One Year Into my Master’s in History…

A year ago I enrolled at Portland State University to get a Master’s of Arts in History. After almost 20 years on a roller-coaster marketing career I decided to finally pursue my passion. I am very blessed that my wife has supported me (financially, emotionally, and spiritually) on this journey 100%. And she (and our boys) still do.

Now I am about halfway done. A year from now – God willing – I’ll be done with my Master’s Thesis (on clerical violence in medieval Germany) and submitting paperwork for a June 2018 graduation. Fingers crossed.

This has gone by so fast… I have completed 6 out of 10 graduate history courses: Roman Geography and Wordview, World History: Genocide, Intro to MA program, World History: Military History, Intro to Military History, Medieval Church and Reform, and 7 language classes – Latin and German – with at least 4 more to go (until I begin learning French).

I lost track of all the books and academic journal articles I’ve read (we read about 200 pgs/week/class). The photo at the top is most (not all) of the history books I’ve kept as a result of my classes. It fills one shelf. I will surely need another one shortly, since I am picking up books on a fairly regular basis as well. It saves me trips to the (rather limited) PSU library and helps out the authors and publishers (I’m sure these books aren’t exactly flying off the shelves).

When I started the program I was interested in majoring in world history or Roman history, but I have decided on Medieval Europe and Military History. These two fields have been very rewarding and luckily, each has a great deal of “room” left for new scholarship (and books) in which to be written. This is especially the case for Medieval Germany, which will be my further area of focus, and hence, my need to re-learn the German I learned in high school over 20 years ago (it has come back well, thank goodness).

The biggest struggles I’ve had so far is honing my academic writing skills, re-introducing myself to research, learning primary research, and learning Latin. Well, that and the mental hurdle of “what the fuck am I doing in school at 44?” or “am I too old for this?”. But those hurdles are slowly fading.

So far this experience has been one of the most rewarding and fun I’ve had. It is also exhausting. It’s amazing how much you can learn on a daily basis and how much you can accomplish with some savvy time management.

Next term I will be a Graduate Teaching Assistant (AKA getting paid to go to school), taking another 2 graduate history courses, and completing my second year Latin requirement. It will be another busy term, but it will be fun as heck, and I’ll continue to thank my wife and kids for letting me do what I enjoy. Their sacrifice will be repaid in a couple of years by long-term vacations in Germany and Switzerland while I do research.

Book Review: Barbarians and Brothers by Wayne Lee: Systematically Examining the Complexities of Violence in Early Modern Warfare

In Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865, Wayne Lee aimed to investigate instances of atrocious violence and determine their complexities. This study is significant because it challenged notions that racial demonization was at the root of atrocity.[1] At the heart of Lee’s exercise in deconstructing violence and its roots is to help explain its sources and contexts more thoroughly. In a nutshell, looking at the variety of treatment prisoners of war received in the conflicts Lee described elucidates his effort. During the Anglo-Irish wars in the sixteenth century, Irish rebels were executed or pardoned, depending upon varying conditions on the ground, and who was in charge.[2] In contrast, prisoners during the English civil wars possessed high value. Such prisoners were seen as “subjects” and might be expected to switch sides, and therefore, generally received light treatment.[3] Finally, American Indians’ practices of taking prisoners clashed so fundamentally with their Anglo-European adversaries’ views on prisoners (who could be taken, ransomed, or released) that the distance between these pracbarbarians-and-brotherstices only heightened their violent interactions over time. This example only opens the door to the importance of Lee’s study, and the myriad ways others can follow, build upon, or apply his framework. Its importance lies in its honesty that historical events are laden in complexity and context, which Lee analyzed in a case-study approach using both primary and secondary material.

In order to answer his question, Lee created a model to examine how certain factors and contexts intersected to produce levels of restraint and violence. These factors were broken down into a framework of ‘four C’s’. Lee defined these four C’s as capacity, control, calculation, and culture, and then explored them in a set of chronologic and thematic cases of warfare and conflict. Each factor was not applied along a spectrum or gradient, nor were they measured quantitatively–although statistics, charts, and figures were employed at times for great effect. Case in point, Lee’s line chart of England’s rising resource expenditures in Ireland, showing how England’s capacity to wage war increased over time.[4] Moreover, his emphasis on qualitative characteristics was generally what provided much of this subject’s interest. On the other hand, Lee’s four C’s framework very well may be crying out for just such a quantitative review or application. However, as it stands, Lee’s model accomplished what it set out to do.

