Friday, December 26, 2014

Patriotic Gore: Reality, Remembrance, and the American Civil War


Growing up I came to be a student of the Civil War (I don't like to use the word "buff") because of my great-grandmother. She was born in 1898. As a child, she spent time around her grandfathers, both Confederate veterans. So too were their brothers and her grandmothers' brothers. And, being an Irish family, there were also large numbers of assorted cousins, etc, who all "wore the gray". We played "North and South" outside as kids, refighting various Civil War battles. I began to read Civil War books almost as soon as I learned how. I went off to college and got a couple of degrees in History, the Civil War never far from my head. Even now as I type this, a I have a large bookshelf and a half full of Civil War titles in the next room. I add to my collection every chance I get. (Just ask The Redhead!) One of my new additions to the shelf is what prompted today's post.

When I was in grad school, I took a military history course which was terrible! The professor was one of those who should never be allowed in front of a classroom. The one good thing I took out of that class was reading the book The Best War Ever by Michael C. Adams. It is a really good (and somewhat controversial) book about World War Two. Anyway, I had not read anything else by the author until yesterday when I cracked open Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War. Let me warn you, Gentle Readers, if you do not want graphic depictions of Civil War combat, hospitals, etc, then do not read it. Otherwise, make sure you grab you a copy ASAP.

I spent a decade and a half as a Civil War reenactor. My clothing and gear were as close to the original as I could get them. I have taken part in preservation marches, school days, battles, and museum presentations. Many, many times I experienced that "magic moment" where for an all too fleeting second, it feels as though you've been transported back in time. But there are a few things reenactments never get write. Most reenactors are older than the real soldiers were, reenacting being an expensive hobby and there aren't too many 18 year olds than can shell out all the dough necessary to put together a good impression. Second, many, many reenactors are, to put it politely, better fed than the average soldier of the era. And last, a reenacted Civil War battle looks and smells nothing like the real thing.

The Civil War is one of the most, if not THE most romanticized era in American History. I'm not really sure why that is. I reenacted as long as my body would allow it, but I'd be damned if I'd go back and live in a time period before antibiotics. (Even if you could order laudanum through the mail!) Students of the Civil War like myself read hundreds of books that go over just about every single second of every single year of the War. If you want to know what a unit was doing at a particular day and time, odds are you can find out. If you want to know General Grant's bathroom schedule, I'm sure you can do that too. Precious few accounts, on the other hand, describe the sheer terror of suddenly finding yourself splattered with the brains of the man standing next to you in the ranks. Or what it was like to lay on the ground in terrible pain from a bullet wound watching surgeons hack off arms and legs while you await your turn on the table. That doesn't square with the romantic notion we have of the war.

Why aren't there more graphically realistic Civil War books and movies? I can't really say. Some have said that it is because the soldiers didn't leave graphic descriptions of things that took place, but Dr. Adams proves that they did. Is this subject too sacred for us to really do it justice? Is it, as I mentioned in a previous post, the fact that finding academic historians who are combat veterans is pretty rare and thus they have never experienced the terror and exhilaration that comes with being shot at? Or is talking about these issues sacrilegious? I have long argued that we NEED more books like this one. And not just for this war. We need them for World War One and World War Two and every other war. If we really want to do these soldiers justice, we have to acknowledge what it was really like for them. Not what we "think" it was like. What it really was like.

I've seen a lot of violent death. I've seen blood squirting from arterial bleeds. I've had brain matter drip onto my face. I've smelled the sickly sweet smell of roasted flesh. I've seen what a person's intestines look like when they are outside the body. I've experienced the gut churning fear that comes with the realization that someone is shooting at you. I've heard the screams of critically inured people as I've knelt over them, silently praying they would go into shock. I'll never get those sounds out of my head. I've smelled the coppery scent of blood mixed with urine and feces. My point is this, Dear Reader. If you add up the sum of my experiences during my public safety career, it would not equal one hour on the firing line at Antietam. Or Gettysburg. Or Franklin.   

The reason why books such as Living Hell are so important is because the Civil War has been romanticized for too long. We need to understand this War for what it really was; a brutal, dehumanizing, and terrorizing experience for the soldiers and civilians who lived through it. There is no glory in seeing your best friend's head explode. There is no glory in dying of dysentery, laying in a cot full of your own filth. Books like this are a good start and we need more of them. If we do not understand (as best we can) what they went through, we can never hope to fully appreciate their sacrifices and their heroism. The war sounds and smells better in the books than it did in real life and we must always keep that in mind. Oddly enough, the novelists do a better job on this point that the historians.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who, though I love reading about the Civil War, wouldn't really want to have fought in it. I'll stick to the books and hope that there are more realistic ones published in the future.


Monday, December 22, 2014

English Laws and Irish Tears: The Great Hunger, Genocide, and the Failure of the Free Market System

Oh father dead I oft times hear you speak of Erin's isle
Her loft scenes her valleys green her mountains rude and wild
They say it is a lovely land wherein a prince may dwell
Oh why did you abandon it the reason to me tell

“Throughout England’s long history, her most troublesome colony was the one closest to her.”


For this post I am parting with my usual sarcastic and mildly (or wholly) inappropriate look at the past and instead focus my gaze on a subject that is near and dear to my heart and to the hearts of many of my fellow Americans of Irish Descent. (I prefer this term to Irish-American since I was not born in Ireland.) That is to say the reason why we are here in the first place. Yes, I am going to discuss what is mistakenly called the Irish Potato Famine. The term used in Ireland, the Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor, is more appropriate. As you will see, Dear Readers, the famine in Ireland was not because of the hand of God but the hand of the British government. While I do not think that there was ever a law passed during these years that said “Eradicate the Irish,” indeed, no evidence has ever really existed to support that notion, by the same token, certain government officials seized the opportunity to try and accomplish what they really wanted and that was the destruction of the Irish culture, if not the Irish people.

