Command and Control going into the West Woods, September 17, 1862

About a year ago I posted about the nature of generalship and how that trait is, properly, assessed.  For the military professional, generalship means exercising command and control of a military unit.  Under my personal definition, I throw in a third skill to exercise – management.  But for today let’s just focus on the two “C’s” that most professional sources mention – command and control.   These two are often confused, conflated, and mashed into one when discussing generalship in historical terms. No more so than with the study of the Civil War.

So let’s lean back on the definitions.  First, command:

Command is the authority that a commander in the armed forces lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of rank or assignment.

There is, of course, more to it than this one sentence.  Please consult the earlier post for the full context.  In particular consider the three key elements of command – authority, decision making, and leadership.  In brief, command is the commander’s “charge”… that body of military force that he is responsible for… to include the responsibility of appropriate use.  We might say that command is an assignment.

Control, on the other hand:

… control is the regulation of forces and battlefield operating systems to accomplish the mission in accordance with the commander’s intent.

The important elements of control are information, communication, and structure.  Again, the nuances and details of each of these elements is important, so please consult that earlier post as to how each is defined.  Control is more so exercised. The measure of control may be quantified as the amount of the battle a commander can influence.

But these two have a dependent relationship – commanders can only command what they can control.  And commanders can only control what they can command.  Somewhere there is a Venn diagram waiting to be drawn…..

Turning to the battlefield, there is a ready example of the nature of command and control… with an anniversary just around the corner.   Consider Major-General John Sedgwick’s divisional attack into the West Woods at Antietam, on the morning of September 17, 1862.  Sedgwick was in Second Corps, under Major-General Edwin V. Sumner.  Sedgwick commanded three brigades that morning:

  • 1st Brigade, Brigadier-General Willis Gorman with 15th Massachusetts, 1st Minnesota, 34th New York, and 82nd New York (and a couple companies of sharpshooters).
  • 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Oliver O. Howard with 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania.
  • 3rd Brigade, Brigadier-General Napoleon J.T. Dana, with 19th and 20th Massachusetts, 42nd and 59th New York, and 7th Michigan.

And… of course Battery A, 1st Rhode Island and Battery I, 1st US Artillery… but they would not be part of the infantry formation going into the West Woods.

Sumner and Sedgwick chose a common attack formation with the division in a column of brigades in line of battle.  Something like this “wire frame”:

 

Formation1

Generally, that is, with the line of march to the left of view.  (If any of you Antietam experts find where I’ve put a regiment out of order, let me know.)  Gorman’s brigade up front.  Dana’s brigade, with five regiments, followed.  Then Howard’s with four larger regiments (in terms of men) trailed. Let’s add to graphics to depict the layers of command and the control exercised at each layer.

First, Sumner at the corps level:

Sumner

The red arrow depicts Sumner’s command, through Sedgwick, of the entire formation.  Yes, Sumner had the authority to go all the way down to an individual private in his command. But he would normally work through his subordinates, in this case Sedgwick.  Plus, you’d have a really messy diagram with red arrows down to each individual regiment.  Keep in mind, Sumner had two other divisions under his command.  So imagine a couple more arrows pointing off the diagram.  Brigadier-General William French and Major-General Israel Richardson were, in many ways, out of the picture.

Sumner’s control was likewise exercised through Sedgwick, depicted here with a green oval. Sumner’s ability to control the situation was limited to what decisions and information he could communicate directly to subordinates, chiefly Sedgwick.  His “reach” extended only to how far Sumner could be heard, or extended by way of messengers.  Sumner, himself, moved forward when the fighting started, in some cases giving direct orders to brigades and regiments.  So his influenced extended very far forward.

But, that brings up French and Richardson again.  Some would argue that Sumner was unable to control those divisions to the extent the situation demanded, because “Bull Head” was not in a place to make his voice heard to them.

Sedgwick’s situation was a bit cleaner:

Sedgwick

All of Sedgwick’s subordinates were in front of him.  And we can assume Sedgwick did move about the formation to exercise control.  Indeed, he was severely wounded while doing just that!  But we still have the constraint that his “reach” is the sound of his voice, extended by way of messengers.  However, at the division level, that constraint was manageable.  Orders to a brigade commander might take five or ten minutes to pass.  The time taken for the brigade to execute those orders might take twice as much time off the clock.

