Visiting military writers challenge
Norwich students in the classroom © April 3, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications
For budding historians at the nation’s oldest private military college, it was a rare opportunity: 90 minutes with some of the country’s foremost military writers.
While authors featured at Norwich University’s 14th-annual Colby Symposium addressed topics ranging from note taking to broad philosophical discussions of morality in war, Norman Hutson, a sophomore, simply wanted advice on getting started.
“What are some strategies to find a really good topic?” he asked during an introductory-level class, Historical Methods.
Three experts were visiting his class as part of the symposium. Founded in 1996, the Colby brings authors, historians and filmmakers to Norwich for a two-day residency in March.
Carlo D’Este, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Norwich graduate and military historian whose most recent book is about Winston Churchill, took the challenge. “What moves you?” he asked Hutson. “What are you interested in, what piques your interest? ... A lot of it is trial and error. You keep narrowing it down until it gets workable.”
Roger Cirillo, author and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, suggested bibliographies and footnotes.
“Those lead you to interesting facts and stories that haven’t been written about,” he said.
This year’s symposium brought six authors to Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus. They visited 22 classes and participated in a panel discussion on “Chaos & Conflict: National Security Challenges in 2009 and Beyond.”
“I’d love to be a historian,” said Hutson, a Marine Corps officer, after class. “I think being able to write is important. Writing is crucial as an officer in the Marine Corps.”
For Historical Methods, authors focused on the mechanics of research and writing. Online databases are great, writers agreed, but don’t forget to visit the library.
“I believe in accidental discovery,” said James Hornfischer, author of two books about World War II. “Go to the stacks and wander around. ... Spend time breathing the rotting paper in the library.”
Another student said he struggled to figure out how extensive his note taking should be.
“The key to really good writing,” responded D’Este, “is that it’s better to have too much than too little. Editing is the key to successful writing. If it’s an eight-page paper, write 12 to 14 pages. Then ask yourself, what do I need to cut to get the message out? The work begins when you finish the manuscript.”
In 20th Century U.S. Military History, an upper-level class, D’Este and author Donald Miller had a wide-ranging discussion about challenges facing the U.S. today, including border security, Iran, cyber attacks and anthrax. They often challenged students’ assumptions.
One student, discussing financial assistance for the education of illegal aliens, called it an idea that really “grinds” his gears.
Miller disagreed. “Better give them medical attention and a driver’s license. It’s better that they be educated than not, because then they’ll fall into the drug culture.” Miller has written nine books and been involved in the production of more than two dozen television documentaries and film projects.
D’Este urged students to “think before you pull the trigger.”
“Is war the answer to everything?” he asked. “Is it a sign of weakness to turn to diplomacy? ... This whole idea, that we’re tough guys—it hasn’t worked.”
And in Management of Information Systems, a class for criminal justice majors, discussion touched on leadership styles, working with Hollywood directors and the horrors of warfare.
Miller explained his motivation. “I got involved in military history because I’m interested in the human condition,” he said. “War is a great study of the human condition. How will I perform, will I fight, will I run?
“How [they] fight tells us a great deal about a nation’s character,” he added.
While discussing leadership, students described what they learn in ROTC. “We’re told that the mission comes first,” said Jessica Corl, a junior in Air Force ROTC.
“That’s an assumption. That may not be true,” Miller answered. “People can make flag rank and be dumb as a fence post.”
Miller explained that disobeying orders was sometimes the right thing to do, as officers on the battlefield sometimes know more than off-site commanders. “Grant at Vicksburg put an order in his pocket, and turned the entire Civil War.”
Joseph L. Galloway, recently retired as senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, agreed. “There are orders and there are orders. A good commander knows when to follow them and when to interpret them.
“Of all the principles of leadership, the most important is love,” he concluded. “You must love what you are doing. You are leading men into death. You have to love the troops you lead.”
After class, Corl, who plans to be a security forces officer and expects to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, reflected on their message; that the mission and the people can be equally important. “This is a different perspective,” she said. “It’s good to hear.”