World War Without Reason? Passchendaele & the Lacuna of Purpose in Public Memory of WWI

3:50am, July 31, 1917 was Zero Hour. At that moment, artillery shells fell upon no man’s land. “The whole horizon,” one witness recalled, “was lit up by one continuous dancing flame.”[1] Behind this wall of fire, along a line almost ten miles long, some one hundred thousand British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and followed the shellfire into the German army’s defenses. They formed the first attack wave of what is now called the Battle of Passchendaele—also known as the Third Battle of Ypres—one of the costliest engagements of World War I. Going was slow. British soldiers plodded across broken terrain weighed down by 80 pounds of equipment, dodging shrapnel and machine gun fire.[2] … [Read more...]

The Mirage of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel and the Whitewashing of the Nazi Past

Erwin Rommel comes as close to being a household name in America as a Nazi general can get. In 2008, for example, military historian Charles Messenger published a biography, Rommel: Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox, that praised Rommel’s skill on the battlefield, arguing that his command style provided valuable lessons for the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, as well as the U.S. war in Afghanistan.[1] The foreword, written by former NATO commander Wesley Clark, remarks that “no foreign general has ever quite inspired as much passion, curiosity and respect among Americans as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.”[2] A biography from 2015 is even more effusive. Daniel Allen Butler begins Field … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Harry Turtledove Goes to War

Harry Turtledove has written more than fifty alternate history novels, and has been described by one book critic as “the standard bearer” of the genre. For the uninitiated, his premises can sound absurd. One of his most popular works, The Guns of the South, imagines that time-traveling South Africans armed Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. His World War series finds the combatants of World War II forming uneasy alliances to repel invading aliens. It is thus no surprise that he doesn’t register on many professional historians’ radar. But those historians are missing out. I’ve read his Great War series, a version of World War I where a wounded U.S.A. seeks revenge against … [Read more...]

Sexual Equality: Los Angeles, the Military Industrial Complex, and the Gay Liberation Movement

When we talk about advances in civil and gay rights, we often talk in terms of famous firsts: Los Angeles' first Black Mayor Tom Bradley or the state's first openly gay elected official, San Francisco's Harvey Milk. Yet, the struggles of average folk lay the groundwork for these larger victories and it is their stories that rarely get told. In 1975, one obscure Southern California gay man fought the good fight and in doing so achieved a triumph that would bring new rights and job opportunities for homosexual men and women across the U.S. Forty years ago, Rancho Palos Verdes resident and computer defense systems analyst Otis Francis Tabler challenged both the federal government's security … [Read more...]

Memorial Day 2016: Remember “The Great War”

In May of 1918, former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote U.S. Army Chief of Staff Peyton C. March to thank him for appointing his son Kermit to Captain of a Madrid based artillery unit in Spain during WWI.  At the end of his letter, Roosevelt sought to empathize with March, who had lost his own son during military training earlier that Spring. "I thank you sir. You have already drunk of the waters of bitterness; I suppose I shall soon have to drink of them; but, whatever befalls, you and I hold our heads high when we think of our sons," wrote Roosevelt.[1] The former president had loudly championed America's entrance into the war, often assailing President Wilson in the years running up to … [Read more...]

Here and Away: African Americans, WWI, and Civil Rights

In 1925, General Robert Lee Bullard, Commander of the U.S.’s Second Army during WWI in Europe, retired and released a book of memoirs: Personalities and Reminiscences about the War. Bullard had enjoyed a fairly distinguished career in the military peaking during the Great War. Yet, like many of this day, he harbored prejudices; most notably his dismissive attitude toward African American soldiers. In his memoir, he described America’s black soldiers in WWI as cowards – “Couldn’t Make Negroes Fight says Bullard” read one New York Herald Tribune headline - inferior to white troops, and generally unsuited for service. “All this constructive equality I regarded as an injustice,” Bullard … [Read more...]

Privatizing the All Volunteer Army: Gender and Families in the 1990s and Early Aughts

[Editor's note: This is the final installment in ToM's three part series on social welfare policies in the All Volunteer Army using Jennifer Mittelstadt's new book The Rise of the Military Welfare State as our guide. Parts I and II can be read here and here.] In his assessment of post-1945 army housing, the late military historian William C. Baldwin pointed out that programs aimed at increasing housing stock for military households often followed trends in private sector. So when privatization and deregulation emerged as central themes in government run housing programs and elsewhere in the 1990s, the military soon followed. For our purposes and because we will return to it later, … [Read more...]

Feminism, Evangelicalism, and Social Welfare in Ronald Reagan’s Military: Part II of Jennifer Mittelstadt and The Rise of the Military Welfare State

[Editor's note: This is part II of ToM's three part series on the AVF via Jennifer Mittelstadt's recent work The Rise of the Military Welfare State. Part I can be read here.] Even as governor of California, Ronald Reagan had celebrated military service. He held up the Vietnam War as “a noble cause,” wrote Edmund Morris in his biography of the president, “every returning serviceman, dead, alive, or drug addicted, a hero. He held prayer breakfasts for them, and celebratory receptions for as many as he could crowd around his hearth.”[1] Moreover, like Milton Friedman and others, he questioned the validity of the draft. “Why can’t we evolve a program of voluntary service? I don’t want the … [Read more...]

Transforming the Military Amidst Austerity: The 1970s and the All Volunteer Army in Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Part I)

In 1974, in the wake of the nation’s retreat from Vietnam and the institution of the all volunteer military, President Gerald Ford and Congress agreed to end the long-standing G.I. Bill. It cost too much, critics suggested, particularly in an era of austerity. Moreover, veterans no longer needed it. In the context of a volunteer force, many argued, soldiers would make careers of the military and the adjustment to civilian life in peace time would not be so severe as to warrant the costly provisions of the bill. Needless to say, army leaders sharply disagreed, warning that the number and quality of recruits would decline. “I told you I could make the volunteer army work, but I never told you … [Read more...]

The Somme at 99: WWI, Death, and the Trap of Technology

“The nearer to the Front one goes, naturally, the more blasted the countryside becomes. Beyond Roeselare, the land grows crater scarred, crisscrossed with collapsing trenches and pocked with burnt patches where not even weeds take root. The few trees still standing here and there are, when you touch them, lifeless charcoal. The skein of green on the land seems less nature revivified, more nature mildewed … farmers still daren’t plow the land for fear of unexploded ordinance. One cannot pass by without thinking of the density of men in the ground. Any moment, the order to charge would be given, and infantrymen well up from the earth, brushing off the powdery soil. The thirteen years since … [Read more...]