Lee called capacity a state’s ability to mobilize force and exert violence.[5] Exploring the application of this theory in the book produced some counter-intuitive inferences. For instance, Lee said that before the industrial production of “explosives and their delivery systems, devastation was limited to the application of fire or the person-to-person infliction of violence.”[6] Meaning that prior to industrial-strength armies, limiting devastation meant limiting an army’s size and resources.[7] Therefore, a society’s demographics could restrain its application of force, whether it intended to or not. However, hiring mercenaries could circumvent this constraint, a practice which the English used to flesh out their forces while fighting Irish rebels.[8] The American Indians’ war-band recruitment process is another example of how demographics and capacity interact to restrain violence (or not). Since tribal power was split between two chiefs (one for war and the other for peace) and existed in a de-centralized society, it created the need for charismatic war leaders to put forth great effort to recruit soldiers.[9] Such a practice, “despite a generalized martial enthusiasm among young men” usually led to relatively small war parties.[10]

Levels of control were shown in each case study in a manner that is the most evolutionary of the four factors discussed by Lee. Attempts to control soldiers began in this period through social and religious customs, some–like the treatment of “rebels”–were based upon Roman legal tradition.[11] Gradually customs transformed into codes of behavior. These codes began informally through training and attempts at discipline, and eventually formalized into military law by the “culture of discipline”.[12] Such measures, like the regulations limiting soldiers’ ability to leave camp, were geared not only to curb violence against non-combatants, but also to restrict desertion opportunities.[13] This dynamic of control over soldiers often played out in Lee’s study as a chess-match between honor-bound officers and conscripts who were often called “roguish”. In each instance, results on the level of violence and its subsequent “frightfulness” varied.

Calculation is the term Lee used to identify the measures societies used to wage war, including its objectives and the society’s “different perceptions of necessity” to achieve victory.[14] Lee demonstrated how a society defined its adversaries impacted its level of violence or restraint against them. In conflicts against “subjects”–like between the sides in the English civil war or between American Continentals and British redcoats in the American Revolutionary War–frightful violence was often restrained. However, in conflicts against “traitors”–Anglo-Irish rebels in Munster, for example–such limits on frightful violence were often removed. In addition, the definition of victory itself mattered on the calculation of violence in conflicts. By the 18th century, nations had begun shifting to highly-trained, long-standing armies which required significant investments to train and maintain. This dynamic put a premium on “winning” without bearing unnecessary casualties or material losses.[15] Interestingly, calculation could also be fluid, which changed levels of violence and restraint even in the middle of a conflict. One such case Lee discussed was Queen Elizabeth’s desire for “clemencie before any other” against revolting subjects in Ireland.[16] However, her agent, the earl of Essex, instead executed a more destructive policy as a means to achieve victory.[17] During the English civil war, the English aristocracy applied calculation when balancing winning a war while remaining invested in the social structures that gave them power in the first place.[18]

Characteristics of culture, and the means of communication, were demonstrated time after time as a fourth critical factor. Namely, in the context of English colonization in America and its escalating violence with its native inhabitants. In this case, cultural miscalculation and miscommunication clashed immediately, creating a condition of dissonance which produced atrocities on both sides.[19] But culture is not enough to produce a predictable measure of violence. Lee pointed this out in the conclusion to his chapter on American Continental Army General Sullivan and his campaign against the Iroquois. Despite an overall trend of restraint that existed during the 1770s as a result of “a substantial intellectual and philosophical platform” that encouraged it, restraint was generally not applied to Indians.[20]

With Barbarians and Brothers, Lee achieved what he set out to do. By creating four memorable factors, defining them well, and putting them together in a thematic and chronological narrative, Lee has established a methodology that could be replicated to a variety of cases and conflicts. Lee also presented his material and argument in an accessible and narrative fashion, which aided in readability and created interest in further exploration.

[1] Wayne E. Lee, Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 5.

[2] Lee, 182.

[3] Lee, 182.

[4] Lee, 40.

[5] Lee, 5.

[6] Lee, 5.

[7] Lee, 5.

[8] Lee, 30.

[9] Lee, 148-149.

[10] Lee, 149.

[11] Lee, 20.

[12] Lee, 178-179.

[13] Lee, 179.

[14] Lee, 6.

[15] Lee, 190.

[16] Lee, 43.

[17] Lee, 43.

[18] Lee, 67.

[19] Lee, 166.

[20] Lee, 229.

