Medieval Historians and their Military Service

Above Images: (left to right) Professor Laurence Marvin of Berry College, Professor Patrick Geary of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida.

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When I was working on my Ph.D. in history, I believed that I was the only student in the graduate program at the University of Florida that had any military experience. I may have been wrong, but I was not aware of anyone else who had served.

This is not to suggest that my military service was particularly noteworthy. My six years in the Marine Corps Reserves, where I obtained the rank of Sergeant, were honorable, but not distinguished. In early 1991, I recall being sent by my unit (which had already been activated and sent overseas) to go to Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) school in California, and being told that from there I would be shipping off to the Persian Gulf to join up with my unit. Consequently, I had said goodbye to my mother and the rest of my family, not quite sure when I might return. Prior to that I had only completed boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where I had proudly earned the title of U.S. Marine, like my older brother before me. During our training in California, with much of it taking place in the Mojave Desert, we were constantly being reminded by our instructors that Saddam Hussein ruled over the fourth largest army in the world (true in terms of manpower) and that he had previously used chemical weapons on his own people (the Kurds) and was likely to use them again on us. As a result, our instructors wanted us to be mentally and physically prepared, which involved exhaustive NBC training in the Mojave (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical), under the grueling conditions of the desert sun.

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Above Image: c. 1994, I think.

Yet while I was training it happened that, after a lengthy air campaign, the ground war to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and back into Iraq was incredibly brief, lasting less than two weeks. A large draw down of U.S. forces immediately followed, and I was eventually, after months of training, sent back to my reserve unit in Florida rather than to the Persian Gulf. My good German Catholic mother joyfully and thankfully insisted it was because she had asked our elderly Italian priest to pray for a quick end to the war. I recall that my reaction was a bit different from my mother’s, as after being subjected to such intensive training under wartime conditions, I felt a bit like the kid who went to practice all the time but did not get to play in the game. This is not to suggest that I viewed war as a game, but only to highlight the strange feeling of coming down from that sort of intense mental and emotional preparation. It was an odd experience, but one that made me think about the world in much broader terms as I continued in my training over the next several years and put my G.I. Bill to good use. I have no doubt that it influenced my curiosity about the world and contributed to my desire to study history.

But returning to my original point, about believing I was the only student in the UF graduate program who had served in the military, it was curious to me that one’s experiences in the military, especially when combined with access to the G.I. Bill, did not seem to drive a greater interest in the study of history at the graduate level among former military personnel (at least not at the doctoral level, as I recall many veterans in my M.A. program at UNF). I am not alone in thinking along these lines, as I have spoken with other historians who have made the same observation. Indeed, I recall when I first got to know Alfred J. Andrea, Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont, I was very interested to learn he had also been a U.S. Marine. Naturally, as we went on to work with each other on various projects, it resulted in a lot of inside humor that only Marines from different generations would appreciate. Also, more significantly, while there did not seem to be other graduate students with a military background at UF while I was completing my Ph.D., it turned out that my advisor, Florin Curta, had served as a paratrooper in Romania’s communist army during the 1980s. I was fascinated to learn this, but never really asked Florin, who is now my good friend, about the powerful details until just recently (as are explained later in this post).

Recently, I was thinking about my profession as a medieval historian and how it related to military service. I have long known that James Muldoon, Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University-Camden, had served in the army. Indeed, Jim understood those (mostly) playful inter-service rivalries, subjecting Al and me to the occasional “Jarhead” joke or two (and usually quite clever ones). Then recently, while working on another project with Edward Peters, Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, I learned that he too had served in the U.S. Army during the 1950s. Between Ed, Al, Jim, and Florin all serving in the military, all four of them powerhouse senior medieval historians, I started to realize that perhaps more medieval historians have served than I had thought up to this point.

I asked other historians to see if they were aware of others who had served. I was already aware of Iraq war veteran Dana Cushing’s honorable service in the U.S Marines, as well as that of Stephen Bennett (a current doctoral student studying the crusades under Thomas Asbridge) as an officer in the British Army. Stephen proved to have a wealth of information on the subject, telling me about Berry College historian Laurence Marvin’s service as a submariner in the U.S. Navy; Benjamin Z. Kedar, Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his service as a tanker in the Israeli army; and Bernard Hamilton, Professor Emeritus of Crusading History at the University of Nottingham, who was a gunner officer during his national service. Medieval historian Felice Lifshitz also made me aware of the service of Patrick Geary, Professor of History at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, and of the service of Phillipe Buc at the University of Vienna, who did his military service in France by teaching at the French Naval Academy. These were not the only names that were suggested to me, as many others were as well.

