Blogs > HNN > Stomping on Ambrose’s Grave

Jun 8, 2004 11:41 am

Stomping on Ambrose’s Grave

With Memorial Day and the 60th Anniversary of D-Day over the last two weekends, attention has once again turned toward military history. The rush of book reviews of World War II has once again brought to the fore an issue that deserves closer scrutiny: the ongoing and offhand evisceration of the work of Stephen Ambrose by some professional book reviewers.

In Washington Post Book World, book reviewer Jonathan Yardley, begins his review of Matthew Parker’s new study of the Battle of Monte Cassino with this line:"Those who have been persuaded by Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, Hollywood screenwriters and other facile popularizers to a romantic, sentimental view of World War II as the"good war" fought by"the greatest generation" are advised to spend a few hours with Matthew Parker's grim depiction of the six-month battle in 1943-44 to gain control of Monte Cassino in central Italy." Yardley is not alone. Atlantic Monthly book review editor Benjamin Schwarz began his October 2003 review of Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Crusade with,"In this superb, tough-minded, and impressionistic introduction to the experiences of the U.S. infantry in northwest Europe from D-Day to Germany's surrender, Paul Fussell confronts the sanctimonious"military romanticism" of Messrs. Ambrose, Brokaw, and Spielberg,"which, if not implying that war is really good for you, does suggest that it contains desirable elements--pride, companionship, and the consciousness of virtue enforced by deadly weapons.""

Mercifully, both Yardley and Schwarz avoid Ambrose’s plagiarism, so we can perhaps save that debate for another time. We can also debate the merits of the book The Greatest Generation (although I don’t know why) and the movie Saving Private Ryan (much more useful) later. But grouping broadly the work of a distinguished scholar and first-rate historian like Ambrose with the books of journalist Tom Brokaw and movies of filmmaker Steven Spielberg is ridiculous on its face. Although Ambrose served as a consultant on Private Ryan and a producer of the miniseries based on his book Band of Brothers, there is no comparison of his lifetime of research, training, and experience in the historical profession with the work of Brokaw and Spielberg. Such comparisons are done solely to dismiss his arguments as amateurish and superficial. Yardley's and Schwarz's real issue with Ambrose is when they call him a facile popularizer and sanctimonious military romantic. So let's look at those charges.

Here 2001 review by Schwarz of Ambrose's World War II book for children The Good Fight is interesting. Schwarz criticizes Ambrose for"retroactively impos[ing] an elevated meaning on the American side of the war." Like almost anyone, Schwarz has little problem with praising American infantrymen for being tough and brave. But he takes especial issue with Ambrose"insisting on a sentimental and high-minded explanation of what those men believed they were fighting for." Schwarz writes:

“Ambrose, if not Brokaw, has read too much military history not to acknowledge plainly--as he wrote in a passage in Citizen Soldiers which contradicts the thrust of the rest of the book--that, according to the vast literature that assesses the motivation of U.S. fighters in World War II, “there is agreement that patriotism or any other form of idealism had little if anything to do with it.” “The GIs fought because they had to,” he continued. “What held them together was not country and flag, but unit cohesion.” In the same book Ambrose papered over this difficulty by informing his readers that although the GIs fought for “decency and democracy,” “they just didn't talk or write about it”. How, then, does he know? Rather than rely on what these men did write and say repeatedly during the war (which boils down to the reasonable, even courageously clear-eyed, but hardly righteous formula of kill or be killed, fight the war to end it so that we can go home), Ambrose draws on reminiscences and interviews and at least one “beer-drinking bull session” with a small number of veterans forty-five years after the fact--hardly the most reliable testimony."
A fair enough criticism on its face. But let's assume for just a minute that in the myriad books he studied on combat motivation, the untold number of memoirs, oral histories, and interviews he read, and the thousands of interviews he himself conducted with veterans, that Stephen Ambrose might have come to a better understanding of what drove World War II soldiers than a very erudite book review editor who nevertheless is not a scholar of American soldiers in World War II. Especially when that book review editor seems to have drawn most of his knowledge about the combat infantry experience from the work of Paul Fussell. For those who do not know, Fussell was an infantry lieutenant in Europe who later became a English professor. Professor Fussell is a wonderful writer who has offered some important insights into war in the twentieth century in his books and memoirs. Nevertheless, he is a flawed source for any kind of general understanding of the infantry experience. His personal disillusionment with his wartime experience has colored all of his work, with the result that his memoirs and studies of World War II differ significantly in tone and general conclusions from the majority of his contemporaries. I’ll not list specifics, but the most striking example comes from a published oral history collection of Fussell's WWII battalion edited by Richard Stannard called Infantry. Fussell’s interviews stand out in stark relief from the rest of the men in his platoon, company, and battalion--a reasonable scholar should thus question how well he speaks for the experiences of men army-wide. (Stannard’s book is in the bibliography for Citizen Soldiers.)

