A Civil War Military Historian Who Joined the Military

hsieh_westYesterday I received an advanced copy of Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s, West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace (University of North Carolina Press).  It’s one of those books that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time and what little I read last night I can say confidently that it will not disappoint.  Not too long ago I commented on an essay he published concerning R.E. Lee’s decision to resign from the United States Army.  Prof. Hsieh studied history here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia and now teaches at the Naval Academy.  I’ve met him a few times at conferences and events at UVA, but I don’t think he would know me if we passed on the street.  His book is the latest release in a long line of students who have studied Civil War related topics under the direction of Gary Gallagher and Ed Ayers.  In fact, it’s a virtual who’s who list, which includes William Blair, Peter Carmichael, Carrie Janney, Aaron Sheehan Dean, Anne Sarah Rubin, Amy Murrell Taylor, and William G. Thomas.  All of them have published books and/or articles in Gallagher’s Civil War America Series and Military Campaigns of the Civil War Series at the University of North Carolina Press.  You may be tempted to argue for a case of academic nepotism if it wasn’t for the fact that collectively this scholarship represents some of the very best recent work in the field.

While Prof. Hsieh joins a talented group of historians with the release of this book, it is what he did recently away from academia that is worth mentioning.  After securing a job at the Naval Academy Prof. Hsieh chose to spend one year with the State Department on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.  I don’t know the details of his responsibilities, but I do know that he was assigned to various military units for various projects that placed him in harms way.  I first learned about this at a conference in the summer of 2008 for Civil War historians.  There was a dull buzz about his choice to take a leave of absence and just a bit of confusion as to how someone could make such a choice after securing a position in a poor market.  Contrary to what some may say, the confusion was not coming from academics who are anti-military or radical leftists; rather, it seemed to be a decision that few had any context or experience with which to understand it.  I don’t mind admitting that I had some difficulty with the news and I have nothing but the highest respect for the men and women who have volunteered for the military, especially over the past eight years.  I remember talking to one historian in particular and she commented that it was funny that here we have an entire room full of historians interested in the military and so few seem to understand why one of their own might choose to volunteer to serve in a military capacity or alongside the military.  Of course, his friends had little difficulty understanding Prof. Hsieh’s decision.

Anyway, it is good to know that Prof Hsieh is back home and safe.  I encourage you to check out his new book.  It looks like a winner.

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11 thoughts on “A Civil War Military Historian Who Joined the Military

  1. Paul Taylor

    Kevin – I've also been eagerly awaiting this one. I'm looking forward to seeing how it compares and contrasts with Edward Coffman's “The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898,” and with William Skelton's “An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861.” Go Phillies.
    Paul

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      That is actually a very good question. Of course, I can't say much since I am unfamiliar with both titles, though I understand that Coffin's book is supposed to be worth reading.

      Reply
      1. Michael Lynch

        Coffman's book is basically a social history that uses letters, diaries, and other documents to explore who was serving and what life was like in the peacetime army up until the start of the Spanish-American War. If you're interested in what was going on in frontier posts and barracks among officers, wives, and enlisted men during that period, it's well worth a look.

        –ML

        Reply
  2. Craig Swain

    Kevin, you are correct that duty at a PRT is in harms way. The situation may have improved somewhat, but a few years back we considered PRT duty beyond the wire. Typically these units quartered in apartments or other existing buildings, with limited communications to their HQ (sometimes just cell phones), certainly not within a formal “base” as we think of it. But these are the teams standing at the fore, providing the aid, comfort, and support for those Iraqis and Afghanis rebuilding their countries. At first the PRTs were strictly military in makeup. The non-government aid workers used the PRT structure to focus their efforts. And of course, the State Department also, as seen with this example.

    The interesting bit, for a historian, is how many different functional areas that PRTs operate within – not just military, but economic, services/utilities, medical, and political. At least from the military side of things, the junior leaders had a lot of latitude. I don’t think there is a historical example of so much responsibility placed at such a low level in the command structure, across so many areas. And most often being done extremely well, I would say.

    During my stay over in those places I did some work at the PRTs. It was enough to convince me that if there is a “good” side to war, it is manifested through things like these PRTs.

    I wish Prof. Hsieh good luck in his assignment, and suggest that he pack extra tooth brushes.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Craig,

      Thank you very much for providing this description. It definitely helps to better understand just what is involved. One clarification: Prof. Hsieh has completed his tour of duty and is back to his post at the Naval Academy.