Philanthropy in the Real World

I have just finished listening to an episode of the Waking Up podcast by Sam Harris, entitled “Being Good and Doing Good: A Conversation with William MacAskill“. In the podcast, Sam and William discuss altruism, and the ethical and moral responsibility we all have in the Western world to be philanthropic. Sam and William brought up many valid points regarding our affluence, the state of misery many in the third world experience in their lives, and the ethical and moral responsibility we westerners have to alleviate this misery.

I was introduced to Sam Harris and his Waking Up podcast via Dan Carlin several months ago, through episode 293 of Dan’s Common Sense podcast, where the pair sat down for a discussion on immigration, foreign policy, and other topics. I was hooked by Sam’s viewpoints and have since been an avid listener (and Patron) of his podcast. I have been a fan (and supporter) of Dan Carlin for over 5 years as well. Both of them are examples of what motivated, intelligent, and talented people can do in our digital era to advance our understanding of the world and our places in it, while providing enlightened entertainment with meaning and purpose. If you aren’t already, you should investigate Sam and Dan’s work.

In this episode of Waking Up, Being Good and Doing Good, Sam and William describe a powerful and thought-provoking analogy, which I will attempt to accurately summarize here for the purpose of context:

You are walking beside a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Do you jump in (and risk ruining your expensive clothes) to save the child, or do you continue walking?

Sam and William do a better job with this analogy than I do, but their answer, and most peoples’, is that yes, we’d jump in with hardly a thought. Yet the quandary from this analogy, which is based on philosopher Peter Singer’s views, is that everyday there are children “drowning in that pool” and we daily “walk by and do nothing”. The reason us moral, ethical and vastly fortunate people don’t do all we can is because that drowning child is not right in front of us. The crisis of those dying children is not a pressing concern in our lives.

Now that we are aware of the drowning children, Sam and William contend, the logical next step is that we practice this philosophy in our daily lives. Because, if we were actually thinking about what was occurring around the world, we would be so moved to act to save all those drowning children. We can do this by giving money to worthwhile causes, ones which have been thoroughly vetted and actually do the work as advertised. William gave a figure of $3,500 to save the life of one child. I believe this was in the context of purchasing a net that would be used to prevent the spread of malaria.

I found this discussion fascinating, sad, and a bit inspiring, even to the point of calculating how much my family could give regularly.

I agree with their assessment. In an abstract world, where philosophy, morals, and ethics are enough to guide a reasonable person’s behavior, then yes, we should all be giving all we could, in an effort to save innocent lives. Of course, this abstract thought does have a very important assumption, and that is I can really impact this outcome in a meaningful way.

Giving money to any organization means other people are taking it and spending it on your behalf. Whenever these efforts involve multiple countries, languages, cultures, distances, and laws, those all represent layers of complexity (and cost) which will all eat away the money donated. These factors also make it more difficult to execute the tasks needed to complete the items you intended to pay for. In the podcast, Sam and William use the example of the children’s play structure, which was supposed to pump water to villages. This project received worldwide fanfare and monetary support, but unfortunately, was quickly proven completely ineffective.

But, let’s assume that Sam and William are correct, that there is at least one organization that guarantees that your money actually does end up doing all the good they say it will; that your dollars are put to good use (I want to note that I do think people who work for these organizations deserve to be paid, so I agree with reasonable administration costs). Even with the assumption that a western based non-profit can do what is says it can do, there are still other factors in play that are part of this complex situation.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s plenty of food to feed everyone. If that’s not the case, then we should take a serious look at stores like Costco and people’s shopping habits. I was once a capitalist but these beliefs are hard pressed to describe a valid need for obese people wheeling away pallets of cheesy poofs, “diet” soda, and the like. The same can be said of fast food. This is a main reason I oppose publicly funded healthcare. But I digress. That is an entirely different blog post.

However, my point is that in terms of saving the millions who are dying of sickness, starvation, exposure, is that there are political forces contributing. There’s likely enough food to go around – but there is a group who prevents that food getting where it is needed. There’s likely medicine – but it is intercepted by groups who want to deny it from getting where it’s needed.

Dealing with the political forces is where the complexity (and extra layer of foreign policy) comes in. Many Westerners have spent the past decade violently opposing any interventions with military force. Therefore, if military force is what is needed to get that stuff where it’s needed, and democracies are unwilling to pay that price, then the logical shortfall in my mind is: why bother sending money? Won’t that go into a black hole of administration/local thugs in underdeveloped countries?