Before I begin, I will first give some definitions that will give us a framework with which to work. First off, a handy google search gives a dictionary definition of the phrase genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” I think to that you could also add cultural or religious reasons as well. Following the end of World War Two, the new United Nations also tried to set forth a definition for what genocide is. They define it as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such.” It goes further to define what the prohibited actions are. Under letter “c” we will find the focus of my discussion today. It says “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Keep these definitions in mind as we go forward.

Oh son I loved your native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came over all my crops my sheep and cattle died
The rent and taxes were so high I could not them redeem
And that's the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.

 I remember lecturing about this subject one day and I had a student ask why the Irish and English didn’t like each other since they both were white. That brings me to another important preliminary point. Here in the United States we are seemingly fixated on matters of race/color. We use terms like Hispanic or Latino to refer to all people who come from Spanish speaking countries when, in fact, a Mexican is not the same as a Cuban. A Cuban is not the same as a Puerto Rican. We use the term “black” or “African-American” to anyone we perceive as being of that racial group but in Africa Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in the Rwandan Genocide and both of those groups would be considered black here and Americans did not understand, at the time, why people who they thought looked identical could kill each other. For this same reason, I find it personally offensive when a person refers to me as being “Anglo” or “Anglo-Saxon.” I am white and I have no problem being called that, but to use the term “Anglo” to describe a person who is not descended from the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Germany (and later England) is historically incorrect and rather presumptuous. Ethnically and Irish person of the 1840s was slightly different than an English person. Culturally they were worlds apart.

From that issue of culture we must naturally turn towards religion, that great divisive force in Irish History. Thanks in part to the lasting impact of the Penal Laws, the poor Irish tended to be overwhelmingly Catholic while the upper classes were mainly Protestants. The English know how difficult the question of religion in Ireland can be. To that end they used (and continue to use) religion as an instrument to divide rather than unite. This is comparable to the manner in which race was used as a dividing factor in the post-Civil War South when poor whites were told that they were superior, by virtue of skin color, to the former slaves. The plantation aristocracy did this as a way to keep themselves in power because if poor white and blacks realized they had more in common with each other than they did with the ruling classes, the elites would be overthrown. The same can be said for Ireland. As long as England could keep Catholics and Protestants at each other’s throats, then they would be too busy fighting each other to kick John Bull out once and for all. (The one exception to this was the short lived United Irishmen of the 1798 Rebellion who set aside matters of religion to focus on the true threat to Ireland.) The Wolfe Tones said it best when they wrote “Twas the policy of the government of England over centuries to keep Ireland divided by religions of God. For if ever the Catholics and Protestants united, they’d surely lose Ireland, the jewel in the Crown.”

And well do I remember the bleak December day
When the landlord and the sheriff came to drive us all away
The set my roof on fire with their cursed English spleen
And that's another reason why I left old Skibbereen

The reasons for the “Famine” need not detain us here as they are well known. Going back to Elizabethan times, a system was imposed on Ireland so that gradually Catholics lost the right to own land, vote, speak their own language, etc. This systematic attempt to eradicate what makes the Irish well, Irish, was an attempt at cultural genocide, but that is a matter for another day. By the time of the Great Hunger, Irish peasants (predominantly Catholic) were forced to rent land from absentee Protestant landowners. They worked the land for the boss and used the potato as their primary food source and their sole means to pay the rent. The majority were illiterate as for decades prior Catholics had been forbidden from attending school officially. For at least a year prior to the appearance of the blight in Ireland, newspapers in Dublin and other towns published tales of a mysterious blight ravaging potato crops in the United States. Given the trade between the two countries, the warning was clear enough. Be careful. It may come here. But alas, the Irish peasants could not read the warnings.

The first year, 1845, things were bad but far from disastrous. Around one-third of the crop across the island was hit by the blight (now know to be a type of fungus). The following year saw the rate of infection jump to nearly three quarters. And here lies the irony of the whole thing. In the less serious years of the famine, the British government promptly responded to the news of a potential famine in Ireland. This is remarkable considering their relative apathy in the worst years of the Hunger. Sir Robert Peel, the man who gave us “Bobbies” gave Ireland cornmeal imported from the United States. There were a few issues with this raw “Indian corn”. The chief complaint was that Irish mills could not render it edible as they were not set up for that. It took time. During that time, people died. “Peel’s Brimstone” as it was called was an attempt to help, certainly, but it never arrived in sufficient quantities to feed the majority of those most affected.

Your mother too God rest her soul fell on the snowy ground
She fainted in her anguish, seen the desolation round
She rose no more but passed from life into immortal dreams
She found a quiet grave me boy in dear old Skibbereen

Peel also pushed the repeal of the Corn Law (in order to reduce the price of bread) and also instituted a system of public works in Ireland where a man (and later woman) could receive a meal in exchange for laboring twelve hours a day building a road to nowhere. But not everyone in Peel’s ministry or in Parliament agreed with his attempts, half-hearted though they might have been, to help the Irish. The split in his party led to the fall of his government and the election of John Russell to the position of Prime Minister. Things went from bad to worse for the Irish.

Many Americans are familiar with the excesses of the Gilded Age after our Civil War when capitalism ran rampant with no regulations. Child labor was routine as were unsafe working conditions, long hours, and low pay. This was a product of the laissez-faire economic system by which the government literally has its hands off of the economy and allows market forces sort everything out on their own. The Great Hunger is yet another tragic example of how that does not always work. If anything, it is a failure of the free market system practiced by the British Empire.