For the brigade commanders, consider Howard:

Howard

 

Then Gorman:

 

Gorman

The red arrows are almost always within the green oval.  While not every single private in the brigade could hear the general, control was manageable by voice and messenger.  …. Well at least in the formation as it stepped out.  This will change.  Consider the actual “on the field” arrangements and how much space this division took up on the battlefield.  A visual, from the field, if I may:

Antietam 154 003

This is a panoramic photo taken at the 154th anniversary of the battle.  The rangers arranged the visitors to represent different regiments. Then aligned everyone in the brigade formations.  You’ll see some flags for the center of selected regiments.  I was standing in front of Dana’s brigade to take this photo.  The main point to stress was just how much distance those orders had to travel.  And yes, the brigade commanders would be mounted and move around the formation to best exercise control. Still, the time required to relate an order, be that in person or by messenger, was minutes.  And that must be balanced against the time needed to move a regiment, or battalion, or company.  At the brigade level, some changes – say a refuse to meet an enemy thrust, or a well timed charge – required quick responses.

Keep in mind, control is not just exercised simply by riding around barking orders.  Control also involves gathering and assimilating information.  And at that day and age, most of the intelligence presented to the commander came from his own eyes…. And, yes, you will need to use the zoom features on that pano photo to see the flags… get that inference?

And once the firing started, those formations would not remain so well dressed and orderly.  Turning to the Antietam map sets, consider the command and control problem facing Gorman with his brigade engaged:

GormanMap

A color switch to adapt to the map here – the commander’s name in “neon blue” so it stands out.  Green is the range of control, give or take, for our consideration.  And the light blue lines depict the command arrangements.  Gorman had three regiments close at hand, but the 34th New York was off on it’s own.  Days later, Colonel James Suiter, commanding the 34th, could only report, “For some cause to me unknown, I had become detached from my brigade….”  Thus we have to consider the area of influence exercised by Gorman as well as Suiter.  And in this case, we also have to consider what Gorman and Suiter could see, assimilate as information, and thus use when making decisions.

Dana’s brigade appears more intact on the map:

DanaMap

But this is deceptive.  As his brigade moved up, Dana noticed Confederate movements and called an “audible” in response.

There was no time to wait for orders; the flanking force, whatever it was, was advancing its fire too rapidly on my left.  I permitted the three right regiments to move on, but broke off the Forty-second New York Volunteers, with orders to change front to the left and meet the attack….

I’d highlight two points from this passage. First, the situation called for immediate decisions, orders, and movements.  Dana could not wait for Sumner’s command and control to reach down through Sedgwick.  It was hard enough just to get his own command and control through to the 42nd New York!

Second, writing that passage two weeks after the battle in his after-action report, Dana still had no idea what hit him from the woods.  Only decades later, did the likes of Ezra Carmen piece the situation together.  (And one might argue even more study is still needed!)  Part of control, by way of handling information, is forming a common operating picture.  Where that common operating picture is ill defined, the commander has trouble making sound decisions.  Such makes those green ovals a little smaller, or perhaps a shade dimmer.

Howard, however, had it really bad:

HowardMap

By the map, there is no brigade formation.  Of course, the reports speak of “good order” and such.  As with Dana’s description, the full story would begin to unfold decades later as the veterans re-told their stories.  Add to that another twist – shuffling command under fire.  When Sedgwick was taken from the field, Howard assumed command of the division.  In Howard’s place, Colonel Joshua T. Owen, 69th Pennsylvania, assumed command of the brigade.

Sumner was in this fight and taking personal command.  But how much could Sumner control?   Howard added an interesting remark in his after action report:

Nearly the whole of the first line in good order stood and fired some 30 or 40 rounds per man, when word came that the left of our division had been completely turned by the enemy, and  the order was given by General Sumner in person to change the position of the third line.  He afterward indicated to me the point where the stand was to be made, where he wished to repel a force of the enemy already in our rear.  The noise of musketry and artillery was so great that I judged more by the gestures of the general as to the disposition he wished me to make than by the orders that reached my ears.

