Month: August 2015

The History Professor Shuffle III: Professor Hardin

Today we continue with our third installment of “The History Professor Shuffle.” This time, Professor Hardin explains what her shuffle came up with.


I’ve had iTunes since my mom gave me an iPod as a gift for starting grad school. At the time I had a 5-CD changer (and before that mixtapes my friends made by recording songs off the radio). While writing my master’s thesis and studying for the preliminary qualifying exams, I made an iTunes playlist for reading and one for writing in which the songs either didn’t have lyrics or were in Portuguese, since I don’t speak it and wouldn’t get distracted. I’ve added a few new albums since then, but still have mostly older ones.

1) Cocteau Twins, “Cherry-Coloured Funk” (1990)

The Cocteau Twins came up since I copied four of their CDs onto iTunes. It’s beautiful music that I put on the reading playlist since you often can’t understand what the vocalist is singing, which is their intentional effect. They were popular amongst my friends in college at UT–Austin.

Historical connection: Wikipedia says the singing style resembles traditions of speaking in tongues.

2) Lucinda Williams, “Essence” (2001)

I have all of her CDs. This song comes from a more recent one. She was the first musician I ever saw live when I was back in high school. La Zona Rosa was one of the few music venues that had all-ages shows. Her father was a poet and you can tell the influence in her lyrics.

Historical connection: The song is about drug addiction, which is definitely a wide-spread historical phenomenon.

3) Baaba Maal, “Demgalam” (1989)

He is one of the few major Senegalese artists who consistently sings in Pulaar more than Wolof.

Historical connection: The title, also spelled “demngalam,” means “my language,” and thus asserts pride in the Pulaar language and in Fulbe (Fulani) identity, which is based in part on pastoralism. My album’s version has a cow mooing at the end! Even though as a historian of Africa I don’t like to say this, I have to admit that agropastoralism has been fundamental to life in the Sahel “for thousands of years.” Today people still make it work, despite many challenges, just as they dealt with other changes in the past.

4) Raï’n’B Fever (113, Mohamed Lamine & Magic System), “Un Gaou a Oran” (2004)

Raï and Zouk were popular in France a few years ago.

Historical connection: Watch the music video. Isn’t it obvious? I could tell you, but it might take a while. There’s so much to say! Note the soccer match on TV and the magic teapot.

5) Caetano Veloso, “O Leãozinho” (1977)

A beautiful Brazilian song.

Historical connection: I don’t know. Let’s ask Professor Silvia Shannon!

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Point-Counterpoint: Masur versus Dubrulle on the Biggest Disasters in U.S. Military History

Custer's Last Stand

Some weeks ago, on the History Department Facebook page, we posted an article by George Dvorsky on the “Eight Biggest Disasters in U.S. Military History.” As expected, the post generated some discussion, much of it critical of the list. Professors Dubrulle and Masur thought a discussion of this flawed list would provide a good opportunity to offer their own thoughts on what does and does not constitute an American military disaster. In doing so, they hoped their ideas would show something about how historians attack a question.

The original post offered the following criteria in determining what the biggest military disasters were: “For the purposes of this list, therefore, a ‘military disaster’ will be defined as a historically significant episode in which the U.S. military endured any of the following problems: protracted mission failure, an inability to thwart enemy action, or a breakdown in command and control structure. It can also include an embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat.”

Using this standard, Dvorsky’s list was as follows:

The American Invasion of Canada (1812)
The Capture of Harper’s Ferry (1862)
The Battle of Antietam (1862)
The Pancho Villa Expedition (1916-1917)
The American Defense of the Philippines (1941-1942)
The Battle of Kasserine Pass (1943)
The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)
The American Disbanding of the Iraqi Army (2003)

Let’s start with Professor Masur’s thoughts. . . .

Professor Masur

I’m not sure that I am equipped to provide my own list of America’s “top military disasters.” I’m not a military historian, and as a result I would say that I am not particularly well-versed on specific details of America’s military conflicts. Moreover, I tend to focus on America in the twentieth century, meaning my knowledge of earlier American military affairs is a bit sketchy. That’s too bad, because the earlier discussion highlighted how many Civil War battles would be good candidates for this list. Finally, while my own research deals with an American military conflict (the Vietnam War), it is a conflict that is often studied without a primary focus on the sorts of military engagements that might make up a list of this nature.