Consequently, I reached out by email to several of the historians I have mentioned, to see if they might be willing to share a brief overview of their military service. It’s currently the middle of the summer, which is a hard time to reach academics, but some have already very kindly responded back and have given me permission to include their fascinating stories here. They are arranged chronologically, in the order of the years in which they served, and some include pictures.

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Edward Peters, Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania

November, 1956- November, 1959. Enlisted (I even remember my serial number because an E-5 once forcefully told me to). Had dropped out of college after freshman year and wanted to see Europe, but had no money.  The army sent me. Spent March, 57-November, 59 stationed at Gelnhausen, Hessen. HQ company, 1st medium tank batallion, 33rd armor, 4th (or 3rd, I forget – division level was way above my pay grade) armored div. Got to see a lot of Europe and learn a little German. Once drove a tank through Bayreuth. Another time a friend and I bought two brand new bicycles (3-speed) from the PX for $20 apiece and rode them to Florence (left them at the US Consulate for local kids and took the train back through Salzburg and Munich. Still in touch with the friend. Came back and worked for a year and re-entered college, graduating in ’63. Not quite the Iliad, but it did give some background for medieval studies….I was also stationed at that base in Gelnhausen at the same time as a young lieutenant named Colin Powell. We never met.

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James Muldoon, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University-Camden

After finishing an MA at Boston College and wanting to get military service out of the way before starting a PhD program, I enlisted in the Army in August, 1958. After basic training at Fort Dix, I was assigned to the Quartermaster Training Command, Fort Lee, VA, and then to the 243 QM Company. In the course of that I did what one is always advised not to do: I volunteered to be the unit historian.

As it turned out, no one seemed to know what such a slot entailed, so one day I located the command historian’s office and went to find out. When we met, the historian was surprised at my question as no one else ever bothered to ask him. He was curious about my background and when I told him, he explained what his office did. The main job was to write an administrative history of the QM School from 1 July 1946 to 30 June 1953. The time frame was interesting because it went from the dramatic near-collapse of the Army after WWII to peacetime stabilization by 1949, the Cold War and its impact on the army, then the Korean War and rapid expansion, and, finally, standing down as the Korean War ended. The office had 75 cartons of records from the designated period as the basis for the book.

After discussing the project and the materials to be employed, the historian asked if I would like to work as his research assistant. I did so he arranged my transfer me. Over the next two years, I went through the 75 cartons and by the time I finished my tour we had drafted the book and he had obtained the services of another assistant for its completion. That never happened, however, because an army reorganization abolished the program of which the historical office was a part.

This experience had some influence on my professional career. In the first place, it suggests that sometimes volunteering pays off. It is a gamble, but can be worth it. In the second place, it made me wary of archival collections. My first reaction to the 75 cartons was that there were more pages there than in many major collections of medieval materials. That turned out to be a bit misleading, however, because only four cartons dealt with 1946-49. After the war, much material was lost or destroyed. What material existed was poorly organized and random and not very helpful. On the other hand, the final 71 cartons were well organized because the Federal Records Management Act (1949) established procedures for the annual review of files, retention of some material for continued use, destruction of material deemed of no significance, and the retention of the rest for five years before being purged again and then sent to a federal records center.

In effect, the formal management of the records meant that material that would interest historians would be removed. For example, many of the documents were statements ordering significant changes of policy at the QM School, but without the memos and other papers containing the explanations for the changes. In addition, material that was or could be embarrassing to senior officers could be eliminated. To this day, I cannot look at an archive or collection without thinking “What didn’t they include?”

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Patrick Geary, Professor of History-Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

