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Front & Center

Robert M. Citino takes a closer look at World War II's most riveting battles, leaders, weapons, and tactics in his blog, Front & Center.

Citino, a faculty member at the University of North Texas, is a military historian who specializes in the Second World War. His most recent books are Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm, The Death of the Wehrmacht, and The German Way of War.

Narrative? Real Life?
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

OK, all you postmodernists, you intellectuals who think that there is no such thing as reality, that it is all about the narrative, that each participant in a historical event has a separate and equally valuable experience that is as inviolable as any other. How progressive you are, refusing to "privilege" any one account over another, for fear of allowing one dominant social discourse to emerge! After all, the dominant party then quashes the stories put forth by marginalized groups, those outside the norm and thus those without power. What is "truth," after all, but the account of the dominant elites, and thus yet another way of keeping the people down? Downtrodden voices are by definition true, no matter what they happen to be saying.

Yeah, I can talk that postmodernist jive. And why not? I've been reading it my entire adult life.

But as much as I appreciate the insights offered by postmodernist thought, I also have to admit that I have a fundamental problem with this approach. "Nothing is true"? "All accounts are equal"? All history is merely a form of "discourse" that adds up to nothing?

Count me out.

And here is why. I have spent my entire life studying the greatest (actually, the worst) war in human history. Tens of millions of people died in the course of the fighting. Some were pulverized by high explosive, others burned in fire, and at the end, some were even vaporized in microseconds by a brand-new process of nuclear fission. The whole thing was horrible, and if there's one thing we're all sure of, it is this: World War II happened. It wasn't just someone's narrative, and it isn't open to question.

Oh sure, we can argue over the origins of the war and the why and the how (which is history's real purview), but just try and tell a military historian that the battle of Midway or Stalingrad or Normandy or Berlin were mere "narratives." Let's go back in a time machine and tour the Prokhorovka battlefield in July 1943. Let us smell the smoke and dodge the secondary explosions and try to avoid stepping on the human remains. Then step up and tell someone that Kursk is nothing but a "narrative.

Sure. Do that. Then stand back and prepare to defend yourself.

My friend and distinguished scholar John Lynn said it best in his 2003 book Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. "Extreme proponents of cultural history might dispute the very existence of reality, since all is perception to them," he wrote. "In the realm of military history, such airy discussions tend to become foolish. Thousands of dead and wounded as a result of battle is the kind of hard fact that defies intellectual games."

Let me just join in here with a "Right on, Dr. Lynn!" Sure, it is possible to intellectualize almost anything. But most military historians feel that there are clear limits to how far they can go without breaking faith with their subject. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, "S–t happened," and that is true no matter how clever we want to be with our analysis.

To prove my point, come back next week. I'll take you to Leningrad, to some truly horrific events, and to the martyrdom of a great city in wartime.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

High Castle II: Philip K. Dick’s War
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Last time out we discussed Philip K. Dick's great "alternate history" of World War II, The Man in the High Castle. In this award-winning novel, reality has apparently been turned upside down. President Roosevelt has died by an assassin's bullet early in his first term, isolationists have come into power, and the country is unready for the war that inevitably comes. Consequently, the good guys lose World War II, the Axis comes to dominate the globe, and even to occupy the former United States.

Oh, sure, there are pockets of resistance. Indeed, an author in the semi-autonomous Rocky Mountain States has even written a piece of resistance literature, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which—great twist here—the Allies have won the war.

Our fictional author and his fictional novel-within-a-novel have apparently taken the upside-down history of this alternate world and set it right side up. Here is precisely where Dick's genius as a novelist—and as a thinker—becomes manifest, however. The Grasshopper does indeed have the Allies winning the war. But as passages of it appear in the course of the reading, it soon becomes clear that this world of Allied triumph is most assuredly not the world in which we live. The details don't match up: Roosevelt isn't killed, but goes on to serve two terms. He then decides to honor tradition and not run again in 1940. The next president, Rexford Tugwell (left), continues Roosevelt's readiness policies, and the country is ready when the balloon goes up. The British are better prepared, too. They defeat Rommel and drive up through the Caucasus to help the Soviets triumph at Stalingrad. Fascist Italy defects (in a manner significantly different from what actually happened in 1943), and so on. The Allies triumph, yes, not how you expect them to. Indeed, bad blood between the British and Americans is going to lead to future conflict.

Dick, in other words, has concocted multiple histories here. He even inserts a puzzling vignette in the middle of the book when it appears that one of our characters—a Japanese official in San Francisco—has slipped into our own reality. He enters a crowded café, no white patron rises to give him a seat, and when he insists, he is subjected to a mild racial slur ("Watch it, Tojo," one of them hisses). Dick provides us with a "history," in other words, with the Nazis and Japanese ruling the world; an "alternate history," with the Allies winning; and for just a brief moment, "our history" (what we know actually happened).

And then there's the ending of the book. You'll have to read it for yourself and decide what to make of it. I'm not even going to go there.

Dick forces me to consider what it means to be a military historian. I've already spoken my piece on how far we can take the notion of different "narratives." What happened, happened, and you can't just make stuff up. But human beings are a funny lot, they all tend to see things differently, and writing the history of an event—actually a massive and interrelated series of events—like World War II isn't as easy as it sounds. In the end, we have to settle for the fact that there will be diverging points of view, conflicting accounts, different realities.

Histories, if you will.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

The View from the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and World War II
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

We've been discussing the accepted "narrative" of the war, the ways that we Americans have tended to interpret it. Others have their own "histories" of World War II, and they can vary wildly by era, by place, by perspective. To give just one example: Allied bombers flying over occupied France were "liberating" it; those on the ground being "liberated" might well have seen it in a different fashion.