Finally, if it really does come down to enough money, then why aren’t the Hollywood types – the ones adopting children and going on talk shows – just outright buying a third world nation? Seriously, Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon – they have more than enough money to buy a country and then do whatever they wanted with it. Have they even tried to? Seems to me like buying a country would be the most expedient way of fixing it.

In the realm of philosophy, it is simple and easy to establish a set of ethical principles. On that basis, it is easy to think “why don’t we all just give money and fix everything?” That is a very enticing and positive way to think. However, I think that life just isn’t as simple as that. My analytical, cynical mind won’t let me take that philosophical leap 100%.

But, hey, what if it really is that simple?

My thinking is this: I will do what I can, when I can, and continue to be grateful for what I have each day.

Three Economic & Social Factors of the English Civil War Which Impacted the Rise of Modernity

This period in English history is fascinating for all the changes and transitions that occurred. While the English Civil War (circa 1640-1650) is the flashpoint where the action took place, the changes that came to the forefront during this period and after in truth had been brewing (often bubbling over) for generations.

For starters, this era is considered the “early modern” by historians. This is where the beginnings of our modern ideas for social structure; religion, economics, imperialism, and all the rest, begin and actually become enacted in systems. Studying this period has revealed many complexities that are not necessarily clear on the surface. As you’ll see, these forces lead directly to changes that have created the environment we are currently in (and beginning to transition out of).

There are many social, political, and economic causes of the English Civil War, but there are a few which stood out for me as I began to study this period.

  1. Absolute monarchy to limited monarchy: One thread of English history which continues from 1066 through this period is the tension and presence of absolute rule by a monarch. From William the Conqueror, King John, Elizabeth, and then to King James I and the beheaded King Charles I (the first English King to have been put on trial and executed for treason), the-execution-of-charles-i-1132x509English history is marked with the push and pull of absolute rule by an individual. The Magna Carta was put in place in an effort to curtail King John by nobles who’d had enough of his shenanigans. However, like many attempts to curb greed and power, it hadn’t been forceful and consistent enough to make a lasting impression. This balance between absolutism and some lesser form was often one which determined good rulers from poor ones. (Queen Elizabeth comes to mind.)
  2. Rise of merchants and “middle class”: I don’t know if “middle class” is the appropriate term, but it’s one that seems to describe some demographic changes taking place. Some might say that this shift goes all the way back to the Black Plague (14th century), with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 being a dramatic bookend to that period. The English Civil War represents the culmination of the middle class’ self-awareness, or perhaps if not their self-awareness, but their “we aren’t going to take this anymore” moment. The rise of the “middle class” is its own topic, but the short version starts with King Henry VIII and seizing the Catholic Church’s lands and possessions. All that wealth was taken (transferred, if you will) from the Church to Henry. He, of course, spent lavishly; wars in France, parties, marriages, and all the rest. When you spend money, well, it pike8winds up in the hands of those who provided those goods and services. Those people grew that wealth and sometimes spent it again, sometimes using it to buy those estates that once had been owned by the Church. Over a couple generations, enterprising families (many who had been “low-born”, which also bristled other factions in society) rose to prominence. Many of these folks were now in Parliament, and made up the men who did more than thumb their nose at Kings James and Charles. This played out between Parliament and both King James and Charles, who voiced clearly their philosophy of what (very limited) role Parliament was to play in ruling England.
  3. Banking and monarchy don’t mix: Another modern system we take for granted (capitalism) was just beginning to dip its toes into England, as the medieval craft/guild economic system had proven too inflexible to handle where humanity was going. A surprising revelation of my study of this period was that (absolute) monarchy and banking are incompatible. So what? you might think. Well, in order for any flavor of capitalism to work, capital (money, lending, investment) must be able to go where it needs to. Individuals need to be able to raise capital, invest their capital, and strive to earn profits, and repeat the process. Merchants then used capital to build and develop their trade networks, which produced more wealth, which found its way back to England. As an aside, some of this money was used to patronize the sciences, and played a major role in the scientific revolution. Since monarchs were uninterested in funding scientific research (Elizabeth, for example) merchant investment and spending for research into astronomy, navigation, and math were critical for advancements that took place in these fields (and more).

As I mentioned, there is much more than this; Puritans, advances in scientific thought, education, trade, the New World, and all that. But limiting monarchy, an emergent middle class, and freeing the flow of capital were three points which greatly impacted the English Civil War, and laid foundations for our world today.