Sunday, May 22, 2005

History, Heritage, Horseshit.

At the risk of appearing to have developed a strange VDH fetish, a couple of other related things:

First, another WW2 article. I think this is better than his last effort, though some of the criticisms still stand.

Second - and the main point of this post - I was intrigued to note that VDH has taken part in a written forum on the work of John Mosier, at "Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society". The website features abstracts of comments by Mosier himself, James Corum and Dennis Showalter and VDH has the full text of his comments up at the Private Papers.

I note with no small degree of horror that Mosier's "Myth of the Great War" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, which in my view can only indicate that the accolade is completely worthless (apologies to Tom, who I have no doubt whatsoever earned his). MotGW fills, as Showalter notes, a gap. But beyond this it is a relentlessly bad book, crammed with straw man arguments, falling short of fundamental standards of academic rigour and suffused throughout with an unpleasant, priggish tone by an author puffed up with self-importance and a tendency toward ad hominem attacks on scholars who know their trade rather better than he does (oh, God, am I simultaneously describing myself?). Mosier's main problem is that where others see gaps in historiography, he sees conspiracies, intricate webs of lies and deceit just waiting for him to wade in with his might sword of truth.

Take this from Showalter's (otherwise quite critical contribution):

He took the trouble to read and analyze the great body of tactical and operational literature published by French soldiers and academicians in the interwar period, still relatively neglected in the Anglo-and German-centered approaches that dominate the English-language work in the field. He made a correspondingly useful contribution with a detailed account of the Franco-German combat from the aftermath of the Marne in 1914 to the end of Verdun in 1916. More generally Mosier also called attention to the fact that for most of the war it was the French who held most of the front—and did most of the dying.

This is all to the good (in theory - in practice Mosier's use of sources, while incorporating new primary source material, is deeply selective). However, rather than seeing the relative absence of serious work in the French archives as a gap in the market (a gap in the market freely acknowledged by British historians [I know of no contemporary British Great War historian who does not acknowledge that the French were the senior partners in the war] and largely existing due to a lack of language skills and simple laziness - with the exception of emerging work by people like Bill Philpott [full disclosure: he teaches War Studies at King's], Anthony Clayton and Hew Strachan), for Mosier it's part of a carefully orchestrated, British-led conspiracy to skew the popular perception of the war. In fact it is no such thing. Additionally, Mosier - in his ludicrously inadequate, highly selective and aggressively unpleasant "essay on the sources" - shows no awareness of recent scholarship (such as that by Strachan, Philpott and Clayton), attacks as worthless works significantly more carefully constructed than his and heaps praise upon works such as Lloyd George's War Memoirs (!) and John Laffin's ludicrous "British Butchers and Bunglers" (!!!!!!!!!!).

Mosier's follow-up, "The Blitzkrieg Myth" - see this review from H-Net for a good summary - tells a similar tale. Everyone's not merely wrong and stupid, but a liar and it takes a Loyola English Professor to sweep away the cobwebs. More straw men, more conspiracies, more aggressive attacks on significantly more rigorous historians than himself (and an apparent ignorance of recent scholarship that has already done a far better job than he has - see, for example, Robert Citino's Quest for Decisive Victory/Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm opus and his Path To Blitzkrieg and Jonathan M., House's Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century).

There is, of course, a long and glorious tradition of hyper-pissed off, personally abrasive revisionist historians, noted examples being Peter Hofschroer and Paddy Griffith (and, of course, A. J. P. Taylor). But there's more to serious revisionist history than peddling a supposedly new story and showcasing possesion of a spastic gall bladder. Apparently Mosier has, "
two books scheduled to appear in 2006: a study of the German army (Henry Holt) and of Ulysses S. Grant (Palgrave)". There is little doubt in my mind that both will be well worth giving a miss.

On a final, more upbeat note, I see that VDH has a military history of the Peloponnesian War coming out soon. I'm not entirely sure that there's a particular gap in the market waiting to be filled here (given the work of Donald Kagan [admittedly not a pure military history by any means], Nigel Bagnall and John Lazenby), but I can imagine it will be a very good read and will hopefully mark a return to form. One to put on the shopping list.


Blogger Mark G. said...

It may abate your horror to know that "nominated for the Pulitizer Prize" is a publisher's trick, because anyone, including the author's mom, may nominate a book for the Prize. From the perspective of the organization that administers the prize this is merely an "entry" or "submission." What matters is whether a book is a nominated finalist. The Pulitizer Prize jury selects three finalists in each category; the Pulitzer Prize Board then selects the winner from among the three finalists.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that people like Hofschroer and Griffiths get hyper-pissed off dealing with stupid comments like yours, which is why they become abrasive. But revisionist? What is revisionist about their writings? Okay, they don't agree with the received wisdom, but that is surely not revisionist, but being sensible. After all, the last people that know anything about history are historians. Most of them write crap. Agreed?

7:11 AM  

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