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D-Day Illustrated Edition: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
D-Day Illustrated Edition: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
Stephen E. Ambrose
Simon & Schuster, 2014
768 pp., $40.00

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Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings
Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings
Craig L. Symonds
Oxford University Press, 2014
440 pp., $29.95

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Albert Louis Zambone


D-Day and the Dichotomies of Military History

Just what are military historians up to these days?

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Books about war used to be about "battles and leaders" (the actual title of a series of retrospective essays on the Civil War published in 1887 and 1888). This was not only fashion but also pedagogy, supported by the War Department's belief that military history was a necessary part of the curriculum for U.S. Army officers. Indeed one of the first governmental measures to preserve historic places was the War Department's purchase of Civil War battlefields—at first to preserve the cemeteries and the dead that had been left behind by the departing combatants. Eventually, in 1896, Congress declared four battlefields to be "monuments," in part for the historical memories that they conveyed, but also to preserve them as training grounds for military maneuver and for the education of officers.

The staff ride, a battlefield study tour taken by officers learning their trade, focused on the tactics of the battle under examination, as well as on how the two armies had gotten to that battlefield. It became a prominent feature of upper-level military study, from 1906 to World War II, and then again from the late '60s to the present. The pedagogical requirements of military history led to an ever deepening concentration on just why Grant had ordered that attack at Cold Harbor, why Jackson had been so sluggish at Seven Days', and—the $64,000 question that Civil War buffs will never stop asking, ever—why Lee ordered Pickett's charge, and whether Longstreet made a real effort to follow that order. By asking these questions, Army officers put themselves in the shoes of previous leaders and prepared for their own future decisions. Campaigns and battles were at the heart of this history, and leaders of battles, generals, were the all-important subjects. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of this genre in American history was Douglas Southall Freeman in his seemingly unending stream of books on Robert E. Lee and the Confederate general officers (at least the ones in the East). Freeman's relentless Teutonic approach to research, combined with an almost Johnsonian capacity to pass epigrammatic judgment and fueled with the passion of an unreconstructed son of a Confederate soldier, made his studies the summit of that approach. Photographs from the era show Eisenhower, Churchill, Marshall, and other luminaries intently listening to Freeman, as if to an oracle—for to them, he was, and that was what they expected a military historian to be.

To the chagrin of many military historians, readers—and non-military historians—still see "battles and leaders" as the dominant mode of military history. If you doubt that, you have not lately browsed the history section in one of the surviving superstores. In the academic discipline of military history, though, this has not been the case for more than forty years. Since the 1960s, military historians have engaged in their own warfare, skirmishing, maneuvering, and sometimes in digging rather formidable systems of entrenchments.

The late John Keegan, with his 19XX book, The Face of Battle, ignited the conflict. Keegan displaced the general from the battlefield by explicating the experience of the regular soldier in combat. He was not interested in what Henry V did at Agincourt, but in the experience of the Welsh archer preparing to shoot; he did not repeat the same set of anecdotes about the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, but gave the view of a private in the ranks waiting for the advance of Napoleon's Guard. Keegan's aimed to understand battle as soldiers had experienced it, not as generals believed that they had, should have, or could have directed it.

Keegan's approach appealed both to academics and to buffs, to the professional and the armchair tactician. It arrived just as oral history had demonstrated its respectability to a wider academic audience and just as the movement to do history from the "bottom up" rather than the "top down" was gaining traction. Oral history allowed a historian study social history without having to understand statistics. But unlike "cliometrical" social history, the oral-history approach had wide popular appeal; both genealogy and historical reenacting became popular hobbies in the 1970s, ways of exploring and expressing historical connection. The confluence of professional and lay audiences, coupled with bottom-up trends in the academic discipline, made books describing the experience of privates, corporals, and sergeants just as popular as those grading a general's thinking. Social histories were books about Dad's army. They told the stories that he refused to tell.

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