Michael Bellesiles’s Newest Tale

In its June 27, 2010 issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by Michael Bellesiles, Teaching Military History in a Time of War:

Yet the reality of teaching in wartime, most particularly at a working-class college such as Central Connecticut State University, is that war has touched the families of many of our students, and it is a tragic error to think that they have not experienced the staggering blow of loss and personal sacrifice.

That lesson came home to me with great force this last semester. . . . On the first day of my military-history class, after a discussion of the concept of democratic warfare, I asked my usual question about veterans or National Guard members present, and if any students had family members serving in the military. Ernesto (I have changed names out of respect for this family’s privacy), a shy but exceedingly bright student, smiled with evident pride as he mentioned that his brother Javier had recently enlisted in the Army. We discussed his brother’s reasons for enlisting, which mostly focused on a sense of gratitude to a country that had given their family refuge.

Two weeks later, the class discussed Baron von Steuben’s training of the American Continental Army . . . . Afterward, Ernesto told me that his brother had been sent to Iraq. He admitted he was worried about Javier’s safety, but had read several articles indicating that the war was winding down.

Then, after a class . . . [on the Mexican War], Ernesto told me that Javier had called him the day before and described his first encounter with enemy fire, which had been chaotic and without consequence. A few days later, Ernesto gave an amazing paper on a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the Union Army . . . . In the minutes before the very next class, during which we explored Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of attrition, Ernesto came to me and said that he could not attend class, as his brother had been shot in the head by a sniper and was in critical condition.

Sorrow was written across Ernesto’s young face. Here was a student I relied on for an astute observation and a ready smile; now he looked on the verge of tears. I told him to give no further thought to the class, but to devote himself to his family. Ernesto missed the wars against the Plains Indians and the Spanish-American War, but showed up in time for the Philippine Insurrection. I hoped that Ernesto’s presence meant that his brother had recovered, only to be surprised to hear that Javier was still in danger, his condition so serious that the doctors feared moving him to the military hospital in Germany. When I asked him why he had come to class, Ernesto insisted that he hoped his studies would take his mind off his worries for his brother.

That afternoon I asked my teaching assistant, a Marine veteran named Joe, to talk with Ernesto. Over the next several weeks, as we traversed the terrain of the 20th century with the two world wars and Korea, Joe spoke regularly with Ernesto, advising him on his final paper and on dealing with the military bureaucracy. . . . And then, just as we were coming to . . . Vietnam, I received an e-mail from Ernesto letting me know that his brother had died.

Not surprisingly, Ernesto’s attendance became erratic, and he skipped entirely the discussion of our current wars.

In today’s Big Journalism, Dutton Peabody calls Bellesiles’s story “fishy” and asks whether the Chronicle bothered to check the story:

But given Mr. Bellesiles’ last book, unkind minds have fallen back on President Reagan’s “trust, but verify” maxim.

Peabody has trouble finding Bellesiles on the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) website, but I found him there. Bellesiles taught at CCSU in both the Fall 2009 and the Spring 2010 terms. However, according to the course listings there, he taught his Military History course in the Fall 2009 semester, not the Spring 2010 semester. The Spring term ended in May, so (if the CCSU website is correct) Bellesiles may have been mistaken in describing the events as occurring in “this last semester.”

Peabody also wonders about the fast progression from the brother “Javier” being “recently enlisted” as of the first class and yet seriously wounded only a few weeks later.

But Peabody’s chief problem is this:

Funny: the Hartford Courant keeps careful track of Connecticut casualties, and there has been only one fatality so far this year, reported on April 4th as recently killed. That would seem weeks before Mr. Bellesiles says Javier died in Iraq. And then Lance Corporal Tyler Griffin was a Marine, not Army. And killed by an IED, not a shot to the head. And in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Nor was he an immigrant, as Javier is described. (“We discussed [his] reasons for enlisting, which mostly focused on a sense of gratitude to a country that had given their family refuge.”) And there is no sign of a brother in the Courant obituary.

In my review of several sites, but chiefly ICasualties, I find no Connecticut military killed in Iraq in 2009 or 2010 (and only one in 2008, a Marine who died from a non-hostile cause). If one expands the search to all US military deaths in Iraq from all US states and territories from the beginning of the Fall 2009 semester through the end of classes in the May 2010 semester, I could find no deaths from any state that fit Bellesiles’s account (Iraq War, recent Army enlistee, hostile fire from a rifle or similar weapon, lingering death). Nor did my quick review of all US military deaths in Afghanistan (if one changed the theater from Iraq to Afghanistan) during the last two CCSU semesters turn up any likely prospects (though I would need a closer review to be certain).

Thus it appears that Bellesiles’s account is false in at least some trivial respect–probably in the term he taught the course and in the circumstances of “Javier’s” service or death.

Further, without personal knowledge of Army procedures, I found it strange that a critically injured US soldier would not be brought to Germany for treatment over a period of several weeks. Further, while not suspicious in itself, at this stage of the Iraqi War almost all US deaths occur on the same day as the attack or on the following day. Indeed, this detail alone can be used to exclude most deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last year.

If I had to guess, I would suspect that the story Bellesiles told in the Chronicle is mostly true; after all, it would be too easy for the Chronicle or Bellesiles’s department chair to check the facts with “Ernesto” and with Joe, Bellesiles’s teaching assistant. Yet some things reported by Bellesiles in the Chronicle appear to be false: the term he says he taught Military History is inconsistent with CCSU’s website, and the facts of “Javier’s” Army service and death in Iraq do not match any deaths reported by the Department of Defense for soldiers from any US state or territory.

And note that Bellesiles opens his Chronicle article with a warning that many military stories can’t be trusted, even eyewitness ones. Is this his sly way of warning us that he doesn’t fully trust “Ernesto’s” account himself or that Bellesiles is telling us a tall tale? For his sake, I hope not.

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