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Weekly Reading: Historians for Britain, Academic Labor, and Why We’re Addicted to War

There were SO many great articles on my docket this past week, mostly in the “current affairs” box, for which I apologize–my write-up of Kalamazoo is about 2/3rds finished, and should be up tomorrow. Medieval news is on the way.  But here are some top articles worth thinking about:

  • First and foremost, my friend and mentor Greg Daddis’ new article in The National Interest, “America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace.” Greg has been a huge influence on my teaching and approach to history, and I think he knocks it out of the park here, as usual. This is a more subtle malaise than Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and is tied directly to Bacevich’s warnings about the American people’s often unreflective worship of the American military. To my mind, it is also connected to the “revolution in military affairs” advocates, who have created, as Fred Kagan observed in Finding the Target, this interesting situation where we innovate ahistorically, in the shadow of some quasi-abstract projected future conflict, thereby, I think, subtly conditioning leaders, policy-makers, and the American people to expect war on a regular basis. There might be a book here somewhere…
  • An article by Jason Tropy, “No God in the Fight: Why a Christian Army is a Terrible Idea,” tries to dissect the attempt by Matthew Van Dyke to create some kind of “Christian Army” to combat ISIS. I say “tries” because I have read contradictory things about this endeavor, and at the moment have no basis for picking one report over another (I’ll be grateful for any recommendations on this topic). I tend to agree with his admonition, “don’t join any holy wars,” though the tinge of anti-medieval rhetoric is, as is often the case, misguided. But I’ve harped on that often enough…
  • If you’ve read anything about the historical profession in Great Britain recently, you’re probably aware of the “Historians for Britain” movement, and its counterpart “Historians for History.” The blog Historian on the Edge has a long, provocative, link-filled post on the subject titled “Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?).” The author presents an interesting analysis of the situation, along with some questionable prescriptions for the use of history in the political sphere–an insistence on history’s political value lying in “the subversion of all reifications,” which these days is a popular, if misguided, benchmark of scholarly worth. On the other hand, the author’s emphasis on contingency and by implication counter-factuals is spot-on, and mirrors my own beliefs.
  • Continuing the thread of personal beliefs about studying history, one of my favorite lectures is Fredrik Logevall’s address “The Uses of History: American Presidents and the Past,” given in January of this year. He addresses counter-factuals, but also identifies policy-makers’ and historians’ necessarily different approaches to history, and what makes studying history a fulfilling and valuable activity (starting around 13 minutes). In fact, I think I’ll rewatch it now…

  • An interesting article by Caroline Tervo called “In Defense of the South.” Basically, it’s a simple argument that there isn’t a monolithic South. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago in a past relationship, and it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget when you teach the Civil War. A lot of the Southern prejudice against Yankees I think is bunk, but so are the silly prejudices toward the South popular among “Yankees.” Basically, these stereotypes come from a lack of empathy. To understand, you have to actively listen and learn.
  • Speaking of listening, maybe men should pipe down more. A much-commented on article, “Why women talk less,” addresses issues surrounding hearing women’s voices in academia. It’s an interesting read, and I think pretty accurate, though I have mixed feelings about the recent “all-male panels” mockery, which ambivalence I’ll sort out at a later date. At the end of the day, I love this great blog post’s strictures how to treat women [academics], which to my mind is how decent folk should act as a matter of course. But…we know that this often isn’t the case, probably because men are worried about women colleagues being distractingly sexy.
  • Brian Mahoney’s article “Trade defeat is a huge defeat for labor,” discussing how the AFL-CIO mobilized the political muscle to stop the big trade legislation last week. Given the labor issues that have been rocking the academic world, this discussion of labor organizations I found timely. Anyway, I thought it was interesting.
  • Speaking of academia, higher education, and labor, last week there were two good follow-ups to that professors-live-in-fear piece. One is by Koritha Mitchell, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards.” The other is by Noah Berlatsky, “Professors do live in fear–but not of liberal students.”
  • Not exactly a follow up is Hunter Rawlings’ “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.” I do wonder sometimes if there isn’t a contradiction between pushing back against the “commodification” of college and the attacks on tenure but simultaneously treating the situation as a labor issue, since much of the labor force doesn’t have the kind of job security that tenure provides. Unless that’s an incorrect assumption? Someone help me out here.
  • I also see a bit of a contradiction in this short piece by David Schraub, “Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy,” which was widely picked up a couple weeks ago for some reason, and protests on Left and Right over various instances of intellectual censorship and discrimination. The issue is one of precedent and power–who decides what is and isn’t legitimate, and under what circumstances? One side’s illegitimacy is often the other side’s academic freedom violation. On the other hand, there ARE positions that are illegitimate–that the Nazis were misunderstood chaps, for example. So, I think most people, myself included, adopt a very “medieval” position–contradictory, and in search of some guiding principle that won’t lead us astray. Anyway, I’ll keep thinking about this.

Tomorrow I should have my thoughts about Kalamazoo up, so stay tuned.

The Past Week’s Reading, Feb 22

In no particular order, here are some stories and articles that caught my eye this past week.


Robin Fleming on post-Roman Britain, “The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, historian claims.”

Michel Baran, “The Mongol Empire in World History: The State of Research.”


More “crusades controversy” fall out, Ross Douthat, “In Defense of Islam.”