And now let us look at Charles Trevelyan who ran relief efforts for Russell’s government. Surely he was sympathetic to the plight of the starving people of Ireland? In a word, no. And may I detach from historical objectivity for a moment to say I hope he rots in hell (along with Oliver Cromwell). He said “the great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people”. He also, of course, used sectarian terms such as “popery” and referenced the “idolatry” of Catholics. Thomas Gallagher in his excellent work Paddy’s Lament quotes him as saying “we are in the hands of Providence, without possibility of averting the catastrophe if it is to happen.” When he penned these words, half a million Irish men, women, and children had died. Perhaps that was the plan. For he said “We now await the result”. Trevelyan’s point was that God had it out for the Irish because of their heathen Catholic ways and who was he, a mere mortal, to do anything to try and prevent God’s vengeance. And I am not done with him yet! In 1847, the worst single year of the Hunger, he said “It is my opinion that too much as already been done for the people.” Too much? How about nothing?  After all, this same man said “We ought not to complain about that which we really want to obtain.”

Donations from the rest of the world poured into Ireland as time passed. The Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory, just ten years removed from the Trail of Tears, saw a kinship in the plight of the Irish people and donated $3,000 thus cementing a bond of friendship between the two nations which exists to this day. The British contented themselves with resorting to the usual stereotypes. A British Historian named Kingsley who visited Ireland during the Hunger with Queen Victoria said “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of horrible country”. A London newspaper boasted “Soon a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a Red Indian is in Manhattan!” Word do all genocides have in common? The dehumanization of the target group has to happen in order to justify killing them. We did the same here with the Native Americans. We learned it from the English who had plenty of practice doing it to the Irish for hundreds of years. Queen Victoria’s chief economist, Nassau, when hearing about the horror afflicting the Irish people said that it “will not kill more than a million Irish this year (1848) and that will scarcely be enough to do any good.”

And you were only two years old and feeble was your frame
I could not leave you with my friends for you bore your father's name
I wrapped you in my cotamore in the dead of night unseen
And heaved a sigh and bade goodbye to dear old Skibbereen

 And last we turn to the issue of food. Calling it a famine relives the British government of any responsibility. This is wrong. Ireland was a colony of England and the sole purpose of having a colony is to provide for the mother country. There was plenty of food in Ireland. The only crop that was affected was the potato. An average of fifty shiploads of food left Ireland EVERY SINGLE DAY of the famine years, headed to England. In fact, Trevelyan declared the “famine” over in 1847 and denied entry to ships carrying relief from the United States. More animals were exported from Ireland than people during these years! Food that could have easily been used to feed the starving people of Ireland instead went to feed the people of England, where food remained plentiful and food prices relatively low. The British kept troops stationed throughout Ireland during these years to guard food shipments as they made their way to the coast. But how many troops and how many shipments? We don’t know. Why? Because the regimental Daily Activity Logs have “gone missing” from the archives. But only for these years and only for regiments in Ireland. Interesting to say the least.

You cannot separate the “famine” years from the greater British policy towards Ireland going back to Elizabethan times. She said the Irish were a “nasty, barbarian, and brutish race who must be dealt with as harshly as possible.” Remember, for a genocide to happen you don’t have to actively try and murder people. You can also deliberately inflict upon them conditions of life designed to bring about their destruction. I think that is more what we have at play here. Through design or neglect, over a million Irish men, women, and children died during these years and even more immigrated. We don’t know the final death toll and we never will. Mass graves are spread all over Ireland. But one thing we know for sure is that the island was depopulated which is exactly what the British government wanted.

One thing that angers me here in America is when our own historians in this country who focus on the history of race get offended when a person discusses the oppression that the Irish faced. Some go so far as to say it is racist to say that any white group has ever faced oppression. Even if that were true, I point out that the Irish were never considered white by the English (or by the United States) until after the Civil War. Yes, other groups have faced oppression. And there is nothing racist about discussing it. Slavery and the aftermath was a moral evil. No one doubts that (or at least no one that matters). But the British attempts to eradicate the Irish Catholics were also a moral evil. Just as blacks were discriminated against in this country in the 1950s and 60s, so too were Irish-Catholics in Northern Ireland who looked to the American Civil Rights Movement as a source of inspiration. But while the United States responded with civil rights legislation, the British government responded with tanks and soldiers. Read about the Guilford Four and Bloody Sunday and then tell me that the Irish shouldn’t complain about discrimination. Remember, recent evidence has come out that is showing the extent of the British government’s collusion with equipping Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland who murdered innocent Catholics while they call the Irish Republican Army terrorists. Tell me? Who is really the terrorist? And no, I do not condone the IRA’s targeting of civilians in Northern Ireland or England as two wrongs do not make a right. While the Irish were not discriminated against in this country after the turn of the century (1900) that is not true in Northern Ireland where it continued into the 1980s. And historians of the Irish experience have every right to talk about it without fear of being called a white supremacist or a racist.

Oh Father Dear the day will come when on vengeance we will call
When Irishmen both near and far will rally to the call
I'll be the man who leads the van beneath the flag of green
When loud and high we raise the cry "Revenge for Skibbereen"+

 As I close, let me say that this post took me a long time to write, and not just because of the length. It is a difficult and painful topic as it is one that hits me in the heart. Several of my third-great grandparents came over from Ireland as children. My great-grandmother (whom I knew quite well) knew them as a child. She looked into their eyes and saw the scars of these tragic years. Indeed, the Great Hunger left a painful legacy on the Irish both in Ireland and in the lands to which they immigrated that has given a sort of generational trauma to the Irish people. My family fought and often died for Ireland through the years. Some rebelled and fought back against the English. Others took the King’s shilling and served in England’s various far-flung colonial wars. All must have dreamed of a united Ireland. I pray that I see it in my lifetime. Being able to see something happen that my family fought for, died for, were tortured and starved for, would be a remarkable thing. Perhaps then, Ireland, the Emerald Isle soaked in the blood of her own children, will finally be at peace.