Before offering a list, I’ll try to explain the general rules or guidelines I am using for determining what is a “military disaster.”

  • The result of a decision or action that was made, primarily or in large part, by members of the military. This rules out, e.g., the decision to commit American support to South Vietnam and eventually escalate and Americanize the conflict. It also rules out the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. These two decisions would likely rank among the biggest foreign policy mistakes since World War II, and they of course had significant repercussions for the military. But the decisions themselves were not, in my view, military disasters.
  • The decision had significant negative repercussions for the United States, and the negative consequences can be persuasively seen as outweighing any positive outcomes that may have resulted from the decision. This might mean that the decision resulted in significant American casualties, but it could also mean that the decision had economic repercussions or in some way undermined America’s strategic interests. Both the Vietnam War and the second Gulf War would meet the this standard.
  • The negative consequences of the disaster can be reasonably traced to the decision itself. The failure to convincingly defeat Germany in World War I may have created conditions that contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. But so many other factors emerged in the years after World War I that it would be hard for me to consider this a direct result of World War I.

There are a couple of military disasters that popped into my head, but for a variety of reasons I decided to leave them off the list.

The Tet Offensive (1968)
Historians have written countless pages on the Tet Offensive, devoting a significant portion to debating whether or not the battle was a defeat for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. The consensus today seems to be that the battle was not militarily crippling for either U.S. forces or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN—the South Vietnamese armed forces who were allied with the U.S.). In fact, the National Liberation Front or “Viet Cong” suffered terrible losses in the fighting. At the same time, the battle did contribute to growing American discontent with the prolonged military effort. U.S. forces may have erred in not being more prepared for the attack, but because the U.S. reacted quickly and repelled the offensive it was not, in my estimation, a military disaster.

Pearl Harbor (1941)
This is an interesting candidate. A number of people commenting on the original piece noted that Pearl Harbor would be an obvious choice. While it was a disaster for the United States, an intriguing counterargument could be made that Pearl Harbor was a far greater military disaster for Japan. Professor Dubrulle can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that some Japanese observers at the time anticipated that Pearl Harbor would spell the eventual doom for Japan’s expansion in the Pacific. This raises a semantic or philosophical point: can the same battle be a disaster for both sides? I can see the argument for yes, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll go with “no” and therefore keep Pearl Harbor off my list.

So with all of that out of the way, what would I include?

Little Bighorn (1876)
I know next to nothing about the serious scholarship on Little Bighorn, so my view is rooted almost entirely in the way the battle is perceived in the popular imagination. But come on—Custer and his men getting annihilated by the Dakota Indians? Of course that has to be on the list.

The Decision to Push North of the 38th Parallel and Approach the Chinese Border in the Korean War (1950)
This makes sense because it so clearly falls at the feet of the military commander, General Douglas MacArthur. His decision to press the advantage against the North Koreans was arrogant and reckless. Moreover, he stubbornly refused to consider the consequences of his decision. His decision arguably prolonged the war, leading to widespread American casualties. And it is worth remembering that the victims of his decision were not entirely or even primarily Americans—Chinese, North Korean, and South Korean troops all suffered heavy losses, and the war had disastrous consequences for Korean civilians.

Westmoreland’s Attrition Strategy in Vietnam (1964)
This was, as far as I know, a decision made by William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam from 1964-68. Most historians admit that it was a terrible mistake. Interestingly, this is one of the few issues that “orthodox” Vietnam War historians (that is, historians who tend to think the American intervention was a mistake) and “revisionist” Vietnam War historians (those who think that it was a justifiable and necessary war that could have been won) tend to agree upon. The orthodox historians view it as evidence of America’s inability to understand the conflict in Vietnam, particularly its political and social dimensions. The revisionists argue that Westmoreland’s decision was one of the factors that prevent the United States from prevailing in the conflict—an outcome, they argue, that was within reach.

