Karl Marlantes on ‘Matterhorn’

Each year, the Colby Symposium awards the Colby Award to a first notable book from an author that deals fundamentally with the nature of warfare and contributes substantially to the field. During the awards dinner this year, executive director and Norwich University Alum, Carlo D’Este said that it was rare that the entire committee universally agrees on a single book, but that this was the case for the 2011 prize, going to Karl Marlantes, with his first acclaimed novel, Matterhorn.

Karl Marlantes is a Marine Corps veteran, a Rhodes Scholar, and a graduate from Yale University. In the course of his military service during the Vietnam War, he earned the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor, ten air medals and the Navy Cross, amongst numerous others. He first attempted to publish his novel in 1967 and was unsuccessful until 2009, when his book was published by El Leon Literary Arts, and later by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 2010.

Matterhorn is a work of fiction, but is closely tied to Marlantes’s own experiences in Vietnam. Early in his presentation, he told the group that he wanted to tell the common experience of Vietnam, rather than simply his own: in literature, readers relate to the characters in the novel, whereas in a memoir, the reader’s experience is somewhat different. He believed that fiction was the better route in this case, also because he wanted to get into the heads of a number of different characters, rather than just one person.

Like Stanton, he noted that part of a soldier’s training is that people make mistakes: the key is to make sure that the mistake isn’t repeated. In the instance of military operations, mistakes can be fatal, and officers are responsible for the people under their command. He noted that the military is run by human beings, and that he didn’t believe that there were villains, just people with flaws.

Vietnam, he said, is akin to the alcoholic father, the elephant in the room: it’s influential, but nobody wants to talk about it. Like we’re seeing now in Afghanistan, we didn’t understand the culture, we were restrained by very strict rules of engagement and we worked with a very corrupt and illegitimate native government. One key difference is that there is the absence of major civil unrest in the United States right now, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, there were over 200 fragging instances, where someone would take a fragmentation grenade and roll it into someone’s tent. These incidents of fratricide were usually racially motivated. He said that when you take a bunch of 19 year olds and give them weapons, you have the very definition of racial tensions.

Another major difference was the institution of the draft. While the draft was incredibly unfair – people could be exempted from being called into service (if they were attending college, for example), but we have a burdened all volunteer military now. Marlantes asserted that changes needed to be made and that the volunteer military needs to be rethought, as extended periods of warfare put an incredible strain on our armed forces and on the country as a whole. He cited an indifference to the military right now, and that that wasn’t good for anyone.

One of the major problems that helped to define Vietnam (and according to Jack Segal, Afghanistan as well): the lack of definable progress with the war. World War II was a clear cut battle: there were objectives that were captured, defined and tangible enemies that were pushed back, islands captured, and so forth. With Vietnam, the only progress was a body count (which he also noted was heavily distorted by soldiers on the ground). Using a body count as a measure of war is immoral. The purpose of the military is not to kill (although it carries that out in the course of its duties) but to stop their enemy from continuing the fight. As soon as one military gets the other to stop, they’ve won. The killing should never be the objective of the war. In a way, Vietnam became a game. In all things, whether it’s warfare or a business, the objectives and the metrics used need to be clear-cut, careful and solid.

Marlantes also cited that there shouldn’t be a separation between the people on the ground and the strategy for the war as a whole. Micromanagement of soldiers is problematic, and its essentially a double-edged sword, something that began in Vietnam, and is something that we continue with today. The people on the ground need to understand what the objectives are, and the people setting the objectives need to understand the capabilities and resources available to them in the people on the ground.

At every reading, Marlantes was asked where Matterhorn was. He fought at Hill 484, where they fought very hard to take and hold the position: at one point, they were down to seven bullets per man, before resupply. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was very well organized, and formidable enemies. 484, and another hill, 3107, heavily influenced the novel. He noted that a lot of people pulled him aside and recounted their own experiences, and how similar the book’s lined up with their own, an indication that the war saw numerous similar experiences for a number of different people.

One major problem with Vietnam, he noted, was the way in which the war was approached and fought. Just a couple of decades after the Second World War, the Navy and Marines were geared towards certain ways of fighting: the marines were geared towards amphibious warfare, while their helicopters were geared towards tactical missions, rather than resupply. During WWII, the Marines worked to take islands, dropped off by the Navy, who would then retreat out of range. Rather than simply bombing, the Marines sought to exchange casualties for speed. However, capital ships weren’t in regular danger, and that this caused problems in the execution of the war’s strategy.

Personal problems also flared up: drug usage was heavy amongst soldiers, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but soldiers of Vietnam exchanged alcohol for pills, or weed. This is something that’s continued forward with the current wars in Afghanistan, although now, it’s through legal means, and is something that Marlantes believes will be causing a number of psychological problems for soldiers after the war is over.

