Your Military Historian Sucks

Tuomo

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Inspired by one of the replies to the Crete thread, which I started because I had finished reading Beevor's book on it.

Gerry talked about Beevor being not as good as others (Overy, Hastings, Stahel or Glantz and House), but Craig Benn wasn't impressed by Hastings.

So. Here's a good place for people to mention who they do/don't like and why. I'm especially interested in historians who might write about more than one action or theater; there's plenty of books (of varying quality) from combatants who were on the ground in various places, and sure, it's always good to hear about good authors in that bunch too, but most of those people didn't write more than one book. (I did like EB Sledge's With The Old Breed, but I didn't follow up with his China Marine book).

I'll say this - for my purposes, Beevor is fine. I tend to not want to read more than one book on a subject (gasp!) and I want a broad overview that covers things at the top level but also reaches down to the trenches for anecdotes and little vignettes of the action. I don't like a heap of facts about what unit moved where and when - some historians seem to indulge in that way too much for my tastes, resulting in lots of dross paragraphs that ultimately don't help me.

Speaking of which, these days I like to read on my Kindle, and I'll be damned if I can find a military history book that not only HAS enough maps, but actually inserts them close to where they're needed in the text. And pictures that are actually set off in the Index so you can browse them easily before returning to your text? It's like the e-publishing world cannot conceive of such a thing.

Back to the subject. At the risk of being poo-poo'd (or Arrant Nonsense'd) by the cognoscenti, I'll also say I enjoyed Alan Moorehead's Desert War trilogy. Again, broad brushes with good detail, although dipping a bit too far at times into the life of a war correspondent - what hotels were stayed at, how one hopped across the globe, who one met at what bistro, etc.

Barbara Tuchman, good stuff.
 

Pitman

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Some of those people you list are actually historians (Stahel, Overy); others are/were journalists or writers who write/wrote about history. Except for Sledge, who was none of those but rather a biologist and memoir writer. Glantz is in a sort of category of his own, trained as a military analyst, rather than a historian, but dealing primarily with historical subjects.
 

Thunderchief

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I read a lot of books and so far have had two WW2-related books published. I've also gone to quite a few WW2-related conferences over the years and met some of the 'big names'. I have a lot of books from a wide variety of authors/historians and yes they vary in quality. Some are excellent, and some are awful. In one I read about "Henkel turbojets" - and that was the spelling used, during the German invasion of Greece. I reviewed the book for a publisher and they didn't print what I wrote.

Both Beevor and Hastings come in for criticism from many academics, but what many academics fail to do is provide an alternative. One academic said they want neither of them to be the "Face of WW2 history" or words to that effect, and my first thought was, "Ok, so what are you providing for the public to consume as an alternative?" A journal article or book with a very long-winded PhD-like title isn't going to grab the attention of the public, but some academics are so focused on writing at that higher level that they can't or won't produce something for mass public consumption. If they did provide such a thing, they might be called a 'popular historian' and they could not bear such a title.

I have 50+ books on Normandy, because one version of events is not enough (for me), the campaign is so extensive and there's so much to say about all the different aspects that it will be written about for many years to come.

There are still books published on Napoleon, the US Civil War etc - when do you think everyone will say they've had enough and move on? I think never.
 

Michael Dorosh

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John Ellis has written a number of good and essential books about the Second World War - BRUTE FORCE being the most important. But I enjoyed his ON THE FRONT LINES as well. They are not about specific battles (he did one on Cassino but I haven't read it) but rather analyses of the war. The first uses data to suggest the Allies won as much through materiel superiority as anything else, the latter is just a look at what combat was like.

 

Michael Dorosh

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I have 50+ books on Normandy, because one version of events is not enough (for me), the campaign is so extensive and there's so much to say about all the different aspects that it will be written about for many years to come.
This is very true - and we continue to see new interpretations of old topics. Marc Milner's book STOPPING THE PANZERS completely changes the way historians view Canada's part in the campaign and in particular the D-Day landings and defence of the beachhead from counter-attacks. The official historian, C.P. Stacey (one of my favourites) apparently got a number of things wrong. Stacey said the Canadians were unprepared for their part in the campaign, John English reinterpreted things and said they may have been, but they still did poorly at their objective of attacking Caen, and Milner came along and said - whoah, hold on - taking Caen was the British objective, the Canadians were there to stop German armoured counter-attacks on the beaches, part of their doctrine and how they had indeed fought at Salerno and Anzio. Milner points out they performed this job well. Three authors, three interpretations of the same actions.

Other things have changed interpretations - for example releasing informatiou about of ULTRA in the 70s, and the opening of the Soviet/Russian archives in the 90s.
 
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Michael R

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I've read two of Beevor's books; one about Stalingrad and one about the Spanish civil war. Of course they were informative, but I felt like I was plowing through them after awhile. I think they did not engage me as much as I wanted.
 