In 1969, my senior year at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, I drew number 18 in the newly created draft lottery. This would have meant my immediate induction into the military upon graduation. Wanting to continue on to graduate school but not being a conscientious objector in spite of my strong objections to the Vietnam War, I opted to join Yale’s Army ROTC program as a graduate student. This required that I successfully complete basic training at Fort Knox KY during the summer of 1970. While at Fort Knox, Yale abolished ROTC, but graciously allowed the program to continue one final year. Thus during my first year of graduate school I had to take, in addition to the normal four-seminar load of academic courses, Military Science III and IV. I received a deferment from ROTC advanced summer camp in 1971 so that I could participate in a seminar in medieval diplomatics and paleography sponsored by the Medieval Academy at the University of Colorado taught by Herwig Wolfram of the University of Vienna. I finally attended ROTC advanced camp during the summer of 1972 and upon completion of camp received my commission a second lieutenant in the US Army Reserve as an air defense artillery officer—possibly the last Yale student to be commissioned prior to ROTC’s return to Yale in 2012. I received a deferment to report for active duty until the completion of my PhD. However, in January, 1973 I was unexpectedly offered an assistant professorship at Princeton University to begin September, 1974, on the condition that I had completed my doctorate and fulfilled my active duty obligation. By that time, the Vietnam War was almost over and the Army had little use for new second lieutenants in Air Defense. Thus, I was quickly able to arrange to spend three months completing the basic air defense artillery officer course at Fort Bliss, Texas. I took a leave from Yale and spend the spring and summer in lovely El Paso, much of the time exploring the desert with the Army and learning to love Tex-Mex cuisine at the officer’s club. There is little to say concerning my months there, although I am proud to report that there were no successful aerial attacks launched across the Mexican border during the entire time that I was on active duty. After graduation from the air defense school, I still had an eight-year obligation to the Reserves. I was given the option of joining a reserve unit, thereby shaving off one year of the obligation, or waiting to be assigned to a unit and being obligated to serve the full eight years. I am still waiting to be assigned.

This extremely brief and entirely inglorious service did teach me some valuable life lessons. It brought me into contact with a spectrum of American society that I would probably not have had much contact with had I never put on a uniform, and I learned to respect and admire many of the soldiers and officers with whom I studied and worked in spite of their very different educational, cultural, and political perspectives. I learned something about leadership and self-discipline. I developed a sincere admiration for the men and women I met who had served in Vietnam with great courage and integrity, regardless of the immorality and incompetency of the politicians who send them there, and I learned to despise those who treated them and indeed all of us in uniform as monsters and war criminals.

An unexpected coda to my slight military experience came following the disastrous invasion of Iraq. A chance encounter with the commanding general of the US Army Special Forces Airborne in a Paris airport led to my joining an eclectic group of civilians and his staff in Cody Wyoming for a no-holds barred discussion of how to help the Special Operations Forces understand and respond to their newly assigned “war on terror.” As the general put it, “We had a war on poverty, it didn’t go well; we had a war on drugs that was no better. What are the chances that a war on terror will turn out any different?” Following this meeting, I found myself invited to work with SOF officers to develop strategies to help their highly trained officers develop equally high levels of education—that is, to learn to deal with unique cultural and social situations with which they had no prior experience and which could not be anticipated in their training programs. Some of these institutions included the Joint Special Operations University, the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, and especially the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Post Graduate School. What little I was able to contribute to these institutions owed nothing to my laughably minimal military service and everything to the education as an historian that I received at Yale and through my years of research and teaching in America, Europe, and the Near East. I do not know if I taught these officers anything, but I learned to appreciate these extraordinary warriors as the most dedicated, capable, humble, intelligent, and creative people with whom I have ever had the honor to work.

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Above Image: Patrick notes: “I am also sending you an appropriate image of 2nd Lt. Geary commanding a dumpster in the parking lot of my Bachelor Officer’s Quarters at Fort Bliss.”

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Laurence Marvin, Professor of History at Berry College

I was an enlisted man on active duty in the U.S. Navy  from July 1979 to July 1983.  After my discharge I spent six more years in the active reserves, until 1989.  After enlisting I volunteered for submarines and went to sea soon after my 18th birthday.  I spent my entire four years of active duty attached to the same fast attack submarine, and became qualified in submarines (getting my “dolphins”) in early 1981.  After qualifying I went to school to become a radioman (a great job back then).  I was discharged as a Radioman 2nd class (E-5).  During my time in the reserves I was promoted to Radioman 1st class (E-6) until I disaffiliated in 1989 because of the obligations of graduate school.  The experience of submarine life (especially the confines of a fast attack) has colored my life in endless ways, even if what I became afterwards seems to be the antithesis of what I did as a young man.

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Above Image: Larry notes: ” Me, age 18, Spring 1980 on the starboard side of the boat under the fairwater planes, another submarine to outboard.  The place was La Maddalena, an island of the coast of Sardinia.  At the time it was the refit base for fast attack submarines in the Mediterranean.”