Furthermore, Citizen Soldiers was a study of the combat experience in Europe from the perspective of soldiers and junior officers, not an argumentative book about enlistment or combat motivation. Ambrose was just providing his informed impression that though the men did not talk about it, they had a deep-down belief that they were fighting for a just cause. As someone who has also read thousands of World War II interviews, oral histories, questionnaires, and memoirs I happen to think Ambrose was correct. See Peter Kindsvatter’s 2003 study of soldiers in the twentieth century American Soldiers on this question. All that said, Schwarz is still right to question Ambrose’s impressionistic conclusion for not providing evidence. The problem is making the jump from that criticism to dismissing him for sanctimoniously romanticizing war.

I suspect Yardley’s and Schwarz’s problem with Ambrose stems from elsewhere. One line from Yardley’s review is instructive:"Certainly World War II was necessary, and the cause for which the Allies fought was just, but there was nothing pretty about it." I’m not sure Ambrose would disagree with that sentence, but he might ask Yardley to define “pretty.” Fighting a necessary war for a just cause seems to me to be one of the more beautiful things humans can do. But if he means that the actual fighting was bloody and messy and terrible, then I suggest that reading Citizen Soldiers or D-Day or Band of Brothers, or even this interview will lead to exactly the same conclusion.

In the eyes of Yardley and Schwarz, Ambrose’s great sin was in concluding that the necessity of the war and the justness of America’s cause was far more important than the ugliness of the fighting. How dare he call it “the good war” without the irony of someone like Studs Terkel (in the title to his disorganized and overrated oral history of the war). Schwarz says as much in the concluding sentences to his review:"...the great problem with Ambrose's books--especially this one--is that they fail to treat history as tragic, ironic, paradoxical, and ambiguous. If readers are old enough to study an event that involved the deaths of more than 60 million people, they are old enough to learn that one studies history not to simplify issues but to illuminate their complexities."

Yet oftentimes 'illuminating complexities' is just a cover for muddled thinking. For all its complexities, there are some simple issues we should keep in mind about World War II. In the grandest sense, the tragedy would have been the United States and its Allies losing the war. There is nothing ironic, paradoxical, or ambiguous about the fact that the world would have been a far worse place had the Allies lost. All of the details of the war must be dealt with in light of that truth, as Stephen Ambrose came to understand over the course of his career. If in the eyes of Jonathan Yardley and Benjamin Schwarz or any others that view makes him a facile popularizer or sanctimonious military romantic, then I humbly suggest they need to reexamine their own understanding of irony, paradox, and ambiguity when it comes to the Second World War.

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Tom Bruscino - 6/17/2004

From what I could find, he testified in a case in 1994 that Americans had known smoking was bad for health as far back as the nineteenth century (which is why they called them "coffin nails," etc.). He was paid for the testimony, and I doubt he commented on, or really had much knowledge of, the degree to which tobacco companies made cigarettes more adictive and tried to cover up how bad they actually were for people. However, if his testimony really was limited to pointing out that people knew cigarettes weren't good for them for a couple of centuries, I think he was right. But I do not know the details of the case.

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/11/2004

Derek's comment about book reviewers as oracles, jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none, struck a chord with me.

Just a few days back I read Verlyn Klinkenborg's review of May 30, 2004, in the NYTBR, titled "Chronicle Environment; Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid."

