations – I simply did not enjoy it as much as I do crime novels by Parker or Dennis Lehane. This is not to suggest I can’t like Swedish crime writing – I found Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman and other Martin Beck novels fascinating.

No, there is simply something I did not fully embrace in Larsson’s story – in the end, it may have been the jumpy narrative, it may have been the bleak resolution of the initial crime, and it may have been the fear I hold for Martinsson. I remain curious though – can Rebecka recover again? Perhaps I will give Larsson another chance.

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