Domestic Chaos and Just War: Surviving the Dissertation

Matthew S. Muehlbauer
Ph.D. candidate, Department of History

The new editors at Strategic Visions asked me to write a piece about my experiences working on my dissertation. Being the nice, stand-up guy that I am, I said, “Sure!” So here I sit on front of my PC, some music playing over the speakers, while I have a quiet moment to contemplate my thoughts.

It won’t last, though – the quiet moment. Any minute now, my rambunctious two-year old daughter is likely to burst into the room, climb the chair where I’m sitting, and end up on my head. True, my wife is in the house, but the presence of even multiple adults is no guarantee against keeping my progeny out of trouble (to which various pieces of broken furniture will attest).

Children are the greatest challenge to my dissertation, usually mine, sometimes those of friends and neighbors (though their potential for chaos and destruction is notably less). Ironically, family helped my wife accept my decision to return to graduate school. “You’ll have more time to help out when we have kids!” she exclaimed, to which I replied (being the nice, stand-up guy that I am), “Sure!”

Of course, I cannot lay all my woes at the feet of my daughter. Part of the issue is that I do not live in or near Philadelphia, but instead in Yonkers, New York. When I was taking courses and working as a teaching assistant, this entailed a two-hour drive each way, two or three times a week. But given that I had my way paid by Temple, it was one of the few places I could study military history in the northeast, and my wife wouldn’t have to move, it seemed a reasonable sacrifice.

Now that I don’t have to be on campus, making that two-hour drive isn’t feasible just to find a quiet place to work outside of my home (I have every mile of the New Jersey Turnpike south to Exit 4 indelibly branded on my memory). I’ve dragged myself and my laptop to Columbia University’s Butler Library and the New York Public Library, which is much more manageable than driving to Philly. But it’s not the same as going to a place where you’re accepted as a member of an academic program.

Isolation is an onerous part of the dissertation process. Now one is supposed to be off doing independent research, as opposed to being continually around follow students and professors with whom you can share ideas, concerns, and frustrations. Communication is not cut off completely, but the frequency of interaction, and the ability of such to sustain one’s interest and focus, drops off markedly. There are ways to combat such isolation. I attended some meetings of Columbia University’s Seminar on Early American History and Culture last year. One can also attend conferences. Still, it’s not the same as being on campus at least a few times a week.

Beyond family and isolation, another distraction from the dissertation is that ongoing need to attend to the curriculum vitae. As we have all heard, the number of people pursuing doctorates in history is significantly higher than the number of available tenure-track positions. Teaching one’s own classes is an almost mandatory requirement for such a position, which means teaching before finishing the Ph.D., if you want to acquire that job shortly after you graduate.

With this in mind, I decided in fall 2004 I would do some teaching. Having sent out copies of my c.v. to local schools the prior fall, I managed to line up an assignment teaching two sections of a one-semester American history survey course at Manhattan College. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Richard Immerman (our illustrious department chair) contacted me to ask if I would teach a course in military history at TUCC one evening a week. Being the nice, stand-up guy that I am, I said, “Sure!”

So now I was scheduled to teach two different courses, each for the first time, in the same semester (in two different states). I figured that wouldn’t be so bad. Then my wife got pregnant, and developed extremely bad morning sickness at about the same time the semester began. Before I knew it, in addition to preparing over five hours of lecture a week, teaching, grading, and commuting to Philly and back, I had to care for our daughter in every spare waking moment. Luckily, my wife started feeling better about the time I gave my mid-term exams, which helped. But I have never been so exhausted in my life! Needless to say, I didn’t get any work done on my dissertation, and was so exhausted after the semester I only returned to my research after a two-month period of recuperation.

Yet despite the distractions of family, isolation, and teaching, I’m relatively content with how my thesis is developing. My dissertation will explore how New England Puritans understood and employed concepts of just war in their decisions to employ military force (or not) from 1630 to about 1655. It took me some time and effort to choose so specific a topic. Although I came to Temple with a primary interest in military history, I quickly developed a curiosity about Native American experiences, particularly how aboriginal groups coped with the challenges and problems of European colonization (sparked by a reference to King Philip’s War, which I had never heard of previously). I also discovered that study of Native American warfare provided a nice contrast to the bulk of military history written from the standpoint of Western states and peoples.

Such a contrast underlay the thrust of my prospectus, entitled “Conceiving War: The Comprehension of Warfare in Seventeenth-Century New England and the Conduct of King Philip’s War.” I originally intended a more sweeping survey of ideas and experiences leading up to King Philip’s War, one that would include experiences of the British Civil Wars as well as warfare in New England. Then I started doing research, and quickly realized such a topic could encompass multiple books.