Matterhorn is a novel that he hopes will demonstrate the character of the Vietnam War, and through the course of the talk, it’s clear that there’s a number of parallels between the conflicts in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East: the changes in strategy, the metrics of warfare, the organization and command of the soldiers and the uncertain battleground and objectives. Matterhorn is on my personal to-read list, and at some point in the future, I’ll have a review for it here. There are lessons in the past that should not be overlooked, or forgotten.

Battlefield Doctor: Dr. Chris Coppola

Norwich University’s Colby Military Writer’s Symposium is an annual event that gathers military writers together in Northfield, where a series of panels and presentations help to educate the student body and general public on relevant and pressing matters in today’s military. I’ve looked forward to the event each year, and once again, I’ve been impressed with the quality and information this year.

The first presentation of the symposium was held in the Kreitzberg Library’s multipurpose room, featuring Dr. Chris Coppola, author of the book Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq, where he recounted his experiences as a surgeon in Iraq during his two deployments. In years past, where the symposium has discussed larger issues such as counterinsurgency doctrine or civilian interactions in the battlefield, this represented a bit of a departure, because it shed a bit of light on a major combat element: the casualties.

Dr. Coppola noted that the casualty infrastructure that has been put into place in Iraq during the invasion and subsequent occupation was an unprecedented one in the history of warfare. At any point in the country, a soldier or casualty was never more than twenty minutes from a hospital: once a soldier was injured, a helicopter was flown in to the scene, and the casualty was evacuated to a hospital system. A system had been put into place, with hospitals numbered with a certain level, which would allow for a certain amount of treatment. The wartime hospitals ranged from a level one to a level three center, which would allow doctors to treat and stabilize the wounded. For more serious cases, people were evacuated to Germany by plane, to level four hospitals, and eventually, to level five hospitals in the United States.

According to Dr. Coppola, this was a key element to saving lives on the battlefield. His hospital, he told us, had a survival rate of 98%: if people went in with a pulse, they had a very good chance of surviving their visit. The short trip after being wounded helped: this wasn’t always the skill of the doctors there, (although with the internet, they had access to a lot of information and the cumulative experience of prior doctors), but the fact that a wounded soldier with serious injuries could be treated very quickly. Another factor, he noted, was new equipment, such as body armor and vehicles engineered to redirect blast energy if hit by an IED.

However, doctors faced new types of wounds in addition to bullets: blast wounds from explosives, were common, and resulted in numerous types of injuries. As Dr. Coppola said: anything on the body can be hurt. When he received his first patient in Iraq, he saw that he had to treat five of the most serious wounds that could be done to a person.

Civilians were another major problem that they faced, as his hospital received far more civilian casualties than they did US soldiers or even enemy combatants. This was compounded by a couple of problems: the Iraqi healthcare system was broken, with numerous doctors killed or known to have fled the country, as well as being behind the times. As a result, when word got out that there was a pediatric surgeon in the area, people began to bring their children to the hospital, where doctors worked to fix other long-standing issues, such as birth defects, injuries, and other problems that treatments simply weren’t readily available for families. While the primary mission of the doctors was to treat soldiers to return to the battlefield or stabilize them for further treatment, doctors played to their strength and helped within their specialties.

One particular anecdote, Coppola recounted a story of where a known insurgent had been brought in, who had talked about killing former patients. It was an incredibly difficult thing to have to do, treating the person, but they followed through and fulfilled their mission: treating patients who came through the door. Undoubtedly, this will be an ethical question that doctors will continue to face in the future.

Coppola wrapped up by addressing the affects of warfare long after the battle is over. He acknowledged some of the problems in the system at home, in the treatment of soldiers after they have returned home. Despite the issues, he said, we owe them the care. A 20 year old amputee, he said, has a better chance of rehabilitation, and incredible advances are being made in post-injury treatment. Other problems might come up in the near future, long after we’ve left the battle: soldiers who are using legal drugs, such as energy drinks and sleeping pills, might have an increased risk of mental problems, with undesirable problems after the fact: there’s been a rise in suicides, fratricides, and long standing problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. That’s a legacy of the war that we’ll need to cope with, and learn to handle as the years move on.

Coppola’s talk was an enlightening one: I have a feeling that it’s something that should be seen by everyone, because of the graphic nature: it’s a vivid demonstration of war’s effects on the people fighting it, and the people unlucky enough to be in harm’s way during the conflict. Coppola seemed optimistic, though, noting that where doctors had learned from their experiences, he learned from their experiences, and that he regularly consults on cases with doctors overseas, putting his own experiences to continued use.