When I'm trying to get this important point across to my students, I recommend that they read an unusual book. There are thousands of scholarly histories of the war (good research, not always a thrill-a-minute to read), and tens of thousands of more popular works (lacking in original research, but usually of higher literary quality). For this topic, however—the malleability of "the narrative" and, indeed, the malleability of history itself—I recommend a piece of fiction.

Sometimes it takes a novelist to nail down a particular aspect of the human condition. George Orwell once famously skewered the pretensions of the totalitarian leaders by turning them into beasts. A child can read Animal Farm, and get a lot out of it, but no one has ever written a more serious condemnation of Soviet communism. Likewise, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman took the most horrific episode of the 20th century and turned it into a comic book… er… "graphic novel" called Maus. It is a profound work indeed, dealing with both the historical event of the Holocaust and the way that the pain has worked itself out in succeeding generations.

When discussing the "accepted narrative" of World War II, I recommend a novel by the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. A prolific and troubled man, he was the author of numerous works: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which Hollywood turned into the film Blade Runner), Minority Report, Valis, and many, many more. The book at issue here appeared in 1962, and earned him the Hugo Award for science fiction a year later.

That's always struck me as a bit odd, because for my money, The Man in the High Castle isn't really science fiction at all. It explores an "alternate history," one in which the Axis has won World War II. The United States is occupied by the Germans in the east (a rump U.S., ruled Vichy-style), and the Japanese in the west (the "Pacific States of America, or PSA). In between them is a buffer region, the "Rocky Mountain States." We hear bits and pieces of what happened to cause the timeline to diverge from our own. The 1933 assassination attempt on FDR in Miami succeeds, the isolationist Republican John W. Bricker is elected president in 1936, and so forth. The U.S. is therefore hopelessly unready for the war that soon breaks out. The Allies lose it, surrendering in 1947.

It is fascinating stuff. All "counterfactuals" like these force you to assess the importance of particular events and people, and see them in new ways. It is what is happening in the Rocky Mountain States that gives the books its oomph, however. Here lives the author "Hawthorne Abendsen"—and he has written a very unusual novel. It has been banned by the German authorities on the east coast and in Europe, but it is already in wide underground circulation among the population of the occupied United States. It's called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and it, too, is an alternate history. It tells of a very different reality, one in which the Allies have won World War II.

Suffice it to say, if you haven't ever read this book… consider it an order!

More next time.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

"A Mud Hut in Manchuria": Why We Fight, Part 2
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Last week I wrote about Frank Capra and his incomparable Why We Fight series of wartime propaganda films. From our own perspective, it's easy to pick apart the details of Capra's vision. Some of the argumentation is simplistic, sure, the narration is just this side of lurid, and the films also admit to containing "staged recreations." For all these reasons, historians should handle them with care.

What struck me the most about this viewing, however, was how sophisticated Capra's approach was. This is the umpteenth time I've sat through Why We Fight, and I've got most of the voice-over memorized. But it wasn't until this time around that I took note of how advanced Capra's argumentation was on the question of the war's origins. For the director, World War II didn't start at Pearl Harbor (which is certainly how most Americans of his day would have seen it), nor did it begin with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, still the consensus starting date for the conflict.

Instead, Capra takes us back many years to a galaxy far, far away: the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931. Already supervising the Southern Manchurian Railroad (and thus allowed a small garrison inside the province), the Japanese made the big grab in September 1931. After a small "incident" on the railway—an explosion that did minimal injury to the line (the narrator informs us that it damaged "one rail and two fish plates")—the Japanese launched a full-scale invasion. Within days they overran the gigantic, mineral-rich province with an illegally and secretly beefed-up garrison, along with troops arrayed across the border in Japanese-occupied Korea. So smoothly did the operation go that it was certainly not an improvised response to an unexpected hostile act. Japanese forces in Manchuria almost certainly carried out the small act of "sabotage" themselves, as an excuse to trigger the occupation.

When the League of Nations condemned the aggression (in the "Lytton report," issued in October 1932), the Japanese left the League, thumbing their nose at the international community, and daring someone to do something about it. No one did, of course. "Knowing there were no guns behind this condemnation," the narrator tell us, the Japanese delegation "smiled, took up their briefcases, and marched out of the League." And from that small act, much evil flowed, as Capra tells us.

The issue was bigger than Manchuria, or Japan, or even Germany. What was at stake in World War II was not merely the fate of the dictators, as bad as they all were. At stake was the rule of law in the international community. If anyone can invade anyone else at any time without fear of reprisal, we no longer have a "world community," we have a kind of global jungle. And that was the message that "Prelude to War," the first installment, tried to impart to a "farm boy in Iowa, a "driver of a London bus," and a "waiter in a Paris café." It might have looked like these men were going to war over what the film famously calls "a mud hut in Manchuria." But that mud hut stood for something far more precious: the basic human right to security.

Frank Capra: philosopher. Who knew?

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

No Doubt: Frank Capra’s "Why We Fight"
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Last week I spoke my piece about Edward R. Murrow and his I Can Hear it Now series. Ed's been dead a long time, but my hunch is that if he were alive, he wouldn't be doing a lot of hand-wringing about World War II, or the "narrative" to which most of us in America still subscribe. Ed was a man of certainty: he loved democracy, he hated the Nazis (and the Japanese militarists as well), and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he lifted a nice, tall Scotch in honor of victory on both V-E and V-J days. Like virtually everyone in his generation, Ed believed there was a war to be won, and sitting under a rain of Luftwaffe bombing in London probably did nothing to change his mind. His broadcasts provided the audio track that guided the nation into war.

As everyone knows, however, the 20th century was the great age of video. We live on images, vivid scenes that tell us how to think and what to feel. Movies are our window into reality—as much as we tell ourselves that what we're seeing is an illusion. And if anyone provided the visuals for World War II, it was a man of humble origins, a Sicilian immigrant who championed his adopted country with the zeal of the new convert: Frank Capra.