Emphasis mine.

In this short paragraph we have a glimpse of how command and control played out in combat during the Civil War.  “Word came down” about a threat.  Orders were given “in person.”  And those exact orders were not audible even to someone in close proximity! Gestures.  That’s how command and control was accomplished that day!

When examining the fighting in the West Woods – especially after the problems of command and control are laid out – the natural question arises:  Did the division take a bad formation into battle?

Perhaps.  And this question takes us into the “management” component that I alluded to in the opening.  As we have seen from the “wire frames,” maps, and some after action reports, when the division was under fire there were limitations on control.  An “armchair general” case might be made for having the brigades formed with regiments, in battle formation, stacked in column, with a three brigade front.  That would have allowed each commander to “fight” a narrow brigade sector.

But…. that also means the commanders would be working in a “stove pipe” without much influence on what happened outside of a regimental front.  And how much combat power would then be stacked up waiting for the order to commit?

A similar situation faced the Marines who assaulted Tarawa on November 20, 1943.  There, the 2nd Marine Division attacked, with an initial force of three regiments, landing abreast.

tarawa1

Inside those regiments were battalion landings, essentially in successive lines. If I “wire framed” the formation, it would look a lot like the opposite of Sedgwick’s.  Command and control faced serious problems that day too.  Though I would point out Major Generals Holland M. Smith and Julian C. Smith selected the formation for good reasons, based on an incomplete assessment of Japanese defenses and other factors.  The same qualifier can be used with respect to Sumner and Sedgwick selecting a formation on September 17, 1862.

Bottom line, there is no “one way” to assault into woods or across a hostile beach held by an unknown force.  The textbooks and manuals are not written that way.  Instead, the military professional has to study the situations and events of the past, looking for lessons that might apply to future scenarios.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part I, Serial 27, pages 306, 316, and 320.)

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Go see “Dunkirk”… It’s not history, but it’s good!

There you have it, in my “bottom line up front” method of driving home a point. If you have not seen “Dunkirk” by now, then you should.  Well worth the price of admission.  An hour and forty-five minutes of good entertainment… on a historical subject of note.

But I’d not call it history.  And I don’t intend that as a swipe at the movie, the director, the actors, or such.  And I’m not going to give you some list of historical inaccuracies.  If I were, we’d start with the use of ex-Spanish aircraft powered by British engines, with yellow noses (as a scale model builder, I have to pause and “stitch count” here… the yellow recognition colors were not adopted for another month or so in the run-up to the Battle of Britain) to portray Nazi fighters and bombers. Or the Spitfire Mk. Vs, which was not in service until 1941.

However, in a world awash of CGI, I actually like the notion of using something real to stand in.  And, in a similar way, I don’t really have a problem with characters based on historical figures, but not quite set to the historical template.  It’s OK.  It’s a movie.

Rather, when I say it is not history, I’m referring to the format.  This is not a movie scripted to tell the events from a historical perspective.  Viewers of the movie are expected to have all that scoped out before taking to the cushy theater seat.  There are no white-lettered prefaces, narrator descriptions, or scenes that take us to the Prime Minister’s office.  The only situational introductions offered are a few leaflets thrown into view (which one character quickly gathers up for use as “materials”) and a few chats between officers on the Mole.  That’s all we really get of the “big picture.”  You, the entertained, are expected to show up knowing all the background as to what Dunkirk was all about.

And that, I offer, is refreshing in a way.

Historical subject, to be sure.  But Dunkirk, to me at least, was more “story telling” in the classic, perhaps sociological, sense.  It’s the story that in days before movies and radio shows would be shared around the community as part of legend, lore, and those little bits of shared experience that brings commonality to a society.  It is… to be blunt… a story about “us”  – with the “us” in this case being those who live on the island inhabited by a people who insist they are the center of the known universe… em… England.  In short, Dunkirk is a “tribal” story.

And there’s not a darn thing wrong with that!