Battle of the Bulge: Phase II

On December 17th 1944, from what I can tell so far, the 100th Infantry Division was ordered to the Bastogne, Noville, and Bras areas to stop the sudden attack by German forces. The 28th Infantry division found itself on its second day fighting for its survival as their entire divisional front was under attack, and member of the division, 1st Lt. Carl Hughes of the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron continued to make his way through enemy lines. The Battle of the Bulge was in full force in Germany and Belgium, and would continue to rage on for over a month.

The anniversary of the beginning of the battle saw the start of the second phase of my project documenting the Norwich University alumni who fought there. I had hoped to have finished the writing by this point, but that hasn’t happened yet, but the research and collection of raw data has largely wound down for the project. From the data that I was able to collect, I’ve assembled a list of just under a hundred and fifty people from a variety of sources: publications, records, mentions, with thirty people confirmed with sources that they were present at some point, another 73 people who might have been there based on their unit, ten people who can be written off, with a further 30 people who may or may not have been there, but with very little to go on, other than a country reference.

This collection of raw data has some additional bits of information that goes along with each student: their rank, unit, whether they were wounded or killed, what medals they earned, and any other additional notes. As a whole, it’s a wealth of information that only tells me a couple of certain points that help lead to the next stage.

Raw data by itself is somewhat useless. I can tell you ten things about Carl Hughes. He was a first lieutenant in the 28th Infantry division with the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron, that he graduated from Norwich in 1942, that he received the Bronze and Silver Stars in addition to a purple heart, and that he walked through enemy lines for three days following the attack when his unit was surrounded. The next step involves adding context to the situation.

Going unit by unit, this next step involves adding that context. With it, I’ve learned that the 28th Infantry Division had taken the first impact of the German advance on December 16th, along a 25 mile stretch that enveloped the division, and that from the 16th through the 22nd, the unit was involved in heavy fighting before pulling back on the 22nd to Neufchateau to reorganize. This additional layer helps to put the individual experiences of the soldiers into better context.

With rare exceptions, student information on their individual experiences during the battle are rare, and in those instances, I have a paragraph at the most, or a brief sentence at the least that indicates that an alum was present at any part of the battle. The additional information as to what the units as a whole were up to help to fill in the blanks and gives me a general idea of what any given student might have been doing at the time. Furthermore, the individual data points that make up Norwich Students on the timeline helps to etch out a clearer understanding of how the battle worked: it was complicated, with numerous fronts, battles and units involved. Approaching the battle from the people who studied at Norwich also helps to demonstrate the impact that Norwich itself played during the battle, much like I discovered with the Operation Overload paper that I wrote in 2007. There was a collective Norwich experience that was widespread throughout the conflict.

This next step is far from done – quick passes through the Army Historical blurbs allow me to pin point some key dates for units, and a second pass will help to put in more detail for some of the larger units, such as the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 17th Airborne Division, which seems to have a larger collection of Norwich men within it. With a codified timeline in place, the events of the battle can be put down into more detail, and a larger story of the Battle of the Bulge will appear, seen through the eyes of the school’s alumni.

It’s an exciting bit of work as I am able to gather more and more information on individual units and to see the battle emerge from the raw data points that I’ve collected. One thing is for sure so far: Norwich University was present on the front lines (and in one case, above them) and undoubtably, given some of the notations, medals and units that these men earned and occupied, it had some hand in the outcome of the battle, providing a basis for the actions of the men who fought in 1944 and 1945.

Good Leadership means Continued Learning: ADM Thad Allen at Norwich University

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Last night, Retired Admiral Thad Allen talked before a group of Norwich University students and Northfield residents for the latest entry in the Todd Lecture series, with a talk titled ‘Leading Through Crisis and Times of Change’. Adm. Allen is uniquely qualified on this particular subject, having served as the person in charge for the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita cleanup just after the storm destroyed parts of New Orleans, the Haiti Earthquake and as the National Incident Commander for the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. Each disaster was an unprecedented event that warranted extraordinary response measures, and in each case, the issues that

Leadership was the focus of the talk, amongst the times when leaders were most needed to complete and correct the problems that have typically faced the country. While Allen’s experiences are monumental, major disasters, much of what he had talked about were very applicable lessons for everyone: ways to confront challenges in the workplace, in the community, and if needed, on a state or national level. Over the course of its history, the country has tackled a number of challenges and problems facing it, and there is no doubt that there will be plenty more in the future. One of the key things that I’ve found in both my education and employment at Norwich University (more so with my employment) is that leadership is an incredibly important thing when it comes to any organization.

When Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans, Allen likened it to the effect of a weapon of mass destruction, without the criminal element, and then response to the problem. Had the city been hit with a nuclear weapon or something that could produce a similar effect, a vastly different response would have been put together. A key element in leadership is the people in place who can reconcile both competency and opportunity in the face of a situation while seeking the appropriate outcome. The major issue with the Katrina disaster was that the people in charge of the recovery at first didn’t understand what the problem was. There was a broken link between understanding what the priorities were, and applying the resources accordingly. When he arrived eight days after the storm, a different problem had to be tackled, with authorities operating without a clear chain of command. They broke the city up into different sections, with various organizations such as the Marines and 82nd Airborne taking control of specific tasks. First responder teams worked to provide logistical, security and rescue support for each house in the city, with the members of these teams given the authority to work under the Mayor of the city.

The thing that struck me the most was how much of leadership consisted of problem solving, and just how profound the realization was that problems changed dramatically while they’re playing out, and that the best response often comes beforehand, with people under one’s command / supervision who can be used to deal with problems as they arise. When it came to Haiti, Allen likened it to Katrina on a much larger scale, and with other, additional problems. While the country’s leaders had survived, the UN mission found itself without leadership when their building collapsed, causing problems interfacing between the country and the rest of the world. As what had been found during the Katrina response, a clear, unified command wasn’t present in the country. Many of the lessons that were learned during Katrina were applied in the response to Haiti, to the effect of where U.S. command and control infrastructure was packed up into a C-140 and flown down.

Haiti was devastated, and once again, relief efforts had to utilize the resources at hand. Port du Prince was destroyed, Allen said, due to engineering and the magnitude of the quake, cutting off the only major way to receive large amounts of materials. As a result, the air space was restricted, and a large-scale effort was put into place to bring in supplies by air. At the peak of the air operations, 160 flights per day were landing, helped by several years of work from the 1st Air Force and lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. NGOs on the ground were also used, because the people on the ground knew the people that they were delivering relief to: a human response to the human problems was needed, and helped in a lot of ways.

The next major issue was the one that is still in the news: the Gulf Oil Spill. Allen was very clear on a couple of points: despite the controversy over BP’s role in the spill, his attention was on the parts that needed to be taken care of right away: containing the spill, capping the well and killing it. Despite the fact that the oil company had a hand in the disaster, they made incredible efforts to kill it, and faced enormous technical and engineering problems that resembled more of Apollo 13 than the Exxon Valdez.

Additionally, there wasn’t an apparent role for the federal government: this started off as a private sector problem, and BP wasn’t seen as a responsible party because they weren’t answerable to the general public.

The oil spill was incredibly complicated. The spill had to be stopped, and three missions emerged: the technical problems with stopping hot hydrocarbons gushing out at 12,000 psi into a cold environment, an oil spill on the surface that changed every day with the wind, and protecting the coastlines. The scale of this disaster dwarfed the response plans currently in place, and was so different (aimed towards something along the lines of a tanker spill than a blow out) that it required a new way of thinking. Once the response came under way, a massive job was undertaken to coordinate the efforts: all efforts needed to be coordinated in order to bring about the best results: boats on the water cleaning oil and the shorelines, and when an organization becomes complex in ways such as this, some things break down.

One thing was transparency, which Allen noted was essential in this day and age. People are armed with cameras, social media, and are willing to use them, and in this instance, while responsible parties can work on coordination and delegation, people on the ground need to be included, with the assurances that what they’re doing will be backed up by the people in charge. A transparent organization works the best, because it tends to be self-correcting. It was noted that the decision to put up cameras was a positive one, because people could see what was going on, and when things were starting to get better. Requests to put a time delay on the video were denied, because it would damage perceptions that the company and cleanup efforts were honest and doing what they were supposed to.

Coming out of these three disasters, Allen imparted several key things when it came to leadership. The first is that anyone can be a better leader, and that the best leaders never stop learning. They continue to learn and adapt to the situation, and from prior disasters or incidents, lessons can be learned. Lessons 9/11 informed Katrina, which informed Haiti, which in turn informed the Gulf Oil Response.

Second, leaders cannot lead from the top down, the bottom up or from the center: they lead from everywhere. The human element of any response is a key thing, and people who are working to address a problem need to be empowered to do their jobs, with someone backing them up from the top. According to Allen: “To be a better leader, you must become a better person,”

What strikes me as most relevant to these points is not that they are only applicable to major disasters, but to any number of instances that most people face, and the key to this talk was that leadership can be found everywhere, in everyone: people need to recognize when actions are needed, by managing the appropriate resources available in the proper way.

What struck me the most was how focused Adm. Allen was throughout the talk, especially when he spoke about social media and the 24/7 newscycle that we now have in the country. They key element seems to be to adapt and work with people on the ground who want to help, but to remain focused on the task at hand, regardless of perceptions, pundits and political elements who have their own agendas. His view of BP clashed with the perceptions of the public and that of the media, and while he noted that they had their own issues in their image, they approached the problem with the best of intentions where it was needed: without the resources and expertise that BP provided and applied to the spill, the crisis would have been much worse.