There are probably more disasters to include. I’ll give honorable mention to two disasters from the Spanish-American War. One was the pacification of the Philippines once the war ended. The pacification effort lasted for years and was far more deadly for both Americans and Filipinos than the war itself. I don’t know enough about it to say whether this was the responsibility of the military or civilian leadership. The Spanish-American War was also notoriously mismanaged. The U.S. prevailed in spite of this mismanagement, but it likely led to the unnecessary death of American soldiers who were improperly outfitted or fed during the conflict.

Now for Professor Dubrulle. . . .

Professor Dubrulle

I’d like to start by stating that I don’t like Dvorsky’s criteria. First, they are vague. What exactly is a “historically significant episode”? Second, “protracted mission failure” and “inability to thwart enemy action” amount to pretty much the same thing—an inability to impose one’s will on the enemy. Third, a “breakdown in command and control structure” seems like an unusual item to include on the list. Is that an essential feature of military disaster? Fourth, “embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat” could mean many things. Yet perhaps most important of all, this list is something of a catch-all, consisting of very different and inconsistent ideas. (Indeed, the list seems to be inspired by the Wikipedia entry for “List of Military Disasters.”)

At the same time, I don’t believe that Dvorsky has applied his own criteria particularly well. Was the Pancho Villa expedition a “historically significant episode”? Why was the Battle of the Wabash (1791) left out? It was very badly fought, and as a result, a quarter of the U.S. regular army was wiped out by the Western Indian Confederacy. Moreover, a number of Civil War battles could meet Dvorsky’s standard better than Harper’s Ferry and Antietam. And the Bay of Pigs? Really?

The phrase “military disaster” requires a more precise definition. It could mean a) a battle that was badly fought and lost or b) a battle lost that had very bad ramifications. There is an important distinction between the two. For instance, the Fetterman Fight (1866) and the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) fit in the former category. They were very badly lost, but their ramifications were somewhat limited. Pearl Harbor, however, definitely falls in the second category. Arguments could be made for both definitions of “military disaster,” but my preference would be for the second one because battles  meeting this standard possess greater historical significance.

These considerations bring me to Matt’s thoughts. I know I shouldn’t have read his contribution before writing my own (that’s a bit like cheating), but I couldn’t stop myself. Matt makes a lot of sense to me, but in light of the comments I’ve made above, I’d like to modify one of his criteria—the one concerning “negative repercussions.” It makes sense that we define this phrase by identifying it with existential threats to the United States or, at the very least, extremely difficult (and ominous) political or strategic problems.

Otto von Bismarck supposedly once said, “There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” Americans have been lucky or powerful enough to avoid battles that presented existential threats to their nation. Yet we can still create an interesting list of battles based on this criterion.

The Battle of Long Island (1776)
Hardly anybody remembers this battle, but it was the largest of the Revolutionary War and almost led to the end of the American struggle for independence. It was fought in August 1776, shortly after the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. George Washington sought to defend New York City by stationing men on the southern tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights on Long Island (which overlooked Manhattan). The British landed on Staten Island before sending a large force to Gravesend Bay on Long Island (east of where the Americans were). They drove Washington’s force off the Heights of Guan and pushed them into Brooklyn Village, pinning the Americans against the East River. In other words, the Americans were now surrounded—stuck between the East River and the British. At this point, had the British decided to press their advantage and attacked Washington’s disorganized army, they would have captured almost all of it. Instead, they settled in for a siege. This decision gave Washington time to escape to Manhattan. In a daring and risky operation, a regiment of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, under the command of John Glover, quietly rowed the American forces across the East River at night, practically under the nose of the Royal Navy. Had the British acted with more alacrity, they could have bagged 19,000 Continentals and militia along with Washington himself. The Revolution would have been over right after it had started, and there would have been no United States at all.