Capra is a household word in the history of film. He directed two of the most famous movies of all time. It Happened One Night (1934) featured Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a romantic comedy that seems charming to us, but struck audiences of the day as scandalous and titillating in equal measure. And who among us has not thrilled to It's a Wonderful Life, the story of George Bailey and the world as it might have existed had he never been born? Capra stood for the American virtues: family, hard work, and the flouting of conventions.

One of his less well known productions is the series of shorts he produced for the government during the war, designed to explain to U.S. servicemen why they should be leaving hearth and home and going to fight the Axis in a godforsaken backwater like Guadalcanal. Why We Fight, he called them. I've spent more time watching these films than I care to admit, and I love them all. My favorite in the series, however, is the first installment, "Prelude to War."

Talk about certainty! Let us just say that Capra is not a master of nuance. He offers us two images of the globe: "Our World" (bathed in sunlight) and "Their World" (cloaked in darkness). One is freedom, the other slavery. One is peace, the other war. One is love, the other hate. He shows us a map of Fascist Italy that animates into a menacing axe tied in a bundle of rods (the ancient Roman fasces). Japan turns into a dragon devouring its neighbors. And Germany turns into a hideous swastika menacing all and sundry.

The dialog can only be described as lurid. The free world owes its freedoms to the great liberators, "lighthouses" of civilization, Capra calls them, "lighting up a dark and foggy world": Moses, Confucius, Muhammad, Christ. He traces a direct link between these big four and modern America, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Meanwhile, the slave world worships "rabble-rousers" and "demagogues" like Hitler, Mussolini, and the God-Emperor. "Stop thinking and follow me!" he has Hitler crying. "I will make you masters of the world!" And the German people answer "Heil, Heil!"

Oh, sure, I know what you're saying: come on, man, don't believe anything you see on TV or the screen. I'm a 21st century guy, and I know better than to be gullible. After all, we live in the age of MTV's "Real World," a show about young adults who live in expensive apartments and have no bills, or "Real Housewives of New York," who are anything but real housewives. Still, World War II was at least partially a contest of ideas. Capra was a master Hollywood film maker, and my inner historian has to ask: how could the Axis possibly win the war of ideas in the 1940s, an era when Hollywood reigned supreme?
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

What Narrative? Edward R. Murrow's "I Can Hear it Now"
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

I've been spending the past few columns discussing "the narrative" of World War II, our accepted version of the conflict, and how important it is to challenge it when we think it needs changing.

I've obviously touched a nerve. There have been some very stimulating posts on the "comments" section, in my email, and on my Facebook account. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy with me, and many of the comments have been pretty feisty. It's something that goes with the territory, I've learned. It has to be jarring when some wiseacre comes along and challenges what you know to be right. Most Americans still know and feel in their hearts that World War II was a good war, fought for the right reasons, and conducted about as humanely as we possibly could.

Look, I get that, and I'll tell you why: I was raised in "the narrative." I learned it as a kid. Hell, I MEMORIZED it as a kid. I've been eating, drinking, and sleeping the narrative as far back as I can remember. I am old enough to remember 78 rpm records—yeah, that I'm that old—and my folks had a copy of Edward R. Murrow's I Can Hear it Now series dealing with the war. With one of the century's greatest journalists as my guide, I could literally hear that war coming. Murrow laid it out: while the democracies slept, the dictatorships spent the 1930's arming and preparing. It sure seemed that way. I listened to Mussolini boasting about his new Roman Empire in front of screaming crowds. I heard the Japanese soldiers roaring out their "Banzai" war cries in China. Above all—and it made an indelible impression on me—I listened to Hitler snarling his bloodthirsty threats against Czechoslovakia in 1938 at the time of the great crisis that culminated in the Munich Conference.

I even remember asking my dad that question that ALL sons ask at some point as they grow to manhood: "Dad, what's the Sudetenland?"

OK, so I was a weird kid. But even today, I think of that little boy sitting in his living room in Cleveland, Ohio,, listening to a pile of ancient 78s, and I remember feeling certain that what Murrow was telling me wasn't one mere "narrative" among many. It wasn't one account that he was "privileging" above others, or some post-modern "construct." To me, it was something real. It was the truth.

So sure, as a professional historian, I challenge the narrative wherever possible and when I think the facts warrant it. But where I get off the train is when it starts down the "we were all at fault" track and assigns equal moral demerits to the democracies and the dictatorships. It ain't all up for grabs. World War II may or may not have been a "crusade," but I still think the Allies had little choice but to fight and win it, and I'm glad they did. Even today, "I can hear it now."

Next week, we'll let Frank Capra tell us "Why We Fight."

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Narrative: the Crusade
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Last week I urged you all to challenge the "accepted narrative" of World War II, to come up with things you used to believe about the war that no longer hold water.

I received some great answers! Some of you used to think the western Allies won the war all by themselves and tended to downplay the massive contributions of the Soviet Union. Others used to believe that strategic bombing was a fairly low-cost and easy way of bringing Germany to its knees. Still others now question the notion that the veterans who returned after 1945 slid back into their civilian lives smoothly and easily and had little trouble readjusting. And some of you used to think that most Frenchmen fought in the Resistance.

Oh, well.

Today, informed students of the war would question each and every one of these once-accepted "truths." The point is not to laugh at how naïve we once were, or to enjoy a cheap laugh at the expense of the French, but merely to point out that the "narrative" about a given event has a way of hardening early on, and can be very difficult to break.

It is easy to see how it happens. With regards to the "Missing Soviet" narrative, for example, the 1950s saw the Cold War and U.S. anti-communism in full flower, and few people were in much of a mood to credit Stalin with helping to defeat Hitler, or to recall the in-convenient truth that just a few short years ago Washington and Moscow had been on the same side.

