Ramblings of a Military Historian
History As I Learned It
I have had a love of history since my earliest memories. The son of a World War II veteran, I spent grades 1 through 5 in a new housing development in Fairfax, Virginia where all of our immediate neighbors had served during the war. One belonged to the Army Air Corps and helped loot a German military warehouse at the end of the conflict. The next-door neighbor, a former sergeant major in the Army, fought through the European Theater. The fellow across the street had a steel plate in his head from combat in Italy. My father served as a wire runner with the Marines on Guadalcanal. The priest who performed my mother and father’s marriage was a missionary in the Philippines during the Bataan Death March and saw his brother – priest – murdered by the Japanese while administering the Last Rites to a dying American soldier. A good friend of the family – Jesuit – received the Silver Star while serving on a submarine in the Pacific for rescuing a downed flyer. Another friend served in the 82nd Airborne in every jump from Sicily to D-Day to Arnhem. The list could ramble on forever.
My mother instilled in my brother and me a thirst for learning and reading. I have been the classic “bookworm” and nerd my entire life. I read Bill Mauldin. Ernie Pyle, John Hersey, Bruce Catton, Erich Maria Remarque, John Keegan, Tom Carhart, Philip Caputo, F. Van Wycke Mason, Stephen Sears, Bell I. Wiley, Stephen Crane – anything historical.
The veterans, my mother, my grandparents, the authors I read, taught the history that never appeared in school textbooks. I knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was long before the psychiatrists formally identified it. I saw it in my father, and in the vets in the neighborhood - when it rained too hard and the neighbor with the steel plate in his head “shorted out.” I saw it when my dad and the friend from the 82nd Airborne drank to forget the war only to remember it more vividly, and when Dad would “snap” during a war movie and yell at the actors, “Get down fool!” “That ain’t the way you handle a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle.” “You caint pull a grenade pin with your teeth!” I saw him get delirious every summer with malaria. If anything, I learned that wars do not end when the shooting stops.
I doubted that I would ever get to Europe much less the Pacific. However, the Civil War battlefields were all around us. We went to Gettysburg every weekend when Mom visited her parents in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Dad would stand atop Little Round Top and remember Bloody Nose Ridge or the Ilu River, while my brother and I repelled the Confederate attack against the summit. He never recovered from his war and I became engrossed in the one on our own soil. In particular, I became indebted to the men and women I knew who gave so much so I could have the privilege of living free.
During Vietnam, I hated the way the American college protesters treated our soldiers so badly. I started seriously researching Civil War history while in college at Loyola (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1968 – 1972. Dad always felt that the country had forgotten the men who fought and died in the Pacific. I knew the men and women in Nam deserved better treatment than they received at home.
At that point, I decided to interpret the Civil War through the eyes of those who did the killing and the dying. The war they saw was not in the textbooks. Studying generals if fine, but the men on the ground experienced a different war. Personally, I cannot think like a general any more than I could think like a school administrator. I am neither a global thinker nor a strategist. I stink at checkers and chess. My brain is not wired right in that area.
Therefore, my books are not as analytical as some critics would like them to be. I do not dislike generals. I do not center my writing on them. I do not write with any term paper objective in mind. I let the soldiers tell the story. My job is to cut away the hyperbole and record what they experienced and let the readers form their own conclusions. What I have discovered is that soldiering and war, from the human perspective has not changed since the beginning of time. New discoveries in medicine now save more lives than in the past but the trauma, the mechanical response to stress, the fear, courage, cowardice, and terror have not and never will change.
Whether it is the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the American soldier has left behind vivid recollections, which transcend time. My role as an historian and as a teacher is to make sure no one forgets them – not to glorify what they did but to remember and try to understand how the war transformed their lives – and ours -forever.