I will close with this quote from Gallagher's Paddy's Lament. When speaking of the Irish immigrants of these years, he wrote "But whatever name he goes by now, he will forever, with his battered high hat, ragged swallow-tailed coat, dangling knee breeches, and bare feet haunt not only Irish memory, but also the halls and chambers of Westminster Palace, where Parliament tried for so long, without success, to do him in." 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. I know this is a controversial topic and I'll probably get hate mail. So if you feel the need to don your Keyboard Commando costume and defend the honor of the British Empire, that is certainly your right. Just ask yourself this. What about all those people in the Empire that the English denied that right to. Just saying.......

+Skibbereen, also called "Old Skibbereen" of "Dear Old Skibbereen" is a very old tune that has been recorded by just about every Irish musician at one point or another. Sinead O'Connor is probably the best known. However, here is the best version of the song. Have a tissue handy.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Changing Nature of Teaching at Today's Colleges

Even a Half A$$ can dress like a bada$$!


When people ask me what I teach, I always say “students”. This prompts them to look at me like I am acting like a smart-a$$, which of course, I’m not. I’m a half-a$$ not a smart-a$$. But my point is that I teach people, not a subject. Fifty years ago, hell twenty years ago, professors could expect to walk into their classrooms and lecture for an hour or so on whatever their subject was and then head back to their office to sit and ponder the next week’s lecture. (Or go sit through a boring committee meeting.) But today’s students are different and faculty must change with the times.

I am an easy person to talk to as I think anyone who knows me will agree. I’m good at listening and I’m even better at tossing a few witty, sarcastic, or inappropriate comments their way too. I lack the part of the brain that filters thoughts from coming out of the mouth and so it would be like everyone having the ability to see you thought bubble. The doctors tell me that lack of impulse control with thoughts can be a side effect of PTSD or head injuries, both of which I have experienced. Or it could just be that I am socially awkward. Who knows?

I taught my first class ten years ago, in the Fall of 2004. In the semesters that have followed, I have had students open up to me about all sorts of issues. Suicides, drug problems, marital problems, parental problems, school problems, life problems, sexuality problems. You name it, I have had students talk to me about it. As a now former police officer, I have just about seen it all. There is nothing a student can say that can shock me and I do not judge. They know this about me and it makes them comfortable talking to me. Sadly they are not comfortable talking to all of their professors.

Most of the faculty I've come across are great. They love their subject and they love teaching, but there is a subgroup that exists at colleges and universities across America that considers themselves above their students. They look down on them. They talk down to them. They use phrases like “I have paid my dues and they haven’t yet.” This needs to stop. We, as faculty, are no better than our students. We are just a little bit older, more educated, and more experienced. But as humans, we are equal. If you think that your position as a professor makes you better than anyone else, then perhaps you’d be more interested in living in an aristocracy or perhaps the Middle Ages when the idea of Divine Right of Kings was prevalent. The arrogance of some faculty members at today’s institutions of higher learning astounds me.  Some of them treat adjuncts with the same disdain. It makes me wonder. If you don't like students and you don't like teaching, then why they hell did you become a professor? Again, this is really a small subset of faculty from what I have seen. Most do not do this.

Faculty talk about the challenges that they have in life (and if you are an adjunct, your challenges are all the greater) yet some of those same faculty refuse to accept any similar discussion from their students. Trust me, I was a cop and I once worked traffic detail. I've heard every excuse and I can spot a bad one a mile away. But sometimes stuff does happen that can effect a student’s ability to complete some assigned task. Show a little mercy. You know as well as I do that you’d be the first to come up with an excuse if you got pulled over for speeding too! More and more of today’s students are non-traditional which means that they have more challenges and more hurdles in their path than the upper middle class college students of 60 years ago. They work. They have families. They struggle with various issues. In other words, they have the same issues that we, as faculty sometimes have.   

Part of our job as faculty is to mentor our students. We must listen to their concerns and offer solutions, if possible If not, we should refer them to those who can. If a student comes to you with a problem that means they trust you enough to talk to you. Give them the same respect and listen. It only takes a few minutes and it means more to them than they will ever tell you. Sometimes we have to take on a role greater than what we were hired to do and I predict in the future this will only become more common.

The bottom line is that colleges have changed and college students have changed. Faculty must be willing to adapt to the times if we are to be successful. Sure, you students don’t have to like you but it helps if they trust you. Getting them to do that is easier than you think. Open up to them about some challenges that you face (or have faced), talk to them like the adults that they are, and let them know that you are there to further their education in whatever way possible. One thing my students will tell you about me is that I always have their backs, no matter what. Remember, as a professor you are a leader in the classroom. And good leaders do so by example.

So this post is for all of you good professors out there who go above and beyond the simple lecturing and grading that all faculty do. You reach your students and you touch their lives. Though the financial rewards are not that great, you have something far better. The satisfaction of having made a difference.

My name is Lee Hutch and though I may be a Half A$$ Historian, I’m a halfway decent teacher. (Note that though I am technically a professor I call myself a teacher because I teach. I do not profess.) 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

History Is About People, Not "isms"

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn
We should have set us down to wet 
Right many a nipperkin
But ranged as infantry
And staring face to face
I shot at him as he at me
And killed him in his place
--Thomas Hardy, "The Man He Killed"


With the holiday season upon us, we tend to look for the better angles of our nature. Personally, I agree with Shaara's statement in his great novel that man is a killer angel, but I digress. I remember reading the above Thomas Hardy poem when I was a senior in high school. It has stuck with me ever since. For some reason, I always liked to memorize bits and pieces of poetry even though I really am not a big fan of verse. (But I can quote Kipling like it is going out of style, which I think it has!) This December we are also celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce during the Great War when British and German soldiers, on their own, held an impromptu Christmas ceasefire. You can see a really good commercial that incorporates that theme here.

