`Do you need any history?'


Pentagon: He never enlisted, but Larry Kaplan keeps the Army mindful of its past, especially in the field of weapons.

July 24, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - One day last fall, inside the secret Army Operations Center in the Pentagon's basement, a young officer briefed the assembled brass. He told of U.S. soldiers wounded by shrapnel in Afghanistan.

Seated off to one side, Larry Kaplan, an Army historian, could only shake his head.

"Shell fragments," he thought to himself. "Not shrapnel."

The meeting broke up, and Kaplan explained to the staff officers that "shrapnel" was named after a 19th-century British artillery officer, Gen. Henry Shrapnel, who first placed small lead balls inside a cannon ball to increase its killing power. Shrapnel was used until World War II, when it was replaced by a high-explosive charge that fragmented the shell casing.

Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the center's director, heard the explanation.

"Fix it," he told the officers.

It was another small victory for Kaplan, 47, a precise and chatty fixture around the Army corridors, who tends to pop into offices with a cheery, "Do you need any history today?"

A Ph.D. with the service's Center for Military History, Kaplan is one of two Army liaisons who provide a fact or quote for high-level speeches, write reports about operations - "A History of American Presence in the Middle East" and "History of Non-Commissioned Officers Drawdown" - and check press announcements for accuracy.

Kaplan's subterranean office bulges with reports and stacks of dusty books. Musket balls and shells sit on a corner of his desk. A World War I trench knife protrudes ominously from a sheath of magazines. Prints of Revolutionary soldiers line the walls, alongside pictures of their World War II descendants.

Between chirps of the phone and the flash of e-mail, Kaplan is asked about a small cannon ball on his desk. Eyes widening, he exudes boyish fervor as he discusses the finer points of 18th-century black-powder weaponry. A listener is then given a linear history lecture that ends 20 minutes later with a mention of the World War II-era proximity fuse.

Kaplan's credo is "Don't assume facts not in evidence," and he studies contemporary Army reports and memoirs to verify the correct answers. He likens his work to that of an emergency room doctor performing triage.

There are times when the doctor is too late to save the patient. He recalls that former Army Secretary Louis Caldera once appeared before a gathering and passed on some conventional wisdom: Audie Murphy was "the most decorated soldier of World War II."

"The Army doesn't recognize that," says Kaplan, who had not reviewed that speech. He notes that it would be all but impossible to distinguish among countless bemedaled heroes. "We have a dislike for superlatives."

He was able to catch a crucial error last year before it was uttered in a speech by an Army leader: that the Army was organized in 1775 under the First Continental Congress. Kaplan corrected it to the Second.

All four military services have their own historians. But among Army officers, Kaplan has a reputation for being not only knowledgeable but also reliable and seemingly always available.

"Dr. Kaplan is the equivalent of a beat cop," says Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis, a public affairs officer who turns to Kaplan for "pesky little history-type questions."

Lt. Col. Allen Gill, a speechwriter for Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, recalls Kaplan showing up, bearing thick folders, within an hour or so after Gill submitted a query.

Two weeks ago, Kaplan aided in a speech the general gave to Filipino-American World War II veterans, by charting the origins of the Filipino scout units in the early 20th century.

A native of New Rochelle, N.Y., Kaplan recalls no great epiphany as a youth that led him to study military history. Like many other kids in the mid-1960s, he loved John Wayne war movies. His father was an Army policeman at Fort Dix, N.J., after World War II, and his grandfather had served in Europe with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

In college, at Ohio Wesleyan University during the Vietnam War, Kaplan entered the Air Force ROTC program - "I wanted to serve my country, do my part" - and decided to focus on history, becoming increasingly interested in the military.

But he found that the courses were thin on the role of weapons - a result, he contends, of liberal bias and a lack of interest by professors. Though the Vietnam War ended while Kaplan was in college and his ROTC program disbanded, his interest in the military blossomed.

He went on to earn a doctorate from Kansas State University, where he focused on Homer Lea, the American military adviser to Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen. He would like one day to have his dissertation published as his first book.

After teaching history at a private school, he landed a military historian's dream job: assistant command historian at the Field Artillery Center at Fort Sill, Okla. He spent the next five years developing an expertise in artillery, writing reports and helping students with their research assignments.

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