Klinkenborg is a graceful writer, known for his encomia to the rural life in Iowa. Yet here he is endorsing a whole slew of books predicting natural disasters to come. He quotes favorably the Ehrlichs on weather change -- never mind that Ehrlich is not a climatologist, and has a nearly unmatched record for predictive error when he steps outside his area of expertise. Does anyone even know what that is? Butterfly ecology. Butterfly ecology, climatology -- same difference. Of course he once said that by the year 2000 it was a 50-50 proposition whether London would even exist, pollution being so bad and all. And he predicted massive starvation in India -- about 6 years before India became a net food exporter. And then there was his lost bet with Julian Simon on resource scarcity ... You get the picture.

Klinkenborg even has the chutzpah to promote the Meadows' latest edition of Limits to Growth, saying that it documents the fact that we have outstripped our carrying capacity "as the first edition of this book, originally published in 1972, warned it would." You wouldn't gather from that quote that the Meadows' 1972 book has been demonstrated wrong in every respect, would you?

David Lion Salmanson - 6/10/2004

You've read way more of his stuff than I have. Maybe I'll give Undaunted Courage a go although the title alone gives me the creeps. I don't see how he could do a good book on Crazy Horse and Custer. It takes many, many years to master the sources on Lakota history. I do a fair amount of Native American stuff (mostly Southwest) and I wouldn't touch a Lakota project with a ten foot pole. The language barrier alone takes years of patient work to overcome and most English language translations from that era are, apparently, poorly done. Even if Ambrose did the archival work, the book is probably if he kept it to just English language sources.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/9/2004

The drive to "cash in" late in his career was immensely damaging to Ambrose's reputation. Beyond the assembly-line book production, I've heard that he was taking large payments from tobacco companies for testifying on their behalf, even as he was dying of cancer. I'd love for someone to correct me about that if I am wrong.

Tom Bruscino - 6/9/2004

The railroad book was also after the fainting episode, I believe. Not an excuse, just an explanation. With Ambrose we are covering a lot of ground beyond the Ike stuff. His work on Halleck and Upton was very good for the time, though is getting a bit dated now. His book on West Point is solid. I'll leave Crazy Horse and Custer to someone in that field, though I know there were problems. The three volumes on Nixon are probably still the standard. Undaunted Courage seems to me to be a well-researched, excellent account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On World War II, Pegasus Bridge and Band of Brothers are first-rate. D-Day is in my opinion the best overall book on the subject. And Citizen Soldiers is underrrated among academics for a description of the combat experience in Europe. The Wild Blue was quite a drop off, and books like The Victors and Comrades were aimed at general audiences and derivitive from his other works. Still, an impressive opus, even beyond the great work on Eisenhower.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/9/2004

For me, there is the Ike stuff (good) and then everything else (bad). In my own areas of specialization, Western US and twentieth century the difference is especially striking. The railroad book has a bunch of dumb basic errors that seem to indicate that the story is driving the book rather than the actual history.

Tom Bruscino - 6/9/2004

True. And some of his later books were just thrown together portions of his older stuff. We should also remember that he suffered a pretty bad spell when he fainted and cracked his head a few years before he died. I did not realize how bad that episode was until I read "To America," where he describes not remembering huge portions of his life. That had to have an effect, too. But, as I'm sure you'll agree, we shouldn't throw his pre-fainting scholarly work baby out with the stripped-down and less scholarly later stuff bath water.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

Though it does seem that the more prolific he got, the sloppier he got. And I cannot think it is a coincidence that it was at this time that by all accounts his research assistants began picking up the slack a bit. Not for nothing did he become known as "Ambrose Incorporated."

Tom Bruscino - 6/9/2004

Yeah, I'm not sure jealousy is the issue with Yardley and Schwarz as much as their own knee-jerk cynical and skeptical ideas on war. I would actually argue that their kind of view is a legacy of World War II, not gasp! Vietnam. But I'm still developing that idea for the next academic book after the dissertation.

Still, Rob is right in pointing out that jealousy does play a role in the criticism of Ambrose. Historians tend to be pretty bad at that--often not reading his books but still accusing him of sloppy work because he was so prolific. Now I understand that there are limits to what any person can do, but I suppose we might all have to deflate our egos from time to time and realize that some people are just plain better than others at putting out quality work quickly. Maybe, just maybe, Stephen Ambrose was smarter (or at least able to retain information and put it to paper at higher levels) than most of the rest of us. Look at Shelby Foote: he wrote most of his three volume history if the Civil War off the top of his head, using only a few notecards. Whatever you say of the final product, it is good enough that I can't begin to understand people who are capable of work like that. Another factor we might take into consideration is that Ambrose worked really hard. And we all know from graduate school that the talk of the work we all do tends to greatly exceed the actual production. Shoot, right now I'm working on my dissertation.

