Michael A. Bellesiles: Teaching Military History in a Time of War





Editor's Note: The Chronicle, in response to questions raised in the blogosphere, launched an investigation of this article and determined that the student had"fabricated several details in the story" and that"Mr. Bellesiles said he was saddened that his student had altered the details of a personal tragedy and that he regretted that he had unknowingly passed on a story that was not accurate."

[Michael A. Bellesiles is a historian and adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University. His most recent book, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, is forthcoming next month from the New Press.]

Teaching military history when there are veterans in the classroom requires a greater sensitivity to the impact of language than may be the case with other students. I learned long ago to never insert words like "just" or "only" before giving casualty figures, for few veterans who have been in combat consider the death of a comrade as "only" one. In combat, all casualties taken by your unit are tragedies.

At the same time, military historians all know the danger of accepting eyewitness accounts. It does not matter if the soldier was a frontline grunt or a rear-echelon officer: He saw only one part of the action, often under the most stressful conditions, and has constructed a narrative in the years since. Every military historian I know has learned to respect a veteran's insistence that "I was there, and that's not how it was," while integrating those personal memories into a larger portrait of the battle and war.

These are issues with which I have long been familiar, but I must admit that I had never fully considered the effect of military history on students who have never served in the military. I have been guilty to a degree of accepting the view of my student veterans that the nonveterans are soft and generally spoiled, unfamiliar with both service and sacrifice. Yet the reality of teaching in wartime, most particularly at a working-class college such as Central Connecticut State University, is that war has touched the families of many of our students, and it is a tragic error to think that they have not experienced the staggering blow of loss and personal sacrifice....

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Robert Solomon - 7/2/2010

Before accepting any of this, one should be aware that Michael A. Bellesiles's truthfulness as a source of historical research cannot be assumed. Review the national dialogue following the publication of his book Arming America.

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