Since you were all so forthcoming with your confessions, let me give one of my own, another part of the traditional narrative that I once swallowed whole, but no longer believe. It is the notion of World War II as "the great crusade." General Eisenhower enshrined the idea in the title to his memoirs (Crusade in Europe), and by and large it's still the way we perceive the war.

Calling it a "crusade" sets a high bar. A crusade is, after all, a consecrated undertaking. The warrior embarks on the adventure not for power or personal aggrandizement, but rather because it is God's will. He willingly risks life and limb for a higher cause; indeed, he follows Christ on the "way of the cross," the literal meaning of the term.

Certainly, no sane person will deny that beating Hitler was the classic definition of A Good Thing. But if U.S. participation in the war was a "crusade" against evil, we certainly took our time getting involved. World War II lasted for seven campaigning seasons from 1939 to 1945, inclusive, and American forces missed the first three. Indeed, Germany's best chance at victory had probably come and gone before U.S. troops even joined the fighting. When we finally got into World War II, it wasn't by choice, which would seem to be one prerequisite for a "crusade," but because we got bombed (by the Japanese) and had war declared upon us (by the Germans). And once we did get involved, military necessity impelled us to do a lot of very unpleasant things: indiscriminate use of firepower, massive aerial bombing of densely populated urban areas, and—in the most truly horrific expression of war's destructive power—even a couple of atomic bombs.

I'm not trying to second-guess strategic decisions that were made under pressure a long time ago or to try our forebears by our supposedly more "enlightened" modern standards. I know why we dropped the atom bomb; I explain it to my students all the time. It's just that the longer I study World War II the more I realize how horrible it was, and I'm uncomfortable dignifying anything that horrible as a "crusade."

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For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

The Narrative
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

A crazy question: what do we really KNOW about World War II?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the annual conference of the Society for Military History (SMH). The site this year was Lisle, Illinois, and the host was the First Division Museum at Cantigny, located in the nearby town of Wheaton. What a great facility, and what great people running it—it's as professional and determined as the "Big Red 1" itself! Be sure to visit them when you're in the vicinity, or click here to visit their website. And while you're at it, be sure to join the SMH. You don't have to be a professor. You just need to have an interest in military history, and I know you all have a lot of THAT.

Besides nitty-gritty, tooth-and-nail arguments about every battle from Pharsalus to Fallujah, one of the things that happens at the annual conference is the Awards Luncheon, where the society honors the best books and articles that have appeared in the past year. It's always a feel-good moment (and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I know this better than anyone, having won the SMH Distinguished Book Award in 2005 for my book Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm).

This year, one of the award winners was Marc Milner, a professor at the University of New Brunswick in My Absolutely Favorite Country to the North, Canada. His article "Stopping the Panzers: Reassessing the Role of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division in Normandy, 7–10 June 1944," appeared in the Journal of Military History in April 2010 and has generated a lot of buzz for all the right reasons. It's a fundamentally new view of a well known battle (at least among the World War II cognoscenti), jam-packed with deep research in the archives and written by a hard-headed author who isn't inclined to believe everything he grew up reading.

To summarize briefly, the accepted view for years—no, make that decades—had an SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) by the name of Kurt "Panzer" Meyer launching a counterattack against the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, advancing towards Carpiquet airfield on D+1, June 7th, 1944. According to a story I'd read a thousand times, Meyer waited coolly as the North Nova Scotia Highlander battalion, the "North Novas," unwittingly offered him their flank, then smashed into them and drove them back in some confusion. It was a classic tale of a hard-bitten, experienced force sending a novice to school.

Milner's article exploded all that by carefully looking at the planning documents and after-action reports—the only two things that count, for the most part. He found a very different tale: a Canadian force that, even as it advanced, was quite prepared for an eventual German counter stroke and, through solid use of combined arms (armor, infantry and especially artillery), managed to land a big hurt on Meyer's overly reckless attack.

Listening to Milner give his "thank you address" was a revelatory moment for me. I am paraphrasing here, but he said something along the following lines: we think that the "story" of World War II is already set in stone, but in fact, much of the "history" was written in the immediate wake of the event; it was filled with immediate impressions, and it was rarely based on documentary evidence.

Milner is onto something here. What we see as "the history of World War II" is actually a "construct." You take a few early impressions (often drawn from notoriously inaccurate newspaper headlines), mix in a few post-1945 biases—some minor and some major—and then stir and over again until "truth" forms. Perhaps you add a drop or two of "bitters," personal axes that all historians have to grind, and you wind up with a cocktail named "The Narrative." It is delicious, intoxicating, and you keep coming back for more. But the more we study this greatest of all wars, the less satisfying the cocktail becomes.

I relate to this. I used to believe in "Blitzkrieg." I used to think that the Polish army launched cavalry charges against the German Panzers. I used to believe that the German tanks of 1940 were technologically superior to their French adversaries, and I used to think the same thing about the German tanks of 1941 in the Soviet Union. I now know that each of these things was false. Sometimes I have to laugh. The more the years pass, the less certain my knowledge of World War II seems to become.

A question for the readers: Is there anything that you used to believe about World War II that no longer makes sense?
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Requiem
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

I'm sitting in LaGuardia Airport at the moment, returning home from a trip to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I'm proud to have a tie to the Academy: I taught there as a visiting professor during the 2008–09 school year, and I've spoken a number of times at their annual Summer Seminar, which assembles younger scholars from all over the country for an intensive three-week immersion into the craft of military history. I'm one of their "hired guns," so to speak, brought in to speak on their areas of expertise. It's always a blast to meet and get to know young up-and-comers in the field, and West Point never looks more picture perfect than it does in the summer. Speaking at the seminar is always one of the highlights of my year.

This year was different.