I stepped out of the theater impressed with a subtle, but overwhelming, thread.  That being the turning of the characters from concerns and thoughts of themselves towards a efforts to support the collective goal.  At the start, we have soldiers doing everything to just get onto a boat, any boat.  We have sailors concerned with ships being sunk.  We have pilots concerned over their fuel.  And, civilians concerned about giving up control of their property (a boat) to the government… or young men worried about making an impression.

Yet, as the separate time lines unfold, we find characters moving away from those self-centered concerns.  They make sacrifices.  They embrace actions for the common good.  And, that happens with most of the major characters sharing space on a little boat…. I see what you did there Christopher Nolan!

On the other side of this “story telling” what are we shown of the “enemy”?  Well, the Germans are there.  But they are not there.  Instead, Germans are represented by bombs, shells, bullets, torpedoes, and airplanes.  Yes, a diving Stuka is pretty much a Nazi trademark.  But we never see faces, until the very end. And even then just fleeting views in the gathering darkness.  This is a classic element of those old tribal legends.  The enemy was just a prop. A counterpoint to the humanness of the “us.”

And again, there’s not a darn thing wrong with that! Indeed, it is these defeat-into-victory experiences which temper and strengthen a society.  Not something to be shunned and shunted aside.  These are the very things we should have at the fore.  These sort of things bring us to the essence of a society.  And I dare say, even help us connect beyond our little fold of society.

So what if I can’t call it “history”?  Dunkirk is a good movie.  The value of this film increases with the knowledge, of the subject, one carries into the theater. Likewise, that value continues to grow with the more time contemplating the subject afterwards.

“Tribal stories” work that way.

 

Tanks! A little off topic… but good history is good history!

Let’s slide up the time line to World War II for just a bit… a blogger’s indulgence, if you may allow:

But hey… he spends much of the presentation discussing the finer points of the Sherman tank, named after General William “Uncle Billy” Sherman.  So I claim a Civil War connection on that basis.

This is a lengthy video (just over 45 minutes).  But worth the listen.  Nicholas Moran turns what would normally be a bland discussion of olive drab minutia into an entertaining presentation.

I’ll admit to envy of Moran’s job.  He works for Wargaming.net and gets paid to go around doing research in promotion of the company’s products… which include the World of Tanks game.  I usually keep aloof from wargame discussions, for several reasons.  But I do find many of the analysis models used with wargaming (speaking to the hobby in general, not just the company with their fancy video games) to be most useful tools for the historian’s trade.

At any rate, Moran asks us to call into question “common knowledge” about historical events.  He’s not saying something is wrong.  He’s asking us to challenge what is often accepted as fact.  That common knowledge, he contends, should be supported by sources.

Furthermore, we should put those sources in context.  Fast forward to the 14 minute mark and you see Moran mention Belton Cooper’s Death Traps.  A fine read.  Cooper’s memoirs are on many professional reading lists, for good reason.  But, when used as source material, a memoir must be placed into context.  In this particular case, the writer of the memoir was not an authoritative source for a specific piece of “common knowledge.”  Again, this is not to say Cooper is all wrong or should be discounted in whole.  It is to say we must weigh each component equally with other sources.

For those of us who study the Civil War, doesn’t that sound familiar?  It should!

How about this – Sherman, the general, didn’t go about spontaneously burning everything across Georgia and the Carolinas.  The real story is more complex.  And we know of that complexity from thorough examination of the source materials.

Likewise, Sherman, the tank, was not more prone to catching fire than any other armored fighting vehicle of its time.  The real story is, also, more complex. And we know of that complexity… you guessed it… from examining the source materials.

Good history is the product of proper analysis of source materials, to include understanding context.  The time period in focus does not change the rules about sources.

June 6, 1944 and now: Putting decisions under fire under fire

D-Day is to World War II what Gettysburg is to the Civil War… at least from the American perspective.  I could argue, with much justification, that Guadalcanal and the Bulge should occupy that place… but, with good reasons, the mountain of books focused all or in part on June 6, 1944 outweighs the other subjects.  Yes, movies catering to the general audience hit theaters to show us Gettysburg and D-Day.  But scenes from Vicksburg and “Starvation Island” are rare.