      Reply
  3. whsieh

    A few points to make, from the proverbial horse's mouth:

    CraigS gives a decent enough sense of how PRTs work, although at least in Iraq, they are now almost always in more secure compounds than he describes. In my own case, my job was primarily political–my are was ethnically diverse, and while it was actually fairly stable in terms of inter-communal tensions, there were serious issues, and most of my job was keeping an eye on things and a lid on the problems that did come up. Most of this centered on provincial elections, which occurred in January 2009, and while in retrospect they were for the most part a great success, no one (including Iraqis) really knew how they would go ahead of time, especially because the Iraqis really had the lead on the last set of elections. On a practical level, much of my job involved having tea with local contacts and hearing them complain about each other. Not being an Arabic speaker, and because US movements in Iraq are still absurdly restricted, this was no small feat–I had to do things like figure out where political party offices were, figure out what parties were important, field various complaints (while emphasizing what was both USG policy and the reality on the ground–that the Iraqi government was running its own elections), exhort my contacts to have some faith in the democratic process and to try to at least give their ethnic or political foes the benefit of the doubt, coordinate much of the international elections observation effort in my area (which in the case of my district was an effort led by the UN), etc. In a normal environment, this is pretty pedestrian–in Iraq, because of the language barrier and a security situation that requires you to roll around in an Army convoy armed to the teeth, this sort of stuff can be rather difficult, no matter how many measures you take to try to mitigate those basic problems. I also did various other things–my old joke is that I was in the senior civilian US government official in my district (around 150k people) by virtue of being the *only* civilian USG official assigned to the district–but the political side of things was the real focus of my tour. And in the end, while I obsessed about all sorts of negative scenarios and tried to prepare courses of action to deal with the problems I fretted over, the Iraqis really came through in my district when it came to the elections. Nationwide, things are obviously still fragile, but in my own little part of Iraq, democratic elections actually helped mitigate ethnic tensions and the Iraqis themselves deserve much of the credit for that happening. I like to sometimes joke that historians shouldn't make predictions–that our business is the past, after all–but I will go as far as to say that there are a lot of reasons for optimism in Iraq. There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic too–and if one believes the past is a prison we can never escape (an argument I sometimes hear about Iraq), I suppose the dream of a democratic and non-despotic Iraq is probably doomed–but one of the constants of history is change over time, and I do think that that change can at least sometimes be “good.”

    Also, I should emphasize that when I arrived in July 2008, the security benefits associated with the “Surge” had already taken on substantial momentum, and my area was historically pretty low key in terms of insurgent violence. I was never shot at (assuming one doesn't count one episode of a rocket landing on our smallish base, but harmlessly away from anyone) or “blown up” (i.e. in a vehicle hit by an IED), and while a large part of the reason I was safe was because I was traveling in convoys armed to the teeth, I never really felt that I was in real overt danger. All that being said, at the end of the day, much of this comes down to luck, and in my case, my luck was good. In an area even quieter than mine, I know a colleague who was seriously injured by an IED along with some soldiers and an interpreter I know–they're all going to be okay, and no one died, but it's still Iraq, and as the recent bombings in Baghdad show, there are still guys going around blowing stuff up. I still remember how shocked (and saddened) I was when I found out during my out-processing that a fairly senior Embassy staffer who had helped me out with an issue via e-mail had actually been killed a few months later by an IED–and this was a fellow who had a job that would generally be seen as pretty low risk. There had been insurgent attacks on US forces in my district while I was there (although none caused any casualties), but I never happened to be on the receiving end–part of that had something to do with the quality of the units I worked, but some of it was just luck.

    It is what it is….

    As for the interesting question of why I went to Iraq, well…… I suppose that at the end of the day, I wanted to do my own little part, and I did. I'm a big believer that there are many different ways to serve, and I think part of the fundamental decency of American society is that we let people live “ordinary” lives as good people, and don't expect everyone to live up to some kind of theoretical standard of service that focuses on one line of work as opposed to another–but the reality is that there is a limited number of people suited to the sort of work I did in Iraq, so it makes fairly straightforward sense that I deployed. There needs to be a certain tolerance for specific types of stress, at least some sense of adventure (hey, it's really fun to roll around with infantrymen), some degree of risk tolerance (some people like to ride motorcycles or skydive–I went to Iraq), a measure of practical competence, some desire to be part of something larger than oneself, and it obviously helps to be smart (although the real requirement is to be “not stupid”). I'm a big defender of the importance of the cultural importance of universities, but we all know about the brilliant professor who's a catastrophe in any sort of position of bureaucratic responsibility. There's a reason, after all, why Perry Miller had a staff job in the Army as far as I can tell during World War II, and C. Vann Woodward wrote history books in the Navy, as opposed to serving in combat commands. Is the story true that the the elder James forbid William and Henry James from joining the Union army, because they were “thinking men?” I heard a professor say that during my undergraduate days, so it must be right, right. :) There's some logic to that. After all, Perry Miller–really smart guy who knows everything about Puritan theology–but probably *not* a good infantry company commander. And hey, when I was in college, I really was clueless for the most part in trying to figure out what Kant really meant, so metaphysics probably isn't for me, but I can do office work and play reasonably well with others within the confines of a larger bureaucratic organization. I'm sure knowing something about the historical practice and theory of counterinsurgency helped, and having a decent sense of Iraqi history from secondary reading–although at the end of the day, the historians' practice of sifting through evidence and trying to make some useful sense of it probably had an effect as profoundly important on the way I did my job as it is difficult to really put a finger on.