In the future, he noted, there needs to be a better doctrine to shift from short-term solutions to long term recovery for places such as Katrina, Haiti and the Gulf, which in and of itself will require new ways of thinking about problems. In the meantime, lessons need to be learned for how to tackle the next unforeseen problem that will face the country: natural disasters, attacks, industrial mistakes, and so forth are all possibilities, and the only sure solution will be someone who can find an effective way to recognize the problems and apply the proper response needed. Such effective leaders should empower those under their supervision, and will be ones who will learn from the experiences and lessons of the past.

Hardwired Historian

As I’ve begun work on the Battle of the Bulge project, I’ve found that there have been some major changes in how I’m able to go about researching the event since the spring of 2007, when I did a similar research project on the Normandy Invasion. Since then, computers have become smaller, Norwich University has a campus-wide wireless network, and information on databases has grown.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been pouring over books and file folders, hunting for references to soldiers who were in a set number of units, dates, locations, specific references to the Battle of the Bulge itself. Four years ago, I brought along a notepad and a couple of pens (or pencils, when I was up in the University Archives), and wrote down every reference that I could find, even the tangential students who might have been in the right area at the right time.

Fast forward to 2010, and the options have changed. Rather than taking a notepad and pen with me, I’ve been carrying my iPad and iPhone, on which I’ve been jotting down information as I find it. Slowly, as the lists are growing, I’m planning on taking the information and placing it onto a spreadsheet. While I do this, I’ve tapped into the wireless network, and as I come across soldiers in various units, I’ve discovered that running a quick check against the unit’s history online can help me determine if the soldier is someone I’ve been able to use, as their unit was present at the battle, or if they were somewhere else at the time, either because they hadn’t arrived, or were in another theater of operations altogether.

The move to electronic recording likewise has the benefit of being able to copy and paste my results directly into a spreadsheet, rather than having the extra step of translating my handwritten notes (no small task!) into the spreadsheet. The transfer of data is transferred between two mediums rather than three. (original, handwritten and computer). It allows me to keep information that I transpose intact far more easily than before.

The next step is something I’m thinking of trying: integrating this with Google Docs, which would allow me to keep my data online, accessible from any number of locations. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very practical thing on an iPad (I can’t easily tab between apps, and I don’t have the internet at home), but for some of the research portions, it seems like it would be an excellent thing to use, especially if someone is working with others. In this case, my girlfriend is helping out with some things, and the ability to update the same piece of data, without redundancies, would be helpful when gathering data is put together.

What I’m hoping is that the move to computers, rather than using handwritten notes, will allow me to be more efficient, and thus quicker, with the research that I’m working on. The amount of information that I need to go though: there’s something like five thousand additional files to go through when it comes to deceased students, not to mention the information on the units and after action reports that exist.

This also covers the first large phase of the research: gathering all of the raw data that I’ll need to form the basis of the project. The next step, actually distilling and then writing the report, is already digital: I can’t actually think of a time when I haven’t used a computer to type up a project. Those advantages are well known, and something that I know to work.

The Battle of the Bulge

In 2007, I went overseas to France, shortly after I finished college, to help provide the Norwich University side of things for the battlefield staff ride that we took. The D-Day study (which is partially documented here in the archives) was the final paper that I had written for my undergraduate coursework. Back in May of 2007, I had realized that this was something that I found interesting, and noted that I could easily expand this sort of research to encompass other elements of the European Theater of Operations.

I’ve largely kept things under my hat lately, but now that I’ve started, it’s something that I can talk more freely about. While I’m not expanding my D-Day paper, I’ve been asked by Norwich to write another one, and to consult on an upcoming Staff Ride. This time around, I’ll be focusing on the Norwich University Students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944.

The battle, largely regarded as the last credible push on the part of the Germans during the Allied advance towards Germany, was a massive coordinated pushback that trapped U.S. forces behind enemy lines, and slowed Allied efforts in their push towards ending the war. Like in Normandy, Norwich students fought and died there, and occupied a number of positions within the U.S military.

This is a project that I’m very eager to return to, and the research phase has me very excited. This project will be coming in a couple of phases. The first, which I’ve started, is the research element, and I’m going to be specifically targeting several achieves and sources here at Norwich, starting with the yearbooks (a memorial edition from 1947 was what I tackled today, with very good results), and the Norwich University Record, the alumni paper, two sources that provided an incredible amount of information, along with two archives up on campus, which should provide some additional detailed information and allow me to draw up a roster of possible participants in the battle. From there, cross-checking each soldier’s unit based on the historical record and actions of said unit will help to weed out the people who wouldn’t have possibly been there. Student X was in Unit Y, but Unit Y didn’t arrive into the area until day Z, which was after the battle, for example.