Oh, don't get me wrong. The seminar was amazing—well organized, packed with interesting ideas, and a wonderful opportunity to get to know some amazing people. For me, however, there was a pall over the whole thing. A few weeks ago I heard the kind of news you're never really ready for. One of the cadets I had taught two years ago—his name was John—had been killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, along with six other U.S. servicemen.

I remember him well. His examinations are still in the hard drive of my computer, and the senior thesis he wrote, something all the history majors at West Point have to do, was a very solid critique of the Wehrmacht's brutal anti-partisan operations in the Soviet Union. He was a good guy, a bit older than the other cadets, since he had had prior service in the Army.

Visiting West Point this year, I couldn't get John out of my mind. I've been teaching for a long time. Undoubtedly, some of the students I've taught over the years have passed away. But this was still something new for me. It made me reflect on what really makes West Point or any of the other military academies unique. The young people in your classes are not merely "students." They are also "cadets," future officers and platoon leaders. When you discuss military history at West Point, you're not just talking to buffs or budding young scholars, although many of the cadets are both of those. You're also talking to future "operators," those who will someday have to fight the same kind of battles you're discussing, and may also be called upon to give their lives in the service of their country.

John did all those things, and finally, on May 26th, 2011, he did what so many others before him have done: he gave the last full measure of devotion.

I'd like to ask my readers to give a thought or prayer today to our soldiers fighting overseas. We're currently involved in no fewer than three wars (whatever the government likes to call them), combat is still a highly dangerous business, and a very small number of young people are bearing the burden for all of us.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

Join the SMH
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, June 20th, 2011

It sounds like a joke, I know: a conference of history professors. Oh yeah…that's a party. You better hunker down, locals. Lock your doors. Call the police!

But I just returned from a conference of history professors, the annual gathering of the Society for Military History (the SMH, as it's called), and let me just say: what a feast. Imagine an entire hotel outside of Chicago filled with the authors whose books you've read in the past year. They turn out to be down to earth and approachable men and women who know their military history cold, who can throw down on the details of campaigns and battles like you wouldn't believe, and who love nothing better than to thrash out the details of every conflict from ancient Macedon through World War II to the modern coalition struggles in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In the course of the weekend, you could see a lot of good stuff. For example, I was lucky to attend a debate between two U.S. Army colonels—Conrad Crane (ret.) and Gian Gentile—over our current counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in the Mideast. It was like watching a ping-pong match between two expert players, no surprise, since that's exactly what they are. Crane is the author who penned the army's current COIN doctrine (Field Manual 3-24). Gentile is an armor branch guy who commanded an armored cavalry squadron in West Baghdad in 2006 and currently teaches at West Point. Crane thinks we're on the right track in these conflicts, more or less. Gentile thinks we've gone off the rails altogether. Neither one was shy about disagreeing with the other. Verdict: two good men; one great debate.

Another conference session discussed whether or not there is a distinctive "American way of war." The panel consisted of Brian Linn, the ultra-sharp author of the recent book Echo of Battle; Tony Echevarria, a former lieutenant colonel now at the U.S. Army War College; Adrian Lewis, a former major and now a professor at the University of Kansas; Brian Holden Reid, a prolific British scholar from King's College (London); and Thomas G. Mahnken from the U.S. Naval War College and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning. Suffice it to say that, although it was eight in the morning and many of us were not yet in full command of our faculties, the atmosphere was electric. Ideas were zinging around the room, some pretty smart people were disputing one another in the sharpest possible terms, and even the audience was feisty and combative. Lewis, in particular, was impressive—reminding everyone present that debates over U.S. military doctrine and policy aren't just about words or rhetoric. They have real consequences, and the stakes are high. If we get this stuff wrong, we should remember, good soldiers (and our fellow citizens) pay the price.

Sometimes, being a military historian is a job just like any other. At other times, I'm proud to be one.

If you're interested in joining the organization or attending next year's meeting (it will be in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.), click here to check out the website of the SMH. Membership is open to anyone interested in military history. Hope to see you there, and be sure to come up and say hello!

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Happy Anniversar(ies)!
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

We live in an anniversary culture, one in which the media never stops telling us Why This Day Is Special. I am writing this column on June 7th—did you know this was the day Sony introduced the Betamax videocassette recorder for sale to the public, or that the inaugural Cricket World Cup began in England, both signal events taking place in 1975?

Yeah, neither did I.

Frankly, I can do without anniversary culture altogether. For thousands of years, we humans have taken note of important events: birthdays, religious holidays, days of liberation and enslavement. They gave shape to the seasons, to the year, and to our lives as a whole. What we lacked was an omnipresent electronic media constantly waving anniversaries in our faces until they became a blur, with the weighty and the trivial receiving equal billing.

Recently, however, we experienced a "twofer" that I think is worth noting. On June 4 we celebrated the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, and on June 6th, of course, the 67th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Two battles, two great victories for U.S. and Allied arms. The vast encounter in the Pacific waters surrounding Midway Island broke the back of the Japanese carrier fleet, and indeed, virtually the first words I learned in a foreign language as a kid were Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, and Hiryu. D-Day cracked open the so-called Atlantic Wall and created a firm bridgehead in Europe that the Allies would never relinquish. Less than a year later the Third Reich would lie in ruins and Adolf Hitler would be shooting himself in despair.

What struck me the most were the difference between these two victories. Midway happened for a number of reasons: brave U.S. airmen and sailors had something to with it, of course, but there was also an overly complex Japanese operational plan (something that would bedevil the Imperial Japanese Navy for the entire war) and some highly successful U.S. intelligence and counter-intelligence efforts ("AF is out of water," for you aficionados) But at or near the top of the Midway list was a great deal of luck: Admiral Nagumo's unfortunate timing in retrieving, refueling, and rearming his attack aircraft, for example, or the presence of a sitting duck U.S. torpedo squadron shot to pieces by Japanese fighters, which gave an opening to those Dauntless dive bombers coming in at higher altitude. Above all, the fact that the Americans even found the Japanese fleet at all was fortunate, the work of a lone U.S. aircraft spotting a lone Japanese destroyer that had separated from the main fleet and was hurrying to catch up. It was an amazing confluence of events.

