Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Military History Seminar: Fun with Chainmail Hoodies

The military history seminar is back! In fact, I've gathered my military history posts and formed a new blog called Pick Your Battles. It has a few new features and a picture of Benny and I at a Civil War battlefield. Check it out, if you like that sort of thing.

This will be my first military history review in a year and a half. I've been doing this since 2005 and read six books in Ohio State University's reading list. At this rate, in 40 years I'll be sitting in whatever nursing home Benny can afford, reading No. 32, "War and Imperialism in Republican Rome" by William Harris.

"The Face of Battle" by John Keegan.

This book is one of my favorites on this list and not just because it's one of the shortest at 342 pages. It's a nice little paperback with a cheery picture of the skull of a Swedish soldier at the Battle of Visby in 1561.

The publishers obviously chose the skull for its dashing, cocky air (complete with chainmail hoodie) since the book doesn't discuss the Battle of Visby. (That's a good thing, too, because I looked it up, and I'm not in the mood to hear about Danish troops battling peasant farmers. Guess who won.)

Instead, "The Face of Battle" analyzes three battles: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and The Somme in 1916. All great battles and surely worth 342 pages and a grinning skull for that alone, but Keegan writes so creatively and eloquently that I'm ready to look up his stuff on the Battle of Visby. He begins with one of my favorite history book openers (edited for length):

"I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath. I have questioned people who have been in battle ... have walked over battlefields ... have often turned up small relics of the fighting. I have read about battles, of course, have talked about battles ... but I have never been in a battle. And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a battle can be like."

This resonates with me, because I also have never been in battle (just some really mean editorial meetings). And it prompts me to consider why a 40-year-old wife and mother feels compelled to study military history. I have no military background, no ties except a brother in the Army. My paternal grandfather landed on the Normandy beaches as a combat photographer, my maternal grandfather and my father collected military history books. So there's some family precedent for this interest in battle.

Keegan says that some people read military history with the subjunctive question "How would I behave in battle?" I personally don't need a 100-book reading list to answer that question. I know exactly how I would behave in battle. It's like reading an airline pamphlet while flying over the Atlantic, the type of pamphlet titled "Your Role in a Water Landing." As author Jean Kerr wrote: "I know my role in a water landing. I'm going to splash around and sob."

So you see, I have no illusions here. At Agincourt, I'd be in the baggage park. At Waterloo, I'd be napping with the English 4th Regiment. (Where I wouldn't be at Waterloo is near Wellington, who apparently liked to be where the fighting was hottest.) At the Somme, I'd be the one wearing his gas mask in pouring rain. ("You never know!")

It's clear, then, that I don't read military history to learn about myself. I've done enough self-introspection and the results are rarely pleasant. Why then?

Well, reading military history helps me understand the world and how it came to be this way. Identifying patterns of human behavior is interesting. Most of all, I study the conflict and suffering of the past so it is not forgotten. My father and grandfather passed this interest on to me. Perhaps, by example, I will pass it on to Benny and the soldiers at Agincourt in 1415 live on nearly 600 years later.

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