Running parallel to this will be research into the battle itself, looking for specific dates, people, unit actions and the story to which Norwich personnel will be placed. Here, the people I am looking at will be a small and unique look into how the battle went.

Once the research phase is over, the writing will begin, which I’m planning on starting around November, and finishing up by December. January through March/April is a little more fluid, but I’m guessing that I will be editing, fine-tuning and researching small details for the paper, while preparing presentations for the actual staff ride, which will take place in May of next year. Needless to say, I’m flattered and excited for this entire project.

This style of research makes a lot of sense to me, because I can work to connect the actions of the soldiers in the field to an institution that is steeped in history, and link said actions to the overall mission of the school, and provide a historical context and concrete examples of where graduates have changed the world through their actions. (And, some of these soldiers have accomplished incredible things, helping to see through the successes of various operations and actions throughout Norwich’s history.)

Learning to Understand


Earlier today, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, spoke at the museum at Norwich University’s campus that bears his name for a brief talk to students. As he opened, he noted that he didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to talk about, but pointed out objects in one of the rooms that related to his experience within the time that he had spent in the military. Over the course of his 36 year career, Sullivan has seen a lot: he volunteered to go to Vietnam and served for a couple of tours there, while his career culminated in his presiding over the transition of the U.S. Army after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the massive changes that came as a result of that. A number of points that Sullivan brought up stuck with me over the course of his talk.

General Sullivan is a person that I personally admire greatly, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times: the first was in 2007, shortly after I graduated from Norwich with a B.A. in History. Several short days after I walked, I boarded a plane for England, then France, and found myself in Normandy with a contingent from Norwich, with Generals Sullivan and Nelson leading the tour of the battlefield, providing a rich amount of historical context for the battlefield, but also an incredible amount of information on the value of good leaders. There is no better place to highlight that issue than on a battlefield, and over the years since, I’ve become fascinated in how this can be applied to everyday life.

One topic that he touched on has particular significance in the modern face of warfare. “It takes troops on the ground, not technology, to solve problems.” To illustrate this, he picked up a piece of metal, a tool that was used in gun, and pointed out that it took over a hundred people to make that part: it was a high tech piece of machinery, and is likely the cumulative result of thousands of hours of research and development, testing and deployment. He then took our attention to a wooden cowbell on the wall of the exhibit, noting that we (The U.S.) were operating in an area where this was a level of technology, and that the combatants on the battlefield could face the United States and come out victorious.

During his tenure of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration, he was working to transition the military after the end of the Cold War, when the operation at Mogadishu resulted in a number of U.S. casualties. The point that he made seemed to wear on him, and he noted that every soldier that died represented a huge loss, losses that the rest of the army, and himself, as the top of the chain of command, were responsible for. And, he noted, this was in a time of peace. His attitude towards the current operations is fairly clear: “You can’t kill your way to victory”, and through this, the U.S. has to work with people, get them to change their minds, in order to succeed in this new battlefield.

At one point in his talk, Sullivan noted that he was proud to be a Norwich graduate: “I am proud to say that I took an oath in 1955… I’ve been part of this for 50 years, and it started here.” (paraphrased), and that Norwich was an important place in his life. This has gotten me thinking all afternoon about the value of the two educations that I’ve earned here. The world, and military affairs are incredibly complicated businesses, and a certain level of comprehension brings about a different understanding of the situation.

The military affairs that are going on now are not as cleanly cut as portrayed, and winning is simply not as it was fifty years ago. The military has an ongoing change as its mission shifts from one enemy to others, and with different styles of fighting. Leadership, of the highest caliber, is required to guide these transitions, and I believe that the education that I’ve gotten here, and since earning the official stamps of approval, have given me the mindset that is really required of understanding (at least in part) some of these elements, which I feel will become even more important to our lives. However, as it grows in importance, there needs to be a greater importance in comprehending said events.

I personally count my time in Normandy as one of the most formative educational experiences of my life. I hope that others will follow.

Rick Atkinson & History

 

This summer’s entry in the Todd Lecture series at Norwich University was Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson, former reporter for the Washington Post and author of several of books, most notably, An Army at Dawn, about the Invasion of Africa (which won him the Pulitzer in history), and more recently, The Day of Battle, about the invasion of Italy, both part of his epic trilogy on the events of the Invasion of Europe. In an already cluttered field of works on the Second World War in Europe, Atkinson’s books stand out immensely as some of the best books about the conflict, and the third book, of which he’s completed the research for, and is now outlining and writing, will be out in a couple of years, and will undoubtedly be a gripping read.

