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Subject: Stephen Ambrose.... rss

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Larz Welo
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So, I just finished reading my second Stephen Ambrose book. I’d read A Time for Trumpets about 2 years ago and just finished The Victors...and I don’t think I like him.

The Pros are that he includes little personal stories...almost too many. Quick stories about amazing feats of combat/luck which are really awesome to read about.

The Cons are the serious breakdown of historical narrative (he kind of only talks about what he wants to talk about), American Triumphalism (I don’t need to be told 3 times in a book that the American Boy Scouts bred better soldiers than the Hitler Youth...not in the least because I don’t think it’s true [I don’t think children should be bred into soldiers]), and a general denigration of experts who’s opinions differ from his own (he seems to always include some snide remarks about sociologists and psychologists).

I’m not saying other people shouldn’t like him, just that it’s not what I’d exactly call history (though he is clearly a great historian). Am I just out to lunch here? 
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Benjamin Fierce
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Nope, he's pretty much a joke from a "serious historian" perspective. It's the popcorn version of history.
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Paolo Robino
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I've read:

- Pegasus Bridge
- Band of Brothers
- D-Day
- Citizen Soldiers
- The Wild Blue

and I liked all of them. But then, I'm not what I would call an history buff, so what do I know?
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Larz Welo
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Hawkeye Fierce wrote:
Nope, he's pretty much a joke from a "serious historian" perspective. It's the popcorn version of history.



Again...don't want to judge too quickly. I have only read two of his books and really disliked some of his style.

You know, that's generally true, about popcorn. Real groundbreaking anthropologists are not the ones that people know about, or anybody in a highly technical field. The famous ones are the ones who write in a captivating/accessible way, and people latch onto that.
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Michael Lucey
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I think he is a very good writer when it comes to doing what he intended to do. He is good at providing a narative about the human element of history to those people that are not history buffs. His target audience is the 'average american' so to speak, which by and large are not fans of history, have little recolection of their schooling and would otherwise have no desire to open up a true historian's book on war or history. He provides a high level look at history with good detail from eyewitnesses and for the most part lets the technical analysis be done by other writers.

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Michael Dorosh
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Hawkeye Fierce wrote:
Nope, he's pretty much a joke from a "serious historian" perspective. It's the popcorn version of history.


Anyone going into a Stephen Ambrose book pretty much should know that he is a social historian, not a serious military historian. If they go in eyes open, no harm can come of the experience. I think the joke is on you; despite whatever perceived failings he may have had in your eyes, he nonetheless made a name for himself and is probably the most widely recognized - and was one of the most profitable - authors in the field of Second World War American military history.

I have the same misgivings with Mark Zuehlke in Canada, as my commentary on amazon.com regarding any of his books will show, but there is definitely a place in the pantheon for authors like them. Despite the inaccuracies in their books, they are at least a starting place to get people interested. As gateways to more serious history, I can't think of a better way to get people engaged, interested and involved. If there was nothing on the market but the official histories, the end result would be that no one read any of it. That would be a shame.
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Michael Lucey
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Paolo Robino wrote:
I've read:

- Pegasus Bridge
- Band of Brothers
- D-Day
- Citizen Soldiers
- The Wild Blue

and I liked all of them. But then, I'm not what I would call an history buff, so what do I know?


I've actually read all of those as well, with the Louis and Clark book thrown in. The L&C was the perfect level for me, the WW2 books were just a stepping stone for further reading. I also have his book on the making of the Trans Continental RR, again just the level of depth I'd want for that history.
I liked them because they were stories about people with history laid on top as opposed to a history analysis with some personal accounts sprinkled in.
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James Megee
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I have read 3 of his books so far:

Band of Brothers
Wild Blue
Citizen Soldiers

I liked them all, but I am not a historian. I like history, but as a general history sort of way. Not the deep studying collegiate kind. Will I read those same books again? probably not, I still have D-Day, The Victors and Undaunted Courage still in my collection to read.

Just my 0.02 worth.

Jim
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Larz Welo
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See...yeah. Ok, let me provide a foil. About two years ago I read, Citadel: The Battle of Kursk, by Robin Cross. It seemed to involve personal stories only when they illustrated a point he was making, and it seemed very objective and honest. Am I just wrong about Cross, or does anybody know much about him?

Again, only bringing it up as a counterpoint (so I can mention authors to people who are interested in getting me books). Any other authors who should be on my radar?
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greatredwarrior wrote:
See...yeah. Ok, let me provide a foil. About two years ago I read, Citadel: The Battle of Kursk, by Robin Cross. It seemed to involve personal stories only when they illustrated a point he was making, and it seemed very objective and honest. Am I just wrong about Cross, or does anybody know much about him?