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Florin Curta, Professor of Medieval History and Archaeology, University of Florida

Before I begin to tell about my experience in the military, a brief explanation is needed for the draft in Communist Romania. Under the law, all males were drafted at the age 18. However, and with free education at all school levels (how “free” that education really was is, of course, another story), the nature and length of the military service depended upon the very serious, written exams that one would have to go through to be admitted in college. If successful at those examinations, one’s length of the term was “reduced” to only 9 months (those were the so-called TRs, from “termen redus,” i.e., “reduced term”). If unsuccessful (or not applying for college at all, at the end of high-school), then, depending upon the weapon, one would serve for between 1 and a half and three years.

At the end of high-school, in July 1983 I successfully took the examination to enter the Faculty (Department) of History at the University of Bucharest. I was therefore supposed to serve after that for 9 months, beginning with October of that same year. Now, the distribution of future college students for military service was also based on the specific features of the education system in Communist Romania, which put a lot of emphasis on high-school, thus allowing for high specialization at college level. For example, young men who had entered the Polytechnical Institute, applying to such “faculties” (departments) as Mechanical Engineering, would be sent to tank units. Those who wanted to study Aeronautics would go to aviation units, and so on. Future students in Law, History, and Economic Sciences were commonly distributed among units of the secret police (“Securitate”). I resented that enormously, so my only possibility to avoid being a “Securitate” soldier was to volunteer for paratroopers, the only military units that took only volunteers.

As in many other countries, paratroopers in Romania were, and are largely regarded as elite military units. They had an excellent reputation for the quality of the uniforms and of the food—two great incentives for a young, and very naïve man like myself. I ended up serving for 7 months in the largest paratrooper unit in Communist Romania—0846 in Buzău, a town located about 60 miles to the northeast from Bucharest. It was the hardest, toughest, but most rewarding time of my entire life until that point. The training was very intense, and we took long marches through the countryside, to prepare for missions after the first launches. The training for the launches, particularly the preparation of one’s parachutes (each of us had two), was fascinating. The same goes for the self-defense training and the target range.

I grew up in a small community in which older boys would brag about their experience in the military. I thought therefore that I would never be able to raise up to those standards, but in Buzău, I quickly learned that I could handle a lot more than I thought my body could take. I also learned very quickly my own limits, especially in relation to others. Since service in the paratrooper units was based on volunteers, there was a bewildering variety in my unit of TRs. To be sure, every single one of them was educated, and indeed a future student. But I was the only one in the humanities (a word without any equivalent in the Romanian language of the early 1980s), and had to put up with the nickname Scipio, which my buddies attached to me under the (false) assumption that the Roman general’s own nickname Africanus referred to the color of his skin (I was, and still am, of a darker complexion than most Romanians I know).

My own interest in “teaching” history has therefore started from evening discussions (while tucked in our beds, with lights off) with my buddies about their misconceptions regarding various issues in history. They were curious, for sure, but I don’t think that my explanations mattered much to them, or changed anything in a longer term. I met extraordinary people there, many of whom remained very good friends, although scattered all around the world. My best friend was Adrian Măgeanu, a black-belt in judo when I met him, and a great supporter of everything that I have tried to do in my life—from carrying the portable anti-aircraft on my back while on long marches to my latest book while in the American academe. He died earlier this year in New Zealand, after a successful career in Computer Science. He left a great hole in my heart and life.

Because those were the last years of Ceauşescu’s Communist regime, during which a very serious crisis struck the economy of the country, soldiers were often forced to do “slave-work” (i.e., completely unpaid) in the agricultural fields of the country, as there was no labor force available for that job any more (actually, the only other segment of society used for that same job were high-school and college students). While in the army, I have spent 4 weeks (November 1983) harvesting corn in the Bărăgan, the steppe-like lowlands in southeastern Romania—the same place to which the Communist regime had organized the forced deportation of political dissenters some 30 years prior to that. I, for one, took the opportunity to think a lot about life, while contemplating the ground, or, more often, the stars in the sky, every evening as we were returning from the fields in the truck. It was at that time that I learned a meaning of the word “freedom,” for which there is no dictionary definition. An alternative definition is only comparable to what I felt at the first launches (I did three out of five that were mandatory) in January and February 1984: the sheer thrill of being in the air, the wind, the cold, the crisp air, the silence surrounding me, and then the “flight.”