Atkinson spoke about an important and relevant topic to the history graduates before him: the value of narrative history, and more specifically, the need for a writer to recognize the value of a story within the heady analysis and synthesis of an argument. Personally, I find the division and outright snobbery of most academic circles to be frustrating, especially when it comes to popular and commercial non-history. Within history is a plethora of stories, values, themes and lessons to be breathed, learned and valued, and an essential part of education is bringing across the message to the reader or general audience in a way that they can comprehend and relate to the contents of any historical text.

Commercial nonfiction has its good and bad elements to it. Bringing anything to a general audience can water down an argument, and the balance between good stories and good history is one that has to be balanced finely. Some authors do this well, and from what I’ve read of Atkinson’s books, he has done just that.

Mainstream history is important. It is what helps to bring the lessons and analysis of the past to the people, and a population that reads and learns from their historians is a population that can intelligently call upon the past to make decisions for the future by comparing their current surroundings to similar happenings in the past. More than ever, this is important, and Atkinson’s talk and follow-up questions help to drive this point home.

Atkinson’s books are in the unique category of bridging the divide between academic and popular reading, and he noted that the failed to believe that history needed to be dry, uninteresting and irrelevant. History does not need to be relegated to only the academic circles, but it should be something that is in the foremost thoughts of the American population.

History is important, not just because of the lessons that are learned from it, but because of the mindset that is required to comprehend it. History is not a record of events gone past, but of the interpretation and story that those events tell. What is required from those who examine the field is an understanding of how a large number of events, political and societal movements and individuals all come together in a sort of perfect storm to create the past. Much of this is cause and effect, and contrary to popular belief, the past holds no answers for the future: it is the understanding of how said events occur, within their individual contexts that allow for the proper mindset to understand how similar happenings might happen in the future and how to prepare for what is to come.

Atkinson’s talk was a good one for students to hear, and different approaches to history are simply the nature of the field. The Military History students who graduated last week were ones that have a large number of options open to them, and Atkinson’s talk (and his own stature as a historian) demonstrated that a doctorate isn’t the only way to make a living at this.

You can watch Mr. Atkinson’s talk here.

General Barksdale Hamlett

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In 1965, Major General Ernest Harmon retired as the 19th President of Norwich University, after a 15 year career in higher education, presiding over one of the largest growth periods in the University’s History during the post-war boom that brought the University a number of new facilities and buildings that still stand today. In his place, General Barksdale Hamlett became the 20th president of the University, after a career that spanned three decades in the United States Army, where he attained the rank of a four-star general, during a volatile time in United States, where he presided over the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Following a major heart attack that nearly killed him in 1964, Hamlett retired from the military, and in 1965, took the reins of Norwich University (1). In the aftermath of Harmon’s rapid growth of the school, there were numerous issues that caused problems for the school. A declining enrollment in the Corps of Cadets was beginning to impact the school’s budget, while Hamlett’s plans to double the school’s endowment from $3.5 million to $6 million dollars was slow as alumni to the school failed to help as much as possible. Just a week after taking his office in July of 1965, Hamlett noted that alumni help for the school’s future was “Disappointing”, noting that only 32.5% of the alumni base had actually contributed to the $500,000 raised at that point.(2)

In light of the financial issues that the school faced, Hamlett began to create the groundwork that would eventually spell out massive changes to the school. In January, after only six months on the job, he issued long range plans for the school to begin to look into integrating a non-military component and student population to the school, noting: “I told the trustees flat out that if you can’t accept change, you better prepare yourself for bankruptcy,”(3) Additionally, he moved to acquire the Vermont Campus College (which occurred in 1972), a civilian school located in Montpelier, Vermont, with a predominantly female population.(4) In one administration, the roots for the modern makeup of the school were planted, and it represented a fairly bold vision for the future of the University, with major changes to a largely traditional offering. At that point, Norwich was one of three schools that was still entirely military in nature.

Currently, Norwich University has a large student population of both military and civilian lifestyle students, although the relationship with Vermont College was dissolved in 2001, Additionally, shortly after this time, the school introduced women to the curriculum, two years after Hamlett stepped down, and two years before the federal service academies. Looking at the Hamlett administration, it’s fairly clear that there are a certain number of parallels with the present state of the University.

With the 2008 collapse in global markets, Norwich, like numerous other schools, faced some budget problems, which in turn have pointed to solutions to deal with the University’s future, but also the current problems. In 1966, the school’s future was in serious doubt, and the University made several drastic changes to the makeup of the school that carry through to the present day: the introduction of civilians, acquiring Vermont College and women to the student body, which opened the school up to new markets and helped to increase the student body.