Again, only bringing it up as a counterpoint (so I can mention authors to people who are interested in getting me books). Any other authors who should be on my radar?


It's a style. Personal vignettes aren't history. But they can tell the history. Cornelius Ryan was the master at it. But he also included the essential stuff. Then you have a really crappy book like Frontsoldaten which is completely cribbed from personal anecdotes and tells you nothing, especially since like 1/3 of the book came from The Forgotten Soldier which a lot of people still think was fiction. Some authors will be good at using anecdotes, others not so good. Rick Atkinson is another master at it. I think you are wise to be suspicious of those who are bad at it. But you need to realize there are varying skills with it.
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Seth Owen
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I like Ambrose for what he does, which is tell the human stories behind the big historical events. I think he's best when he does something like Band of Brothers, where he can let the participants tell their own stories. It's kind of like a group memoir -- with all the benefits and limitations that being a memoir implies.

Where I don't think he brings much to the table is in analysis or synthesizing a narrative for understanding the hows and whys of an event.
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Jim Patterson
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Ambrose was confirmed to be a serial plagiarist (summary here but confirmed in more scholarly sources), which pretty much ruins any interest in him or his work that I might otherwise have had.
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Steve Boone
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I've read (off the top of my head):

Undaunted Courage
Citizen Soldier
D-Day
Pegasus Bridge

I love history, but only on specific subjects will I go into great detail. Detail can get extremely boring unless you have a nearly manic obsession with the subject matter. Ambrose doesn't do that, and so his writing is an outstanding introduction to historical subjects for people otherwise loath to reading history. Many tens of thousands, if not millions, have been introduced to the Corps of Discovery, the 29th ID, and Easy Company that would've otherwise been blissfully ignorant of what these men accomplished if Ambrose wrote history in the dry style typically encountered in graduate school dissertations.

You can give him credit for the reason that average audience of history would read a historical novel and use that as a source of information as if it were fact. Ambrose writes actual history with source document references and it reads like a novel. His writing style is meant for the former, and I like it for the latter.
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Seth Owen
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As to the flag-waving, I'm OK with that, as I regard it as a contribution to the revisionism that's been occurring over the past couple of decades over the effectiveness of the Allied military effort. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, reading popular histories, you would have thought that the Germans won the war.

Finally in the 90s and since there's been a recognition that the Germans, while they had their strengths, did lose the war and that the American, Soviet and Commonwealth did rather well to win it. Yes, on the man-to-man tactical level the Germans were often superior to their opponents, but their overall war efforts were not -- in large part because the Allies chose to devote their resources to other things than tactical proficiency. In particular the Allies showed a much better grasp of the strategic and logistic aspects of fighting a global war.

But even at the grunt-level view I think that the record shows that American troops acquitted themselves very credibly against the Germans, especially when you look at where the Army was in 1940. That they were going toe-to-toe with the German army just three years later was amazing.
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Michael Dorosh
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wargamer55 wrote:
As to the flag-waving, I'm OK with that, as I regard it as a contribution to the revisionism that's been occurring over the past couple of decades over the effectiveness of the Allied military effort. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, reading popular histories, you would have thought that the Germans won the war.


Two wrongs make a right? I thought Band of Brothers was brilliant, except for a three paragraph dissertation which was absolutely ridiculous, which as memory recalls espoused that the American fighting man was destined to win the war because democracy and white bread instilled in him the will to win, or some such nonsense. As everyone knows, the war was won just as handily by Communism and wheat porridge, and at greater cost, than by fresh-faced Americans. It was such a lie I almost threw the book out the window, but I had already seen the miniseries and the rest of the book was such a moving tribute to real men whose interviews I had seen, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

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Finally in the 90s and since there's been a recognition that the Germans, while they had their strengths, did lose the war and that the American, Soviet and Commonwealth did rather well to win it. Yes, on the man-to-man tactical level the Germans were often superior to their opponents, but their overall war efforts were not -- in large part because the Allies chose to devote their resources to other things than tactical proficiency. In particular the Allies showed a much better grasp of the strategic and logistic aspects of fighting a global war.


The Germans very rarely had tactical superiority either, to tell the truth. Especially after 1942 or so. Have you read many battle reports?

Their brilliant strategy was generally to hold in place, mortar their own positions after being obliterated by heavy artillery, and counterattack with far too few tanks and assault guns - precious resources they could scarce afford to lose in any event. And rarely were they successful.They weren't that good. I think the revisionists have more work to do, honestly.