    Regardless, at the end of the day, it really was more a privilege than anything else to try to do a little good for the sake of both the American and Iraqi peoples.

    Much thanks btw for both the positive comments about my earlier piece on Lee's decision to secede, and the initial favorable impression of the book. Hopefully it won't disappoint in the end.

    Reply
    1. CraigS

      Prof. Hsieh,
      Your PRT experience seems, being more recent than mine, more pleasant. Hopefully, with continued good living and lots of luck, I'll be able to say the last time anyone shot at me was my last day at a PRT. I find your reasons for going to Iraq interesting. In someways similar to my personal reasons for going back over there after my military service was over. But I'm curious why you didn't mention S.E. Morrison with those historians in uniform during WW II.

      Craig.

      Reply
      1. whsieh

        Actually, my forgetting Morison probably reflects the fact that I'm really more a historian of the Army, although I've assigned some of his work to midshipmen for obvious reasons. We actually have a strong stable of naval historians (as you might expect) at the Naval Academy, but I'm really one of the land warfare guys–like any department, we all have our own little balliwicks. I also don't really know much about Morison's personal life, unlike Miller and Woodward–in my younger days, when I wanted to be an intellectual historian, Miller was something of a scholarly hero (and the advisor of my undergraduate advisor at Yale, David Brion Davis [who served with the Army in the post-WWII occupation force], and who in turn was Ed Ayers' graduate advisor), and Woodward probably remains the greatest historian of the American South who's ever lived–and I of course was trained by two great Southernists at the University of Virginia. In terms of historians with World War II service, I suppose one could also look at Gordon Craig, who was the dissertation advisor of another of my former teachers at Yale–the sadly departed Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., and, of course, closer to our own field, there's Edwin C. Bearss. My impression is that Peter Paret was also a WWII veteran.

        Reply
        1. CraigS

          One section of Morrison's History of Navy Ops in WWII that particularly stands out to me is a section in which he summarized an action near the end of a chapter. The summary was prefaced as if an after action review, and he noted the material was largely from ward-room conversation. In other words, unofficial discussions. Such implies Morrison was “there,” in that ward-room with a cup of coffee. Yet, he had the professionalism to detach himself, as a historian, and look back inside to pull out the significant threads.

          Your mention of Woodward also caught my attention, considering him also the top historian of the subject. I grew up not far from Woodward's childhood home, and my first introduction to his work was a volume of his on Leyte Gulf. Of course in college I was exposed to Tom Watson and his other works. In grad school I finally had the opportunity to hear him speak. I've always felt he could tap into the “collective memory” of the south better than others. While Tindall might stand strong in terms of historiography and craftsmanship of the work, he lacked that ability to make the subject familiar to the reader, as Woodward was able, in my opinion.

          Reply
  4. Craig

    One section of Morrison's History of Navy Ops in WWII that particularly stands out to me is a section in which he summarized an action near the end of a chapter. The summary was prefaced as if an after action review, and he noted the material was largely from ward-room conversation. In other words, unofficial discussions. Such implies Morrison was “there,” in that ward-room with a cup of coffee. Yet, he had the professionalism to detach himself, as a historian, and look back inside to pull out the significant threads.

    Your mention of Woodward also caught my attention, considering him also the top historian of the subject. I grew up not far from Woodward's childhood home, and my first introduction to his work was a volume of his on Leyte Gulf. Of course in college I was exposed to Tom Watson and his other works. In grad school I finally had the opportunity to hear him speak. I've always felt he could tap into the “collective memory” of the south better than others. While Tindall might stand strong in terms of historiography and craftsmanship of the work, he lacked that ability to make the subject familiar to the reader, as Woodward was able, in my opinion.

    Reply

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