With that focus, we see the smallest details… minute to minute, minutest details… analyzed to a degree not allocated with other subjects.  We have experts who can walk us through every regiment’s experience at Gettysburg, at the step by step level.  Likewise for D-Day, though at the battalion level allowing for tactical shifts.  With that detailed focus, we see so may decisions analyzed and assessed.  Decisions that often proved pivotal within a larger pivotal historical event.  Decisions in focus… and under “fire” or review by historians… much more so than for other times in history.

If I recall an incident from my own experience here… one morning while chatting with a company first sergeant (senior NCO on the base in particular), he lamented the morning report was past due, again.  I remarked, half in jest, “you know, Top, some day a historian will find your morning report most valuable.”  The old sergeant responded, “I doubt it.  Most times historians are more interested in the things that don’t get into the reports.”  And as an example he referenced a “oh-five-hundred” decision by the Captain to dispatch men to a “hot spot.”  Point well made.

We, the historians, have the task of explaining what happened.  But we have the luxury of detachment from the happening.  We, and the consumers of history, live through the written word to gain appreciation for those times.  And with respect to places like D-Day and Gettysburg, the appreciation requires us to look at details of decisions made.

Thinking, as the day calls for, to D-Day, I look towards the actions of two generals on the beach – Brigadier-General Norman Cota and Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Consider Cota’s situation on Omaha Beach.  Leading the 29th Infantry Division (the “Blue and Gray” division, alluding to Civil War heraldry among the division’s regiments), Cota was with the second wave ashore but one hour after the first landings.  The situation was a shambles.  Pinned down under direct and indirect fire, the division simply could not attain more than a finger-hold on the beach.  It was “bloody Omaha.” Within that grim situation, Cota made a decision.  And as with any major decision within a battle which has been depicted on the silver screen, we have the moment dramatized in the film “The Longest Day”:

the-longest-day-l-9zkoco

At one part, Robert Mitchum, playing Cota, rallies his men:

I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.

As with any good Hollywood adaptation, the facts are conflated to make a good script.  The quote by Mitchum was actually the rally of Colonel George A. Taylor, 16th US Infantry.  Likewise,  Cota’s line, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” was given to Eddy Albert, playing Cota’s aide, in the movie.  Such is the work of screen-writers wrangling with the facts to make an entertaining story less accurate….

My point is not that Hollywood provides misleading history, but to use that movie scene as a prop to illustrate a decision made.  Cota had options. None of which were really palatable.  Still, he selected a course of action – that of trying another assault up from the beach.  Historians can, and have, analyzed that decision, after the fact, in detail.  And Cota’s decision was vindicated.

To the west of Cota and Bloody Omaha, Roosevelt’s landing on Utah Beach met with much less resistance.  Roosevelt was the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division.  And, famously, he was the only general officer landing in the first wave of the assault.  Again, another episode dramatized in “The Longest Day”:

 

Fonda

While not facing a murderous fire, Roosevelt, played by Henry Fonda, likewise faced a critical decision.  Although meeting scant resistance, the 4th Division was in the wrong place.  They secured one causeway off the beach, but they were supposed to have two… and those a mile down the beach. Such threw all plans into disarray.  Roosevelt’s decision?  Move inland, to heck with the plan.  In the movie, we hear, “The reinforcements will have to follow us wherever we are. We’re starting the war from right here. Head inland. We’re going inland.”  Not far off Roosevelt’s actual words… or so the historians say.  And again, historians have been able to analyze and review Roosevelt’s decision in light of information at his disposal at that time, as well as information Roosevelt would never know, and have determined the decision was correct… and what’s more was decisive to the outcome of the battle.

Consider, in the cases of decisions made by Cota and Roosevelt on June 6, 1944, historians have the luxury of spending years, if not decades, to ponder.  The information gathered to explain those decisions might fill a book all by itself.  Thousands of words have, over the years, related the story of those decisions.  Yet, in it all, we have to remember those decisions were made under fire in an instant.  The “participant” of history often has but a moment to act.  Historians have forever afterward to discuss.

