I attended the Society of Military History’s annual conference in Louisville, KY last week and it was a wonderful time. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, making new ones, and sitting in on some very thought-provoking panels.
Learning Across Peace and War
The conference’s theme was “Landscapes of War and Peace” so I put together a panel on learning in the U.S. Navy of the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I. My paper was about the early development of U.S. Navy doctrine and I attempted to illustrate the importance of certain methods developed at the Naval War College—the conference method, the estimate of the situation, and the concept of “doctrine”—and how these ideas influenced the development of tactical doctrine within the fleet (there’s more on that in my book).
I thought it was an excellent panel. There was a nice synergy between my paper and the others. K.J. Delamer discussed the importance of Mahan’s thought for the campaign in the Pacific in World War II. Larry Burke presented on the early development of American naval aviation; his paper reminded me how much emphasis there was on making “every ship” an airplane carrier from the earliest days, something I had noticed in my own research, but have never stressed the way Larry did. Randy Papadopoulos was our commentator and said something that I felt was particularly important. “Doctrine” as we understand it today seems to have originated with Dudley Knox and his work at the Naval War College; that was a major element of my paper, but it merits further study.
Race, Progressivism, and Holy War
One theme that emerged from several of the panels I attended was the idea of race. “Was the First Crusade an Offensive or Defensive War?” was a panel discussion in which attendees wrestled with changing definitions of “offensive” and “defensive” war over very long timescales. It was quickly apparent that the justifications used in the eleventh century to “defend” Christendom would not be considered “defensive” today, but the discussion was still quite valuable. One question surfaced the importance of race as a means of distancing Christians from Muslims and justifying a “holy war.”
That idea was in my mind when I attended “Bayonets & Bolos: The Sharp End of Military Culture in the U.S. and the Philippines.” Garrett Gatzemeyer gave a particularly interesting paper on the relationship between bayonet training in the U.S. Army during World War I and the role of progressive reformers. Their emphasis on the importance of “manpower and manhood” to win the war reflected Social Darwinist assumptions about relationships between races and the superiority of white Americans. Justin C. Pergolizzi’s paper on the Dominican Constabulary established by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1917 touched on very similar themes, drawing attention to the paternalistic racism of American interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.
Race was a central theme of the keynote, “Southern Cross, North Star – The Politics of Irreconciliation and Civil War Memory in the American Middle Border” by Christopher Phillips. He went through the themes explored in his award-winning book, The Rivers Ran Backward which explores the influence of the Civil War on the Midwestern states. The talk was a fascinating look at the troubled time in that region immediately following the Civil War and how regional differences and discrete “northern” and “southern” myth-making influenced racial attitudes. Phillips pointed out how rural counties embraced white nationalism while industrial modernization overtook the cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a development that influences American politics to this day.
Early Sunday morning, I heard Matthew S. Muehlbauer discuss his paper, “Defending the City on the Hill: Holy War and Just War in Early New England, 1630-55” which built on his 2017 award-winning article on holy war and just war in New England during the same time period. He referenced Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and described differing attitudes between the settlers in Massachusetts Bay and along the Connecticut River. Where the former seemed to be predisposed to use just war approaches to legitimize fighting Native Americans, the latter quickly framed the conflict in holy war terms. The Native Americans were “others” and it was, therefore, justifiable to slaughter them (as at Mystic in May 1637) using the terminology of holy war. Muehlbauer closed with a hypothesis that fear plays an important role in how race is used to justify conflict; the Connecticut River colonists were much more fearful—because of the surprise attacks on them—than those in Massachusetts Bay.
Few panels addressed naval history directly, aside from mine and another scheduled at the same time, but there was one from the Naval Institute and another with Ryan Wadle. I’m excited for his forthcomingbook on Harry Yarnell. I’ll write about observations from those sessions in a future post.