D-Day was different. Oh sure, there were nail-biting moments during the landings, especially for the U.S. force at Omaha Beach. The preparatory bombing, supposed to be "the greatest show on earth," largely failed to materialize, and certainly did little damage to the Wehrmacht formations dug in at Omaha. The Canadians had troubles of their own getting over the seawall at Juno. The airborne drops behind Utah Beach were utterly chaotic and could well have been disastrous, had there been more Germans behind Utah Beach. None of these things, however, came close to turning Operation Overlord into a failure. That note Ike penned the night before, one to be released to the press in case things went wrong, never had to be used, and sits today in a museum. (A digital copy from the National Archives sits at left.)

So, happy anniversaries! What happened between 1942 and 1944 was this: the Allies went from being lucky to being good. And contrary to the old saying, I'd rather be good. Ask the Japanese at Midway what happens when your luck runs out.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

Picturing the War: the Sadler Collection
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Being a historian of World War II puts you in touch with the most interesting people. It is a rare day that my email does not contain a message from someone I've never met before asking me a factual question about some aspect of the fighting, or calling my attention to a new book I ought to read, or asking my advice on some memorabilia that Dad or Granddad brought back from the war. Indeed, it's one of the great aspects of studying World War II: you meet the nicest and most interesting people.

Today's proof for that rule is Mr. Bruce Sadler of Evansville, in my former home state of Indiana. Bruce is a plain spoken guy, down to earth and a delight to talk to. He messaged me the other day out of the blue and told me that his father, Paul, had been a G.I. in the ETO, and had brought a photo album back with him when he returned to the states. My ears perked up, but only a little. Photos of World War II? Dime a dozen. It was the most photographed war of all time, after all, and anyone who studies it for a living begins to feel that he has seen every picture ever taken, anywhere.

But then Bruce sent me a couple of examples, and suddenly I wasn't feeling so jaded. These are high quality images, 1940-43, in both France and the Soviet Union—beautifully composed, nicely lit, clearly the work of a professional German war photographer. They run the gamut from action shots in the field to staff meetings, parades and ceremonies, and the commonplace of everyday life. I know the photos of this war as well as any historian, and I hadn't seen these before.

There's a back story here. Paul paid some heavy dues for that photo album. On May 1, 1945, he arrived at a small Bavarian town named Dachau, two days after the U.S. Army liberated the camp there. Dachau was never officially an "extermination camp," but by the end of the war, overcrowding, mass starvation, and epidemics of just about every contagious disease known to man had all down their awful work. Paul saw some scenes that, frankly, he didn't feel like talking about in much detail—and he never really did.

He's passed now, and his son Bruce is on an unusual quest: trying to identify the persons, places, and things in these photos, and perhaps even identify the original photographer. I told him I'd print a couple of images and see if The Best Informed Readership in America might have some hints. Let's start with these two:

 

What about it, readers? Any thoughts?
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

"Pinochle is a Rough Game": My Love for Stalag 17
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Regular readers of this column will know that I don't really get excited about war movies. I read a lot, research a lot, and write a lot, and there are only so many hours in the day. In a publishing career of 25 years, I have precisely one film review to my credit, a piece I did in Variety last year on Quentin Tarantino's crazed Inglourious Basterds. I view that movie as two hours of my life that I will never get back.

I know that ignoring war movies is a fault. I preach to my students all the time that understanding culture is crucial to understanding history. The films we make—or fail to make—say a lot about the way we view our wars present and past, and they tell us a lot about the way we view ourselves. Film is important; it is THE mass communications medium of the 20th century, and it is still going strong in the 21st.

I should like them, but I just don't. So sue me.

The more I think about it, though, there is one war movie that I like, one film that stands above the others, that speaks to me. I could watch it every day, and I have a lot of the dialog committed to memory.

It's about an unusual topic. Some men march off to war and distinguish themselves in a thousand ways. Some fight in great battles. Some become heroes. And some sacrifice themselves willingly for their buddies, giving that "last full measure of devotion," as President Lincoln famously said in his Gettysburg Address.

And some get taken prisoner. It's a miserable fact of war, and there is nothing in the world sadder than photographs of POWs just after they've surrendered. Talk about a "1000 yard stare." A man who has lost all hope for the moment is not a pretty sight. As a result, POWs have largely been MIA in the history of World War II film. World War II films tend to privilege "the action," for all the reasons you might expect. It's simply easier to sell to the audience, and while film is an art, it is also definitely a business.

And that leads us to my favorite World War II film: Stalag 17 (1953), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Bill Holden in the unforgettable role of J. J. Sefton. The standard World War II film tended to serve up platitudes about country, cause, and heroism. Stalag 17 gave us tough talk, crackling dialog, and just enough ambiguity to make it a film for the ages. Sefton is many things—a rogue, an entrepreneur, a macher—but one thing he most definitely is not is a hero. In fact, he's the opposite—perhaps the first great World War II "antihero."

Prisoners of war have to question why they're there. Is the cause worthy of their sacrifice? Have I let down my family, friends, and country? Does being captured rob me of my self-respect, even my manhood? Sefton doesn't ask any of those questions. He wasn't fighting for a cause in the first place. He lives by his own code, and it seems to work for him. The phrase didn't exist yet, but Sefton is "looking out for #1."