Still, we must keep the nature of the moment in mind.  Cota and Roosevelt among others on June 6, 1944… just like Buford, Chamberlain, Cushing, and others at Gettysburg some eighty years before … made quick decisions under fire.  As we review these episodes, we should not forget how little time the participant has to make those decisions.

These decisions under fire are often made within the space between half-seconds on the clock.

“I do not claim omniscience” – The historian’s proper persective

This last weekend was the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The seventy-fourth anniversary, to be exact.  Just one short of the dodranscentennial observance… or semisesquicentennial, if you prefer.

The passing of the day prompted me to pick up Samuel Elliot Morison’s volume covering that portion of World War II.  If you are not familiar with his work, Morison wrote the fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations of World War II shortly after the close of that war. These were published from 1947 through 1962.  There is an interesting back story as to how the history came about. The short version is that Morison served as a naval staff officer during the war, allowing him access to the history “first hand” in some cases, with aim to produce a the work. The product of those years was a history still considered as defining within the subject.

What makes the work stand out, in my opinion, is exactly why I pulled Volume IV off my shelf for the anniversary, is the style of writing.  Morison’s history may be dated somewhat, but his prose is elegant.  Indeed, I could have selected one of the more recent histories produced in more recent years.  Those works that followed have largely addressed many shortcomings and flaws in the Morison’s work.  And to that point, something Morison wrote in the preface of the volume stands out for consideration:

Several books and articles covered by this volume, by able and gifted writers, have already appeared.  Most of them contain important errors, largely because the authors lacked sufficient information to tell the story correctly. In particular, they lacked information from the Japanese side; and any attempt to describe the air battles – such as Coral Sea and Midway essentially were – from one side only is fatally handicapped. Instead of taking time out to refute these errors, I have simply gone ahead and told the story as it happened, to the best of my knowledge and ability.  I do not claim omniscience. As fresh data appear, mistakes will be found and later writers will make new interpretations. It is the fate of all historians, especially those who take the risk of writing shortly after the event, to be superseded.  Far safer to write about an era long past, in which all the actors are long since dead!

Morison wrote that in 1953.  But the sentiment is one that applies well for a historian working at any time and towards any subject.

Indeed, replace the battles with respective turning points from the Civil War and, of course, Japanese with Confederate, perhaps.  Do we not see this as a “truism” to relate towards studies of the “War of the Rebellion”?  Revision is the nature of history.  And we would do well to recognize how that force need play out against the subject.  The first “revision” of history occurs when the first-person reports are written down!  To label something as lesser history because of “revisionism” is to misunderstand how the product is derived.

Proper history is based on material – sources, data, information. As that follows, a proper revision considers new, unused, or reanalyzed material.  Such revisions offer sound, logical steps through the subject.  And those are healthy evolution of the subject. At the same time, we must also keep in mind that today’s revision will be revised tomorrow!

No historian is granted the complete history to work with. What is most important is to remain true to the subject.  The historian’s work will be revised.  Such is inevitable.  But the historian’s handling of the subject will remain fixed. Thus the latter is the true legacy to consider. I think we can say something similar in regard to notable Civil War histories by notable historians.  Catton and Freeman stand on pedestals for a reason.  Any serious student of the Civil War who has not read those respective trilogies is simply missing the point of studying the Civil War to begin with!

But there are two other, perhaps more subtle, messages from that paragraph.  Morison didn’t feel the need to engage, point by point, in a refutation of earlier histories.  However, even a short read through the text will demonstrate he was willing to demonstrate corrections where needed.  Morison was not aloof from the opinions of contemporaries.  Rather he placed that discussion where it needed to be – in the notes and to the side – rather than allow it to consume the center place of the reader’s attention.  I dare say that some of our contemporary historians would do well to heed that approach.