One of the great tragedies of the Civil War and the Great War is that for the soldiers on the front line doing the fighting, they differed little from their counterparts on the other side. During the Civil War, most Confederate soldiers were subsistence farmers who did not own slaves. So too were many of the Northern soldiers. They may have spoke with different accents, but they spoke the same language, worshiped the same God, and had the same shared national heritage. Together their grandfathers had driven out the Redcoats during the Revolution and had a foreign invader dared set foot on our soil, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank would have been fighting on the same side. (Not, of course, if it had happened during the War as the South wanted British intervention.) Americans killed Americans wholesale for years. That is difficult for us to wrap out minds around today.

Odds are you would actually be standing in the unemployment line.
Or be an adjunct professor, like me. The day laborers of the academic world.

Talk to an academic historian today and chances are they will drop an "ism" into the conversation. Racism, sexism, genderism, classism, ass-hatism, etc. You get the idea. It is almost like our nation's graduate programs in history have lost sight of the fact that in order to study history you have to, you know, study people. This is why so many students find history to be a dull boring subject. I wouldn't want to sit through a class where we spent a semester talking about sexism. I'd rather you tell me the stories of the suffragettes who were sent to prison and force fed while on a hunger strike in an attempt to get women the right to vote. That is far more interesting to students that discussions of ideals. The public wants to know the story. After all, the second half of the word history is "story". It is not "ism". That is good because histism is hard to say.

I am not a real historian, though I do have a graduate degree in History. Instead, I am a Half A$$ Historian. This is one of the reasons why. Historians often ascribe grand motivations to characters in the past. While certainly that might be the case on occasion, they seem to think that human beings 100 or 200 years ago were motivated by grand ideas. I rather doubt that is true. Humans are emotional creatures and we often act based on them. I do not think that was any different in 1814 than it is in 2014. The average person in the past had the same worries that the average person of today does (adjusted for differences in technology and lifestyle, of course). Just as people today pay more attention to American Idol than they do international geopolitics, the same can be said for the masses in bygone eras. They were too busy trying to survive. I don't know why historians often fall into this trap. You see it most often when they write about all of the ideals that soldiers in past wars fought for. While that may have prompted them to enlist, people by and large do not risk their lives for words. They risk them for their comrades. Just as the narrator in Thomas Hardy's poem. 

In all the history and English courses I took in pursuit of my BA and MA, I only had three professors who were veterans. Two of them were History Professors but neither were American veterans. One was British and the other German. I was able to take an excellent course on Literature of the First and Second World Wars from a professor who was an Annapolis graduate who served in Vietnam, but he was the only American veteran that I ever took a class from. Many history professors come from middle class and upper middle class backgrounds. They are fortunate, by circumstances of birth, that they have not been exposed to life or death situations on a regular basis. They spent their whole lives in school, either as students or as teachers. This disconnect with the real world means that they cannot accurately understand or describe what working class people in past eras thought or felt because they have no frame of reference other than their own experiences inside the Ivory Towers of academia. I by no means am saying that this applies to every history professor because it does not. And with our more recent conflicts, we are seeing more veterans going to graduate school and getting degrees and teaching positions. This is a good thing. When I was in school in the late 90s, most of our professors received their PhDs in the early 1970s. Makes you wonder if they were truly motivated by the love of history or the need to stay in school and thus escape the draft. (And yes, we had some at my college who boasted of the ways they avoided Uncle Sam's Dragnet). 

So when we study those who lived before us, we need to stop thinking that they were like ants, pushed around by events and start understanding that they shaped the world they lived in too. Just as we do today. Unfortunately, they were often manipulated by political leaders or by social forces, often leading to conflict where the two sides had little real idea of what they were fighting for. This, my friends, is the tragedy of history.

Yes, quaint and curious war is
Where you shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is
Or help to half a crown

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who promises to abide by the rule that history is about people, not "isms". 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lambs At The Slaughter: Gallipoli and the Creation of the ANZAC Legend

And how I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
--And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Eric Bogle


This past summer marked the 100th Anniversary of World War One. While this passed with little fanfare here in the United States, it is understandably a bigger deal in Europe. That said, I doubt the United States will do much to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of our entry into the war which will fall in 2017. Americans, after all, tend to focus more on American Idol and less on marking anniversaries of long ago wars. But the war wasn't all that long ago. I knew my great-grandmother as a child and her husband was a World War One veteran. Her sister's husband had served with the famed Sergeant York. In the grand scheme of historical memory, 100 years is not that long. To my students today, Vietnam is like ancient history as far removed from their lives as the Romans. However, one thing I can guarantee you is that April 25, 2015 will be a somber day of memory and celebration for at least on corner of the former British Empire.

Geography is of the utmost importance to history. Terrain not only determined the outcome of various battles in history, but it also dictated which countries would become major powers. England was a maritime power because she is an island nation. The Royal Navy and accompanying merchant fleet built a vast overseas empire. By the same token, geography protected the United States from invasion. With two oceans, we did not need a Maginot Line like the French did! During the Great War, military planners in all of the warring powers often had to make decisions based around geography. And therein begins our tale.

So long as the Ottoman Empire stayed out of the war, both England and France could send supplies to their Russian allies through the Black Sea. However, due to a variety of circumstances, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November, thus cutting off the flow of supplies into Russia. The origins of the Gallipoli Campaign lay in the period following the closing of the Dardanelles. Not to worry. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty had a plan! (A hasty and rather ill conceived one at that.) After a naval attempt to force the Straits directly ended in failure, the British government decided on a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Though normally we think of this as an Australian operation, troops came from all over the world. French, British, Irish, Scottish, Australian, Indian, African, and even Canadian. Soldiers from Australian and New Zealand were organized into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which was, thankfully, shortened to ANZAC. 

But as the British government prepared for the operation, the Ottomans prepared as well. They would hold the advantage of terrain and the fact that they were on the defensive. Though anticipating exactly where the enemy would land was impossible to predict, the terrain made it possible for small groups of soldiers to inflict large casualties on troops in exposed positions on the beaches. Originally set for April 23rd, the weather did not cooperate and the attack was postponed until dawn on April 25th.

The gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed
And shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
All those proud wounded heroes of Suvla

The fighting which raged across the Gallipoli Peninsula is of such a magnitude that I do not think I could do it justice. Just to give you an example, one Turkish Regiment asked for orders when out of ammunition and left with nothing more than their bayonets. The response from Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) was "I do not order you to fight. I order you to die." And so they did to a man. They fought in trenches just as on the Western Front. In some cases, mere yards separated the two sides. History records many, many feats of both bravery and humanity among the soldiers of both sides. Young men from across the globe found lonely graves in a place few even knew existed just a short year before. This is one of the tragedies of warfare.

Eventually the Allies were forced to admit, if not defeat, then the fact that they had failed to obtain their objectives. I am reminder of Confederate general Earl Van Dorn who said after losing a battle "I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions." In the case of Gallipoli, the Ottomans gave the Allies a heavy dose of foiling. When the last troops left on December 20, 1915, they left 56,000 Allied dead behind. The Ottomans suffered a similar number. All told, the Allies suffered almost 200,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. The Ottomans as well. Once the smoke cleared, the political fallout began.

The failure of the campaign led to Winston Churchill's demotion and he soon left to command an infantry battalion on the Western Front. Asquith, the British Prime Minister also got the boot and was replaced by Lloyd George. It also fueled the growing nationalist sentiment within commonwealth countries. Given the large numbers of casualties suffered by non-English soldiers, many countries began to question whether or not it was the policy of the English government to use Irish, Scottish, Indian, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers as cannon fodder. Resentment over the Irish casualties found their way into the rebel song The Foggy Dew. ("Tis better to die 'neath and Irish sky than at Suvla or Sedd-el-bahr").

In Australia and New Zealand today, April 25th, ANZAC Day, holds a similar position as Memorial Day here in the United States or Armistice Day in England, And I am certain that on April 25, 2015, many in the world will pause and take a moment to remember the sacrifices of those gallant lads from Down Under who traveled halfway around the world to fight a war that would change the world. I know I certainly will.

On now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades how proudly they march
Reliving dreams of past glories
The old men march slowly all bent stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.
(Please take a minute to listen to this excellent, tragic song here.)
(Reference for the lyrics here.)

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. I once had an Australian tell me that American beer was like sex in a canoe, f-----g close to water! One thing I do know is that Fosters is Australian for beer. (I loved those commercials back in "the day".)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

War and Remembrance: Great 20th Century War Movies


I like movies. Granted, a lot of the movies I tend to favor are not "cool" these days. I reference movies in class a lot and last spring I had a class tell me that I needed to put together a movie list for them. I said if I did that, then they had to promise that they would watch some of them. They did and I did. How can you be 18 years old and not have seen the original Red Dawn or The Longest Day! What a travesty! I am a lot of things (mostly bad, but that goes without saying) but I am not a film critic. I also do not pretend to be a film critic in bars. It is far more fun to pretend to be a doctor! (j/k) When I watch movies it is kind of like when I read novels. I search for no deeper meaning. I just want a good story that will keep me entertained. And with movies, there is an added requirement. There can be no clowns in it as the surprise appearance of a clown on screen will necessitate my changing my drawers. So as I cast about for a fun topic to write about today, I decided I would write a little about my favorite war films relating to 20th Century conflicts. This is not a top ten list. I am merely talking about my favorites and why I like them. Feel free to add you own to my list. This is final exam week for me and so I am busy inputting grades and there is nothing better than having a good movie with some explosions in it while I am handling such important matters as the education of the leaders of tomorrow! So here are my favorite 20th Century war movies, in no particular order.

1. Das Boot

I challenge any of you to watch this film (the Director's Cut) on a big screen preferably with surround sound and not be drenched in sweat by the end of it. Your heart leaps with each shout of Alaaaaarrrrm! You may even find yourself craving a quick smoke too. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece. The whole story of the filming is a blog post in and of itself but I urge you to read up on the story of how the movie was filmed. It is based on a novel by a German war correspondent, portrayed in the movie by Lieutenant Werner. The novel was based on the actual experiences of the author though put in a fictionalized form. Read the book too. It is equally good. But nothing captures the claustrophobic feel of a German unterseeboot like this movie does. It is incredible. 

2. The Longest Day

Ah yes, the good old days of Hollywood movies with an all star cast! And yes, despite this movie featuring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda, I pick the still with the hot French girl. The German soldiers were so impressed that they allowed a hay wagon with escaped allied flyers hiding inside to pass by. All joking aside, what I remember the most about this movie is that my grandfather had it on VHS tape. I watched it probably a hundred times at his house as a kid. It opened up a dialogue between the two of us that involved his telling me about his own experiences. Since he was involved in the inflatable army which you can read about here, this was fun since otherwise my grandfather was a man of few words. My interest in this movie allowed me to have conversations with my grandfather that would have not been possible otherwise. This movie is done in an almost docu-drama style where you feel more like you are watching a documentary rather than an actual movie, but as it is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by the great writer Cornelius Ryan, this makes perfect sense. Yet another must watch! And it is currently available on Netflix so there is no excuse for not watching it. 

3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I really don't need to say anything else about this one. It speaks for itself. The 1930 one is the classic, not the John Boy Walton remake they did in the 70s. (At least I think it was the 70s.) Both the novel and the film are on the one hand, the greatest war movie/novel ever made and on the other hand the greatest antiwar novel/movie ever made. I heard a rumor that Hollywood was considering a remake. I have only this to say. Stop remaking every film over twenty years old. Have an original idea for a change you morons! You CANNOT remake a classic of this magnitude. So don't even try. Remarque wrote another novel called A Time to Love and a Time to Die which is set during World War Two. It was also made into a movie and if you can find it, definitely give it a watch. It is almost as good.

