Reflections on writing "Other Than War"

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Editors’ Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by retired Department of Defense Historian, Frank Schubert, winner of the Michael C. Robinson Prize for Historical Analysis for his book Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post Cold War Decades. Schubert reflects on his experiences serving as a public historian at the Pentagon with a unique audience: directors and staff of the Department of Defense. He also considers the ways that the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath influenced the writing and publication of a book focused primarily on cooperative stability and peacekeeping operations, topics that became more relevant after the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan beginning in 2014.

Other Than WarLooking back on nearly a decade as a historian inside the Pentagon, I can say that there are three things of which I am particularly proud. The first involved the design in 1996 of an exhibit on the career of General Omar Bradley for the Chairman’s Corridor. The second came when Department of the Army bureaucrats saw the aftermath of 9/11 as an opportunity to expand their office space by removing the library to a location in Crystal City. I managed to convince the director of the Joint History Office, for whom I worked, that he had to mobilize support to resist such a move. He did, and the library stayed. And the third was writing this little book, Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post-Cold War Decade.

The book originated as a direct response to queries from officers on the Joint Staff who were involved with planning and operations. Nobody seemed to have an idea of the overall magnitude of operational commitments, what we were doing, where we were doing it, and what was involved. On top of that, we gave so many names to operations that it could seem that the lack of clarity was intentional. So right around the time that I finished the Bradley exhibit, I set out to create a list of operations, along with salient attributes such as location, mission, commander, kinds of units involved, cost, casualties, and duration, starting with the invasion of Panama in 1989 (it was called “Just Cause”) to whenever this post-Cold War period of turmoil might end.

The data base that I designed (in Microsoft Access) with the help of a tech-savvy Navy ensign named Nate Morgan showed a Department of Defense engaged in cooperative stability/peacekeeping operations.  The agency carried out this work under the aegis of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or the United Nations, humanitarian operations, and other jobs such as interdicting illegal immigrants and trying to keep illegal drugs out of the United States. Other missions included responses to terrorist assaults on American embassies and ships, evacuations of American diplomats and their families from mainly sub-Saharan African countries wracked by violence, and support of presidential and vice-presidential travel, which required massive airlift missions with huge security and communications components. Overall, there was a lot of work, although not as much as suggested by the proliferation of operational names, often changed annually for long-term commitments and varying from one armed service to another. Far too many of the names started with “Provide,” “Restore,” and “Support.” Military personnel still went into harm’s way (for example “Restore Hope” in Somalia), but none of these operations really amounted to war. Hence the name Other than War, suggested by Dave Armstrong, a retired brigadier general with a doctorate in history, who was director of the Joint History Office.

The names were a problem but not the greatest one. I don’t think I’m the only historian who dislikes working on a story that has not ended. I had done it once before, with a book for the Army Corps of Engineers called Building Air Bases in the Negev (1992). Although the work in Israel ended in 1983 and the book appeared in 1992, even at the latter date I did not know how much the program actually cost because litigation involving the contractors dragged on even longer than the review and publication process for my book. Now, almost a decade later, I was accumulating data and starting to write a narrative with no end in sight.

This predicament went away almost instantaneously on a bright Tuesday morning in September 2001, right after our office shuddered from the impact of the passenger plane that struck the Pentagon and even before we finished locking up our classified files and left the building. A lot was unclear in the immediate wake of the attack that day, but one thing was sure: an operational era, one marked by diffuse and diverse missions, had ended, and a new one focused on states, groups, and individuals thought to have been involved in the shocking strike was about to begin. I could finish my story because that period was over.

But obstacles remained. I never liked the Pentagon. The building was austere, a lot of the people were unpleasant, and for reasons both architectural and human, an overhead bird’s eye view of the Pentagon reminded me of a sphincter muscle. So for me, the phrase “in the bowels of the Pentagon” resonated. 9/11 made it even harder to work there and get this project done. In addition to the chaos and the smell of smoke, new wall decorations started to appear, the gifts of citizens and their children expressing their solidarity with those of us who worked there. While they may have been heartfelt, often incorporating religious and sentimental imagery, I found them to be difficult reminders of an event I was trying to move beyond.  I often saw them as kitschy, mawkish drawings, sometimes replete with expressions of Christian faith. All of these made it impossible for me to forget what had happened. Since we had been just out of reach but directly in the path of the plane that struck the building, our office was uninhabitable, and we moved from one temporary space to another before the repair was completed, and we were allowed to return. Amazingly enough, we were back in our office before 2002 ended, but this did not make it any easier to put the attack out of mind. Still, by June 3, 2003, when I completed what I sometimes considered a long Federal work-release program and retired, the manuscript was finished.

That was 2003. The book did not appear for another ten years. Focusing on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), the Department of Defense had little interest in a period dominated by multi-national stability operations and the interdiction of drugs and migrants. That too changed with the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Defense again faced the possibility of a period without large dominant missions to absorb its attention, and thoughtful officers started to consider the response to previous transitional phases of a similar nature. John Shortal, Dave Armstrong’s successor as director of the Joint History Office, who like Armstrong is a retired brigadier general with a doctorate in history, discovered the manuscript in the files, had it edited, and published it. According to Shortal, officers on the Joint Staff responded eagerly, and the first printing quickly disappeared into their offices. It was a rare case of timeliness and for me, ten years after I retired, a very satisfying outcome. It is possible that the book will find a few readers outside of the military establishment, but that is a secondary consideration. I met my primary audience’s needs with a study that illuminated their own operational concerns. This is the kind of thing an agency historian lives for.

~ Frank Schubert is a happily retired Department of Defense historian. He lives at Mount Vernon, Virginia, and in Győr, Hungary.

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