The other subtle point made by Morison is to the production.  His is not synthesized history.  It was written whole cloth from what source material he had.  And he was not ashamed of that. We can criticize him for being a “homer”… that is being bias towards his “team” and what he’d seen those members of the United States Navy accomplish during the period of 1941-45.  Later historians have called out his slights of the British and other allies… and the U.S. Army, of course.  Still others have pointed out that he had access to some information which remained classified at the time of writing or was otherwise compartmentalized.  At most, those lead to errors of omission.  Maybe a greater part of the story might have emerged at Morison’s time.  But regardless of bias or source selection, Morison avoided more egregious errors that befell… and still befall… historians… historians with or without direct contact with the subject on which they are writing.

I think that is reflective in Morison’s greater work.  His focus was to produce, using the sources and perspective he held, a history of the events that was readable.  He wanted the story to be approachable… not obscured.  That he accomplished.

 

 

Really, really complicated history… the way history ought to be!

Does this give you pause?

Untitled

A Nazi swastika with a Christian cross?  Is this the cap of Pope Benedict XVI?

This was part of a display seen during my visit to the Eisenhower Farm’s World War II weekend last summer (An excellent event, by the way… particularly if you need a breath of non-Civil War air while visiting Gettysburg).

The display belonged to a living historian portraying a German chaplain from World War II:

Untitled

 

But I’m fascinated at times with those who dress up in German World War II uniforms and attend the “World War II days” that seem to frequent in the summer. They are not crazy neo-Nazis. And they are passionate about the study of history. In this case, the “German Chaplain” was not a “he”… but a “she” in “he” clothing.  And before readers start dismissing that situation… she was a living historian, not a real, live soldier, on that weekend.  She was there to discuss history and use the props demonstrate her depth of research and knowledge.  That’s what living historians do. Who cares what pronoun is used in the third person.  Take the dosage of history and don’t worry about who’s holding the spoon, OK?

I’m no expert on German uniforms. Barely conversant on American uniforms of the period. So I cannot speak to the authenticity of the uniform or other particulars about the props.  But after the event last summer, I researched into the subject of German chaplains. She seemed generally right about the uniform and appearance. And, as you see on her table, she had reference books and a binder of materials to show visitors… who were always inquisitive about the role she opted to portray.

The most important take away I had from the display and subsequent research was, indeed there were chaplains in the German Army during World War II.  Did I not know that before?  Well, let’s just say that I had not considered the topic and thus not appreciated the subject.  The problem is the common perspective on World War II focuses on the Nazis as villains.  And villains are to be de-humanized to some extent.  So there is a tendency to overlook that little niche within the larger, contextualized history.  Somewhat as many attempt to do with the Civil War context – either the Confederate or the Federal soldier being de-humanized in order to serve a convenient villain.

At the event, I asked her the obvious, blunt question – why this particular impression? Certainly German chaplains had to be among the obscure.  She simply said something along the lines of, “Because it was a story to tell.”

Yes, a story to be told. How could someone wear the Nazi swastika on the same hat as the Christian cross? Well, it is complex. One has to sit down and listen to the story in order to understand and appreciate.  And it is an individual-level story.  It fits within the larger context.  Adds to that larger context, I would say.  Going as far to say it actually makes the history “human” in review.  Why would a religious person serve in Hitler’s army?  To find that answer, one need get to know the subject… the human subject… as an individual.

Now let us take things a step further.  These people who lived through those times were much as you and I.  They went about their lives just as humans before and after their times.  They made decisions about things using similar logic as any other human.  From those decisions, they acted out their lives.  Those actions played into the larger script we know as history.  Individual experiences form into an aggregate that brings living color to history.  Maybe the individual has no pull on the larger course of events, but the individual lives through those events – shaped by them, or shaping them.  Perhaps among the worst things we do as historians is attempt to simplify the complexity by pushing a context to that individual experience.  Such suffocates the rich, vivid individual story.

Does the presence of a Christian cross on a cap somehow distance (if not absolve) a German chaplain from the horrors that were Nazi Germany?  No.  Far from it.  But it does say there is more to consider and think about.  It says the human experience within those historical times requires more research before fully understood.  I say we stand to learn something important from that understanding.