4. Dawn Patrol (1938)

previously wrote a post about this aviation classic. The story line is great and the aerial combat sequences were very well done for the time period. Today, in the era of CGI special effects, we forget that they once did things the old fashioned way and had to be much more creative. Of course, we also have the great tune Hurrah For the Next Man That Dies (though it does go by some other names too) that features prominently. Though aerial combat is often glamorized in the movies and sometimes in real life, but this movie stands as a tribute to men who braved all sorts of odds to give their lives (in often horrific ways) just as their counterparts in the infantry. 

5. Full Metal Jacket

Needy I say more, you slimy toed bucket of s#@&! I think this movie is every teenage boys favorite! Which is saying a lot since it does not have any nudity that I recall, though there is a scene with a clothed prostitute. The opening scene is worth watching alone. And yes, I have Gunny's opening monologue memorized. I may, or may not, have fantasized about doing it on the first day of class. But that would be at the top of the list of "Things That Will Get Me Fired." It really is a good movie though. I'm not a big Kubrick fan, but this film is excellent. I remember when it came out because they had a movie for it at Howard's Grocery Store in my hometown, but I don't remember anyone talking about it. I saw it for the first time when I was in junior high which is saying a lot since my mother's take on movies was that anything more than Shirley Temple was blasphemous. Though I think my dad is the one who let me rent it from Blockbuster. Do not under any circumstances watch this film if thou art offended by profanity as even an accomplished cusser as myself can learn from the R. Lee Ermey, a true Potentate of the Profane. Bishop of Blasphemy. King of Cursing. I could go on, but I'll spare you.

6. Piece of Cake (Miniseries)

Of all the books I have read in my life, Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson has had the biggest impact on me as a writer. I read it four times, once each year, that I was in high school. It is, quite simply, brilliant. Though it isn't one that very many people seem to know about, other than hardcore readers of military (and especially military aviation) fiction, it should be read by everyone with even a remote interest in World War Two or the Battle of Britain. As is often not the case, the miniseries here was just as good as the book. One of the things that makes the novel so good is all the back and forth between the pilots. The movie manages to capture most of the one liners, though you have to pay attention to get them all. If you've read the book, it follows the plot damn near to the word, so it certainly does not disappoint in that regard. Often when I enjoy a novel, I find myself disappointed in the screen version, but not here chaps. You can order it fairly cheap through Amazon. Do so. Then hop in the cockpit of your Hurricane, don your leather cap, pull down your goggles, and bag yourself some Jerry planes!

7. Der Untergang (The Downfall)

Want a visual depiction of the collapse of Berlin at the end of World War Two? Look no further than this film. Though most are familiar with it due to the numerous "Hitler Rant" parodies that have made their way across the internet (many of which are hilarious, by the way), the movie is also good. For the ultimate point of irony, a Jewish actor plays Hitler! I find that to be poetic justice in many ways. The story is based on the recollections of both Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, and a few other accounts of those who survived the Nazi collapse. (Such as Soldat by Siegfried Knappe.) To see what goes on as a society collapses is interesting to say the least. Even with Russian artillery pounding the heart of the city, Hitler still orders fictitious armies into battle. And yes, he rants. In the interest of full disclosure though, I must also state that I think the actress who played Ms. Junge is incredibly hot. She made German sound like a romance language. (And that says a lot!!!)

8. Tora! Tora! Tora!

I am the first to admit that in my personal interests and writing interests I tend to focus more on Europe when I discuss World War Two than I do the Pacific. I do not know why, but that has always been where my primary interest lay. However, even a World War Two Europhile like myself can recognize a good movie about the Pacific Theater. And what better movie than one about the attack which started it all? This movie is particularly interesting since it shows the Japanese side as well as the American side in a way that was not all that common for the time period. This version of the attack on Pearl Harbor is much better than the overly sappy Pearl Harbor which came out several years ago. Tora! Tora! Tora! is like watching a documentary. I cannot speak with any authority on matters of accuracy, etc, but it is one hell of a film. The followup movie, Midway, is also good but only as an extension of Tora! Tora! Tora! You have to watch this one before you watch Midway. I believe it is currently available on Netflix as well, so no excuses or R. Lee Ermey will pay you a visit! 

9. Patton

"We're gonna grab onto him by the nose. And we're gonna kick him in the ass. We're gonna go through him like crap through a goose!" This is one of my all time favorites. Again, this is another one that I watched with my grandfather who got to meet Patton on a couple of occasions. (One involved hiding in a cabinet because he was out of uniform.....) My grandmother also had a brother who served in Patton's 3rd Army. He is truly one of our greatest battlefield commanders and deserving of the accolades that he often receives. This movie is a worthy monument to him although they did have to take liberties with some of the actual events to fit them into the movie. I don't see how anyone can go into this movie and not come out of it at least respecting, if not fearing, the man who Hitler called "The Crazy Cowboy General." Often the measure of a person is what their opponents think of them. Patton was the only general in the American Army whom the Germans were truly afraid of. I think that says it all. So watch this movie so you won't have to "shovel shit in Louisiana." 

10. Unsere Mutter, unsere vater (Generation War)

Friends, I implore you. If you have Netflix, drop everything you are doing, log in, and watch this IMMEDIATELY. If you do not have Netflix, drop everything you are doing, sign up for it, log in, and watch this IMMEDIATELY! You will not be sorry. This is quite simply the best war movie I believe I have ever seen. It is actually a three part series which aired on German television. Any student of World War Two needs to watch this film. If it weren't so long (about four and a half hours), I'd show it in class. Understand that it was quite controversial in Germany and the rest of Europe. There are a few reasons. First, it shows the Russian soldiers murdering wounded Germans soldiers and raping women. (All of which is a fact, and to be fair, it also shows some German atrocities too.) It shows a unit of Polish Partisans as being a little on the antisemitic side. While not all of them were, of course, some did have those views and thus the inclusion in the film is historically accurate. I read one review of the film when it aired on British television that kept referring to the main characters as Nazis. Obviously that writer missed the point of the movie. 

