You Don’t Have to Call Me Lieutenant, Rosie: War, Ignorance, and the Graduate Student
Rich Grippaldi, Ph.D. Candidate.
This is the utterly uninteresting story of one young man and his apprenticeship in American military history.
You don’t believe me, you say? Well, read to the end of this essay, and see if you change your mind.
I passed through my first three years of college and found I loved three things: Bruce Springsteen’s music, Raymond Chandler’s novels, and war movies. (Also girls, but one can’t “major in girls” or “seek employment in the girls industry.”) Employment options in the fields other than girls also seemed slim. Properly speaking, an English major should deal with Chandler, not a history major. And with Springsteen still producing music, closing the books on his career would be a bit premature.
So by default, I decided to pursue the war movie-related field: military history. World War II, to be precise, because World War II defines the war movie genre. I read extensively about World War II on my own. I took two years of Japanese-language studies. I wrote Russell F. Weigley, dean of American military historians, about studying under his direction. Dr. Weigley informed me that he was no longer advising new students, but he encouraged me to apply to Temple anyway.
And so, after two cracks at the GRE, producing a writing sample about strategic air power theorists, and sweating out whether Temple would officially inform me I had won a fellowship before or after I formally enrolled, I arrived in North Philadelphia in August 2001.
Two weeks after I began, I watched my world crumble on TV.
I wondered whether my proper place was no longer in school, but in service. I dithered and I dilly-dallied; while the president called it a war, I waited for a declaration of war that never came. In the end I gave blood, but left the fighting to someone else.
Other than the shameful possibility that I was shirking my duties as a good citizen – to put it in a gendered context, as we do in the academy, a real man puts himself in harm’s way – being at Temple in a so-called time of war seemed like a good deal. I was interested in a historical topic that would have immediate resonance with the general public. Professionally, that might turn into an employment opportunity somewhere down the road. Civically, I might salve my conscience by intellectually participating in a debate over the great issue of our times.
All those were fine and noble sentiments, befitting someone fresh out of college and not fully aware of what he didn’t know. As it should be, graduate school has been an education.
My first lesson: professors are very smart people. They are not gods. I learned this at the hands of Russell F. Weigley. I had read The American Way of War in college and found it brilliant. Dr. Weigley’s fingerprints are everywhere in my part of the discipline. When I walked through the door of the American military history survey, I half-seriously expected to see a seven-foot tall man with a frame full of muscles and a foghorn for a voice. Instead, I saw a balding man whose tie was a little too wide for current fashion.
Blasphemous as it might be, I am happy that I saw Russ Weigley as a man, moments before my first graduate class began, because it allowed me to appreciate his insights and engage him as a far senior colleague. I was fortunate to take classes with him three times and to be invited into his home three times. He always had an encouraging word and generally made me feel like I was making progress, that this all would come out all right in the end.
My second lesson: nineteenth-century America is worthy of historical study. Having found World War II incredibly interesting, I assumed I’d study that. I’d define myself more broadly as a twentieth-century American historian. Then, after years of neglect, the American Civil War burst anew onto my consciousness. I spent my first summer reading of generals and battles, of societies rent and families destroyed. Later I would move even further back in time, making a passing acquaintance with the Mexican War before settling on my dissertation topic. World War II will always be there, I think, ready for passionate arguments about whether the Navy sought War Plan Orange with its carriers or whether Eisenhower and Bradley should have let Patton pierce the Westwall in late summer 1944. It’s just that I won’t ever definitively answer those questions.
My third lesson: infantry is not my “Queen of Battle.” (My apologies to the ex-infantrymen who might read this, including my own father.) My dissertation deals with the formation of the U. S. Regiment of Dragoons in the 1830s, the U.S. Army’s first permanent cavalry unit. My dissertation is not merely drum and bugle history. It addresses other important aspects of nineteenth century America, like the role and importance of the volunteer military tradition; the development of the military profession, and professions generally, in Jacksonian society; and federal Indian policy in the 1830s. But the mobility of the cavalry allowed the dragoons to carry out their military missions. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the role of maneuver in a frontier constabulary. I also find the development of armor in the twentieth century U. S. Army and its campaigns in World War II more interesting.
My fourth lesson: penmanship is in fact as important as my second-grade teacher told me it was. The National Archives maintains a large number of records on the Regiment of Dragoons, almost all of them written by hand. No doubt I may have missed important letters from the regiment’s senior commanders to the Adjutant General or the Secretary of War because I can’t read a War Department clerk’s handwriting in a register. At least one regimental return was a complete exercise in frustration, because the ink has faded to the lightest gray. On the other hand, Jefferson Davis, the regiment’s first adjutant, was unquestionably a man with fine penmanship, regardless of the less admirable attributes many historians assign to him. I can also report that, for example, seeing the national legislature spelled as “Congrefs” or economic and commercial matters spelled as “businefs” no longer fazes me.
The most important lesson I learned: people, far more so than books, are the best educators. While serving as a teaching assistant, I was fortunate enough to witness professors who could engage and retain the attentions of over one hundred students at once. I worked for professors who incorporated twenty-first century technology effectively into their lectures. Back at the department, presumably holding my office hours, I spent many an hour in a colleague’s office across the hall, discussing the issues of the day, books we read or should have read, applying historical theories from part of the discipline to a new part.
Graduate school can be a powerfully isolating experience, especially if your assistantship ends and you rattle around your apartment for days on end. I feel fortunate that the history department recruited a new, promising crop of students about the time I took my prelims. No names – I don’t want to embarrass the mentioned or anger those left out – but they’re all invaluable. One inspires me to be a better historian because of her drive and dedication to her own work. Another constantly forces me to re-examine my organizing principles by rejecting the overarching importance of the state and hard (politicomilitary) power in foreign relations in his work. A third, a promising young military historian, allows me to talk shop and feel like maybe I’m giving someone like myself a hand. The others have helped me as well, in ways small and large, ways I’ve forgotten and ways that deal with life, less than history.
So you’ve made it to the end? Don’t you agree about my utterly uninteresting career? I still like girls, Springsteen, and Chandler. War movies less, as they suggest from time to time I’m not doing my part. And my education seems largely about demonstrating just how much I didn’t know, don’t know, and probably will never know.