He is honest about it, though, and he never claims to be doing anything else. In spite of his egotism—or perhaps precisely because of it—he has a sense of honor. He won't rat you out to the Germans, even when you and your fellow prisoners accuse him of being a traitor and beat him to a pulp. When the Red Cross man sees his injuries and asks him "What happened to you? Were you beaten?", he responds with the immortal lines, "Nobody beat me. We were playing pinochle. It's a rough game." In the end, Sefton unmasks the stooly in their midst, the guy who has been trumpeting his patriotism the loudest. Sefton's takedown of the real bad guy is still a powerful scene, and I've seen it 50 times.

I could go on, and I feel like going on. Simply listing the 100 greatest lines from Stalag 17 would make for one of the greatest blog entries ever. But I'll stop.

I guess I don't hate war movies after all.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

Shreveport Under Siege: The Louisiana Maneuvers, Phase 2
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Last week we looked at the opening round of the U.S. Army's Louisiana Maneuvers in 1941. It was an exercise without a great deal of flash or excitement, but rather one designed to give a newly formed army some seasoning and a green officer corps some experience in maneuvering large formations in the field.

After four days to separate the armies, reorganize them, and return them to their start-lines, Phase 2 of the Louisiana maneuvers began. This time, the Blue Army (LTG Walter Krueger) was both twice as large as Red (LTG Ben Lear) and equipped with its own armored division, the 2nd, which had switched sides since Phase 1. Blue's mission was advance upon and seize Shreveport, Louisiana. Krueger's able chief of staff, COL Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided to send his armor on a wide sweep across the Sabine river to drive round Red's western flank, break into the rear, and attack Shreveport from the north. The Red force was much smaller and tasked largely with positional defense for a 100-mile zone south of the city. Lear decided on a slow retreat, accompanied by massive demolitions that would slow down the pace of Blue's advance.

Business as usual so far, but we need to introduce another factor into the equation. Some of you have no doubt read Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers. In science, "outliers" are anomalous events that cannot be described by theory. Gladwell believes that there are people we can consider outliers, "men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August." Gladwell argues that every organization has its outliers, and that successful ones know how to use them and put their talents to good use. Indeed, this phase of the maneuvers would feature one of the greatest outliers in U.S. military history. Commanding Blue 2nd Armored Division on its great ride west would be none other than "Mr. Outlier" himself, MG George S. Patton, Jr.

Patton's end-run in the Louisiana Maneuvers. Click for larger image.
Patton's end-run in the Louisiana Maneuvers. Click for larger image.
Patton showed his flair for maneuver by launching his division on a top speed, 3-day, nearly 400-mile end run into Texas, passing through Woodville, Nacogdoches, and Henderson and slashing into the rear of the Red position (see map). By the end of the maneuver on September 29th, he had fought his way to the outskirts of Shreveport , and one of his reconnaissance battalions had actually overrun Barskdale airport, the headquarters and principal base of Red's 2nd Air Task Force, and taking the entire staff prisoner. The Red command seemed paralyzed by the threat, and in fact Lear would protest that Patton had taken his division outside of the legal maneuver area. According to one biographer, Patton came back with a snarky "I am unaware of the existence of any rules in war." During his ride through Texas, he had actually supplied himself through purchases made from local gas stations along the route (rather than the approved 5-gallon "jerry can" then in official use, hundreds of which were needed to fuel an armored unit).

Patton emerged from Louisiana one of the army's rising stars and would be heard from again. Indeed, the maneuvers determined the cohort of field commanders who would fight the war in Europe. Of the 42 divisional, corps, and army commanders who took part in the fall exercises, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall would relieve or pushed aside 31 to make way for younger officers. It had taken a while, and it was just in time, but the U.S. Army was getting ready to rumble.

The Louisiana Maneuvers were indeed a reflection of a U.S. "way of war" as it had evolved over a century and a half. It was an army that preferred the broad-front advance to the single-axis penetration. It ground you down, it didn't slice you up. And yet, it also had its share of "outliers," freethinkers who didn't mind tearing up the rulebook. Finally, the maneuvers showed that there was one thing this army could do, something that it would prove it again and again in the ETO: if it found a seam, some operational elbow room, it could move like lightning. You took your eyes off the U.S. Army at your own risk. It was something that the Wehrmacht would have to discover, but might already have known if it had paid any attention at all to the Louisiana maneuvers.

For more discussion of the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II Magazine's Facebook page.

America Goes to War - In Louisiana
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Last time out we witnessed the German army preparing for World War II. The Great Fall Maneuvers of 1937 took place in the north German region of Mecklenburg, and showed a Wehrmacht that was out of the huddle, had its head down, and was driving inexorably towards an aggressive war of conquest against its neighbors. The star of the show was a new formation called the Panzer Division, one that was going to give a lot of other armies a lot of headaches in the next few years. Beyond that, the maneuvers showcased some distinctively German military traits: a high level of aggression, independent commanders allowed to make their own decisions on campaign, and a willingness to court dangerous levels of risk.

What a different picture we get from the 1941 Louisiana maneuvers of the U.S. Army! In many ways they were a perfect distillation of an "American way of war." First off, they were awfully late in getting started. We sometimes gloss over the fact today, but both world wars saw the U.S. sitting on the sidelines and missing most of the action. Think of it this way: World War II lasted six years, from the invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 to Japan's surrender on board the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945. U.S. participation spanned less than four years of that total, a little over half the war. Of seven campaigning seasons, the U.S. missed the first three and was active only in the final four. World War I was even worse: of five campaigning seasons, the U.S. took part in just one, the last.

It wasn't until 1940, when the Wehrmacht overran France and drove the British off the continent, that the U.S began actively preparing for war. The country had made great strides, certainly. In September 1940, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act into law, the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Some 16,000,000 men registered for the draft that fall. By the end of 1940 there were 630,000 men in the army (13 divisions), and six months later (June 1941) there were 1,400,000 (36 divisions). The military budget for 1940, about nine billion dollars, exceeded all the military budgets combined dating back to 1920. As force levels exploded, big maneuvers became possible for the first time.

