execution hour (exam post, part three)

Two exams is what the third term of second year boiled down to; thirty-four credits between ’em, most of the Vietnam option module and the entirety of Operational Art. Just shy of a third of the year, enough to be worth a grade boundary – a degree classification – or two. Second year is 25% of my final degree, so not the be all and end all, but important. In particular, if I’m aiming for the type of sharp-eyed legal practice who’ll study my individual marks – and I am – it’s worth keeping the numbers up across the board.

The first was Op Art, for which I’d reread my various notes and powerpoints, and read a pile of interesting books on operational theory Toby lent me (if anyone’s remotely interested in the subject, I wholeheartedly recommend Shimon Naveh’s “In Pursuit of Military Excellence” and the multi-author “Effects-Based Warfare” and “Introduction to Strategic Studies”), as well as a revision session followed by an afternoon with some warbros going through a (huge!) ream of flashcards produced by the scarily organised Louis R. Three essays; three hours (which is to say three and three quarters, with the Learning Support allowances for my useless spaz hands.) I took my thermos in, unscrewing the lid for the invigilator to demonstrate that I wasn’t hiding any notes in there. The multiple loo breaks this induced raised eyebrows. The tea it provided proved wonderfully useful.

Ten questions, of which we needed to pick three. Let’s see. One hour on airpower in Desert Storm, why and how superior technology and operational doctrine decapitated and comprehensively crushed a technically inferior and hierarchically organised enemy. One hour on the absurd cross-Caucasus cascade failure that was Fall Blau. One hour on the effects of railways on strategic thought in the 1860s (conclusions: Prussians good, Americans silly). And forty-five minutes of conclusions, rewrites, proofreading, and doubt. Coming out, I was struck by the standard post-exam dread, the worry that what I’d done was silly and overwrought and didn’t really deal with the question – but that was, as always, quelled by the standard post-exam resignation.

Vietnam, I’d again done fairly little for, apart from going through old notes, meeting some classmates for revision sessions (mainly consisting of me explaining bits of complex war nonsense to Normal History People who don’t fetishise military technology) and putting my library card and ebook channel through their paces on likely-looking titles. I’d tried to do a couple of practice essays, but they turned out mediocre. A very well-run revision session by Rob gave me some confidence for the exam. Unlike Op Art, I tried to look at particular subjects rather than general theory; my particular areas of focus were the Tet offensive and counterinsurgency. While I was confident I could bullshit improvise pretty much anything that came up, these subjects I wanted to be solid on.

Tet was fun as hell, full of great allegories, divided historiography and potential sweeping statements to pick apart. COIN, starting with Kennedy and special forces, dealing with the hideous failure of Strategic Hamlets, the more overtly military approach Westmoreland adopted, and the great results CORDS was showing before Tet killed US willingness to continue, was even more educational than I had been expecting. One of the interesting ideas that came up looking at that was that, because the French colonial administration had actively discouraged the rise of an educated Vietnamese middle class, there was no politically involved section of the populace to create and support a legitimate government – only US-backed military autocrats, their corrupt and tooled up ARVN minions, and an oppressed, easily-suborned-by-Maoists peasantry, with little middle ground. Despite all the successes of CORDS, it could never establish the South Vietnamese government as legitimate in the minds of the peasantry.

Question time: Tet! Delicious. There was a question about COIN, too, but it was annoyingly phrased, so I did airpower instead; it’s something I pretty much knew by heart, though as I knew everyone else would be doing it and wanted to be a unique and special snowflake, I didn’t read much on apart from the bombing-related chapters in a weapons book I’d picked out for my dissertation. Two hours passed in an instant, and then I was out, blinking in the sun, shivering off the adrenaline.

With the Group Research essay that just came back a 75, I need a 64 or better overall in those papers combined for my First (or 33 for a 2.1, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t get a fail grade). I did pretty well in my exams last year, but I still have a little nagging doubt. It’s not even (false) modesty here; while my self-confidence when it comes to most uni work has got (dangerously) high this year, exam doubt is much harder to quash. Having so many things able to potentially screw you up makes me nervous; so does having so much resting on so little (but the alternative, of having five or ten of the bloody things, doesn’t appeal much either). But nothing went wrong. There were no panic attacks, no twisted curveball questions; if I don’t do well, it’s because I didn’t write a good enough answer, and while that’s not overall a cheering thought it is at least a morally satisfying one.

Over now; time for the real world.

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