Saturday, March 18, 2006

# Posted 3:38 PM by Patrick Porter  

BAD ACADEMIC WRITING: There's so much of it about. I have just been reading a book that presents itself as a bold challenge to traditional ways of writing military history.

It is replete with the words 'problematic', 'nuanced', and 'diverse.' It is as though by merely intoning these magically, his writing will become sophisticated. He seems to assume that one cannot set out a hypothesis and support it with evidence. Its much more intellectually attractive to squirm and moan about how 'complex' the problem is. Historians should try and define problems carefully, but they should also have a stab at resolving them.

There is a frisson of moral censure against people he disagrees with. His colleagues make arguments that are not only misguided but 'inappropriate.' He continually takes a good cautionary point about some of the assumptions in military history, and then overstretches it until it snaps.

For example, he shows how some modern historians have been too dismissive about the use of cavalry in twentieth century wars. Interesting point, cavalry can be used with firepower and in some environments remained effective. But the fact remains that cavalry does have some weaknesses when engaging with intense firepower and mechanised opponents. This leads him, desperately, to stress the uses of horses as draught animals in World War Two. Horses may indeed have been logistically important, but the issue he raised was its military effectiveness. And its not entirely ridiculous to talk about the challenges posed to the cavalry in the last century. How to create a weapons system which could exploit offensive opportunities and penetrate defensive lines in the age of the machine gun and powerful artillery was a genuine problem for modern states fighting against other states, not just the fantasy of reactionary military historians and cavalry officers.

These analytical problems flow from his dogmatic desire not to be dogmatic. He is so obsessed with a relativist stress on diversity, and so concerned to resist any suggestion that some tactics or combinations of tactics and weapons in war are more effective against others, that he ends up taking silly positions.

At other times, he just flat out writes badly. He uses long, meandering sentences, paragraphs with no theme, and a vocabulary filled with trendy zingers and patronising innuendo:

The 'pattern syndrome' is seductive when considering impact, contextualisation and development. There is always a desire to seek patterns in order to explain the world...it is clear that there are fundamental challenges to mono-causal, synoptic accounts.

Seeking patterns to explain the world, sounds like what scholars tend to do. Many patterns are flawed. As are most maps. But abandoning interpretation and replacing it with an ongoing chorus about the complex plurality of everything sounds rather less challenging. It would turn history into a bad undergraduate essay. There would be no arguments or interpretations, just a boring combination of factors.

His arguments are often unclear. When successfully decoded, they are little more than banal or weak assertions. ie. It is important to appreciate that wars are shaped by factors beyond the actual fighting, like the nature of the war economy, the manpower available or the terrain. Wow, gee, do you think? You must publish that insight, no military historian in the history of the world has latched onto that revelation. I didn't realise factories and raw materials and the environment of the battlefield had anything to do with wars.

Despite my bias towards the cultural history of war, its still irritating to read that the author thinks its rather quaint and dated to explain why some powers win wars and others lose. Explaining success and failure is a perennial question because its a central one. Given the author is prepared to disparage Bush's premature declaration of victory in 2003, its puzzling that he thinks the issue of winning and indeed concluding wars is unimportant.

Finally, the tone of the writing is downbeat and pedestrian. It contains little sense of how exciting and stimulating the area of study is. It is instead a tiring laundry list of the failures and limitations of the work of his colleagues. And the latest casualty of the book was my Saturday afternoon. But I guess this book in some ways is valuable as a demonstration of things not to do. Maybe there is virtue in error.

(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

sounds like he needs to bone up on the writings of George McDonald Fraiser.
Oi mate, stop ragging on my (erm, David's) thesis!
Please provide an example of good academic writing from the Progressive, or even just Left majority in academia.
I'm sorry, but every time I go to FIRE or Campus Watch I see a compendium of the idiocy of the majority of what's currently accepted as "Academia".
See 4th grade educated Taliban at Yale to realize the the bankruptcy, both moral and intellectual, of Academia.
It's strange to read a book review where neither the title of the book nor its author are given.

Are there sound reasons for that or am I missing something?
Dear Mike, at the risk of being rude, I'd like to accuse you of intellectual bankruptcy. Don't politicise academia. Don't confuse academics with academia, either: just because Chomsky conflates the two doesn't mean it's a position any Academy would think defensible. Blanket jingoistic anti-intellectualism like yours is driven by fear and insecurity. Academics making political commentry is like polticians on ESPN; it's off-the-cuff, casual punditry like any other and should be treated as such.

Porter, your position isn't nuanced enough. It's also fallacious, fatuous, and animal testing preserved my mother's life. And I really feel very strongly about that. Ok? ;)
Hey George,

there are actually sound reasons for the anonymity, but if I told you I would have to, well, you know.

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