Nevertheless, by the time the army gathered for its first great field tests in the fall of 1941—the Arkansas maneuvers in August, Louisiana in September, and the Carolinas in November—world war had been raging for two full years. Japan had already overrun much of China, and the Wehrmacht had smashed one opponent after another in Europe and was even then in the midst of the greatest land campaign of all time: the opening drive into the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. World War II was racing to a climax, in other words, and not only had the U.S. missed out on the action, it remained to be seen if it would see any action at all.

* * *

In operational terms, all three of these great maneuvers featured a similar approach. It was one that would have been familiar to previous generations of U.S. field commanders, especially Union generals in the Civil War. The Louisiana Maneuvers, for example, were essentially a teaching tool in battle management for an officer corps that had virtually overnight been tasked to lead mass armies in the field. "The field," in this case, was the district bounded by the Sabine and Red rivers to the west and east and the city of Shreveport to the north. In Phase 1 of the exercise, both sides were given offensive missions. Red 2nd Army (under LTG Ben Lear) would cross the Red river on September 15th and invade the Blue homeland. Blue 3rd Army (LTG Walter Krueger) would move north to intercept the invaders and drive the Red force back across the river. The Blue side was big, but ponderous; Red was smaller, but equipped with two armored divisions (1st and 2nd). Essentially, the mission for both sides amounted to a large-scale advance to contact, the most basic of all military maneuvers, but one perfectly suited for this brand new army and its green commanders.

Lear soon found that even getting across the river was tougher than he expected. Due to limited bridging capacity, he had to send his 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions on a wide sweep north to cross the river at Shreveport and Coushatta. Krueger, meanwhile, spent the first two days of the maneuver carrying out a by-the-book advance by three corps abreast: VIII, IV, and V, moving from left to right (Map 1). On day 3, he launched an assault on Lear's VII Corps along the Red river, which, after a promising start, settled down into a slugging match rather than a dramatic breakthrough. His numbers were eventually decisive here, however, and Lear had to give ground (Map 2). The next day would see Lear's armored divisions launch an assault on Krueger's left, which, after a promising start, bogged down in the face of Blue's antitank guns (Map 3). This was the situation by the afternoon of September 19th when the whistle blew ending Phase 1. Nothing revolutionary or shocking had taken place—this was operational art by way of U.S. Grant, a classic evocation of an American way of war—but again, it was probably just what this army needed the most.

Click on maps for larger images.

And that is why Phase 2 is all the more shocking. Here, the young U.S. Army would show a very different face, one that, perhaps, its enemies in the upcoming conflict should have noted more carefully. Next week: "Patton's Drive on Shreveport."

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Meet the Panzer Division: The German Maneuvers of 1937
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Last time out we began a discussion of the importance of studying maneuvers. They can tell a historian a lot about the way an army trains, about its policies and procedures, about what it intends to do once war breaks out, of course. They can tell you even deeper things about a "way of war"—longstanding operational patterns that cut across the fighting style of individual generals, across wars, and even across the centuries.

Exhibit A in that contention: the Wehrmacht's "Great Fall Maneuvers" of 1937. The big story here was the debut of a new formation in the German battle array, the "Panzer Division." It was built around tanks, but also contained a full array of supporting arms—infantry, artillery, engineers, supply troops—all of which could move at the speed of the tank. It was a new animal, being formed only at the end of 1935, and this was the first big field test. There was a definite aura of excitement, and indeed, the 1937 maneuvers were the largest exercise held in Germany since the end of World War I, attended in person by Hitler, Mussolini and a whole host of foreign observers.

As always in a German maneuver, a "Blue force" faced "Red" in an imaginary theater of war, this one consisting of the rolling hills, lakes, and streams of Mecklenburg, the epicenter of the so-called North German Plain. Blue, in the East, held a bridgehead over the winding Peene river near Lake Malchin (above). Red, to the West, had to attack the bridgehead and had the 3rd Panzer Division in its order of battle for that purpose. Any doubts about the ability of a mechanized formation to mix it up in high tempo operations—and there were doubters, many of them—vanished almost immediately.

Moving up 100 kilometers from the army reserve to its assault position in a single day (September 19th, above), 3rd Panzer Division launched its assault on September 20th (below). It sent its motorized infantry brigade for-ward to help 30th Infantry Division (also motorized) engage the bridgehead frontally, while swinging its Panzer Brigade around Blue's extreme left in the South. Working in close liaison with airpower, the panzers broke through the Blue position. Lacking specific orders but seizing an opportunity that suddenly presented itself, the Panzer Brigade then drove on the town of Stavenhagen, reaching it, scattering Blue's headquarters, and cutting off Blue's supply route into Malchin.

Having encircled the entire bridgehead, still without pausing, Red now assaulted it concentrically. Blue reinforcements were late in arriving due to a vigorous Red air interdiction effort. As a result, midway through Day 4 of a scheduled seven-day maneuver, Red had smashed its Blue foe.

In the manner of these things, there were debates about whether the umpires were playing fair—specifically, whether they underestimating the effect of defensive antitank fire. In order to sooth ruffled feelings, 3rd Panzer Division was ordered out of the maneuver, which continued as a fairly trite infantry vs. infantry encounter.

Beyond testing the capabilities of the Panzer Division, the maneuver was an almost perfect distillation of the "German way of war": high tempo, independent decision making and a great deal of risk (in this case rushing 3rd Panzer Division into combat "off the march" and splitting it in two for purposes of the concentric attack. A pretty impressive package, all told: a near picture-perfect image of an army putting its game face on.

Next time? The U.S. Army in Louisiana.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

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