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But even at the grunt-level view I think that the record shows that American troops acquitted themselves very credibly against the Germans, especially when you look at where the Army was in 1940. That they were going toe-to-toe with the German army just three years later was amazing.


It wasn't amazing (include the Commonwealth back in here, and the Russians, you mentioned them above.) It was hard work.

The hard truth is that all the armies in the world were unprepared in 1939. The Germans just as much as anyone else, as hard as it is to believe now. Even Poland was a nearer run thing than many realize. They went into action short of gasoline and trucks and spare parts and an Army that went from something like 5,000 officers to tens of thousands of them in the space of 10 years. You can't honestly expect every one of them was a tactical and logistical genius. The Germans weren't a great army, they were simply better than everyone else in 1939 and the others were so horrid they made the Germans look brilliant by comparison. By the time the Americans, British, Canadians really got into serious battle in 1943-44, they had time to absorb the lessons of the desert, and the Germans were war-weary and bloodied by the Russians. But - they were all fighting their "A" game by then.

They were good, but it was not magic. It was simply hard work and determination. Ambrose is full of crap when he suggests it was democracy though. The German Army was more democratic than the US Army ever was or will be; German officers - even in the SS - considered officers and men "good comrades", had discussion groups, had the same rations, etc. Some British and US officers were practically dictators by comparison. So its ironic when I read Ambrose turn to drivel on that point.
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Michael Dorosh wrote:
wargamer55 wrote:
As to the flag-waving, I'm OK with that, as I regard it as a contribution to the revisionism that's been occurring over the past couple of decades over the effectiveness of the Allied military effort. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, reading popular histories, you would have thought that the Germans won the war.


Two wrongs make a right? I thought Band of Brothers was brilliant, except for a three paragraph dissertation which was absolutely ridiculous, which as memory recalls espoused that the American fighting man was destined to win the war because democracy and white bread instilled in him the will to win, or some such nonsense. As everyone knows, the war was won just as handily by Communism and wheat porridge, and at greater cost, than by fresh-faced Americans. It was such a lie I almost threw the book out the window, but I had already seen the miniseries and the rest of the book was such a moving tribute to real men whose interviews I had seen, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

Quote:
Finally in the 90s and since there's been a recognition that the Germans, while they had their strengths, did lose the war and that the American, Soviet and Commonwealth did rather well to win it. Yes, on the man-to-man tactical level the Germans were often superior to their opponents, but their overall war efforts were not -- in large part because the Allies chose to devote their resources to other things than tactical proficiency. In particular the Allies showed a much better grasp of the strategic and logistic aspects of fighting a global war.


The Germans very rarely had tactical superiority either, to tell the truth. Especially after 1942 or so. Have you read many battle reports?

Their brilliant strategy was generally to hold in place, mortar their own positions after being obliterated by heavy artillery, and counterattack with far too few tanks and assault guns - precious resources they could scarce afford to lose in any event. And rarely were they successful.They weren't that good. I think the revisionists have more work to do, honestly.

Quote:
But even at the grunt-level view I think that the record shows that American troops acquitted themselves very credibly against the Germans, especially when you look at where the Army was in 1940. That they were going toe-to-toe with the German army just three years later was amazing.


It wasn't amazing (include the Commonwealth back in here, and the Russians, you mentioned them above.) It was hard work.

The hard truth is that all the armies in the world were unprepared in 1939. The Germans just as much as anyone else, as hard as it is to believe now. Even Poland was a nearer run thing than many realize. They went into action short of gasoline and trucks and spare parts and an Army that went from something like 5,000 officers to tens of thousands of them in the space of 10 years. You can't honestly expect every one of them was a tactical and logistical genius. The Germans weren't a great army, they were simply better than everyone else in 1939 and the others were so horrid they made the Germans look brilliant by comparison. By the time the Americans, British, Canadians really got into serious battle in 1943-44, they had time to absorb the lessons of the desert, and the Germans were war-weary and bloodied by the Russians. But - they were all fighting their "A" game by then.

They were good, but it was not magic. It was simply hard work and determination. Ambrose is full of crap when he suggests it was democracy though. The German Army was more democratic than the US Army ever was or will be; German officers - even in the SS - considered officers and men "good comrades", had discussion groups, had the same rations, etc. Some British and US officers were practically dictators by comparison. So its ironic when I read Ambrose turn to drivel on that point.


Two wrongs don't make a right, but they can help push the pendulum back. Still, I'll agree that the goal should be a clear-headed and objective look.at the facts.