The Battle of Antietam (1862)
This battle belongs on the list, but not for Dvorsky’s reasons. During the summer of 1862, the British Cabinet began to think about either recognizing the Confederacy or intervening in the war. Recognition would only come, though, if the Confederacy had pretty much secured its independence beyond a doubt (after the Seven Days’ Battles and the Second Battle of Bull Run, some members of the Cabinet believed it was well on its way to attaining this objective). Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, was of this opinion. Those who favored intervention (like Earl Russell, the Foreign Secretary, and William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) believed the war was a terrible humanitarian disaster for both America and Britain (due to the interruption of commerce, particularly cotton trade, and the potential for a huge slave insurrection) that had no end in sight. They favored British mediation (in conjunction with probably France and Russia) that would probably have led to the independence of the Confederacy. The traditional view of Antietam (which was a tactical draw but a strategic Northern victory) was that it arrested British moves toward recognition or intervention. The North showed that it still had plenty of fight, or so the argument went, and the battle allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped make the war about slavery. The North’s willingness to keep fighting, along with the new moral crusade it had embraced, supposedly led the British to reconsider interfering in the war. However, as Howard Jones and a number of other scholars have pointed out, Antietam made some British Cabinet members more inclined to pursue mediation; the draw at Antietam suggested the war would drag on even longer, doing even more harm to both American and British interests. Fortunately, in November 1862, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, the Secretary of State for War, rallied the Cabinet against mediation (which France favored at that point). In all likelihood, mediation would have meant the splitting of the United States.

Pearl Harbor (1941)
I get the problem that Matt is struggling with when it comes to Pearl Harbor. By attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started a war with the United States that it only had a slim chance of winning. Even the Japanese leadership felt this way. We can say, then, that in the long run and from a political point of view, the attack was a terrible Japanese mistake. But in the short run, the attack was a big tactical success and presented the United States with great operational and strategic difficulties. These difficulties hampered American attempts to deal with Japanese advances in the eastern Pacific. Among other things, they doomed the American garrison on the Philippines. The American disaster at Pearl Harbor, however, was mitigated by good luck and some excellent foresight. The Japanese did not catch any of the American aircraft carriers in the harbor, they failed to destroy American oil storage facilities in Hawaii, and of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor, only two were permanently lost (one never left service, three returned to service in 1942, and two more became available in 1944). Even more important, in July 1940 Congress had passed the Vinson-Walsh Act (otherwise known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act) that funded a dramatic expansion of the U.S. Navy. The vessels funded by this act did not begin to become available until 1942, but the United States did not lose as much time as it might have otherwise in replacing its naval losses. Still, the attack forced the U.S. Navy to fight on its back heel for much of 1942—at the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.

Battle of Bataan (1942)
Pearl Harbor compromised the American defense of the Philippines. The Japanese were determined to take the Philippine archipelago because it sat astride their line of communication with their southeast Asian possessions. Although the American defense of Luzon (conducted by an army that consisted mainly of Filipinos), which eventually centered on the Bataan peninsula, was often marked by great courage, it was not always well led or conceived. Eventually, 15,000 American and 60,000 Filipino soldiers were compelled to surrender. This was the largest surrender of forces under American command ever. It deprived the United States of an important base from which to contest Japanese advances in Asia; the United States would have to work its way across the southern and central Pacific to get at Japan. And it was yet another defeat of Allied power in Asia (French Indochina, Dutch Indonesia, and British Malaysia and Burma were all conquered by the Japanese at this time) that did much to discredit Western colonialism in Asia–a development of world significance.

Tet Offensive (1968)
I will put Tet on my list. Yes, Tet was a military defeat for the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam. But if war is a tool by which we seek political objectives, in the long run, Tet contributed in a big way to eventual North Vietnamese victory. As a result of Tet, much of the American public questioned the credibility and honesty of the American government, an attitude that was only augmented by the sudden rise in American casualties and the army’s request for troop increases in Vietnam. The request threatened to put America’s entire manpower policy under stress (it might have required a massive call-up of reservists), increase inflation, exacerbate America’s balance-of-payment problem, and worsen a looming economic crisis. More immediately, Tet shook the confidence of Lyndon Johnson and his advisors. Although nobody could see it clearly at the time, this was the beginning of the end. Of course, there’s defeat, and then there’s defeat. As a result of our loss, we did not have to bow to new North Vietnamese masters (see the Onion headline below). But the American defeat in Vietnam had a big impact on foreign policy, led to a long-running debate in the military about how best to fight little wars, and fundamentally shaped the attitudes of the public.

