BGES Members Making a Difference: Paul Severance

This month we honor Paul Severance, a retired senior instructor for the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. He was responsible for the construction of staff rides that challenged and instructed cabinet-level and other senior civilian and military leadership, and is now instructing on leadership for both the College of William and Mary and Christopher Newport University. He has also hosted several BGES tours, including the upcoming tour, “The 1862 Peninsula and Seven Days Campaigns,” with BGES Executive Director Len Riedel. We chatted with Paul to gain some insight into his interesting work.

BGES Blog: You have been involved with the Conspirator’s Courtroom project. Where does that project stand? 

PS: No Joy! In a word, the courtroom is “on hold!” To its credit, the BGES, under Len’s persistent leadership and on-site management by one of the colonels, sought mightily to “kit-out” the courtroom’s furniture and furnishings AND prepare and install 10 historical wayside markers to tell the story, not only of the courtroom and trial but also the incredible history of Fort McNair. Most people do not know that Fort McNair is the third oldest, continuously operating post in the U.S Army (behind only West Point, NY, and Carlisle Barracks, PA). Unfortunately, since 2015, trying to navigate the “white water” associated with an array of environmental, historical, and safety requirements and concerns, as well as inconsistent communications and coordination with Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBM-HH), slowed the project and finally foundered —for all intents and purposes—foundered. El Hefe, Len—to his credit—finally withdrew BGES support for the project with plumb and grace.

OTOH, trying to conduct somewhat of a “forensic” study of “what went wrong” in order to gain a more “balanced” view of the final outcome at Grant Hall (the location of the courtroom) has to be objectively viewed from the perspective (in my mind) that no one really “owns” that parcel of American history. The building, per se, is owned by Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBMHH). It is not a part of the Army’s museum system, such as the National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, AL, or the Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, VA. Ergo, it lacks the institutional support that the U.S. Army might conceivably provide.

OTOH, the folks at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, specifically Ms. Susan Lemke, the director of Special Collections at the university, have been instrumental in providing exhibits, soliciting donors, and promoting the courtroom’s historical relevance. Likewise, the PAO at JBMHH, especially Ms. Leah Rubalcaba, has been leaning forward in the foxhole to open the courtroom to the public and bring in Mr. & Mrs. Joe America and their families through quarterly open houses. Regrettably, at press time, the courtroom is closed for public viewing due to COVID-19 imperatives.

BGES Blog: What other preservation projects have you been involved in?

PS: Regrettably, very few, other than to send funding to support the good work of the Manassas Battlefield Trust, the Gettysburg Foundation, and the American Battlefield Trust. All of which do far better in advancing preservation projects than I can do as an individual.

BGES Blog: What elements of history most interest you? How did it lead into an academic career? 

PS: Great question. I would start by sharing that the very first “Big Book” I read in 6th grade was Bruce Catton’s Hallowed Ground. I had to do a book report, and growing up in the whirlpool of the Centennial of the American Civil War, I glommed onto Bruce Catton’s missive. I could not put it down. My 6th-grade social studies teacher tried to disabuse me of the project, but I was not be deterred. I can’t remember my grade, but the experience was transformative. As an aside, as a second reading, I chose John Toland’s Battle of the Bulge and have likewise become a life-long student of this campaign, eventually culminating in nearly a dozen staff rides to the area of operations while I served as an Army aviation battalion commander in Germany. Go figure!

BGES Blog: Tell us about your relationship and use of battlefields for instruction.