The current problems facing the school have brought some employee cuts, but a major change in the way the school does business, looking to increase student satisfaction and thus retention to retain students who might otherwise leave. With new dorms and buildings under construction, or recently completed, the school is on track for a good recovery, and with changes put into place to help keep the school functioning for years to come. With the 2019 bicentennial coming up, the future of the school is readily secured, but it does go to show, that while Norwich has faced significant problems in the past, the option to implement drastic changes, while keeping core values at the heart of the school, should remain for those in charge of the school’s future.

Hamlett’s implementations have remained at the school to this day, and have ultimately proved to be a strong addition to the Norwich experience available to students, who can choose between lifestyles, but also learn from the other side of the equation. With his introduction to the school, there was an ‘Emphasis on academic enrichment'(5), something that likewise remains to this day, and despite fears that the school would lose its character, demonstrates the central core of the school’s focus: educating practical citizens for the future.

1 – ‘Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President’, Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965
2 – ‘Norwich Alumni Help Called Disappointing’, Burlington Free Press, July 1965
3 – ‘Cadets No Longer Submit to Petty Rules; Top Military Schools Have to Ease Rules to Stay in Business’, New York Times, May 31, 1972
4 – ‘Non Military Students at Norwich?’, Times Argus, January 25, 1966
5 – ‘Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President’, Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965

Rant: Education

As someone who studied to become a historian, one of the most frustrating things to watch unfold is the ongoing debate over textbook content that is happening now in Texas. School boards have opted to revise criteria in favor of modern political happenings, injecting their own preferences to combat the ‘liberal version’ of history as it has been playing out. The political as to how this will impact education aside, this seems to me to be a dangerous shift in how we will educate our younger generations.

In college, I studied both history and geology, and came away with a dominant feeling for context. While exploring vastly different subjects, both the study of prior human events and of geological happenings are linked by a couple of very basic things: they’re about actions, and how those actions affect other things down the line. Listening to the radio this afternoon, Vermont Edition talked about a recent landslide that consumed a home in Canada, and geologists on the show noted that there is a direct correlation between what happened over ten thousand years ago and today. Actions have a tendency, in both nature and human history, to have both short term and long term effects. Thus, the context of whatever one is studying is just as important as the individual figures and events that make up the present day.

History is the interpretation of the past. When I’ve talked about my degree, an M.A. in Military History, I usually have to preface that with an explanation that I’m not an expert in the specifics of World War II, Vietnam, the Napoleonic Era or the American Civil War. This was a degree that was designed to teach someone how to think like a historian, how to research like a historian and how to put together an argument, backed up with evidence like a historian – I can confidently say that I can talk about any number of military concepts, battles and figures, but more importantly, I know how to research those things, but also understand how to examine them within the context of history.

The founder of my alma mater, Alden Partridge, conceived of the school at a time when practical achievements were just as important as the theory behind the words, and as such, sought to educate the first Norwich University cadets in ways that encouraged them to see their teachings in practice, but also to formulate their own thinking based on what they saw when they were seeing. Where Partridge looked to more practical studies, such as Engineering, the same line of thinking applies to the social sciences field, which is where the worry about the Texas Board of Education comes into play.

History is not a static field, but one that is constantly growing and changing as different minds enter the field. Nor is history the study of the past: history is the examination of the past, and the interpretation of events as they happened. Thus, removing important figures such as Thomas Jefferson from mention as a founding father based on some of the things that he pushed eliminates the change to examine some of the context, and arguments, that have helped to shape the present. While teaching any sort of correct form of what happened in the past is far more preferable than teaching something that is ultimately incorrect, the problems surrounding the study of the past in this instance isn’t about correcting past mistakes, it’s about re-framing the past with a modern mindset, and patently ignoring the context of past events to suit modern political thought.

Removing elements of the past is harmful in a number of ways, going far beyond the individual figures: it not only impacts a student’s understanding as to what events happened, but why they happened. Removing Thomas Jefferson as a figure who had pushed for the separation of church and State leaves a void in the understanding for a student as to why the founders placed such a restriction within the constitution. Rewriting history in this manner will thus leave a flawed understanding of the past, which in turn impacts how we view and act in the present.

While that, in and of itself is frightening, what bothers me far more is that a trend towards intellectual backwater and restriction on thought has grown. Often, there are arguments against spending on scientific endeavors, because a practical use or result might not result, or someone cannot think of how any such argument or study can be useful. However, the progress of science and thinking cannot be directed, channeled or moved for convenient thinking: science and learning will ultimately find what it will find: oftentimes, the results and findings exist, but only through searching, will answers be found. The same applies to education, and restricting what people learn simply for the sake of political convenience is short-sighted, ignorant and downright offensive to anybody who wants to see this country grow intellectually, politically and economically in the future.