I also discovered that a nice aspect of a dissertation in early New England history is that most of the primary sources I need have been published – items such as John Winthrop’s journal, the Winthrop Papers, the Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, to name some of the larger items I’ve slogged through. To put this in perspective, about a year ago I traveled to the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston to familiarize myself with some collections. As I was scrolling through microfilm copies of handwritten documents (since the originals are in very fragile condition), I couldn’t help but think to myself: “I can’t read this!! How the heck am I going to write a dissertation if I can’t read the primary sources??!!” After a day or two, I has better able to comprehend the meaning of the scribbles glaring at me from the screen, and it turns out I won’t need to use that particular collection anyway. But I sleep easier at night knowing I will only need to devote a relatively limited amount of time to deciphering centuries-old script.

While plodding through seventeenth-century sources, I came across something that grabbed my attention: numerous references to justice and just war. Now multiple strains of historiography bear upon my topic: research into Puritan attitudes, beliefs, and experiences; analyses of English conceptions of Native Americans (even before colonization); work on Native American experiences with colonists. There is a literature on just war, but few people have addressed Puritan notions of just war. Even fewer have bothered considering how such notions informed Puritan decisions for war in the New England, and no one has written a thorough investigation of the topic.

This is great! Despite the mountains of books already devoted to New England Puritans, this approach nonetheless offers a new perspective with which to consider not only their interactions with Native Americans and other “foreign” groups, such as nearby Dutch and French colonies, but how Puritans conceived of the use of force, and when such was appropriate. Moreover, rather than simply addressing just war, my dissertation will seek to link such notions to actual historical decisions – you could call it an investigation of “applied” just war policy.

Of course, this means I now have to figure out where Puritan ideas of just war came from. One or two secondary sources, particularly James Turner Johnson’s Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740, are fairly helpful. Many of the relevant primary sources are available electronically via the Early English Books Online service. This makes for fewer trips to the archives, but the font is pretty small when the PDF files are printed out (break out the magnifying glass). But to better understand these Puritan ideas, I also need greater familiarity with Puritan perspectives in general, including concepts regarding faith, divinity, grace, social interactions and responsibilities, etc., etc., etc.… Oh joy. Perry Miller, here I come. (I’ve discovered that expounding upon the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is an excellent way to kill a conversation.)

My reading fields, as it turns out, did not prepare me well for my topic. One of my fields was colonial history, much of which was actually focused on Native American experiences. My previous readings about the conflicts involving colonists and aboriginal groups in New England (such as the Pequot War, 1636-37) have been helpful. As for the remainder of my colonial field, some of it addressed New England, but it also encompassed the history of other colonies (such as Virginia), as well as broader ideas on the development of colonial societies. It did not provide the depth of knowledge that I now require about Puritans. Similarly, my fields in military and European history only touch upon my dissertation topic tangentially, if at all.

I suppose the lack of correlation between my reading fields and my dissertation topic could be frustrating. At this point, I have about as much historiographical reading ahead of me as primary source research. But I don’t dwell on that point. I chose my reading fields, and I chose my topic – no one asked me to pursue it, no one even suggested it to me. I discovered it, and for me that’s part of the joy of academia – following ideas that one finds intriguing and enlightening, regardless of one’s particular “specialty.”

It occurred to me recently as I was slogging through some secondary source material that “Hey, I kind of know a lot about seventeenth-century New England. I could teach a course of this stuff. I’m actually becoming an expert on Puritanism!” And then I was scared . . . very, very scared. Never in my life had I ever thought I would be an expert on Puritans, of all things. It’s a byproduct of my underlying interest in trying to explain how a group in the past conceived of how and when to use force.

This idea is, in fact, the one that has driven me since I chose to enter academia. I am very much a “war & society”-type of military historian. Operational analyses, unit histories, military biographies, etc., never really captured my enthusiasm. Rather, I have always been intrigued by the concepts, beliefs, and concerns that have shaped the employment of military force – concepts that have never been confined simply to military institutions, but reflected influences and often stemmed from larger social concerns.

Among the more fascinating works I’ve read in this vein include Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, John A. Lynn’s recent Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (as well as his Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army, 1610-1715), Peter Paret’s Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform, 1807-1815, Douglas Porch’s The March to the Marne: The French Army 1871-1914, various works by Gunther E. Rothenberg, and Tim Travers’ The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare 1900-1918. All these works examine how larger social concerns affected the organization and/or employment of armed forces. Hopefully my dissertation will contribute to this body of literature by examining how larger Puritan religious, theological, and social ideas shaped their understandings of just war, and how early New England colonists attempted to apply just war concepts when debating whether or not to employ force (or rationalizing the use of force post facto).

Ah – I hear the pitter-patter of little feet, signaling the imminent arrival of that whirlwind of pandemonium I lovingly call my daughter. Looks like I’ll have to… honey, not while daddy’s typing . . . honey, leave the mouse alone . . . No!!! DON’T DELETE THE DISSERTATION FOLDER!!!!!