Publication Date

April 1, 2001


Military, Public History

"U.S. Army Historian/bio-degradable/M1-A1, Ph.D., Model-1937, No. H-170-S-43946-R." At times I feel that this might be the Army Standard Supply Catalogue's description of myself, a command historian with the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command. In fact, the standard boilerplate job description for army history openings actually notes that preference will be given to candidates with "mental handicaps"!

The army employs professional command historians for its major commands, usually at the Civil Service GS-12-15 level, and they are recruited like any academic, that is, through notices in theChronicle of Higher Education and Perspectives as well as through the regular civil service procedures that are used to hire everyone from pipefitters to systems analysts. All command historians must have a TOP SECRET security clearance, which isn’t all that “top secret” in this era of security-level inflation.

But what does a Civil Service/U.S. Army Historian (GS-170-H) for the army's Special Operations Command (or any other such military command) do? Some who see my name and institutional affiliation tag at AHA annual meetings ask that question and then answer themselves: "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you" (heh, heh).

But I can tell you. The Army Special Operations Command comprises all Special Forces, Rangers, Air Commandos, civil affairs/military government, and psychological operations units. The history of these units is long and unusually successful. For example, the military government of post–World War I Germany (a true historical "strangely neglected topic") was so popular that many prominent Germans petitioned the U.S. Army to stay on. Special Forces did such good work among the ethnic Montagnard people that their "boat people" still try to make their way to North Carolina and Fort Bragg, with their memories of the Vietnam War. (Yes, there were some positive stories from that conflict.) In the Gulf War, army psywarriors were responsible for the defection of tens of thousands of Iraqi troops who were quickly hustled out of harm's way. Civil affairs troopers protected about an equal number of displaced civilians. Some 90 percent of civil affairs troopers are in the Reserves and they bring their civilian skills to the field. For example, the Sarajevo tramway system and its gas supply were basically set to rights by two Army sergeants employed in civilian life by the New York Transit Authority and the New England Gas Company, respectively.

The army has been sending its historians into harm's way ever since World War II. They served in Desert Storm and Somalia and are currently researching, interviewing, and writing in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and other hot spots. This office has worked up a special "field historian's" pack, consisting basically of a portable scanner and a laptop to accompany such historians into inhospitable areas. Although there have been some cuts, bruises, and contusions, that is thus far the limit of any American military historian's physical suffering, although one did pick up a mysterious "bug" in Saudi Arabia that temporarily cost him some 100 pounds.

More commonly, and more prosaically, army historians try to make their respective commands generally "historically aware," to implant the realization that what they are doing isn't necessarily for the first time ever and that the wheel has in many respects already been invented. The army's Center of Military History has published many well-regarded scholarly historical studies in military history. Its "Green Books" series about World War II are considered basic sources. U.S. Army history programs have not shied away in recent decades from matters that have not reflected favorably on that service. A good example can be found in its works dealing with racial segregation in the military, such as the Center of Military History's 1961 publication, The Employment of Negro Troops (which could have accurately been titled “The Misemployment of Negro Troops”) or Black Soldier/White Army, published in 1996. The former dealt with military racial segregation in World War II, the latter with its baleful effects in the Korean War. Both works advanced scholarship in the field of military race relations.

Army commanders do, however, tend to look for encapsulated historical practical lessons from recent history ("Lessons Learned"), and army historians do try to give them what they want, with appropriate professional historical caveats. But there is often considerable tension between such demands from action-oriented, time-pressed commanders who want answers, those eternal (until the next doctrinal manual arrives) battlefield verities, ASAP, in contrast to the historian's awareness of the ambiguity of history.

Army historians also teach. I organized and taught the history of U.S. Army Special Forces, psychological operations, and U.S. army civil affairs/military government to both officers and enlisted personnel. (One difference between the officers and enlisted personnel is that the latter arrange themselves at "parade rest" when I enter the classroom, while the officers remain at their ease.) There are, of course, no problems with obstreperous students.

As in any course, there are those who could not see the value of what I teach, and I address this conceptual failure right at the beginning. In a general sense, I try to show that "things are never as good as they seem—or as bad" in the light of history. A new weapon may certainly have its advantages, but one of the few things we can know for sure from history is that there is no "ultimate weapon," that usually the other side will either eventually field something about as good, or will have its own antidote. The machine gun was believed by many in the late 19th century to have made war so costly that future conflicts were most unlikely. Then the bomber with poison gas bombs was believed to be the "ultimate weapon" of the 1930s. But the machine gun fostered the development of the tank, and the eight-gun fighter took the measure of the unescorted heavy bomber. And is technology really accelerating? I like to point out that every generation since about the Renaissance has believed that it is living on the hinge of history in a "rapidly changing" era. Whether the change is good or bad might be debatable, but it is supposedly going there faster than any previous generation. But I like to note that the "Stealth" fighter has been in USAF squadron service now for about a decade, whereas anyone who flew a fighter more than about five years old in World War II would have been shot out of the sky. I conclude this first segment of the class by asserting that the 1990s will one day, sooner than they can imagine, be considered, particularly by the journalists of the near future, as "slow-paced," "technologically primitive," "less complex," even "quaint." And I emphasize that those ignorant of history will miss most of this. These interpretations, of course, are hardly unique to teaching in a military facility.