Onion Vietnam Wins War

The Battle of Bladensburg (1814)
Enjoying control of Chesapeake Bay, the British were interested in launching a series of raids there to tie down American forces and make them unavailable for an invasion of Canada. Major General Robert Ross, relying on support from Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s fleet, decided to launch a raid against Washington, DC and Baltimore. For this task, he had only four battalions of regular infantry, one battalion of Royal Marines, and assorted auxiliaries—a total of 4,300 men. Facing him were something on the order of one regular infantry battalion, some dragoons from the regular army, a small collection of sailors, and over 6,000 American militiamen. To make a long story short, the British assaulted the Americans at Bladensburg and routed the militia which ran through the streets of Washington. The British were able, then, to enter the city and burn most of its public buildings, including the White House (then referred to as the Presidential Mansion) and the Capitol. The strategic results of this action were barren; the British failed to capture Baltimore, they had to retreat to their ships in the bay, and no significant long-term results issued from the burning of Washington. But, oh, the shame of having the young nation’s capital occupied and put to the torch! And after such an inglorious defeat!

Very Short Reviews: Andrew Roberts’ _Napoleon: A Life_

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York: Viking, 2014).

  1. Roberts argues that every generation needs to rewrite and rethink Napoleon; Roberts seeks to counter the work of previous historians who have tended to see Napoleon as a kind of precursor to Hitler.
  2. In Roberts’ very readable and highly intelligent retelling, Napoleon is a figure who served as a bridge between the Old Regime and the  modern age.
  3. Napoleon’s membership in the Old Regime petty nobility gave him access to a first-rate military education, and his natural curiosity led him to read a great number of Enlightenment works—but he was responsible for safeguarding the finest ideas of the French Revolution that helped usher in the modern age.
  4. Eventually, according to Roberts, Napoleon became the last of the Enlightenment absolutists who promoted “the ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on.”
  5. The ethos of his military education, however, led him to express “little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism,” but Roberts argues that as far as Enlightenment despots went, Napoleon was not terribly despotic.
  6. Thus there is a tension throughout this book between Napoleon the inspired lawgiver and administrator versus Napoleon the overreaching and ruthless dictator (General Paul Thiébault: “He [Napoleon] can subdue, but he cannot reconcile.”); this tension reflects, perhaps, the fundamental tension within the man.
  7. On the whole, Roberts’ skillful apologia for Napoleon is successful because it does eventually (and sometimes grudgingly) recognize the more unpleasant sides of Napoleon’s character, but at times, Roberts’ sympathies color his judgment, such as when he tries to mitigate Napoleon’s attempt to reimpose slavery in Haiti.
  8. Roberts tends to defend Napoleon by claiming that if the emperor did something bad, other countries were doing more or less the same thing (or worse) at the time, but such an inclination leads inevitably to the following question: shouldn’t one demand more of Napoleon (if he was indeed such an Enlightened figure) and revolutionary France than the unreformed, Old Regime monarchies of Europe?
  9. Roberts however, is forthright about recognizing Napoleon’s mistakes that led to his overthrow (which is different from conceding that Napoleon was a bad man)—these include the arrest of Pope Pius VII, mismanaging an attempt to forge a marriage alliance with Tsar Alexander I’s family, believing that a marriage to Marie Louise would somehow assuage the Habsburgs, providing insufficient military support for the French occupation of Spain, allowing Marshal Bernadotte to become king of Sweden, implementing the Continental System (particularly the licensing regime), making several fundamental miscalculations over the course of his invasion of Russia in 1812, and committing a series of errors during the Waterloo campaign (probably his worst performance as a commanding general).
  10. On several occasions, Roberts adopts such a Napoleon-eye view of the subject (for understandable reasons), that he a) takes Napoleon’s own assessment of his achievements at face value and b) he sometimes fails to represent adequately the motives or thoughts of Napoleon’s adversaries (e.g. the British, in particular, are represented as being motivated by nothing more than an irrational malevolence).

