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By Kenneth Upsall (Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Reserve)
In recent readings I’ve been re-hashing a common theme in written work; perception and intent. Authors are, by necessity, constantly placing their own emphasis on the subject matter they write and drawing their own conclusions. A great contemporary example is President Obama’s speech at the recent West Point Commencement. On Foreignpolicy.com alone there were several different takes on this address. Two examples are here and here. If you were researching this speech for future academic endeavors it would be possible to draw two completely different conclusions from each of these sources, located in the same place. On a website like Foreign Policy, much like War Council, the goal is to create and perpetuate debate. Contributors are prone to grenade throwing in order to spark discussion about a topic, and a presidential address is certainly excellent fodder for such an exercise.
Some other subjects I have recently immersed myself in include the origins of World War I and the Royal American Regiment of Foot in the French and Indian War. I recently wrote a review of Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which appears on this site. Christopher Clark goes out of his way to show the reader that the spark which ignited conflict in 1914 was the result of many actions over a long period of time by Great Powers and the people who worked within their bureaucracies. There was no straight line from one incident to declaration of war, but several events that created an international culture in which the environment was ripe for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Max Hastings, writing Catastrophe: 1914 draws a markedly different conclusion while working with similar source material. Hastings places blame for the war with Germany and Austria, claiming their political and foreign policy maneuvers drove Europe to an inevitable conflict. Both authors serve the disclaimer that there is such a wealth of material on the subject that drawing any number of conclusions and defending them is not a gargantuan task. By simply reading these two pieces a deeper understanding of the situation in Europe a century ago is easily gained and the reader could develop their own explanations for the outbreak of hostilities. This broad topic has been studied for a hundred years, and the histories and accounts come from so many people and places that at this point perception and point of view may be all that is left to discuss.
An even older conflict is the struggle for North American supremacy between France and Britain during the Seven Years’ War. I recently read two pieces on a specific British unit in that conflict. The 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot was created in the wake of Braddock’s defeat along the Monongahela River in the summer of 1755. The goal was to combine European discipline in combat with the “unconventional” tactics of frontier fighting which the French and Indian forces used against Braddock. The Royal American Regiment: An Atlantic Microcosm, 1755-1772 is Alexander V. Campbell’s attempt to narrate the creation, engagements and post-war goings on of the 60th. His perception of the regiment’s founding and fighting stands in contrast to a thesis paper written by Daniel P. Marston for McGill University in 1997. Swift and Bold: The 60th Regiment and Warfare in North America, 1755-1765 maintains focus on the creation and action of the 60th during the North American conflict. Marston asserts that the 60th was created for a specific purpose and through innovative training was able to competently engage the enemy in unconventional woodland combat, traditional force on force engagements on open terrain and applications of siege warfare. Campbell’s take on the formative years of the regiment was that it was more of a wealth building endeavor and ploy for central European immigrants which happened to coincide with British military needs. Campbell also sees the combat action of the 60th as nothing particularly groundbreaking, but as the natural evolution of tactics for a particular battlefield environment. Marston focuses on formation, tactics and action of the 60th while Campbell expands his scope of research to include a post-conflict section about the regiment, however there is enough overlap in the subject matter between the two to see that both author’s, using roughly the same source material were once again able to draw very different conclusions about their topic.
This all boils down to the perception you are attempting to convey in any kind of professional or academic writing. The above examples were written with a certain point of view, intent or conclusion in mind. It would be nice to be able to research a topic with a blank slate and to draw conclusions from the research. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Even in my own research, I often start looking into a topic because of some pre-conceived or ancillary knowledge of the subject. Academic work is most likely where an unbiased opinion will come from; someone with tenure is doing it for the research, not the conclusion, at least in theory. In professional work there is typically a tendency to write toward a conclusion. Whether it is business consulting, a position paper or intelligence brief, most writers work toward making the facts fit the end game as Mr. Miller and Ms. Schake did with the president’s speech. Clark and Hastings write to fit the niche of World War I history, each view is perfect for a specific audience, as part of their interest is in selling books, and therefore their work is reflective of that goal (this takes nothing away from the academic validity or enjoyment derived from reading either work). Marston’s paper was a purely academic endeavor, and when reading it you get the feeling of a dry and focused work destined for a thesis committee. Campbell, in my opinion does the best job in keeping his presentation middle of the road, outlining both good and bad while maintaining a narrative which is not off-putting to the reader.
Keep in mind during professional writing that perception, and therefore audience, does matter. There is a fine line between writing an objective piece for consumption by higher command, which may not always be the information they want to hear, and picking and choosing the information to be presented in order to fit a narrative already in mind. If professional writing is for the purpose of disseminating information, and not driving debate the object should be to keep the perspective as dispassionate as possible. Ultimately lives may depend on how the work you create is perceived by the audience. As a professional you owe those people the value of being able to drill down and figure out what is really going on, not simply providing assurances for superiors which will translate into a good review down the road. Dissemination of information is key, but poor information leads to poor results. World War I provides us an excellent example of this. Germany and Austria-Hungary figured the Serbs would blink first, but Russian and French interests prevented them from doing so, the result was a total mismanagement of a situation that still echoes around the globe today.
Kenneth Upsall is a Staff Sergeant in the US Army Reserve. He received a Masters of the Arts in Diplomacy from Norwich University in 2013 and works for the US State Department. The views shared here are his own and do not reflect the thoughts or policies of the Department of Defense,US Army or US Department of State.
Campbell, Alexander V. The Royal American Regiment: An Atlantic Microcosm, 1755-1772. University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
Hastings, Max. Catastrophe 1414: Europe Goes to War. BC: Knopf, 2013.
Marston, Daniel P. “The Swift and Bold: The 60th Regiment and Warfare in North America, 1755-1765” (PhD diss., McGill University, 1997. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp01/MQ29505.pdf
Miller, Aaron David. “Obama’s West Point Speech is Our Problem, Not His.” Foreignpolicy.com. Accessed May 29, 2014. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/29/obama_s_west_point_speech_is_our_problem_not_his_us_foreign_policy
Schake, Kori. “The Sad Irony of Obama’s ‘Big’ Foreign-Policy Speech.” Foreignpolicy.com. Accessed May 29, 2014. http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/05/29/the_sad_irony_of_obamas_big_foreign_policy_speech