PS: In the words of Blackbeard, the pirate, ARGH! I could literally write a book on this subject. For the sake of brevity, “battlefields” for me provide a “window” on the business of wars AND war-fighting. Over the years, I have come to consider myself as a “Bellicist,” that is, one who is interested in and studies the business of war and warfare. Not surprisingly, “battlefields” necessarily emerge as the “stages” upon which battles and engagements are fought and, based on outcomes, effects, and implications of those battles and engagements, the success of both operational campaigns and war strategies have depended. For me, I think it is important to bring interested historians to the battlefields and introduce them to a vast array of strategies, factors, influences, principles, virtues, and stratagems that influenced and impacted the engagement of interest and let them deduce their own conclusions, based on useful and time-proven frameworks for analyses, what worked, what didn’t, and why, to include the influence of geography and topography, unity of effort, to include conceptual unity, leadership, personality, tactical and technical competence, intelligence and information, logistics, underlying political dimensions, fog, friction, and “chance” in the business of warfare, etc. Battlefields thus become amphitheaters of discovery and understanding, because we can stand there and see what commanders and leaders saw and how unfolding events in the course of the battle influenced their estimates of the situation, development of courses of action, and—most critically—decisions! Battlefields are a classroom of superb potential if interpreted correctly.

BGES Blog: What are your favorite battlefields, military campaigns of all different wars, and why?  

PS: For me, Gettysburg is at the top of the list because of its strategic import, the incredible cast of characters on both sides, the opportunities to analyze and understand tactical and operational estimates of the situation and decision-making, leadership, initiative, use of artillery (on both sides), the impact of technology, the value of intelligence and information, and the human interest dimensions of the battle. Second in my portfolio is Antietam, largely from a “landscape” dimension and how geography, topography, and “micro-terrain” influences not only planning but the actual execution of operations and also because of the roles of lesser actors who will eventually emerge as the major players later in the American Civil War. Hooker, Meade, Hancock, Hood, Early, and Gordon are just a few exemplars in this respect.

Moving ahead, Little Big Horn has always captured my interest for a wide variety of reasons, including the topography of the battlefield, as has San Juan Hill (Kettle Hill) in the SPANAM war. For some reason, WWI has not been a major area of inquiry for me, although I loved Kevin O’Shea’s walkthrough of the major battles of WWI and I admit to being partial to the Canadian experience at Vimy Ridge.

BGES Blog: Tell us three or four really special places that were profound and key to an understanding of a battle or a significant decision.

PS: At the top of the list has to be the location of the 20th Maine monument on Vincent’s Spur. The second would be standing at the foot of Burnside’s Bridge on the Union side and looking across and up to the Confederate positions occupied by Toomb’s minuscule force of Georgians and trying to balance the offensive vs. defensive dimensions of that particular engagement. A third would have to be Malvern Hill and the sweep of the landscape and the incredible fields of fire enjoyed by Union artillery and infantry of July 1, 1862, as well as the courage and relentless endeavor by Confederate forces trying to dislodge the Army of the Potomac. And, finally, the Sunken Road and Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, where the continued butchery of the Union, brigade after brigade in repeated futile, piecemeal frontal assaults, attempted to carry an incredibly strong defensive position.

BGES Blog: In a perfect world, what four or five things would you wish for people who are interested in history?

PS: First, people engaged in the study of History need to understand that there are no simple answers or explanations for anything! Every human historical endeavor of import must be approached with a priori understanding that these historical events are necessarily complex tapestries of untoward events, known and unknown forces and influences, and personalities and human emotions. Second is the compelling need to try and jettison the rearview mirror and a tendency to look at AND evaluate outcomes from our contemporary perspectives. On the contrary, we should try to learn and understand what the leaders and soldiers saw and experienced at that particular time and place and how they reacted, made decisions, and took the actions they did. Third, for me, when one decomposes large-scale, complex events, be they political, diplomatic, military, economic, or social, at the end of the day the major driving influence is always the political dimensions. It’s always political! You figure out the underlying politics of the situation, and you will gain a much better understanding and “feel” for the events of interest. As a close corollary to the previous observation, try to “follow the money!” Once you get a sense of who has the money, who wants it, and how it changes hands, to the extent you will be able to understand who the “Big Dogs” are and what the stakes of the game are. But remember, it’s always political in the end! Last, but not least, never trust a smiling dog!

BGES Blog: What two or three things would you want to pour into the heads of people who show no interest at all in history?