Ambrose had his flaws, there is plenty I disagree with him on, but he was a very smart and hard-working historian who should not be dismissed just because he was prolific.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/8/2004

Great article, Tom. It sums up a great deal. I must disagree with Ropbert Wisler however -- it is not professional jealosy, in this case, that drives Yardley. And I will say -- I generally like Yardley, but as it did Tom, that inane line in the review in question hit me as absurd too. (I actually told Tom about the Book World special WWIII edition largely because of Yardley's sneering) But Yardley pushes for all sorts of writers who sell tons of books. Indeed, I would argue that accusations of jealousy on the part of critics of authors are themselves rather unfair, and it is a criticism that historians hear all the time when we criticize books that sell well. The market does not tell us squat about quality in a huge number of cases. I have a hard time believing Hootie and the Blowfish are one of the great bands of all time just because their first record sold near record rates. I do not believe that Jackie Collins is a better writer than Ernest Hemingway (or to give a contemporary twist, Cormac McCarthy) just because she's sold a gazillion books. Titanic was not a better movie than Lone Star just because it sold more tickets. The market is the market. It is not a gauge of quality when it comes to books, music, films, and so forth. And Yardley does not disagree with this -- he writes reviews every week, usually twice weekly, in the Post in which he truly pushes book she thinks are good. I have no problem with this.
My problem with Yardley is my problem with many professional book reviewers. They become, and thus think they are, oracles. They are jacks of all trades, master of none, in a sense. One of the professors here at the NEH seminar reminded me today of the great quotation in Hemingway's "Moveable feast." When the character not so subtly modeled after Fitzgerald complains that he has writer's block, Hemingway's character says, "if you can't write, be a critic." There is an element of truth to this. And I say this as someone who not only loves writing book reviews, but who would consider taking Yardley's job. It's an accusation that he'll always face, even as he writes his own books. At the end of the day, Yardley makes conclusions about historians because he can, but those conclusions are often not right because he is not a historian. He has read thousands of books, but mostly not history, and where he has read history he has not engaged in a historiography in a way even remotely similar to how a good MA student has, never mind a PhD student, professor, or respected senior scholar like Ambrose. He's out of his depths. That's fine in many cases, but when you are going to go after someone like Ambrose as Yardley did in last week's Book World, you have to be prepared to get as good as you give.
I had an exchange with Yardley on email a couple of years back. He was gushing about McCullough (evidence, at least, that the jealousy argument holds no water) and I emailed him to show that some of his comments were off base. He then attacked me, largely for being a historian (an odd criticism, and one more ad hominem than reasoned -- so in a caveat he did not bother to provide for his readers, I have my own Yardley cross to bear) and thus accusing me of being jealous. Then he closed off with a telling comment -- how wonderful a guy McCullough was, and how McCullough was a dear friend of his. I responded, asking him if he only wrote good reviews of good people and bad reviews of bad people, and how he always knew (Jonathan Yardley: The Book reviewer as Ultimate Judge of Character) and if any case there weren't ethical issues involved with writing good reviews of your friends when you don't disclose that relationship in the review or article, and so forth. Oddly I never heard back from him.
So here is where I am likely to be accused of being jealous -- that I am jealous of people who are well paid to criticize others when they are out of their depth and who when approached act like grade A pricks and claim insight because the poeple they praise are buddies. But no, actually I am not jealous at all, though I suppose anyone would be at least resentful toward someone who uses a bully pulpit for personal vandettas, nepotistic gladhanding, good old boy pushing of the ethical envelope, and condescending responses to those who would call him out on it.

Robert Wisler - 6/8/2004

Jealousy is a dangerous thing. Yardley and Schwarz are/were jealous of the notoriety Ambrose received for his work. They weren't able to copy his success, so instead of being glad that a historian was able to find success doing what he does, they tried to make him out to be a poor historian who was unprofessional, and obviously not as smart as they are/were.
Apparently, if you can't make your self look good, make the other guy look bad.

Stephen Tootle - 6/8/2004

Tom brings the thunder. That trip to Kentucky must have really energized you.