Since this book is 800 pages long, I can’t help indulging myself, breaking the rules, and adding two sentences:

Interesting Historical Fact: During the invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon seriously considered halting his advance at Vitebsk along the Dvina and Dniepr Rivers (most of his marshals wanted to stop here); in 1941, Operation Barbarossa planned to destroy the Soviet armies inside the line of the Dvina-Dniepr.
Gross Fact: Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was born and raised on Martinique in the Caribbean, where she fell into the habit of chewing on cane sugar; as a result, by the time she was an adult, she had “blackened stubs for teeth” (Laure d’Abrantès: “Had she [Josephine] only possessed teeth, she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.”).

Hugh Dubrulle

The History Professor Shuffle II: Professor Dubrulle

This post is the second installment in our ongoing feature, the History Professor Shuffle, in which we ask a professor from the History Department to put his or her  playlist on shuffle and then explain what’s going on with the first five songs that come up. This time around, it’s Professor Dubrulle who has to explain himself.


Because it cost money, I didn’t get in the habit of using iTunes. Instead, I use Spotify (which my thirteen-year-old son says is for “losers”). If you don’t get the premium service (which also costs money—do you see a pattern here?), and you don’t have wifi, your Spotify playlist goes automatically into shuffle mode. I created one playlist consisting of 614 songs which amounts, apparently, to 41 hours and 27 minutes of music. I went into shuffle mode, and this is what I picked up.

1) The Pretenders, “My City Was Gone” (1983)

When I was in high school, The Pretenders were not cool the way other bands were: the Violent Femmes (who have dropped off the face of the earth since then),  U2, (remember, this was a long time ago), Def Leppard (our school had an official “smoker’s corner,” and everybody there listened to Def Leppard), or the Talking Heads (required listening for everybody who wanted to look like an intellectual). The Pretenders were never my favorite band in the way that, say, The Clash or Led Zeppelin at different times were my favorite bands. But I always liked The Pretenders, and I never got tired of them. And Chrissy Hynde had a great voice. This song has always stuck with me because among other things, it says that you never can go home again which is the situation I find myself in. As some of you might know, the beginning bass line served as the opening theme for Rush Limbaugh’s show. Apparently, he liked the bass line, and he was tickled pink about using a song by Hynde who was a well-known liberal, environmentalist, and animal-rights activist. Hynde and Limbaugh apparently got in some sort of dispute about his use of the song which was eventually resolved when he started paying a fee for it, and she donated the proceeds to PETA. In the end, somewhat surprisingly, everything was settled amicably between the two, but I think Hynde kind of won that one.

Historical connection: Not one that I can think of, aside from the fact that the song chronicles the disintegration of America’s Rust Belt (primarily Akron, Ohio).

2) Kasabian, “Fire” (2009)

I originally ran into this song because an instrumental version was the official theme song for the English Premier League from 2010 to 2013. Every time I watched game highlights or recaps, this song would come on. It’s kind of catchy. With vocals, it’s not that bad either, but the video is so dumb, it makes me cringe. The instrumental EPL version is below.

Historical connection: Nothing, aside from the fact that it was the EPL’s theme song for three years.

3) Camper van Beethoven, “Tania” (1988)

I have no idea how or when I first heard Camper van Beethoven. They were headquartered in Santa Cruz for a spell, so they were sort of local for me, and I know they were very popular on the college circuit in California when I was an undergraduate. But I am positive that I bought Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the album on which “Tania” appears, as a cassette in 1988. I remember listening to it on my Walkman (!) while hanging out with a girlfriend on the beach that summer. Camper van Beethoven was an iconoclastic band that mixed all sorts of styles together. For a long time, they had a violinist, too (you can hear him on this track). I really like the duet between the violin and the guitar in this song. David Lowery, the lead singer for Camper van Beethoven, later went on to form Cracker which had several fairly big hits, including “Euro-Trash Girl” and “Low.”

