Conference Program


85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky


Title: Charting the Landscape of Military Culture
Abstract: The study of the complex interactions between culture and human behavior by scholars across
many disciplines has evolved significantly over the past half-century. Most now agree that while
culture provides a repertoire, or "tool-kit" of values, norms, standards, etc., it does not dictate human
behavior. Rather, it functions in a way that brackets and directs individual vision, in many ways
delimiting perceptions of what is possible, acceptable, or correct behavior in a given circumstance or
environment. In step with these developments, military historians have recently begun to closely
examine the structure and function of "military culture," its relationship to prevailing cultural norms in
a parent society, as well as its historical role in influencing the behavior of soldiers. Historian Isabel
Hull has defined the concept as "habitual practices, default programs, hidden assumptions, and
unreflected cognitive frames" embraced by a nation's military.1 While usually conceived of as
informing the entirety of a nation's military in a relatively homogenous manner resulting from uniform
training and indoctrination, military culture exists simultaneously on many different (and often
conflicting) levels. Historians are only beginning to understand this multi-level structure of military
culture and its historical influence on military behavior.
This panel will introduce three case studies in American military history that range from 1862 to
1969, and examine the ways in which three distinct levels of military culture (formal military, unit, and
soldiers' culture) have influenced the behavior of American combatants across three major conflicts. It
is hoped that in so doing, the panelists can inspire further exploration into the landscape of military
culture through time and across the globe. While each of the case studies is necessarily anchored in a
particular time and place, the larger ideas expressed by each are meant to be widely applicable to the
study of armies past and present.
 
Joshua Akers, UNC Chapel Hill
Participant's Paper Title: "I'm one of those...people who still believes in the old time way": Soldiers' Culture and the Transformation of Alfred Fowler, Jr., in Vietnam, 1968-1969
Participant's Paper Abstract: On May 8, 1968, Alfred Fowler, Jr., an African-American draftee from rural Sanford, North Carolina arrived in Vietnam would spend the following year as a crewman for a 105mm Howitzer in Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 321st Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division?a regiment deployed from Fort Bragg during the Tet Offensive provided fire support for American forces engaged in fierce street-to-street, house-to-house fighting in the city of Hue.
Fowler entered the service identifying as a conservative who hewed to the "old time way" of doing things and defined himself against soldiers in his unit whom he perceived were "liberal" or "too liberal" for his tastes. Although Fowler was disturbed by the war interrupting his domestic pursuits?he was a newlywed with a well-paying factory job?he believed in the inherent necessity of serving one's country and expressed favorable opinions about the official reasons he was being sent to Vietnam. Six months later Fowler expressed loathing for President Richard Nixon and diplomats "jiving" around the peace table, considered company through regimental leadership in the 321st corrupt and incompetent, and had adopted his comrades' practice of smoking marijuana to relieve tension.
This paper argues that the sources of Fowler's changing perspectives originated from his continued links to the home front, where Sanford had erupted in intense racial unrest, and his immersion and integration into a shared soldiers' culture that by late-1968 was being actively shaped by a healthy skepticism for the war, libertine Counterculture social practices, and the need to survive a one-year tour and return home unscathed. This paper more broadly stresses the utility of 'soldiers' culture' as an analytical concept for unpacking the webs of social relationships that structured soldiers' practices, behaviors, and attitudes in war.
Eric Burke, UNC Chapel Hill
Participant's Paper Title: "The discordant elements which go to make up our armies": Regimental Culture in Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862-1863
Participant's Paper Abstract: Military historians have become increasingly interested in the ways culture influences the operational behavior of armies. This exploration has uncovered multiple levels at which military culture functions: from national "ways of war" and strategic cultures that guide apparent preferences in waging war, to the inter-personal dynamics that shape the climates of high-commands, down to a libertine "soldiers' culture" of the rank-and-file which often runs in opposition to an established military culture enshrined in formal doctrine.
Still missing from this discussion is an examination of the structure and role of culture at the level most combatants conduct operations: the small-unit. Soldiers experience war not as members of a national military or soldiery, but as members of distinct clans, groups, or units, each developing distinct cultures shaped by sociocultural roots, shared historical experiences, interactions between leaders and followers, and a myriad of other factors that produce a unique unit sub-culture. While unit culture contains within it elements of national military and soldiers' culture, it shapes unit-level behavior in ways distinct from other commands. When combined within structures like brigades, or divisions, unit cultures interact in patterns that influence the operational behaviors of these larger organizations.
This paper introduces these concepts through a case study of the regiments comprising W. T. Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps over the course of the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. It shows how Sherman's efforts to culturally homogenize the volunteer regiments of his command ran aground, and how the heterogeneity of regimental cultures within the corps developed and had real operational consequences during the campaign. Ultimately, it suggests that military historians can benefit from questioning assumptions of cultural homogeneity between historical military units, and instead begin to ask questions about how they were different and why it mattered.
Benjamin Schneider, George Mason University
Participant's Paper Title: "I Didn't Consider Them As Prisoners": Law, Culture, and Refusal of Quarter in the U.S. Army during the Second World War
Participant's Paper Abstract: In July 1943, William O. Perry, Inspector General for the 45th Infantry division, asked Captain John Compton why men in his company shot thirty-six Italian prisoners of war. Compton calmly explained that "these people aren't prisoners to me, they were snipers, so I had them shot." When pressed further, Compton elaborated that the men he ordered murdered used "pretty low sniping tactics" and failed to surrender until after his company approached within 200 yards?both of which, he asserted, denied them their right to receive quarter.

Compton's response was peculiar. Murder was a capital crime, and to admit to ordering men shot was to court a hanging. Even more so when the army's own guidance on international law was clear - any enemy soldier who surrendered had to be taken prisoner, even in situations when military necessity might have justified shooting them. Certainly no exemptions existed for snipers - who were also employed by the U.S. Army - or for when the fighting closed within 200 yards. Why then was Compton so certain that he acted lawfully? And why was he so confident as to stake his life on the fact that his fellow soldiers would share his interpretation of the law?

The answer is found in the gap between the formal expectations of the War Department on the treatment of a defeated enemy and the priorities and folkways of American frontline soldiers. This paper argues that despite the War Department's unambiguous position on the illegality of refusing quarter to a surrendering foe, in practice U.S. soldiers held to a more limited and idiosyncratic interpretation of this prohibition. Instead, the average combatant was guided by a soldiers' culture dimly cognizant of formal law but much more powerfully shaped by both the need to survive and a sportsman's idea of fair play.
Wayne Lee, UNC Chapel Hill
Huw Davies, King's College London



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