Dupuy and others have demonstrated (as well as something like that can be demonstrated given that you can't run controlled experiments) that on average the Germans retained tactical superiority against all their opponents through 1944 at least. The mistake is thinking that tactical superiority is all-important rather than just one factor among many. Indeed, German superiority in small unit tactics was more than made-up for by American superiority in artillery tactics alone.

I have read a lot of battle accounts and I will agree that the Germans are not as superior as popularly thought. That's my point. But popular histories written in the first couple of decades after the war left a different impression (especially certain memoirs by German generals).

I'll also grant that Ambrose's rant about Democracy being destined to win is not only wrong but actually is a dangerous sentiment. It did take hard work and sacrifice to win and some good decisions as well. Things could easily have gone the other way. And despite the drawbacks of their system, the Soviets also worked hard and sacrificed an enormous amount for their victory as well. A blind faith in Democracy may lead to less successful war-making if one neglects the hard work and attention to facts on the ground required to win. One thing I think the Allies (not excluding the Soviets) did much better than the Axis (especially the Germans and Japanese) was remain grounded in reality and facts, no matter how unpleasant they might be. The Axis war effort, in contrast, was characterized by a lot of wishful thinking and talk about "destiny."

I don't see any contradiction between observing that the Allied effort was amazing and recognizing that it was hard work. It wasn't magic, but it also wasn't inevitable. There were decisions made that bore directly on the outcome and different decisions might have resulted in a less favorable result. I don't buy the commonly expressed opinion that the Axis were doomed to lose the war because of the material resources available to the Allies. Those resources had to be used effectively and geography favored the Germans and Japanese in some important ways -- it was not inevitable that the Allies would surmount the unprecedented strategic and logistical challenges involved. Hindsight blinds us to how unimaginable many of the wartime developments were to prewar planners. It caught the Axis by surprise. For example, the Japanese expected it would take years for the U.S. to fight its way across the Pacific -- making their strategy of trying to wear the Americans out seem reasonable. In fact, the Americans developed tactics, techniques and equipment that allowed them progress across the vast Pacific at a pace that would have been considered impossible by pre-war planners. For another example, the Soviets rebounded from their initial defeats at a rate that astounded the Germans and called into question the foundational premises of the German strategy in the East (not that the Germans seem to have recognized it).
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Ed Bradley
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I appreciate Ambrose's books for what they are but if you're looking for something a little more "proper" but still very readable I recommend Max Hastings' stuff. I read "Nemesis" recently and found it electrifying.
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It's certainly foolish to posit that democacy will ultimately triumph in any struggle...the history of human civilization is hardly liberally sprinkled with democratic republics, to say the least. This is of course the echo of the Greek defeat of the Persians - the idea of a free yeoman fighting for his way of life being superior to a hundred mercenaries or slaves. But that hasn't exactly been the norm throughout history.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned so far (and I suppose it's somewhat tangential to the main discussion) is that the Allies as a group had, what, a 10x GDP advantage compared to the Axis? More? Who knows, but when you're pursuing a global war, that sort of production capacity is going to add up in the long run, assuming the political will to win stays intact.

I've only read Ambrose's Lewis & Clark book and I thought it was great. It really did give you the "small picture" of how things went on a day-to-day basis, and described the hardships that the Discovery Corps was willing to endure, to sacrifice to their shared vision. But things could've gone the other way (Donner party, anyone?).
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Greg Schmittgens
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Maybe you need to give Stephen Ambrose a break.

He didn't write 'A Time for Trumpets". Charles B. MacDonald did.
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cannoneer wrote:

One thing that hasn't been mentioned so far (and I suppose it's somewhat tangential to the main discussion) is that the Allies as a group had, what, a 10x GDP advantage compared to the Axis? More? Who knows, but when you're pursuing a global war, that sort of production capacity is going to add up in the long run, assuming the political will to win stays intact.


In his book Why the Allies Won. Richard Overy says that the Axis powers actually had the economic advantage until 1942-43. The key factors he identifies that swung the balance was the relative inefficiency of the Germans compared to their adversaries ("In the Soviet case 8 million tons of steel and 90 million tons of coal in 1943 were translated into 48,000 heavy artillery pieces and 24,000 tanks; Germany in the same year turned 30 million tons of steel and 340 million tons of coal into 17,000 tanks and 27,000 heavy guns."), the astounding ability of the Soviets to rebuild their industry after a mass evacuation and the vast and speedy American economic mobilization. Overy again:"German diplomats reported to Berlin their conviction that it would take years for America's economic potential to be realized in large, well-armed force. In reality the transformation took only a matter of months."

Overy concludes "It was in 1942-3 that the disparity between the two sides was crated by Soviet industrial revival and American rearmament. Neither could be taken fro granted." (I understand that Overy is not the first to draw these conclusions and that he draws on others' work He happens to be what's in my library.)