A little later, freedom took a completely different meaning, during the darkest part of my experience in the military. Under circumstances on which I will not elaborate, I was about to be court-martialed, but through different interventions, I ended up in a disciplinary battalion. I have thus spent the last three months of my term as a TR in the air-force unit at Deveselu, the very same spot where NATO now has a major base with one of the most important antimissile defense systems deployed in Europe. The abuse—both physical and psychological—I have suffered during those months have left a great mark on my thinking about history and humanity in general. I learned what it meant not to give up, to draw a distinction between not trusting anyone and being careful, and to build alliances. Many of those in the disciplinary battalion at Deveselu were of Hungarian origin, who had been sent there because of discrimination or simply because they did not speak or understand Romanian. I developed great friendships through those hardships. Perhaps the most important thing for my later research agenda is that I have become aware of what ethnicity is and how it works. When I got out of the military service, in July 1984, it was not like a jailbreak, as my Hungarian friends saw it. To me, it was the end of the boot-camp, and the beginning of the real life as a soldier outside the army.

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Above Images: (Top) Florin (standing on the left), on duty holding an AK-47. He notes: “The picture was taken in June 1984 at Deveselu. I was on guard at the airport there, together my friend (whose girlfriend was visiting him on that day, and she took the picture).” (Bottom Left)- Florin notes: “This is from the first launch. I was in the airplane when this picture was taken.” (Bottom right) “This was the second group getting ready.”

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Stephen Bennett, Doctoral Student, Queen Mary, University of London

British Army, Sept 1990 – Jun 2006. The army sponsored me through college and I went to Sandhurst after graduation, joining 1st Battalion, The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment in (West) Germany. At that stage there were two major influences on British military culture: the Cold War-orientated British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) and the persecution of counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, expeditionary warfare coming a very poor third. Change, however, was afoot. As part of preparations for a deployment to Bosnia, we were the first NATO troops to conduct training in Poland and I was posted to a Polish company – a task for which neither side was linguistically prepared! I moved to be battalion Intelligence Officer for the tour itself, which saw us shift from framework peacekeeping to peace enforcement. Stepping up to become UN Task Force Alpha required the hasty repainting of camouflage on our white UN vehicles and an equally rapid change in mindset in time for the summer offensive. We were told with more than a hint of irony that flexibility was too rigid, fluidity was to be the order of the day! After a training gig and a stint as a junior staff officer, I picked up Fire Support Company towards the end of another tour to Northern Ireland, but aside from jungle training in Central America, which included helping pick up the pieces after Hurricane Iris, I spent most of that time marching around the royal carparks of London as a Captain of The Queen’s Guard – a post that (theoretically) retained the power to declare war on HM’s behalf. A spell as an exchange student at Spanish war college and then their command and staff college was followed by my final deployment: Sierra Leone. After time amidst former members of the Revolutionary United Front, the middle ages felt like a step forward…

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Above Image: Stephen, front and center, West Belfast, 1993.

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Benjamin Z. Kedar- Professor Emeritus of History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (added August 20, 2017)

My regular military service took place from 1956 to 1958, mostly in the Armored Corps; from 1958 to 1991 I served in the Reserves, again mostly in the Armored Corps. I saw action during the October War of 1973, serving as Communications NCO in the mechanized infantry company of a tank battalion. The battalion fought in the Western Sinai during the initial stage of the war; subsequently it was the second tank battalion to cross the Suez Canal into Egypt, where it fought until the ceasefire of October 24. Thereafter we held the line well to the west of the Canal for about six months, and I used the opportunity to write an account of the battalion’s doings during the war. My Hebrew-written account appeared in 1974 as a brochure for internal use and in 1975 as a book destined for the general public. It was my first book. I attach Martin Van Creveld’s  English-written review  that appeared in the Jerusalem Post, as well as a photo of myself writing the account in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.

All publications about that war state that when ceasefire took place our army reached a point on the Suez-Cairo road just  101 kilometers from Cairo. But I noticed  a milestone that gave the distance to the Egyptian capital as 99 kilometers. That milestone was right next to the westernmost of our outposts (I know now that it was on the Ismailia-Cairo road). I played with the idea of bringing the milestone home as a souvenir, but then I settled for a photograph of it, with me standing next to it. In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the war, I told the story  and gave the photograph to a journalist, Nir Hasson, who published it in our liberal daily, Ha-Aretz. I attach the story as appearing in the English edition of the newspaper.

I believe that the experiences during the war, and while writing the account, helped me understand military history and historiography in ways that remain beyond the grasp of many armchair historians.

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I sincerely welcome any additional stories of medieval historians who might be willing to share some details about their military service. I expect more responses to filter in during the summer (of 2017), so please check back as I hope this project will grow.

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