Another, “Obama Crusade remarks spark firestorm of debate.” 

David Perry, “The Jews and the Crusades (New York Times): We are not perfect.”

The much-discussed article by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

A counterpoint to the above, “America’s Most Prominent Muslim Says the Atlantic is Doing PR for ISIS.”

And another counterpoint, “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval.”


Instability in the Iraqi government. “Sunnis may exit Iraq parliament after sheik’s slaying.”

French ultra-nationalist party gaining ground, “The National Front’s Post-Charlie Hebdo Moment.”

Veterans and civilians, Matt Richtel, “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service.”

Long article on General Khalifa Haftar, “Liyba’s New Strongman. The Unravelling.”

Paul Staniland, “Every Insurgency is Different.”


Minsk 2 and its problems, “The woeful strategic and military aftermath of the Minsk 2 agreement between Ukraine and Russia.”


Joel Achenbach, “Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

The Crusades: A Few Addendums

Don’t worry folks, this will be much shorter.

A. Some feedback I’ve seen on the article.

  • The “Inquisition.” I left it in caps because that’s what everyone was doing, but I definitely should have put it in quotes! Someone will have to write a column about the fact and fiction there, but hopefully not me…
  • I read a comment somewhere that said the President’s remarks shouldn’t even be a part of this debate. Not sure I agree with that, but it’s a point of view.
  • The article did seem to come off a bit more “military history” than I’d intended, but I’m OK with that.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of belief and lived experience, and how and why people resort to violence (“war” especially). And what they hope to accomplish through violence. So I’m always asking what shaped people’s responses to war. And regarding the crusades, I agree with Kurt Villads Jensen’s article in Al-Masaq (2003), “Peregrinatio sive expeditio: Why the First Crusade was not a Pilgrimage.” So, I’m bound to bring a political/military perspective to bear, I suppose, in addition to a cultural one.
  • The Eastern Churches. I had meant to make that clearer, that Urban II was in contact with churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, but couldn’t find my notes on the most recent research. But that was another factor in 1095.
  • The concept of “ownership” of the Holy Land. This is a full topic in and of itself, but I think the manner in which the French, Normans, and eventually the Germans asserted a proprietary interest in the Holy Land didn’t make much sense to anyone but themselves. It nonplussed the Byzantines, to be sure, who had a much longer and immediate interest in the Levant. This deserves a closer analysis.
  • Albigensian Crusade. Someone said I’d forgotten them. Nope, they’re there, for a sentence. But very important for what some other folks have mentioned, that…
  • Not all crusades were defensive. Absolutely: I was focusing on the First Crusade in particular because that is where the argument usually concentrates. The Wendish Crusade of 1147, on the Germanic-Slavic frontier, was hardly “defensive,” and was fought in the same manner as in the previous 200 years. Which was with, to us, shocking brutality (my students were a bit shocked when we discussed this yesterday).
  • Regarding “staggering brutality,” David Perry and I had some good, collegial exchanges yesterday, and we both agree that we’re not that far apart, in the end. Leif Petersen, author of Siege warfare and military organization in the successor states (400-800 AD) also had some interesting examples about atrocities in pre-crusades warfare, worth following up. My perspective has been shaped by a couple decades of studying warfare in general, and some years researching the Wehrmacht and the Shoah. To be honest, I think most people don’t grasp how violent medieval and early modern society was in general, and the reaction I get when I manage to convey that to my students often is a kind of shock–and this from the video game generation, no less (I’m not knocking video games per se, I love playing them myself…when I have the time).

B. Some articles that I’ve read since Monday. Kate’s and Andrew’s articles I recommend:

Leila K. Norako, “On Obama’s Crusades ‘Controversy'” , and Andrew Holt, “Crusades were a reaction to Islamic militarism” (see also his website).  Also the exchange between Andrew and David on David’s blog, here.

Other articles that crossed my path:

Jay Michaelson, “The Crusades Were Great, Actually!”

Max Fisher, “Let’s be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it’s okay to hate Muslims.”

Murtaza Hussain, “Obama’s Christian Right Critics Agree with Islamic State.”

Virginia Postrel, “Why the Crusades Still Matter.”

Mark Bauerlein, “Un-Presidential Remarks.”

C. I’m still building resource pages for medieval history on this site (as you can tell from some of the still-empty pages), but I there are a couple things I would recommend.

Sites (not always up-to-date, but still useful): Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and The ORB (On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies).

Also, there is an excellent new collection of documents (unfortunately an expensive one) from the University of Pennsylvania, Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291.

Finally, I would recommend getting a hold of anything that Norman Housley , University of Leicester, has written on the subject. He’s a very understated, even underestimated, presence in crusades studies, but when I want some perspective on crusades and religious warfare in general, I often find myself going back to his publications for a calm, multifaceted, incisive, thought-provoking analysis (this is honestly my opinion). His books include Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land, Crusading in the Fifteenth Century: Message and Impact, Crusading and the Ottoman Threat 1453-1505, The Later Crusades 1274-1580: from Lyons to Alcazar, Contesting the Crusades (a study of how historians have written about the Crusades), Documents on the Later Crusades 1274-1580, and Religious Warfare in Europe 1400-1536 (which is fairly dense, but the only book that really explains how “crusade” morphs into “religious warfare” in the late medieval/early modern era). And a collected series of essays in Crusading and Warfare in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.