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Three authors, three interpretations of the same actions.
As I like to say, all history is revisionist :) Don't read this as me impugning the bravery of these men. None of us was there. I doubt many of us have spoken to someone who actually was. We have all seen the studies on reliability of first-hand witnesses. The revision starts at the moment history is made. I will still study and read it though. It is fascinating to say the least. For me, it's Kursk. I have 50+ books on that battle. -- jim
 

pixelgeek

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This is very true - and we continue to see new interpretations of old topics.
As you alluded to, I think that it is mostly the availability of information. Your example seems to be just bad scholarship. Or maybe Milner finally had access to better official records than English and Stacey.

Distance in terms of time from the events also help.
 

pixelgeek

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As I like to say, all history is revisionist
Do you mean that in the historical use of the term or the popular use of the term?

I doubt many of us have spoken to someone who actually was.
I have. A lot of them still don't want to talk about some of the things that happened and what they did. Some of the things I have heard about the 'treatment' of SS prisoners would curl your hair.
 

Michael Dorosh

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As you alluded to, I think that it is mostly the availability of information. Your example seems to be just bad scholarship. Or maybe Milner finally had access to better official records than English and Stacey.

Distance in terms of time from the events also help.
All true, but there's no real "blame" to be assigned, history is just like that. Stacey went with what he had. He worked for the army, and the guys he was writing about were not only still alive, but in some cases still serving and technically his boss. He talks a bit about it in his autobiography. Getting straight answers from Guy Simonds, for example, was problematic as he was Chief of the General Staff (sort of the Canadian equivalent of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and Stacey really couldn't make him be more honest. Milner probably didn't talk to any surviving commanders (there probably weren't any) and instead did a deep dive into the documentary evidence that Stacey wouldn't have thought of. But if it wasn't for Stacey's writing first, Milner would never have thought to come up with the hypothesis he did.
 

Sparafucil3

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Do you mean that in the historical use of the term or the popular use of the term?
Pick which ever meaning you want. History is re-written all the time. The truth changes. Our understanding changes. Our learning evolves. Our values change. Even the eye witnesses will unconsciously revise their story to paint themselves in the best light. It's our nature. Doesn't take away from the bravery of the men and women who were there.

I have. A lot of them still don't want to talk about some of the things that happened and what they did. Some of the things I have heard about the 'treatment' of SS prisoners would curl your hair.
Which is why I said "many". I knew someone here had to have. -- jim
 

Actionjick

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I would disagree but I think it is a more nuanced conversation than one can have on a messageboard :)
Well in these historical days it seems to be as good a place as any. Please converse on, I've binge watched every show I have an interest in and need a good diversion.
 

The Purist

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As I like to say, all history is revisionist :) Don't read this as me impugning the bravery of these men. None of us was there. I doubt many of us have spoken to someone who actually was. We have all seen the studies on reliability of first-hand witnesses. The revision starts at the moment history is made. I will still study and read it though. It is fascinating to say the least. For me, it's Kursk. I have 50+ books on that battle. -- jim
This is very true. For ASL players probably the best known example of how our view of history can be changed is the Kursk campaign. For decades the west was under the impression that Prokhorovka was a giant clash of armour with 850 Red Army tanks charging into a phalanx of 700 German tanks, fighters wheeling and dieing above them, the ground shaking.

In fact, the Soviet armour arrived on the battlefield somewhat piecemeal, about 1/3 of them were small light tanks and Panthers were nowhere to be seen. It was something of a turkey shoot with the Russians suffering very heavy casualties (most were later recovered, repaired and reused),... the Germans losing about 12 tanks and assault guns.

The Battle of Britain is another long standing myth with the general belief that Fighter Command was on the ropes, the airfields a wreck and the British running out of pilots,....until the Germans bombed London. The truth is FC strength grew as the battle progressed (finishing the daylight fighting period with more single engine fighters than they began the battle), even the heaviest hit airfields were seldom out of action more than few hours (although some at a reduced capacity), or perhaps a day and the British usually had two pilots for every serviceable aircraft.

London became the focus largely because the time table called for the LW to switch to London to draw out what was thought to be the last British fighter reserves before the 15th and proposed date for Sealion's landings on the south coast.

And so on and so and so on.

As noted above,... it takes time and distance from events to allow proper scholarship to take hold. This doesn't mean that a book written as a "general" history is not worth reading, as long as you understand it may not contain the necessary information to truly inform the reader with much more than the 30,000 foot view.
 
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Tuomo

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This is very true. For ASL players probably the best known example of how our view of history can be changed is the Kursk campaign. For decades the west was under the impression that Prokhorovka was a giant clash of armour with 850 Red Army tanks charging into a phalanx of 700 German tanks, fighters wheeling and dieing above them, the ground shaking.

In fact, the Soviet armour arrived on the battlefield somewhat piecemeal, about 1/3 of them were small light tanks and Panthers were nowhere to be seen. It was something of a turkey shoot with the Russians suffering very heavy casualties (most were later recovered, repaired and reused),... the Germans losing about 12 tanks and assault guns.
I know which scenario I'd rather play.
 

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I wonder why no scenarios have been published from the "Phoney War" period.
 
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