Patty_Hearst

Historical connection: This song has the best one of all. It’s about when Patty Hearst (granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the fabulously wealthy newspaper publisher) was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California apartment in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an organization devoted to the overthrown of capitalism. The SLA wanted Hearst’s father to use his influence to free some of their people from jail and distribute food to the needy. Meanwhile, they brainwashed Hearst, and she joined the group under the code name “Tania” (hence the title of the song). She participated in a number of crimes, including a bank robbery. She was arrested, tried, and convicted. President Jimmy Carter eventually commuted her sentence. The image above was part of some SLA propaganda that showed Hearst had joined the organization as Tania. The song refers to the “seven-headed dragon” behind Hearst which was a symbol of the SLA.

4) Black Sabbath, “War Pigs” (1970)

Am I glad this showed up on the shuffle. Ozzy Osbourne is a joke now, but there was a time when he was really cool, and this might be the best song he ever did. This song came out when I was a toddler, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you heard on the radio. I had to wait until high school to hear things like “Iron Man” and “Crazy Train” (which actually was from Osbourne’s first solo album). But something like “War Pigs” was a bit different, and I don’t remember hearing that until I was in college. I’m thankful that many of my college friends were in rock bands, so I received quite a musical education. Say what you want about this video, which is as over-the-top as the song, but it has a certain tableau vivant quality that I enjoy.

Historical connection: Geezer Butler, the bassist and chief songwriter for Black Sabbath, claimed the song was a protest against Vietnam. Ozzy Osbourne argued the band knew nothing about Vietnam and that the song was just anti-war in a general sort of way. I wonder who has the better memory here?

5) Gorillaz, “19-2000” (2005)

“DARE,” “Feel Good, Inc.” and “19-2000,” all of which are by the Gorillaz, are among my daughter’s favorite songs. She really likes the videos, and the one for “19-2000” is definitely her favorite, but it’s clear she thinks the songs are a lot of fun. Every year, her elementary school has a father-daughter dance. Every year, we’d go, and she’d ask the dj to play “DARE.” And every year, the dj would just keep playing Katy Perry instead. So every year, we’d come back home, play “DARE” on YouTube, and dance to it at the house. The video kind of gives me the creeps (a gigantic moose by the freeway–what’s up with that?), but my daughter doesn’t seem to mind.

Historical connection: I can’t think of any, can you?

Very Short Reviews: John Merriman’s _Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune_

Merriman Massacre

Today, One Thing after Another is instituting a new, recurring feature: Very Short Reviews. Inspired by the Oxford University Press series, Very Short Introductions, these posts will review books in ten sentences, each of which we will number so that you can see that they indeed amount to ten sentences. Usually, One Thing after Another does not identify authors unless they are from outside of the department. In this case we will make an exception. We hope you will enjoy this feature–and maybe read some of these books.


John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  1. John Merriman’s book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, views the Paris Commune from a Communard perspective and deals primarily with its suppression.
  2. This perspective is a bit problematic because since it does not devote equal attention to the thoughts and doings of the French government in Versailles, it makes that government’s actions appear inscrutable, unfathomable, and generally unsympathetic.
  3. Merriman clearly sympathizes with the Communards because they represented working-class Parisians who were badly oppressed.
  4. Merriman could have augmented the readers’ sympathy for the Commune if he had spent more time discussing its objectives and the various reforms it intended.
  5. It is sometimes hard to like a Commune leadership that was long on talk, short on action, and badly organized; Merriman is a bit easy on this leadership—he is certainly indulgent of people like Raoul Rigault, the Commune’s prefect of police.
  6. Rank-and-file Communards also liked to talk a lot, but when push came to shove, the numbers who were willing to risk their skins seemed to dissipate rather quickly (although those who did fight were certainly courageous enough).
  7. Merriman is not a military historian, so his account of military affairs (e.g. the Franco-Prussian War that preceded the Commune and the suppression of the Commune itself) is a little vague at times.
  8. Unfortunately for the Parisian proletariat, when the Versailles government reconquered Paris, it was rather indiscriminate in determining who had served the Commune—it shot large numbers of working-class people on the slightest pretext (perhaps 17,000 according to Merriman, although historians disagree on the figures).
  9. Mass executions of Communards, Merriman argues, foreshadowed the political massacres associated with the 20th century.
  10. Merriman is very good at capturing the mood of Communard Paris from a variety of perspectives, and his recounting of the massacres that followed the government’s victory is chilling.

Hugh Dubrulle