Cornell University Press

Battlegrounds: Cornell Studies in Military History Series

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My great-uncles fought in WWII, drafted from their homes in Brooklyn and sent over to fight in the European theater. In December of 1944, they were both in a quiet sector of the front in the Ardennes Forest, when they heard that the Germans had launched a surprise attack, broken through, and were coming their way. They both (separately and at a distance from each other) tore off their dog tags and threw them away. Why? The dog-tags had their religious preferences on them, and the Star of David that the army used to show Jewishness was a potential mark of death for them if they were captured. They knew —standing on the battlefield itself— that the war was not just about combat and fighting, but about culture and society and a horrific ideology that might reach all the way from its toxic home in Nazi Germany and kill them. They understood that their war was inseparably linked to the nations and communities fighting them. We must as well.

My great-uncles fought in WWII, drafted from their homes in Brooklyn and sent over to fight in the European theater. 

Military history is thus as much about societies and cultures as it is about combat. Neither can be neglected.  Writing about that history must recognize that battlefield and home field are inextricably intermingled. Insight into one drives insight into the other. To write a military history of the American Civil War requires thinking deeply about how the permeation of slavery through every level of southern culture affected their approach to the fight, an ideology that led Robert E. Lee to use military resources to capture formerly enslaved Black Americans as he marched through Pennsylvania on his way to Gettysburg. Military history needs also to look at ground-level combat in battles like Gettysburg to understand how the fighting and violence there affected the enduring remembrance of the war in American culture and society. “Pickett’s Charge,” as it came to be known, was both the last day tactical gamble at Gettysburg and, later, an enduring piece of American public memory. Understanding both of these facets makes the military history of the Civil War more complete.

Military history is thus as much about societies and cultures as it is about combat. Neither can be neglected. 

This is what Battlegrounds: Cornell Studies in Military History series aims to do —bring the entirety of military history together to strive to understand all the broad scope of it:  the battles, but not just them; the societies, but not just them; the cultures, but not just them. This might be by looking at the way in which alcohol affected the behavior of German soldiers in the Holocaust, how the very stuff that Soviet soldiers carried on the Eastern Front in WWII shaped the way they fought, or even how an enduring myth of medieval chivalry helped drive how US fighter pilots approached their wars. Once we do that, we can understand better what my great uncles knew instinctively —that war at every level is shaped by the societies and cultures that fight, and the societies and cultures that fight are shaped at every level by their wars.


David J. Silbey is General Editor of our Battlegrounds: Cornell Studies in Military History series.


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