Later he notes that "Where every other major state took four or five years to develop a sizable military economy, it took a year. In 1942, long before her enemies believed it possible, America already outproduced the Axis states togather, 47,000 aircraft to 27,000, 24,00 tanks to 11,000, six times as many heavy guns. In the naval war the figures were more remarkable still: 8,800 naval vessels and 87,000 landing craft in four years."

So it wasn't just the scale of the Allied re-armament that caught the Axis by surprise, it was its speed. Both the Germans and the Japanese acted as if they had much more time than it proved that they had.


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All of his books are suspect-- appreciated only by those who don't know better. Here's a list of books that Ambrose plagiarized/STOLE whole passages from, including one by wargamer Joseph M. Balkoski

Thomas Childers's, Wings of Morning:

Joseph Balkoski, Beyond the Beachhead

David Lavender, The Way to the Western Sea

Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power

Robert Sam Anson, Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon

David Lavender, The Great Persuader (Doubleday, 1970)

F. Craven and J.L. Cate (eds.), The Army Air Forces in World War II

Donald R. Currier, 50 Mission Crush

J.I. Merritt, Goodbye, Liberty Belle

Robert Sam Anson, McGovern

Edi Selhaus, Evasion and Repatriation

Kay Summersby, Eisenhower Was My Boss

And an article about the subject from George Mason University:

http://hnn.us/articles/504.html
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Larz Welo
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GS in KS wrote:
He didn't write 'A Time for Trumpets". Charles B. MacDonald did.


Your totally right! Sorry, I have a patchy memory at best. What I really remembered about A Time for Trumpets was that it had a patchy narrative (at best), and personal anecdotes. Still...I think it didn't have all the flag-waving and democra-phile perspective.
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Richard T wrote:
And an article about the subject from George Mason University:

http://hnn.us/articles/504.html


Great article.

The first time I ever saw Ambrose was "The World at War" documentary. He was the long-haired "hippie" of the program, and he seemed a oddly out of place, despite his knowledge of the subject. shake

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Michael Dorosh
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Richard T wrote:
All of his books are suspect-- appreciated only by those who don't know better.


I'm not justifying plagiarism, but you do know how history is written, yes? He failed to cite some sources correctly, and some tracts were copied verbatim without quotation marks. Historians aren't novelists; they all make use of other people's works. It's what they do. I get the impression you're the one that doesn't know better. I'd be more concerned about reading a history book in which I couldn't recognize any sources or from which sources weren't cited at all, frankly. Again, I'm not saying his failure to cite the material properly was appropriate - it clearly wasn't - but making use of the words and thoughts of others is part of the historical process whether you realize it or not. His mistake wasn't using the words of others, his mistake was not clearly identifying them. From that perspective, it's not as grievous an error, and certainly doesn't invalidate his books or remove the ability to appreciate them, as you claim. Yes, the onus was on him to know better. Why he didn't, I have no clue. Don't exaggerate the extent to which it occurred, though:

Quote:
. . . Despite what Jensen implies, no one accuses Ambrose of plagiarizing massive chunks of text, or of stealing the fruits of another historian’s scholarship without giving credit. If those are felony offenses, then perhaps what Ambrose is accused of doing is more of a misdemeanor. But it is an ethical lapse nonetheless. It may not be plagiarism as defined by the American Historical Association, and it may not rise to the level of copyright infringement, but when the accused is a best-selling author celebrated for his ability to craft compelling narratives, it rises to the level of news.


Whole story is here:

http://hnn.us/articles/504.html
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I'm not much of a willing Ambrose fan, but I have respect for him. He tried to popularize history, preserve first person accounts that otherwise might have been lost except for family anecdotes about grandpa, and bring interest in WWII to the general public that it might not otherwise have had.

I've found most of his "typical" stuff in WWII repetitive, like Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers.

BUT...I *loved* his bio stuff of Eisenhower. It was kind of a fluke that he got to be Eisenhower's biographer (if I recall correctly, it was because his treatment of Lincoln's chief of staff), but he did a good job. If you don't like his normal WWII stuff but have an interest in the era and people, I really recommend it. He really shined as a biographer and it's a shame he didn't go more that route. I also found his last book, To America, kind of interesting, but more of a curiosity.

I clash greatly with his personal viewpoints, and abhorred him for the plagiarism controversy until I really looked at the cases and facts. It seems more along the line of honest mistakes in a few cases than outright plagiarism. I can forgive that for the massive amount of good he did (but then again, I'm a huge fan of popularizing history and making it accessible).

Tracy
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