PS: Perhaps at the top of my personal slag pile is George Santayana’s July 2013 compelling observation that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, as most of our informed readership will likely recall, Churchill had the inside track on this thinking with his 1948 speech to the House of Commons in which he observed: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” My “objection”—if you will—is that the negative is in the ascendancy, and that of course makes sense from a “Worst Case Scenario.” However, there can be positive ways to approach and leverage an insightful knowledge of History [see below], not to necessarily avoid doom and disaster, but also to possibly unearth and craft positive solutions to new and emerging thorny issues, problems, and challenges in the national security domain. Avoid disaster, Yes! But also look for the silver lining that History’s lessons may teach. Finally, we should likewise recall Mark Twain’s views on the issue: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The second “thing” I would strive to impress upon folks with little use and/or understanding History—especially as it involves the use of force, war, and warfare—derives from Trotsky’s chilling observation that: “You may be interested in war, but war is interested in you!” It’s a reality. Ergo, as an informed citizenry, we have a paternal (social) responsibility to understand the legitimate and illegitimate use of the military instrument of power and the business of war and forms of warfare that attend this most destructive of forces.

Finally, one especially encouraging “use” of History is to identify AND understand differences in extant and/or unfolding such that you might develop and craft potential solutions to the sticky problems in the geopolitical landscape without having to suffer the horrors of war and warfare in all of its manifestations. Let me offer one example that still percolates in the Keurig of my intellect that continues unabated today. When the U.S. announced her intent to proceed with “surges” in Iraq after the insurgencies bloomed to unacceptable levels after Operation Iraqi Freedom, all the pundits and national media “experts” responded by reminding their audiences that this would just be another Vietnam, another exercise in getting bogged down in an intractable military (and political) dilemma with no clear exit strategy. OK. Got it! I see the “similarities!” But, let’s dig deeper in the History of the situation at hand to learn what might be different about the current situation AND that might indeed point to new and potentially viable solutions to the problem at hand. Said more bluntly, I get the similarities, but what’s different here, and how might the historical record serve to inform our understanding and decision-making?

Not a sermon; just a thought!

BGES Blog: Now that you have retired—kinda—what do you want to do to make your days as rich and fulfilling as they have been?

PS: I want to take my education background in the business of learning, my 30 years of active military service, and especially my 25 years of educating senior U.S. military and civilian executives and senior allied officers about the complicated and complex intricacies of national security, national defense, preparation for war (read “mobilization” and strategic resourcing), and warfare and impart the knowledge I have gained and the leadership skills I have practiced and taught over the years to better educate the American citizenry, especially younger people such that they can become more informed, contributing, and effective citizens. In this last respect, I recall when the U.S. was gearing up inevitable military operations and CNN or some other news media station interviewed high school and college students their perceptions and feelings with regard to likely U.S. combat operations in the Middle East. A similar canvass of adults was conducted. I was just appalled by the abject ignorance and lack of understanding of both cohorts of the broader imperatives of national security and especially the roles of diplomacy, economics, and especially the use of the military instrument of power (war and warfare) to achieve national political aims and objectives. I’d like to try and make some modicum of difference in this respect.

BGES Blog: Finally, you have embraced BGES. What do you like about the organization? 

PS: First and foremost, at the end of the day, the Society is a true educational “tour de force.” Unlike many organizations that offer “rides” to battlefield sites, our Society chooses to go deep into the events it studies and supports, providing for truly comprehensive and effective learning for the serious student. On the flip side, the folks I have met on my two major field studies to date have just been delightful: knowledgeable, cordial, and committed to their learning. For a Historian squiring folks around a battlefield, it really doesn’t get much better than that! That being said, perhaps overly influenced by my doctoral pursuits in Adult Learning, if I had one “wish” to sweeten the pot, it would be to develop and pursue more “seminar-style” engagement and “give-and-take,” where the attendees contribute more to the collaborative learning of the group, vice the largely, “me talk, you listen and absorb” interventions. This worked well on the December Fredericksburg foray with Greg Mertz and Len. The more the merrier when it comes to collaborative learning!

Parker will be leading the upcoming tour, “The 1864 Red River Campaign.” Learn more and sign up here.