You see, when you bring history down to the individual level, we see more often than not the experience is not too far removed from our own.  Maybe we would not make the same decisions. I dare say, particularly as with those who donned uniforms with Nazi swastikas on the caps, we hope never to be put in a position were such decisions have to be made.  But we can relate to that past human experience.  We can have moment of contemplation “in their shoes” and gain some insight to the times.  Perhaps even yield lessons to apply to our own experience. To me, that is the beautiful simplicity of the complexity.

So, I say, savor the complexity. Such is the nature… the context… of any life. We shouldn’t lose sight that both the good and bad elements of history are comprised of actions by men and women just like us. We are all compromises and complexities. Nothing in the scope of human experience is simple.

The nuts-and-bolts history when studying the nuts-and-bolts OF history

This last weekend, we took the aide-de-camp to World War II Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg.  As one might expect for a boy his age, the attraction was the soldier stuff on display. And a number of the displays were “hands on.”  At one of those tents, we stopped to examine some World War II era signal equipment operated by some living historians.

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In front of the young man is a telephone switchboard.  For the demonstration, the crew had a couple of field telephones wired up.  They demonstrated the process involving hand-cranked phones, bells, flags, and patch cords. And this is rightfully defined as a process.  The operator had specific functions to perform in a sequence, lest the call be broken or otherwise disrupted.

Very early in my Army days, I trained on and operated similar switchboards (with marginally better “insides”).  So I was acquainted with the process.  One point the living historians placed emphasis on was the call termination.  When the conversation was over, they didn’t just hang up the phone.  Instead, the caller had to ring the switchboard again to let the operator know to close the connection… basically pull the patch cord out and return it to the stored position.

It was that point that the aide-de-camp looked confused.  In his experience, when you hang up the phone, the call is terminated.  Done.

But field telephones of World War II (and even many of the Army’s phones of the 1980s) didn’t “just hang up.”  The technology to “just hang up” required some development and refinement.  That said, few are the readers who will recall having to ask the operator to terminate a call at the switchboard (heck, few will actually recall having to reach a real, live operator to make a call!)   I had to pause and explain all this to the Aide.  He was very intrigued and noted the complication involved with making a simple phone call (paraphrasing here, of course).

So other than a quaint demonstration at some nostalgic event, what would that matter?   Well, to me this was another example of how the nuts-and-bolts fit into our greater understanding of history.  Technology has a way of abstracting people from our primitive past.  Consider….

There may be a future where these food replicators are all over the place.  And when that day comes, how far will the people be abstracted from the primitive?  Will they know and understand the supporting activities needed to put catfish on the plate?   Will they relate to the frustration of “the fish are not biting today” given that the nearest fishing hole is hundreds of light years away? Will they gladly accept the “clean the fish” chore as a necessity to obtaining the meal?  Will they have their own personal recipes for catfish?  I prefer mine breaded and fried with a side of hush puppies, please, Mr. Replicator.   And how would I know that as a favored preparation, verses the baked version that the computer spit out?  Answers depend upon how far the people have allowed the technology to remove them from the primitive.

And will the people of those times look back and wonder how any food shortages could have existed? Will they understand the great deal of effort required, in our time and even more so in “primitive” times of old, required just to obtain nourishment?  In essence, will they cast presumptions upon our times and our decisions because they don’t know first hand just how hard it is to catch, clean, and fry a catfish?

Likewise, do we, as we look at history, understand the effort required just to make a phone call on those primitive devices of 1944?  The idiosyncrasies of placing a call on the battlefield of 1944 has some value to the historian studying the time period.  One must understand the nature of that experience, at the nuts-and-bolts level in order to put in context the interactions made between participants of the events.

More to the point, we must understand the process… or protocol… of using a courier to send orders on the battlefield of 1863.  Battles and campaigns, and ultimately the course of a war, turned on how those couriers were used to convey information.  Ask Robert E. Lee or William Rosecrans about that.  It’s not enough to simply say “things were misunderstood.”  And beyond just battlefield activities, we might consider how public opinion was shaped in a time without Cable News Network and the immediacy of a 24-hour news cycle… you know when one had to wait until the morning paper… the LOCAL morning paper, that is, which might be carrying news from three day’s earlier.

We’ve got to work with the nuts-and-bolts of the process to understand the particulars as to why things occurred as they did.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of history.