Bearing in mind that my students are adults and reasonably well prepared, that I need give no tests, that I am paid well enough on a civil service salary scale, that I don't have to buck for tenure, and that I travel quite frequently to the National Archives and Library of Congress at government expense, it would seem that I am ensconced in something like a historical professional nirvana.

Not quite. These are 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday jobs, with an average of 30 days annual leave. Aside from Christmas Day itself, there is no Christmas break and no spring break. (If all goes well, civil servants do enjoy a half-holiday on Christmas Eve—by special presidential proclamation.) This
difference is brought home to me most forcefully when I attempt to telephone an academic friend or colleague on, say, a Tuesday, and am informed by the departmental secretary that Professor Jones teaches on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and is thus not available today, and anyway he or she is presently on sabbatical in Upper Volta, and then will be a visiting professor at South Appalachicola State U. through the following year—after which time he or she will be on a Fulbright.

We are not generally harried by financial constraints, and I always thought that army historians looked a little sleek when I used to see them as an outsider at AHA annual meetings. But we do face base closings, which can lead to the uprooting of families (although at government expense) and a search for new housing near the new post. There have indeed been cutbacks in personnel, but I don't know of any army historian who was actually pitched out into the hosts of unemployed history PhDs. They always seem able to take early retirement, transfers, and so forth.

Our "campuses" are anything but winding brick pathways and bosky dells crowned by an ivy-clad 19th-century Old Main. More often than not we labor in undistinguished collections of World War II "temporary" structures, or Vietnam and Reagan-era office blocks, usually too hot or too cold. (Most posts are heated and cooled from a central location and the systems rarely work well. The army has yet to discover the thermostat.) The army's favorite indoor sport is reorganization, and rare indeed is the army historian who does not find himself pitched out of his office after a year or so and into another, and with little or nothing to say in the matter. ("Gotta move you outta here, doc, motor pool headquarters needs the space.") On the other hand, older bases like Forts Leavenworth and Monroe are architectural gems with Henry Aldrich-type neighborhoods of large brick "quarters" on streets lined with giant shade trees. And if we cannot point out the office of a Pulitzer-winning historian, we can pass everything from the onetime quarters of Robert E. Lee, a World War II Sherman tank on a plinth, or the site where a too low "Flying Boxcar" slammed into a crowded mess hall in the early 1950s.

Although our archives are often quite extensive in our fields, we have nothing to match the research facilities of practically any university library. And our classes are basically one-off affairs, so we cannot track student progress. Many, perhaps a majority, of our hours are spent in responding to what the Army barbarously terms "taskers": "Give us a bibliography of Special Operations—by next week." "How many Special Forces troopers served in Vietnam?" "How effective was the Superman mine-awareness comic book in Bosnia?" Then there are the civilian researchers who want us to do their research for them. "What 'Green Beret' units served in Vietnam?" "How many psychological operations leaflets did we distribute in Haiti?" "How many military government personnel were on duty in Austria in 1948?"

Then I have "My Green Beret father got a Congressional Medal of Honor, but it was awarded secretly, so I'd like to get a copy of his award." (For the record, there are in truth secret awards and medals, but the Medal of Honor is not one of them, and "green berets" are a type of headgear favored by Girl Scouts, not a military specialty.) My office was recently virtually shut down for three days while we combed through records, open and classified, to find any evidence that U.S. Army Special Forces gassed U.S. defectors in Vietnam. While it is impossible to prove a negative, I could report in good faith that there was no evidence in our archives to support such an outlandish allegation. However, most questions are genuine inquiries from serious, academic researchers.

Public historians may sometimes feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of the profession ("don't get no respect"). While it is a source of some pride to be the professional historian for, say, the Artillery Center and School, there is the feeling among many academics that such historians are little more than "hired guns" (no pun intended), who basically write and teach what they are told. Now it is true that a historian who believes that the American military basically consists of a gaggle of cement-headed Neanderthal fascists is unlikely to apply for a job as an army historian in the first place. Conversely, anyone simple enough to look upon the military as the spotless repository of all that is good and true in America will also not get far beyond the first interview. Army historians, of course, can point out that there are prevailing trends and fashions that academic historians up for tenure violate at their professional peril.

In recent years, public history has been called upon to help ameliorate in some modest way the vast disparity between the few full-time history jobs and the glut of history PhDs looking for such positions. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the Army's history program is that it does occasionally offer positions for PhD historians, and all are full-time, "tenure-track" jobs at that.

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