It is about the lives of five young people, all friends, caught up in events beyond their control. They are not ardent Nazis. Some are at least somewhat sympathetic to the Party but one is Jewish and another is executed by the Nazis. I'm wondering where said reviewer got their information? Russia Today news network? One German soldier said that he penned his memoirs because suffering is universal. That is certainly the case in this movie. I think people feel uncomfortable because they can't help but feel for these youths who are put through horrendous trials. And then you look at the uniform they are wearing and feel bad about feeling bad for them. I can't speak for the filmmakers, but perhaps that is what they were going for. This was billed as a German Band of Brothers, but that is not really true. You can't compare it to any film, really, as I do think it is a little unique. But seriously, you must watch this immediately. The combat sequences are some of the best captured on film. The hospital scenes are gut wrenching. You shiver along with the characters when the Russian winter sets in. You desperately hope they survive while you know that in all likelihood, they won't. It sucks you in and won't let you go. But if you only watch one more World War Two movie in your life, make it this one!

And it is a German movie, which means............................German girls! Jawohl! Seriously though, it is in German though on Netflix and DVD it is subtitled, not dubbed. If you have at least a basic knowledge of German, you can follow along pretty easily.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. These are my favorite war films. I expect all of you have your own, so feel free to comment either here or on The Historian Facebook page. If you have not "liked" my Facebook page yet, General Patton and Gunny Ermey command you to do it at once. And then you can watch Generation War.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who secretly wishes he could write and direct blockbuster World War Two movies. I'm afraid I'll have to settle for writing about them instead. Spielberg I aint. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Unsinkable Sam: The Heroic Cat Who Served on the Bismarck.....And the Cossack......And the Ark Royal


I make no bones about the fact that I am a cat man. In fact, I am something of a cat whisperer. Cats love me, be they domesticated or feral. In a way, I almost prefer the company of cats to the company of most people. (Present company excluded, of course.) My redhead and I share our home with five of them. Two of them are presently giving assistance with the writing of this post, as cats are known to do. Mark Twain said "When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade without further introduction." I could not say it better myself.

Felines have a long, proud history of service in the navies and merchant fleets of the world. Why? Well, it is pretty simple. They catch mice. During the days of the wooden ships (and iron men) you would have been hard pressed to find a ship that did not include a cat or two. Polydactyl cats (those with an extra toe) were especially favored aboard sailing vessels and they could use their "thumbs" to help them walk in the ship's rigging. Sailors also don't mind a ship's mascot and the cat could serve that purpose as well. 

Schlactshiff Bismarck
Credit: Bundesarchiv

When the dreaded German battleship Bismarck sallied forth to do battle with the foe in 1941, she carried a crew of roughly 2200 officers and men. Plus one cat. According to the tale, Oskar, a black and white rather handsome looking descendant of Leo prowled the decks. As we all know (or should know) the Bismarck met her fate at the hands of the Royal Navy on May 27, 1941. Most of the crew perished. Some were plucked out of the water by British destroyers, but they had to abandon rescue efforts after a submarine scare leaving hundreds of men to die of drowning or exposure. The HMS Cossack came up empty handed in her search for survivors. Almost. Her crew spotted a piece of wreckage floating in the water with a very wet and probably irritable cat perched on it. They brought him aboard and, not knowing what the Germans had called him, named him Oscar too! But of course they used the English spelling!

And then after a few months, the Germans torpedoed the Cossack, killing over 150 crewmen. But not Oscar! Survivors transferred to a rescue vessel while the Cossack was still afloat and they took their lucky cat with them. Though given the fact that both his ships met watery fates make me question how lucky he was. But there is more to the tale. After spending some time on shore duty in Gibraltar, Oscar received new orders transferring him to the carrier HMS Ark Royal. In a bit of irony, planes from this very ship helped sink our furry friend's first home! Given the fact that he had survived the sinking of two ships, his new shipmates renamed him Unsinkable Sam. Not a good idea.

HMS Ark Royal
Imperial War Museum

It is bad luck to rename a ship. I think it might also be bad luck to rename the Ship's Cat. And need I remind you, Dear Readers, what happened to the RMS Titanic when some boneheaded people claimed that is was "unsinkable". Can you see where I am going with this? She too ran afoul of the dreaded unterseebooten and sank. Luckily she did not sink all that quickly and all but one of the crew survived. According to author William Jameson who wrote a "biography" of the Ark Royal, a motor launch found our friend "Unsinkable" Sam floating on a piece of wreckage "angry but quite unharmed." I think I'd have been a little pissed too if I were him. 

Luckily for Sam, his service was nearly at an end. He got to spend some more time on shore duty in Gibraltar before receiving his discharge papers. After an uneventful trip to the British Isles, he retired to Belfast where he lived a long (and probably uneventful compared to his military service) life prowling the halls of a sailor's retirement home. He passed on to that great bowl of catnip in the sky in 1955.

This is a truly remarkable story and as I am sure you can imagine, some doubt the veracity of this feline sea story. But I prefer to think that it is all true. Why? Because I can. Just because some people left it out of their accounts of events doesn't mean it didn't happen. Plenty of men survived being torpedoed and sunk multiple times. (6 is the most that I know of, though others may have been more.) So if it can happen to a person, why not a cat? And this also brings up another point. Think of all of poor animals lost during World War Two. Tens of thousands of pets perished during the Blitz in London. Many more in Germany. And Russia. And all the other countries who experienced the fury of war directly on their shores and the skies over their cities. And what of all the other ship's mascots (be the dog or cat) who perished when fate reached out to smite their floating homes. Let us not forget them either.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who is not afraid to admit that he loves cats.

My name is Simon Diogenes Legree and I approve this post.